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is the metaverse accessible?

The metaverses want to be the future of social networks, even of the Internet. But by focusing on the visual, sound and immersive aspects, will they leave out certain users?

While social networks like Twitter and Instagram have recently put forward functions to be more accessible to their users with disabilities, the subject still seems taboo on the metaverse side. Whether in terms of hardware or interfaces, there is still progress to be made.

Material that is still binding

The promise of virtual reality and metaverses is to be able to live 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 disability, VR headsets aren’t very comfortable for people who wear glasses, which can cause alignment issues between the eyes and the display. The weight – around 500 grams – is also a hindrance for people with neck problems, for example.

On the Meta forums, users have also expressed the need to be able to move in pairs, for example to guide a person with quadriplegia or suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in Horizon Worlds.

To navigate in these virtual universes, it is necessary to be able to use both hands quite precisely, generally with joysticks. A formality for the majority of 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 they are in the field of view, but people with missing fingers have commented that detection is less effective in this case. Their suggestion in the face of this malfunction: to be able to deactivate the detection of certain fingers in the settings.

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It is among other things to overcome these shortcomings that certain metaverses are also accessible on computers, tablets and telephones, 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 guide a person with quadriplegia or suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in Horizon Worlds.

Unfortunately, most metaverses don’t communicate about their accessibility settings so it’s hard to know in advance what to expect. Horizon Worlds allows you to modify several of them, such as having all the audio part on one side if the user has difficulty hearing on the other, changing the display of colors or even being able to move normally while remaining seated in the world real.

For metaverses to be perceived as real successors to social networks, it is essential that they be accessible to as many people as possible from their inception.

Avenues are also being explored for other situations. For people with blindness, how do you get that same sense of walking through another world? In 2018, researchers at Microsoft developed a prototype named Canetroller (for cane and controllercontroller), a haptic and audible white cane, compatible with VR headsets and which can detect obstacles in the virtual world.

While these functions are valuable, there are still several challenges to overcome. Automatic transcription is already rough for videos on YouTube, but it is 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 most certainly be a complex feature to develop.

Canetroller, a prototype of a white cane for moving around in virtual reality.©Microsoft

Be accessible from the start

If the basic utopia of the metaverse is to create a decentralized virtual world far from the Gafam, there is a certain advantage that large companies like Meta and Apple are interested in it: they already have teams dedicated to accessibility and experience in developing this type of functionality. For example, Meta has published a charter and documents on accessibility for developers of immersive experiences.

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For metaverses to be perceived as real successors to social networks, it is essential that they be accessible to as many people as possible from their inception. After all, these platforms could be a great help for people with disabilities, especially for telecommuting, visiting historical places normally inaccessible in a wheelchair, or even simply meeting new people. Virtual reality has also been put forward for its therapeutic uses. By multiplying the parameters of use, making metaverses accessible will create an optimal experience – because customizable – for all users, whether they have a disability or not.

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