Why we shouldn’t write off virtual reality and the metaverse
To say Facebook Inc.’s rebrand as Meta Platforms Inc. was controversial would be an understatement.
The company’s pivot from being a social media company to a “metaverse” company — essentially, one that focuses on integrating virtual worlds with “real life” — was mocked across the internet and sparked a variety of conversations about the future of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).
Tech journalist Jason Schreier criticized the move, calling Meta’s vision of a digitally enhanced world “nonsense.” Inspired by sci-fi stories like “Ready Player One,” the metaverse is often thought of as “a world in which we can all strap on headsets and occupy some sort of digital paradise.” But when Schreier conducted a poll on X, formerly known as Twitter, in February 2022, 64.4% of the 17,650 respondents said no, they wouldn’t regularly use a “Ready Player One”-style metaverse.
I saw something different after Meta’s Oct. 28, 2021, announcement. As a games journalist with SMA and chronic pain, I didn’t believe we should write off the concept of the metaverse. I could see the potential in widespread adoption of AR and VR. After all, people with disabilities have been using internet platforms to study, work, play, socialize, and mobilize movements practically since the dawn of the web. Why couldn’t a metaverse experienced through AR and VR be the next logical development?
Two players in one
People with my conditions tend to be more isolated than our peers. At times, we don’t want to deal with the ableism that comes with interacting with society. At others, we simply lack the energy or ability to function well outside of our houses. So we stay within those familiar four walls and plug into our devices — the preferred door to the outside world for many of us.
When I was a teenager, I felt I lived different lives on and off the internet. Online, I was more confident and vocal; I spoke my mind boldly on topics such as pop culture and sex. I was articulate, intelligent. But offline? I wasn’t as loud or brave as I wanted to be. I shrunk into myself. I let people believe that I was whoever they invented in their heads when they looked at me. The effort of trying to get people to understand me, further hindered by my speech impairment, was too tiring.
My two selves merged over the years as my career progressed and my social life expanded. I owe my friends and colleagues for teaching me it’s OK to be unrepentantly bold in speaking my mind. Heck, it’s necessary to be shameless when freelancing in journalism, what with all the cold emails and pitches you must send.
But this change didn’t come without me pushing myself outside my prior boundaries or receiving an SMA-targeting drug that helped my speech. There are still things my disability renders me unable to do.
It’s not all fun and meta games for everyone
A month before Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced his pursuit of the metaverse, I wrote a column titled “The Possibility of Radical Accessibility Is Here, as Told Through Lego and Gaming.” It was an explanation of how a game called Lego Builder’s Journey gave me appreciation for Legos that I’d never had, because I couldn’t play with the physical toy bricks.
To me, AR, VR, and concepts like the metaverse have the potential to provide more experiences like that, with deeper immersion. I can’t sit in roller-coaster seats anymore, no thanks to my scoliosis, or go dancing at a club with a friend because I’m easily fatigued. But maybe, with the technology, I can have those experiences.
We still have a long way to go before a world with “Ready Player One”-style platforms has solidly crystallized, of course. The AR and VR technology we have now is bulky, lacking in immersion, and needs fine-tuning to be more accessible to people with various disabilities.
As an Australian Broadcasting Corporation article notes, Meta’s technology has mainly been developed around “certain kinds of bodies — namely, that of the able-bodied male.” And if you, like me, have neuropathy in your scalp, well, good luck not getting a headache after wearing the Meta Quest headsets for more than 10 minutes. (My dream is for the headsets to evolve into glasses.)
Incidentally, the article’s authors are conducting a survey on the experiences of people with disabilities who’ve used AR and VR, to better understand our needs in their research.
I understand the instinct to flinch or mock technologies as they become available. God knows I’m afraid artificial intelligence will eventually replace artists and writers. Still, it’s important to consider who might benefit from them and how. Often, the tech that nondisabled people say will make us lazy or keep us from leaving our houses can help improve our physical and mental health. Curiosity can be just as valuable as caution.
Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.
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