January 4, 2023
We don’t know the full extent to which the metaverse will change our lives. We don’t know what today’s collection of virtual worlds and immersive experiences will ultimately become. But we do know that AR/VR/MR (XR), the technologies underpinning those metaverses, have already changed and will continue to transform how we work. But is extended reality truly accessible to everyone, to all employable persons?
It’s not hype: Companies are already using XR to train employees, facilitate remote support, enhance collaboration, shorten design cycles, market products, engage with customers, and more. Productivity and cost saving benefits aside, XR has the potential to remove barriers to employment for marginalized groups.
Today, most people “enter the metaverse” using a desktop or mobile device, but experts say headsets will replace both as the main means of entering the metaverse in the future. People around the globe, in all kinds of situations, will need to have access to these essential work tools, including people with disabilities (PWDs).
According to the WHO, around 15% of the global population live with disabilities. Another estimate puts the number at 1.85 billion people living with disabilities, a population that is “strikingly under-employed:” In the U.S., the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is significantly higher than for those without a disability. Brookings Institute found that only four out of ten working-age Americans with disabilities are employed. These individuals often face barriers to occupations for which they’re qualified, including physical barriers and employer assumptions about their capabilities and the costs of accommodating them.
In reality, the over 10 million unemployed PWDs in the U.S. represent a vast untapped talent pool that could help close the skills gap and boost profits in industries like Manufacturing and Service. Even more than a near-term solution for filling jobs, accommodating PWDs in the workplace will also benefit the 20% of today’s workers who are likely to experience a disability for one or more years during their careers.
Hiring PWDs is good for business, too: According to a 2018 study by Accenture, disability-inclusive employers see 28% higher revenue and 30% higher profit margins than their competitors. Moreover, there’s typically higher retention and lower absenteeism among disabled workers.
IS XR INCLUSIVE TODAY?
The short answer is no. As with most new technologies, accessibility has been an afterthought for developers and proponents of the metaverse. Consider the current VR market: Today’s virtual reality headsets and input devices are not disabled-friendly, especially for users with motor disabilities. This includes individuals with partial paralysis, missing or non-functional limbs, reduced dexterity in one or more body parts, balance issues, or otherwise limited range of motion. Without the right adaptations, these individuals are barred from most virtual experiences today due to the controllers and/or precise movements involved.
Picture the coordinated finger, head, hand, and other gestures typically required to explore virtual worlds, interact with virtual objects, and provide information to inform virtual experiences. Now imagine a person with muscular dystrophy, confined to a wheelchair and unable to fully turn around or reach objects that are high up in the virtual environment. The way VR is trending, the more immersive the experience the more of the user’s body is involved, and the more likely body-worn accessories will ultimately be required.
VR content is also problematic for the vision-impaired, including blind, colorblind, and other low-vision users who largely navigate the world through sound and touch. Haptics and spatial audio may not be advanced enough (yet) to compensate for blindness in the virtual world, but settings for things like contrast and text size, features like text-to-speech, and other adjustments to the user interface (UI) could make VR more accessible to low-vision users right now. And what of the deaf and deafblind, those who rely on lipreading or require a VR headset that fits over hearing aids, cochlear implants, and other hearing devices?
In sum, the vision of the future of work in the metaverse presented by Mark Zuckerberg and others assumes that every employable person can use every body part. And don’t get me started on individuals with diminished speech, severe anxiety, or the 14 million households across the U.S. that don’t have Internet access—not a physical disability but an impairment none the less.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG are existing digital accessibility guidelines for the Web, the latest version of which were published in 2018. The problem is that 1) they’re voluntary (not even 2% of the Internet meets the guidelines), and 2) VR has significantly advanced in four years, presenting new accessibility challenges. But new challenges also present new design opportunities:
Historically, measures undertaken to improve accessibility for PWDs end up benefiting everyone. It’s called the “curb-cut effect” after the depressed section of the street curb originally designed for wheelchairs but ultimately used by people with strollers, rolling luggage, etc. Other examples include closed captioning (used by many people, not just the hearing-impaired) and a variety of website accessibility features designed for low-vision users. If the phenomenon holds true, then making the metaverse accessible to the disabled should improve the experience for all users.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
To start, support those groups actively working towards inclusivity: XR Access is an initiative to build and share knowledge and skills leading to accessible XR design, development, and production practices. There’s also PEAT (Partnership of Employment and Accessible Technology) whose mission is to apply new and emerging technologies like XR in the building of inclusive workplaces.
Several startups are also working on features to enable disabled XR users such as one-handed and hands-free “play” modes, high-performance voice activation, and immersive audio.
Here are some other ideas I came across in my research for this post:
· The use of eye movements as an input method (headsets already include eye tracking tech) and other non-body-based inputs
· Multimodal outputs, too (visual, audio, and haptic)
· Undo function and/or verbal confirmation of actions when precise movement is difficult
· Sensitivity and range of motion settings
· Support for alternative, third-party controllers, keyboards, and/or sensors
· Remapping of controls for people with different sensory and physical disabilities
· Seated, reclining, or stationary “play” modes in addition to standing
· Ability to reduce/remove background details and/or audio (this would be helpful for users with sensory processing disorders)
· Text-to-speech (TTS) and audio-based interfaces for the visually impaired
· Ability to magnify or reduce the size of objects and text to improve readability
· Contrast settings and colorblind mode
· Ability to switch from stereo to mono audio for users with hearing loss in one ear
· Captions or sign language display for audio elements (also helpful in loud work environments)
Employers should check out PEAT’s toolkit for prioritizing accessibility when speaking to vendors and purchasing new technology.
FUTURE OF WORK
Whatever the metaverse will or won’t be, we’re at a critical stage: Today’s design decisions could either make the workplace more accessible or further bar people with disabilities from employment as immersive technologies become standard for work.
The potential for immersive technologies to surpass current accommodations, provide new options to overcome traditional physical barriers, and enable PWDs to take on careers heretofore closed off to them is no small thing. XR could help the disabled learn new skills, experience new environments, move through virtual spaces unhindered, and participate more fully in the workforce. And if the prospect of a new talent pool doesn’t excite you, there’s the curb-cut effect: Inclusive design of VR hardware and software will benefit everyone. Accessible features will make the metaverse easier to navigate and more appealing to disabled and nondisabled consumers and workers alike.