Inclusive Metaverse experiences are becoming more important than ever. From products and services to experiences and places, a person’s identity, background, abilities, and other attributes must be recognized and respected for everyone to feel welcome. As augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies continue to spread their wings across industries, the potential for these platforms to further ostracize certain groups is real. The Metaverse is still in the first design stages, there is an increasing awareness of the need to build more diverse and inclusive AR/VR.
While there have been plenty of articles on how AR/VR could greatly benefit people with disabilities or other challenges, the current ecosystem has yet to see much progress. In this post, we’ll explore what it will take to create an inclusive Metaverse that caters to all users regardless of race, gender identity, age group, or physical ability so that everyone can feel comfortable exploring new digital realities for Metaverse.
Rapid Growth of AR/VR
The rapid growth of the AR/VR market has led to a surge of investment and innovation in the space. In particular, the market for AR/VR products targeting consumers is quickly expanding. Industry projections estimate that by 2021, the combined market for these devices will be worth more than $66 billion annually.
That’s because users are hungry to immerse themselves in digital environments with devices like Microsoft’s HoloLens, HTC Vive, and Oculus Rift. However, the current state of this industry leaves much to be desired when it comes to diversity and inclusivity.
There are several reasons why this dynamic is currently unbalanced. Considerable barriers to entry. Such as the high cost of equipment or increased risk to personal safety. It can make it difficult for people from underrepresented communities to adopt AR/VR technology — even if they want to. Furthermore, societal stigmas around certain groups also pose an obstacle against these individuals fully engaging with this emerging medium.
Read on for insights into the current state of inclusive AR/VR and what we can do to create a more diverse Metaverse.
What Makes AR/VR Experiences Exclusive Metaverse?
The first step to solving any problem is first identifying the root cause. The first and most obvious way that AR/VR experiences become exclusive is by design. When developers are creating a product, they will often unconsciously design it in a way that only works for certain types of people. This could be by excluding certain types of people from being able to use the product. And excluding certain types of people from being able to create the product or both.
For example, an AR game that requires a physical space for players to stand in might not be accessible for people with physical disabilities who can’t stand. Furthermore, how the product is advertised and promoted can also exclude certain types of people. If a game or experience has a main character who is white, male, and young, it sends a signal that this experience is not for everyone else. In addition, the games and experiences are missing out on an opportunity to educate people about a different culture or experience that they might not otherwise have been exposed to.
How AR/VR Exclusion Occurs For Metaverse
It’s important to note that AR/VR exclusion doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It is often the result of an intermingling of systems. Such as hiring practices and cultures, that have been historically exclusive, inequitable, and discriminatory. AR/VR companies looking to become more inclusive must address each of these systems and work to change them.
- AR/VR Companies’ Hiring Practices:
While it’s common for a company to want to hire people with certain skills and experience. This can lead to homogeneous teams that lack diversity in race, gender identity and sexuality, age group, and ability. While hiring practices are often out of a company’s control. AR/VR companies need to acknowledge that this is a problem and put in place strategies to correct it.
- AR/VR Companies’ Existing Culture:
In many cases, the systems of exclusion are baked into the culture of an organization. For example, an organization may actively discourage and dismiss different forms of diversity because the people at the top don’t recognize it as important. In some cases, companies may try to address the issue ineffectively.
For example, a company may try to put on events and hire speakers focused on diversity and inclusion, but only invite certain people and fail to adequately promote the events to people outside of their networks.
- AR/VR Companies’ Marketing:
When marketing a product, an organization’s approach can either encourage or discourage people from participating. If the messaging is directed at a very narrow audience, then people outside of that audience may feel left out.
- AR/VR Companies’ Content:
The content produced for AR/VR experiences can also perpetuate exclusion. For example, if the story is told from the point of view of an all-white cast of characters. It could be alienating for people of color. If the virtual environment doesn’t have any features that provide accessibility for people with disabilities. Then it could be alienating for those people.
Diversity in Staffing and Representation
In addition to hiring practices, companies must also be mindful of how they are representing and including people of different backgrounds and identities. If a team is all white, male, and young. It’s unlikely they will be able to create content and experiences that will be relevant to other groups. There are many ways that companies can address this issue.
For example, when hiring, companies can prioritize hiring people from a variety of backgrounds and identities. They can also put in place mentorship programs that ensure people from different backgrounds. The identities are given opportunities to advance and become leaders. Companies can also put in place programs that encourage employees from different backgrounds and identities to participate in creating content.
This can help ensure that the team doesn’t start to create content for one particular group (e.g., themselves). And it starts to lose sight of the needs and interests of other groups.
VR Environment Limitations
The virtual environment is a representation of the real world and is not a different world. Therefore, the VR environment must reflect the diversity of our real world. For example, if a VR experience takes place in a kitchen. The kitchen should be designed in a way that welcomes and caters to people with disabilities. If a VR experience is taking place in a park and the VR environment designers haven’t considered accessibility needs. Then the experience could be off-limits for people with disabilities.
Beyond the environmental design, the virtual characters and characters’ interactions are also important. For example, if a VR experience has a virtual character who yells and is aggressive. It could be alienating for people who have experienced harassment or violence from people in real life.
VR Platform Limitations
VR platforms (e.g., hardware and software that people use to create and consume VR content) are also an important part of the ecosystem. For example, the Vive and Rift headsets have a disability accessibility rating of 2/5 stars. Newer platforms, such as Microsoft Hololens, have been designed with accessibility in mind and have a higher rating.
In addition, the Google Daydream headset comes with an accessibility option. It enables people to use their phones as a screen. Which is especially helpful for people with visual impairment.
The potential for AR/VR to create inclusive Metaverse experiences is great. However, to do so, the AR/VR ecosystem must overcome a lot of challenges. This includes but is not limited to hiring practices, culture, marketing, content, and VR platforms. Creating more inclusive AR/VR experiences will require recognizing and addressing these challenges. And putting in place changes that will allow for greater diversity and representation. The payoff will be a more diverse and inclusive Metaverse where people of all types can feel welcome exploring new digital realities.
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