The metaverses aim to be the future of social networks, even the internet. But by focusing on the visual, sound and immersive aspects, will they leave out certain users?
While social networks such as Twitter and Instagram have recently introduced features to be more accessible to their disabled users, the topic still seems taboo on the metaverse side. Whether it’s hardware or interfaces, there is still progress to be made.
Material that is still binding
The promise of virtual reality and metaverses is to have immersive experiences, even to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Unfortunately, the material can quickly remind us of the “true” reality. Before we even get to the handicap, VR headsets aren’t very comfortable for people who wear glasses, which can cause alignment issues between the eyes and the screen. The weight – around 500 grams – is also an obstacle for people with neck complaints, for example.
On the Meta forums, users have also expressed the need to be able to move in pairs, for example to accompany a person with quadriplegia or Alzheimer’s disease in Horizon Worlds.
To navigate in these virtual universes it is necessary to be able to use both hands quite precisely, usually with joysticks. A formality for most people, but difficult, if not impossible, for users with motor disabilities in the arms or hands. An alternative to using joysticks is automatic detection of hands when in line of sight, but people with missing fingers have noted that detection is less effective in this case. Their suggestion in light of this malfunction: to be able to deactivate the detection of certain fingers in the settings.
It is among other things to overcome these shortcomings that certain metaverses are also accessible on computers, tablets and phones, which makes it possible to use other more suitable devices. On the Meta forums, users have also expressed the need to be able to move in pairs, for example to accompany a person with quadriplegia or Alzheimer’s disease in Horizon Worlds.
Unfortunately, most metaverses don’t communicate their accessibility settings, so it’s hard to know in advance what to expect. Horizon Worlds allows you to customize several of them, such as having the entire audio portion on one side if the user on the other hand has difficulty hearing, changing the display of colors, or even being able to move normally while remaining seated in the real world.
To see metaverses as true successors to social networks, it is essential that they are accessible to as many people as possible from the start.
Lanes are also being explored for other situations. For people with blindness, how do you get that same feeling of walking through another world? In 2018, Microsoft researchers developed a prototype called Canetroller (for sugarcane and controllercontroller), a haptic and audible white stick, compatible with VR headsets and capable of detecting obstacles in the virtual world.
While these features are valuable, there are still some challenges to overcome. Automatic transcription is already rough for videos on YouTube, but it’s even more so when it comes to transcribing conversations in real time, such as on Twitch or in the metaverse. However, this will be necessary so that people with hearing loss can understand what other users are saying. In the same vein, the live audio description of these virtual worlds for the visually impaired will certainly be a complex feature to develop.
Be reachable from the start
If the fundamental utopia of the metaverse is to create a decentralized virtual world far from the Gafam, there is a certain advantage that big companies like Meta and Apple are interested in this: they already have teams dedicated to accessibility and experience in developing of this kind of functionality. For example, Meta has published a charter and documents on accessibility for developers of immersive experiences.
To see metaverses as true successors to social networks, it is essential that they are accessible to as many people as possible from the start. After all, these platforms can be of great help to people with disabilities, especially for telecommuting, visiting historical places that are normally inaccessible in a wheelchair, or even just meeting new people. Virtual reality has also been put forward for its therapeutic applications. By multiplying the usage parameters, making the metaverses accessible will create an optimal experience – because adaptable – for all users, whether they have a disability or not.