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Metaverses for good

Skepticism about what Facebook will do in virtual reality is overshadowing the technology’s human potential, including for people with disabilities. Who will step up and build those applications?

In Falls Church, Va., Mary Chiappetta, 89, explored nature scenes in a 2019 test of virtual reality programming designed for seniors by a company called Viva Vita.Jahi Chikwendiu/Associated Press

By now you’ve probably seen a lot of negative reactions to Mark Zuckerberg’s vision statement/rebranding announcement about the metaverse. He suggests that vast numbers of us will prefer being in a mixed-reality social network to face-to-face contact for a significant portion of our waking hours. It’s easy to understand the appeal of headset displays to an ad-driven company like Facebook, now known as Meta Platforms. Imagine having your eyes locked on to a monitor, unable to look away from what Facebook wants you to see. In virtual reality, you don’t entirely control your field of view; vision become more akin to hearing, a largely passive reception of whatever sensory input is within range.

On the general concept of the commercial promise of the metaverse, I’ll recommend a post by the UK-based tech analyst Benedict Evans, who argues that “the nature of our interactions with software, entertainment, experiences, displays and, yes, money, is still very early.” I think he’s right that the metaverse concept will make some interesting things happen in mass culture. But I’m going to go in a different direction.

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In our society, increasing attention is being directed to various communities of people with conditions that formerly were characterized as disabilities. A reframing is afoot: There is now talk of “neurodiversity” (including autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and tics) and “multiple abilities.” Taking neurodiversity seriously means rethinking both human-computer interfaces and the meaning of “intelligence” in “artificial intelligence.” And if we look at the core components of Zuckerberg’s vision, they offer many opportunities to extend the range of human experience available to many people. Mixing virtual reality with gamification, social networking, or culture can do a lot for particular people in particular circumstances.

This isn’t how either Silicon Valley or the assistive technology industry typically works, however. The former presumes its technologies will appeal to the broadest possible audience while the latter, enabled and constrained by the need for insurance reimbursement, tends to shy away from general-purpose technologies.

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Here’s an example of how metaverse technologies could bring about a huge improvement. Strabismus is a set of conditions, including “crossed eyes,” in which the two eyes do not align in the same direction at the same time. According to a recent Nature article, VR headsets have been successfully deployed to diagnose the disorder. There is also a prescription headset-based app called Vivid Vision that helps correct strabismus. In contrast to traditional patching therapy, which covers the strong eye to force the weak eye to catch up, the headset varies the assist to the weak eye, decreasing it gradually based on data from the strong eye. The same visual lock-in that threatens to overwhelm us with targeted advertising is essential for therapeutic benefit. Once the therapy is designed, content can be modified for most age groups and delivered either in a doctor’s office or at home. From a kid’s perspective, headsets are cool; eye patches are often “a battle,” one doctor told me. VR would appear to be a clear win here. What if other conditions can be addressed with this approach to display technology?

Ammad Khan, chief executive of IrisVision, with the company’s device to help people with low vision see better.CAYCE CLIFFORD/NYT

Or consider that everyone who’s visited a new city has gotten lost. I have a hunch Apple’s experience in both mapping and wearable computing will position it to invent a next-generation wayfinding technology. Imagine some kind of eyepiece combined with audio and/or visual pedestrian navigation.

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To extend the same benefits to a vision-impaired person, there could be a social component, with community-generated audio along the lines of “Here’s where to go and why you want to head there.” But which of today’s tech companies would make the effort to address this population? It requires reconceiving markets as thousands rather than millions and considering the term “community” in traditional contexts rather than as Facebook’s distorted version. (Its 2.9 billion users can’t remotely be called a community.) Similar approaches could help people with intellectual disabilities. A metaverse-like technology could help people make decisions and use transportation and could offer other safety nets as well.

Another example: Nobody really knows how many wheelchair users there are in the United States. Estimates have historically run in the 1 percent range, putting the population at 3 million to 4 million, a total that is projected to increase as more and more Baby Boomers hit old age. How many of those mobility-limited people would pay for a convincing virtual meadow, a bustling cityscape, or a visit to an important site from their life? Could virtual reality be structured to increase rather than decrease sociability, whether it’s between people in the same building or people at a distance from one another? Could there be a Peloton-like VR app for wheelchair users?

What humans can do

The potential applications of mixed reality plus social networking plus sensors plus gamification rapidly multiply. Foreign language instruction, the preservation of cultural heritage, enhanced enjoyment of essentially every art form from dance to sculpture, job and skills training — a metaverse approach could deliver countless benefits.

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Immersive environments can break out of gaming applications into education, training, data visualization, and support for aging. Maybe an elderly person could shop in the Woolworth’s, Macy’s, or Jordan Marsh of their childhood. What would a virtual trip to Walden Pond, the old Boston Garden, or Symphony Hall mean to someone with dementia?

The potential for isolation behind a virtual-reality headset like Facebook’s Oculus must be balanced by new forms of participation and inclusion. But if assistive technologies move from being prescription items to something more like community assets, it will change not only the technologies but also the communities of people — of whatever abilities — that coalesce around their co-creation, their procurement, and their use.

The phrase “Nothing about us without us” (“Nihil de nobis, sine nobis”) dates back 600 years to Central Europe’s early constitutional democracies. Today, it is commonly invoked by disability-related groups. What better use of emerging metaverse technologies than to facilitate more inclusive policy discussions, product design, and environmental modification — both virtual and physical? With some will and creativity, we can improve the range of options for people of varying abilities while also improving the processes whereby communities keep in touch with their members. The trick will be far less a matter of technological capability and far more a matter of redesigning our (rather than Silicon Valley’s) organizations to mobilize that capability.

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John M. Jordan is professor of practice and director of the professional doctoral program at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies.