What is the Metaverse?
The concept of the metaverse originally came from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash; a dystopian world where life interplays in both virtual and physical environments.
These days “Metaverse” doesn’t have one universally agreed upon meaning. For some, it’s a virtual world which exists whether or not you participate in it. For others, it’s augmented reality which provides digital supplementation to your physical world in that moment. There are yet more ambitious theories of digital environments interacting via a functioning digital economy (meaning you can trade digital assets or currency across virtual platforms and “live” within them).
No one has yet figured out how to seamlessly connect multiple digital
environments. Nor do corporations yet have a financial incentive to work together
to create one single universe in which we all participate equally. As we have
progressed online, there have been different editions of the 'web' as we know it,
for instance, we've had web 1.0 and 2.0, and now we may be on our way to web 3.0
with a stop at web 2.5 in
the meantime. It makes us wonder how the metaverse will merge with that.
Anyway, now that we've laid out all the ambiguity, let's move on!
Why are people interested in the metaverse?
The next iteration of the internet is where our world will be more immersive and interactive. The blending of the digital and physical spaces (phygital) will create a new reality that will supposedly enhance our current experiences.
This will likely require hardware e.g. glasses, VR headsets, or bodysuits (like the show Upload on Netflix) that help connect our environments. Gaming, devices, and graphic design companies – amongst others – see huge potential for this whole new industry.
The investment and commercial opportunities are huge too. Crypto-based economies, digital content, virtual events, and advertising are just some of the sectors ready to capitalize on the metaverse. Plus all the job opportunities that come with it.
Things to consider
The metaverse presents an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. With avatars and digital-likenesses representing us, we can effectively become whatever we want. But will this lead to fraudulent activities or dangerous situations for the vulnerable? Will people with disabilities or minority groups embrace the characteristics they share in real life, or will they mask them? Can we really know who someone is if they’re behind a virtual representation of themselves?
Which leads to the question of privacy and security. How will the metaverse – a totally connected virtual internet – keep our data safe? Credit card information, social security or ID numbers, browsing habits and history. Will our most private information be stored on one overarching system? Will different companies be required to share information between them?
There’s also the risk of social pressure to “keep up with the Joneses”. Whether that’s having the latest add-ons for your avatar or attending the trendy virtual parties, there could be challenges to our ethics and our integrity as well as our finances and mental wellness. And cyber-bullying is already rampant on social media. We will need to create parameters and systems to detect and deal with these damaging behaviors within the metaverse.
Policy makers and regulators need to consider all these scenarios and help mitigate against hackers, bad actors, and maybe even ourselves.
Why accessibility and inclusion are important
So far, all versions of the metaverse require external hardware to access it. Are the mainstream devices accessible for people with disabilities, or will there be a surcharge for adaptive controllers? It’s also worth thinking about what adaptations will be needed. For people with visual challenges, audio descriptions will help orient them. For people with hearing challenges, captioning and accessible labeling will be required. It’s still not clear exactly how this will manifest as an integrated experience rather than an add-on.
Add to this the need for internet connectivity in order to access the metaverse. Society is still struggling with the digital divide; the haves and have nots with regard to reliable, affordable internet access. When the metaverse goes mainstream, these issues will be exacerbated.
The metaverse is still in the hype phase. As businesses and organizations start to map out how it will actually work, they will need to embed accessibility into everything they develop. The metaverse provides an incredible opportunity to build an inclusive and accessible interactive world, with an equitable experience for all. It’s time to embrace accessibility so we can build the best possible future for everyone.