June 14, 2022 | Updated: June 16, 2022
Imagine this: you put on a pair of virtual reality (VR) goggles and are instantly transported…elsewhere.
In this virtual world, you might exist as an avatar, but your actions and motions in the real world, captured by sensors, translate. Along the way, you and other users develop a community, connected by digital personas that everyone wears through a number of games and platforms.
That, in a nutshell, is the idea behind the metaverse: a persistent digital reality informed by real world sensors. In most imaginings, the metaverse will be used for gaming and entertainment, as described in the novels “Ready Player One.” But that vision is limiting, as the metaverse could integrate with augmented reality (AR). And, its uses go well beyond gaming. The metaverse could also be used for mental health therapy, business meetings, healthcare and even in industrial settings.
The metaverse may bring huge advantages for early adopters. These advantages include business opportunities for entrepreneurs, health care access for people in remote areas,and job opportunities for programmers or content creators.
A growing number of experts are beginning to assert that, as the metaverse develops, it’s important to build it with diversity, equity and inclusion at its foundation to ensure that the benefits of the nascent technology are shared broadly.
“There is a need for diverse voices with new perspectives that can tell compelling stories and share interactive experiences through AR (augmented reality) and VR,” said IEEE Senior Member David Krum. “These experiences can teach us all about one another. These experiences can also resonate with minority users as they can see their experiences and stories represented.”
How Developed Is the Metaverse Now?
The building blocks of the metaverse already exist in the form of augmented and virtual reality, but several of the components are not yet available.
“Depending on which factors you focus on, the metaverse is very close or very far,” said IEEE member Todd Richmond.
Many of the pieces of the metaverse, for example, are used in massive online role playing games. VR systems also track users’ movement. But many of these capabilities aren’t integrated into a cohesive whole.
“However, all these pieces will need integration to become a general purpose metaverse platform,” Krum said. “It will take a lot of time and work for a team of developers to implement, integrate,and test standards and systems for handling distributed multi-player immersive experiences.”
Emerging Barriers to Adoption
Cost, both Krum and Richmond say, will likely emerge as one of the biggest barriers to inclusive adoption.
“The envisioned high fidelity entry points, like virtual reality, are out of reach for many in developed nations, and completely out of reach for most in developing countries,” Richmond said.
And hardware and network speed are only two factors. Krum notes that individuals with more financial means are more likely to participate in the metaverse, as users require access to a space of about 6 feet by 6 feet for a truly immersive experience.
But beyond cost, other issues are arising.
“Access for individuals with sensory or mobility challenges is a critical issue,” Krum said.
Solutions on the Rise
Despite the metaverse’s development being in the early stages, best practices are emerging. Closed captioning has become more common, Krum said, as has alternative ways to interact with systems and the ability to select difficulty levels in gaming.
“VR often leverages vision as a primary sensory mode, so it can be difficult to adapt visual experiences to other modalities. However, audio experiences can be very compelling, and it would be great for creators to build many experiences that are designed to be primarily 3D audio.”
In a recent blog post, Richmond argues that user experience and user interface (UI/UX) design was central to the commercial success of the Internet. But, it often side-stepped questions of equity. He’s hoping the metaverse does better.
“We are doing work on design frameworks to address this called EI/EX – Equitable Interfaces, Ethical Experiences,” Richmond said. “Inspired by UI/UX design, we believe that questions of equity and ethics need to be central to design of technology capabilities in the metaverse (and beyond).
Will the metaverse be a pro-social force that encourages empathy and human connected-ness? Or might it amplify the most difficult features of today’s internet, such as rampant harassment? That’s the central question that David Krum asks in his presentation for IEEE’s 2022 Vision Innovation and Challenges Summit. It’s a fascinating discussion of the benefits and risks of this developing environment. Check it out.