Inequalities regarding access to technology are nothing new. The digital divide — the gap between demographics and regions that have access to modern information and communications technology and those who do not — is a well-documented phenomenon that has been around since before the late 20th century.
What began as a disparity in access to telephones has in subsequent years been observed with television, personal computers, and internet connectivity. Multiple research initiatives have estimated that as many as 22.5% of US households still don’t have home internet. The next place we can expect to see this pattern play out is in the metaverse.
Not unlike the digital divides of the past, factors such as cost, infrastructure, and availability will allow certain people access to the metaverse earlier than others. To minimize these disparities, it’s critical to address these factors proactively so that the metaverse is an equal opportunity forum from the get-go.
This is especially important because it’s likely the metaverse will have an impact on our education system as well as the workplace. Additionally, there will be a whole new economy within the metaverse, so it will be vital to provide equal access and opportunities for all.
Here are some factors we can address to keep the metaverse accessible for everyone.
Keeping Costs Down
Minimizing the cost to access the metaverse presents a unique challenge, because people could need multiple pieces of hardware to become fully immersed in the experience. Components like virtual reality (VR) headsets, augmented reality (AR) glasses, computing systems, and technologies related to sensing and haptics enable people to interact with the metaverse in a meaningful way.
Companies that are making investments in this space (like Google) need to be thinking about how to make these products affordable for the masses. It may take a combination of local, state, and federal governments working with technology companies to ensure accessibility and affordability. This is a necessary step to avoid accessibility crises like we saw during the pandemic, where one-third of children couldn’t access remote learning during school closures due to financial barriers.
Partnerships between government and industry can provide grants, pilot programs, and subsidies to make the metaverse affordable. Another way for the government to create equity is by using libraries and/or community centers as access points for the metaverse for those who can’t have the technology in their homes.
Being Mindful of Physical and Mental Health Risks
Part of keeping the metaverse accessible is ensuring that it is healthy to operate in. Design and ergonomics are important considerations. Solutions for mitigating potential health-related issues like neck and eye strain, headaches, dizziness, nausea, and photosensitivity should be top concerns for companies creating software and hardware for use in the metaverse. The good news is that companies are already developing headsets and glasses that are much lighter and ergonomic than prototypes of the past.
However, not all health risks in the metaverse will be physical. We need to consider how spending time in the metaverse impacts people’s mental health, as well. Studies have already made the connection between screen time and mental health issues like anxiety and depression. As the metaverse gains traction, it is imperative that people have access to resources to help them cope with any mental health issues that arise.
Considering People Who are Neurodiverse or have a Disability
The metaverse will be a different experience for everyone: There must be mechanisms in place for people who can’t access it in the same way a neurotypical person or a person without a disability can. We’ve already addressed this when it comes to other technologies, including phones, with TTY devices and settings for people who are hearing impaired. The metaverse will need similar adaptation tools.
People who are visually impaired or blind can be offered screen-reading capabilities, audio descriptions, and haptics or vests that let them experience the metaverse through touch. Folks who are hearing impaired or deaf will need some type of captioning system or enhanced visuals that don’t strain their eyes. For people who are neurodiverse, both hardware and software should be flexible enough to be tailored to meet their unique needs.
Keeping Security and Safety Top of Mind
In the metaverse, people may have the option to remain anonymous by interacting through an avatar (not unlike what’s possible with the internet today). But since the metaverse will also have commerce and other transactions occurring, the system will need a way of identifying users while simultaneously upholding their privacy. Technologies like blockchain or artificial intelligence could be used to offer anonymity but also traceability and accountability.
The metaverse will present many of the same challenges we see in our world today regarding accessibility, equity, safety, and mental health. And just as we’ve employed solutions in the ‘real world’ to mediate these issues, we’ll need to follow suit in the metaverse. There’s a lot at stake — the metaverse holds life-changing potential for many people — and by addressing these factors, we can keep the metaverse accessible so that everyone can reap the benefits.