Accessibility is always an afterthought when it comes to new technology. It took decades for personal computers to become usable for blind people or those with motor issues. The non-essential smartphone has only just started to become accessible with eye-based movements for people who can't comfortably use devices with their hands.
Outside of issues regarding morality and ethics, Mark Zuckerberg's new proposition for the future of technology — The Metaverse — offers multiple barriers for the differently abled. If Zuckerberg truly wants everything from work to relaxation to take place in his virtual dystopia, Metaverse Accessibility will be key. Of course, much like accessibility in most sectors, it won't be.
Metaverse Accessibility issues start with cost
An accessible platform is more than just making the experience comfortable for people with specific disabilities. The start of making something accessible requires the majority of the population to be able to access it.
The traditional Internet is finally perceived as accessible. Not only are devices that access the Internet fairly common and affordable, but the service as a whole is widely available. Public hotshots and libraries give anyone access to the Internet to use its main feature — that's accessible.
Metaverse accessibility starts with how people will access the service. The concept of the Metaverse requires a virtual reality headset; to use every feature you'll need a mixed reality headset. While some VR headsets are rather cheap — the Oculus Quest 2 comes to mind — Facebook, sorry, Meta, is making more advanced headsets specifically for the metaverse. So, if you want to join in, be prepared to splash out.
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Motor Functions are required
The Metaverse is supposed to be an entirely virtual, seamless and immersive experience. You can walk wherever you want, do whatever you want, and doing all this requires something not all people can do: move.
To start, everything will be interacted with through hand gestures. Pinches, swipes and specific finger movements control menus; larger movements control, well, movement. Controlling a keyboard works exactly like using a keyboard in real life.
The problem is that these types of movements are perfect for everyone. For example, I can’t use a keyboard — this entire article is written on a touchscreen with a stylus. For those with motor issues, the act of specific, tiny movements quickly become uncomfortable, and Facebook's Metaverse appears do be full of them.
The barrier for blindness
Blind people often have issues with absorbing most types of media. In a report by Booktrust, only 7% of books are available in formats that help visually impaired and only 2% are in braille. For movies, blind-friendly audio descriptions are more common, but services like Netflix still only provide a quarter of its content in audio descriptive form.
Virtual and mixed reality software is inherently a visual medium. Visually impaired glasses users have often complained about how uncomfortable VR headsets can be. Now, Meta claims that its next generation of mixed reality headsets will be more comfortable for glasses wearers, but will Metaverse accessibility ever be usable to blind people?
There are some things that could ease the barrier: 3D-audio echolocation, audio descriptive menus and Haptic Feedback. However, blind metaverse users will have to learn how to interact in a second world. As technology gets more complex, it gets more visual, and as it gets more visual. As it gets more visual, it becomes less accessible.
Metaverse accessibility will have far more problems than this if the technology takes off. With that said, will Meta be able to take care of these issues before launch? Most likely? No.