Beyond the metaverse hyperbole, Crowd DNA’s Freddie Mason explores how a truly accessible and inclusive digital universe could transform the lives of the differently abled…

Conversations about the metaverse are as abundant as they are confused. Increasingly grand predictions are being made about the future of (intangible) digital real estate. Soon-to-be immersive experiences will, it’s claimed, let our imaginations run wild – exploding the horizons of possibility for countless sectors. 

You’d be forgiven for finding the general futuristic vagueness of it all a little exasperating. In the metaverse’s promise of a totally disembodied life, it sometimes feels that it’s suffering from the perils of overreach. But parking the skepticism for a second, there are some very practical applications of metaverse technology that could transform the lives of the differently abled. 

It’s arguable that people living with disabilities could benefit the most from the metaverse. Amazingly, however, there’s relatively little thought being given to how this new frontier might be designed with the differently abled in mind. And there are some 1.85 billion people in the world living with disabilities, which is more than the population of China. 

What might the metaverse mean for people living with partial or complete blindness? Will this new AR reality help those with paraplegia to walk again? And do people trust the priorities of Meta and other tech giants with such sensitive issues? We need to talk about meta-accessibility… 

A Matter Of Tweaks  

Sometimes, the steps needed to make VR and AR more accessible are smaller than we might think. Eye-tracking technology is commonplace in VR headsets, for instance. But pretty much all of them use this feature to analyse the user’s eye movements. As Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has pointed out, very few have eye-tracking as an input, or a means of control. To make eye tracking an input would mean paraplegic people could navigate virtual worlds with ease. 

One small tweak, with huge implications. Not only would this mean those living with full paralysis could explore environments in ways that are simply not possible otherwise, it would also help them plan their routes IRL. Fully enabled virtual navigation for paraplegic people would mean they could familiarise themselves with a journey – its accessibility and potential hazards – before they undertake it in real life. The world would become a more manageable place. 

This fact reminds us that the obstacles standing in the way of meta-accessibility aren’t necessarily technological, but ones of imagination and cultural understanding. Asking the right questions, conducting research and cultural strategy are, in this respect, essential. They help us to consider why and for whom do we innovate. 

Learning To Walk In The metaverse 

A more speculative, but no doubt game-changing, application of VR would be in physical rehabilitation. The imaginative effort of controlling an (able-bodied) avatar stimulates neurological activity that can be used to help stroke victims regain the use of their bodies. The Walk Again Project at Duke University is using VR avatars and immersive environments, combined with complex neuroprosthetics, to do just this.  

Elon Musk weighs up the merits of placing a microchip in his brain
Elon Musk weighs up the merits of placing a microchip in his brain

The most famous innovation in this field, however, is Elon Musk’s Neuralink – a ‘brain chip startup’ that will allow paralysed people ‘to control a phone with their minds faster than someone with thumbs’, according to Musk himself. Founded in 2016, Neuralink announced in January 2022 that it was ready to start clinical trials on humans, following the successful insertion of an artificial intelligence microchip into the brain of a monkey named Pager and a pig named Gertrude. Neuralink is currently looking to hire a clinical trials director to lead this transition to the human brain, to develop technology that will, Musk claims, help quadriplegics and other people with severe spinal injuries to walk again.  

Importantly, though, this technology is evolving as a competitor to the metaverse, a platform Musk has tended to dismiss as all hype and no substance. “I don’t know if I necessarily buy into this metaverse stuff,” he remarked in an interview in December last year. Musk claims it is Neuralink, not the metaverse, that will launch the human race into a new world. This has contributed to doubt in the minds of some about the motivations behind all of this technological innovation. Are these meaningful attempts to create a truly inclusive digital future, or is this simply ‘tech-bro’ one-upmanship? 

One of the doubters is Dr Karola Kreitmair, an assistant professor of medical history and bioethics at the University Of Wisconsin. Despite ostensibly being for the benefit of the disabled, Dr Kreitmar worries about a for-profit company meddling with the complexity of the human brain. Neurolink is “unchartered territory,” she warns. Do we really want to entrust it to a company – and man – whose primary goal is commercial gain? 

This is the ethical dilemma that sits at the heart of so much debate surrounding an accessible metaverse. How close should capitalism be allowed to come to the internal workings of the mind, our fundamental sense of where we are? The answer lies not in the tech itself, but in the culture that surrounds it. It is in culture that we can find purpose, direction and meaning in what we’re able to invent.      

Blindness And VR 

We live in an intensely visual world, from which the blind are largely excluded. Every time a button disappears on our iPhone, in favour of a seamless, watertight, touchscreen feel, the powers of digital interconnectivity slip further away from the blind. Only a fraction of Netflix’s programming is set up with audio accompaniments for the visually impaired. While the metaverse, and VR more generally, promises to be multisensory, it is primarily geared up for 360 visual immersion. As it stands, blind people are to be almost entirely locked out of the metaverse revolution, should it arrive.

There are some things that could be done to avoid this eventuality. 3D audio echolocation technology is a hugely underfunded and underdeveloped immersive sensory feature, which could fully emplace blind people in new VR worlds. Haptic and touch technology is in its infancy, but would improve the experience of both the visually impaired and those with full sight. 

And what about smell? 2021 saw the launch of Hypnos Virtual, a metaverse startup that has developed Scentscape, a ‘neuroscience-based data stream of Bio-media’. Essentially, Scentscape is a library of millions of different carefully engineered scents that will be released from a ‘small fridge-sized object, to enhance any VR experience you might be having. If it sounds to you like a glorified air freshener, you’re not alone. Suffice to say – there’s still work to be done. 

Finally… 

If we’re to believe the hype, the metaverse might be the biggest revolution in digital technology since the internet, and we’re still very much at the start of the journey. In fact, we’re at precisely the moment when decisions are being made that might determine the future of digital experience for generations. Now is the moment to ensure that the differently abled are included in what tech has in store for us. The tech giants – from Meta to Musk – must involve people living with disabilities in their innovations from the very start. Their contribution will not only help build a more inclusive digital future, but improve the experience for the able bodied as well.   

The limits to an inclusive metaverse are not technological. It is the culture we build around the innovations of the metaverse that will determine its future, and whose interests it serves.