The Metaverse: inclusive and accessible?

The concept of the Metaverse is a continuous online 3D universe that combines multiple virtual spaces. It’s the next step on from the internet. It means users can work, meet, game and socialize in these 3D spaces. We are not quite there yet, but some platforms have metaverse-like elements. Video games and Virtual Reality are two examples. So, we need to keep a careful watch on developments to make sure the Metaverse is inclusive and accessible.

Another term for the Metaverse is digital immersive environments. It sounds science fiction, but this fiction is becoming a fact. Someone is designing these environments, but are they considering equity, diversity and inclusion? Zallio and Clarkson decided to tackle this issue and did some research on where the industry is heading.

Several companies are involved in the development of digital immersive environments. So before they get too far in development it’s important to define some principles for the design of a good Metaverse. Zallio and Clarkson came up with ten principles that embrace inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility and safety.

10 Principles for designing a good Metaverse

  1. is open and accessible
  2. is honest and understandable
  3. is safe and secure
  4. is driven by social equity and inclusion
  5. is sustainable
  6. values privacy, ethics and integrity
  7. guarantees data protection and ownership
  8. empowers diversity through self-expression
  9. innovates responsibly
  10. complements the physical world
A young woman is wearing a pair of virtual reality goggles and looking towards the sky.

Their paper is insightful and provides some important areas for discussion and research. We need developers to consider the essentials of inclusion, diversity and accessibility. Zallio and Clarkson advise that designers can learn from the past to reduce pitfalls in the future. As the Sustainable Development Goals say, “leave no-one behind”.

Diagram showing the 10 principles for designing a good Metaverse.

The title of the paper is Designing the Metaverse: A study on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Safety for digital immersive environments.

Synopsis of the paper

1. The Metaverse appears as the next big opportunity in the consumer electronics scenario.

2. Several companies are involved with its development.

3. It is extremely important to define principles and practices to design a good Metaverse.

4. Qualitative research pointed out to challenges and opportunities to design a safe, inclusive, accessible Metaverse that guarantees equity and diversity.

5. Ten principles for designing a good Metaverse embrace inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility and safety.

From the abstract

The Metaverse is shaping a new way for people interact and socialise. By 2026 a quarter of the population will spend at least an hour a day in the Metaverse. This requires consideration of challenges and opportunities that will influence the design of the Metaverse.

A study was carried out with industry experts to explore the social impact of the Metaverse through the lens of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Safety (IDEAS). The goal was to identify directions business has to undertake.

The results indicated the nature of future research questions and analysis to define a first manifesto for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Safety in the Metaverse.

This manifesto is a starting point to develop a narrative, brainstorm questions and eventually provide answers for designing a Metaverse as a place for people that does not substitute the physical world but complements it.

Which font to use? All of them?

Old wooden printer's typeface blocks in different colours and sizes.

New research from Adobe shows we have to re-think optimum fonts and typefaces.

First, font is not the same thing as typeface. What’s the difference? Typeface is a group of letters and numbers in the same design, such as Times New Roman. Font is a specific style of typeface, such as Italic or Bold, and in a particular size, for example, 10 or 16.

A woman is reading a book reader device similar to Kindle.

By simply changing the font readers can gain incredible reading speed. But there is no one-size-fits-all “best” font.

While reading speed is not something usually considered as a universal design concept, it is a related aspect. Ease of use and comfort for all is one of the tenets. And if you want to extend the attention span of readers then speed and comfort will help.

The study looked at a group of 352 participants aged 18-71 years. Forty-six percent were female, 22 percent bilingual and all self reporting they are comfortable reading English.

The study measured 16 common typefaces and their effects on reading speeds, preferences and comprehension scores. Similarly to an optometrists eye test they toggled letters to ask participants their preferred font.

a man is reading a tablet device.

Different readers read fastest in different fonts without losing comprehension. That means personalisation is the key.

On average an individual read 35 percent faster with their fastest font than with their slowest font. Comprehension was retained across all fonts. But no font was a clear winner for all participants. This means that devices will need to allow reader to personalise their font choices.

The other finding was that the fonts people say they prefer aren’t often the ones with which they read fastest. While there is no best font, there was some typefaces that worked best for older participants. This could be due to familiarity, or visual properties.

The title of the article is, The need to personalize fonts for each individual reader. It has some surprising results everyone should consider in their written and online communication. The title of the research paper is, Towards Individuated Reading Experiences: Different Fonts Increase Reading Speed for Different Individuals

Abstract

In our age of ubiquitous digital displays, adults often read in short, opportunistic interludes. In this context of Interlude Reading, we consider if manipulating font choice can improve adult readers’ reading outcomes.

Our studies normalize font size by human perception and use hundreds of crowdsourced participants to provide a foundation for understanding, which fonts people prefer and which fonts make them more effective readers.

Participants’ reading speeds (measured in words-per-minute (WPM)) increased by 35% when comparing fastest and slowest fonts without affecting reading comprehension. High WPM variability across fonts suggests that one font does not fit all. We provide font recommendations related to higher reading speed and discuss the need for individuation, allowing digital devices to match their readers’ needs in the moment.

We provide recommendations from one of the most significant online reading efforts to date. To complement this, we release our materials and tools with this article.

Health, the digital divide and rural dwellers

A timber barn in a rural setting. Looks like it is on a farm. Health and digital divide. In the land of access and inclusion, the focus is usually on the built environment and services. But there is also virtual access and inclusion to consider. The pandemic has highlighted a lack of equitable access to the internet and therefore access to health services. This is particularly the case for rural dwellers. The issues of health, the digital divide and rural dwellers is discussed in a report from the US.

The context of the report is the social determinants of health and the digital divide. Broadband access and digital literacy are key for connecting to services such as employment, education and health services. While broadband infrastructure and computer hardware are necessary, true equitable access also requires focus on digital literacy and proficiency. However, there are other issues related to poor health outcomes. 

According to the report, rural residents are subject to additional social determinants including physician shortages, persistent poverty, and food insecurity. Excessive travel times, inadequate transportation options, environmental exposures are also problematic. And broadband internet services that are often poor quality, unaffordable, or unavailable. 

“Super-determinants” of health are poor transportation, lack of broadband access, and living with a disability. That’s because they cause disadvantage across other areas of life. 

The title of the report is Underfunded Infrastructure Impact on Health Equity. The study focuses on north America, but Australian rural dwellers share many of the same issues.

People are looking at bright orange pumpkins piled in rows in a field on a farmThe report recommends engagement and involvement by community members. Community health workers live and work in vulnerable communities, and they understand the real lives of people. Consequently, community health workers should lead community involvement in coming up with solutions. 

The report explains the social determinants of health, the cost of inequity, and the need for digital literacy training. 

Four key findings in the report

      1. Households with consistent broadband have increased health literacy, greater access to clinical and social services, make better informed healthcare choices, and stay closer connected to support systems of friends and family.
      2. A holistic approach led by health advocates from the local community has the best chance of improving health outcomes and successfully overcoming barriers caused by social determinants.
      3. Strategies for reaching vulnerable populations should center on community health workers (CHWs) who are trusted and respected members of that population. CHWs have an ability to better understand the reality of
        how people live and the obstacles that keep them from success.
      4. Program leadership should include meaningful representation from local community organizations with valuable experience in health equity and extensive community networks.

Microsoft renews commitment to accessibility

Microsoft icons for wheelchair users, cognition, signing and mobility. Microsoft commitment to accessibility.The ‘disability divide’ is only set to get wider. So it’s good news that Microsoft plans to to be more accessible and inclusive. That includes their workforce culture as well as accessible technologies described in their Inclusive Design Toolkit. Microsoft’s commitment to accessibility includes people with disability in their action plans.

According to an article in an IT industry magazine, Microsoft plans to increase training and recruitment of people with disability. It plans to use industry collaboration and recruitment across GitHub, LinkedIn and Microsoft Learn communities. Suppliers are another group they are targeting for creating a culture of accessibility.

A black and white graphic of stick people in various states of being.In 2019 Microsoft produced an Inclusive Design Toolkit.  Their key advice is to recognise exclusion, solve for one and extend to many, and learn from diversity. You can download the toolkit in sections. it has case studies and videos.

The magazine article is titled, Microsoft pledges to bridge ‘disability divide’ with renewed commitment to disability, has more detail about the use of AI in software. 

Good that companies that promote inclusive products and services are realising they need an inclusive workforce. 

Digital transitioning requires mainstream accessibility

Front cover of the ICT report.COVID has revealed our reliance communicating online and via social media. That’s why European countries are getting together to improve the accessibility of all digital services. The digital world has to be accessible to all. It is also part of the Sustainable Development Goals and “leave no-one behind”. That’s why digital transitioning requires mainstream accessibility.

The International Telecommunication Union has launched its ICT accessibility assessment for the Europe region. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of ICT accessibility. The report is designed to provide ITU members and stakeholders from the ITU Europe region with a holistic view of ICT accessibility requirements, the implementation status of ICT accessibility laws, regulations, policies and institutional frameworks, and with good practices and recommendations. Accessibility for all, including ICT is now a top priority.

A magazine article in Mirage titled, Accessible Europe 2021: Making ICTs accessible to all, provides an overview of the assessment report. By 2023 the ITU wants 90% of digital services to have the “seal of usability and accessibility”. This is part of the Accessible Europe project. 

 

Older people and internet use

A pair of hands belonging to an older man hold a mobile phone.2020 has been a year of digital connectedness. Many of us relied on the internet to keep working and stay connected to family and friends. Access to virtual health services turned out to be important too. But access to the internet and digital connection wasn’t available to everyone. It’s assumed that older people are unable or unwilling to use digital communications. The assumptions by others about the capabilities of older people doesn’t help. It reinforces a negative mindset in both older people and their younger family members. 

Understanding older people’s relationship with the internet was the subject of a survey in rural Queensland. 1500 households were surveyed and asked about the general adoption of internet use. Within this survey, respondents were asked to indicate their understanding of older people’s relationship with the internet. Researchers found three general assumptions: older people aren’t interested in the internet, and they generally can’t use it. However, family members did believe the internet would be useful for older people.

If family members act on these assumptions they are unlikely to assist older members of the family to use the internet to communicate with others. If society continues to assume older people incapable or disinterested in internet communications it will lead to reinforcing the digital divide.

The researchers conclude that distinctions should be drawn between older people in rural areas and the tendency to apply urban norms to this population. 

The title of the article is, Perceptions of older age and digital participation in rural Queensland. It is academically dense in parts but the issue is clear. Older people will be unable to join with younger cohorts in independently using internet technology if we continue to apply these assumptions.

Abstract

Participation is thought to build and sustain individual and community resilience. What constitutes participation today significantly involves networked digital communications. With Australia’s ageing population set to increase exponentially, and with a growing concentration of older people living outside of larger cities and towns, a need exists to address how participation in later life is understood and facilitated. Coupled with the need for regional communities to find relevant change processes that build resilience, this multidisciplinary paper highlights variations in perception about older people’s digital abilities in regional Queensland. Following the general increase in appeal of digital devices to older people, defined here as those aged over 65, the paper suggests that how older people’s digital connectedness progresses is foundationally influenced by the speculative, antithetical and potentially ambivalent perceptions of others. In doing so, we seek to understand rural connectedness in later life through a suite of literacies informing digital participation.

There’s a related article from 2015, Internet use: Perceptions and experiences of visually impaired older adults. Published in the Journal of Social Inclusion, it provides some excellent qualitative research – the comments from older people with vision loss are especially revealing.

Ambient Technology: Assistive or Intrusive?

A graphic of a blue body with different labels around it. For example, telehealth, patient monitoring, assisted living.Designing and creating electronic devices for older people so they can stay home in their later years is a good thing. But are they actually what older people want? It’s a balancing act between assistance for independence versus privacy intrusions. Where do you draw the line? And will the older person have a say in where that line is drawn? These are tricky questions and the answers are likely to be individual. And what happens to any data that are collected both deliberately and as a by-product?

A conference paper from Germany discusses some of these issues as we are increasingly looking to technology to solve our problems. The issues raised in could benefit from a universal design perspective. Taking this view, one would ask, “How can we make ambient technology more universal and general and less specialised so that people don’t feel stigmatised? As Eva-Maria Schomakers and Martina Ziefle say, privacy concerns include the feeling of constant surveillance, misuse of personal information by third parties, as well as the invasion of personal space, obtrusiveness and stigmatising design of these technologies.

The title of the article is Privacy Perceptions in Ambient Assisted Living 

Ambient Assisted Living is a growing field of research. A related paper on ResearchGate “Enabling Technologies for the Internet of Health Things”, might be a place to start. It contains some useful diagrams.

UD, ID, DfA, UX: A terminology muddle

A hand holding a coloured pen is poised over a green post it note. There are drawings on the table and a smartphone. It indicates UX design.  UD, ID, DfA, UX, UA muddle.

Researchers find it frustrating not having one term to cover the concept of equity and inclusion. One term would ensure we are all talking about the same thing.  But how about practitioners? It’s confusing for them too. The aims of universal design (UD), inclusive design (ID), design for all (DfA), and user experience (UX), have the same aim – inclusion. So why should we have a terminology muddle?

Most designers and practitioners who understand the underpinning principle of inclusion, say it’s not a big deal. But shouldn’t the key issue be about implementation rather than discussing the nuances of terms? Even if we had one term, would that alter designer and practitioner attitudes towards inclusion?

The complaint about terminology among academics has resulted in many papers on this topic. New terms are proposed as a solution but serve only to confuse more. Some even put forth arguments that they are all different things. 

A paper from 2014 is still relevant today because the arguments are still current. This paper discusses historical, methodological and philosophical aspects. It’s a long paper, probably best suited to academics. It covers just about every aspect of the issues. It also draws in the ICF (International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health) and international standards which is quite useful. 

The title of the paper downloadable from ResearchGate says it all, Universal design, inclusive design, accessible design, design for all: different concepts—one goal? On the concept of accessibility—historical, methodological and philosophical aspects.

What’s it called?

Picture of the back of a house that is being built. The ground is just dirt. Overlaid are words in different colours: Adaptable, Universal, Visitable, Usable, Accessible, Disabled, Flexible Different disciplines, different practitioners, and different countries have evolved their own terms. Academics find this problematic as it makes it difficult to build an international body of research on a topic where terminology can vary so much. Regulations and codes have not helped the cause:

Editor’s note: I also wrote on this thorny topic in 2009: Calling a Spade a Shovel: Universal, accessible, adaptable, disabled – aren’t they all the same? Or you can get the quick version from the PowerPoint presentation.

Abstract

Promoting the efficacies of universally designed built environments has been one of the ongoing quests of disability and ageing advocacy groups, and more recently, governments. The underpinning principle of universal design is inclusiveness – that is, to design across the population spectrum for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. This means ensuring architectural features do not inadvertently become architectural barriers to inclusion in everyday social and economic life.

The drive for social and economic inclusion for people with disabilities has recently moved up the political agenda and new policy directions at national and state levels are emerging. Political will is a necessary but insufficient condition to guarantee inclusion if industry does not understand what constitutes inclusiveness in design, and does not understand the differences in terms used in the built environment in relation to inclusion, disability and ageing.

Using the NSW Government’s call for tenders for social housing, and an academic paper as examples, this paper discusses how using various terms such as accessible and adaptable interchangeably might defeat the objective of inclusion, and how the misuse and confusion in terminology hinders not only the uptake of universal design in a practical way, but also stymies academic debate on the topic.

Digital Accessibility: It’s not an add-on

A graphic showing a laptop with a green screen and several smart phones around it also with green screens. It is indicating that they are all connected.Beware digital consultants who offer a range of services “plus Accessibility services”. If they list it as a separate service then it is likely they don’t truly know what it is. Why? Because accessibility should be built-in regardless. It’s not an added extra. But it is specialised.

As Sheri Byrne-Haber says,
“Just because you are good at one does not make you good at the other”. If you say you are good at both it implies you don’t understand the business drivers for either.

In her article Byrne-Haber lists some other mistakes commonly made by consultants:
1. They assume that you can wave a magic wand over people and turn them into accessibility testers.
2. They rarely employ people with disability, but outsource to disability services and pay them a pittance for their knowledge.
3. They tell people they can do every type of accessibility testing in their contact messages.

Byrne-Haber also points out that digital accessibility specialists will be in demand as disability discrimination legislation gets tighter. Big tech companies are already on board with an increasingly diverse workforce. But you do need to know what questions to ask. The list of questions to ask is in her article, Vetting Accessibility Vendors.  

 

Artificial Intelligence: A framework

Infographic of the proportion of 272 different stakeholder groups.A discussion paper was released on 5 April 2019 to encourage conversations about AI ethics in Australia. This paper included a set of draft AI ethics principles. 130 submissions were received from a wide range of stakeholders, including one from CUDA. The Australian AI Principles are ready for testing and are:

    • Human, social and environmental wellbeing
    • Human-centred values
    • Fairness
    • Privacy protection and security
    • Reliability and safety
    • Transparency and explainability
    • Contestability
    • Accountability

You can find out more detail in a list of insights from the consultations. You can ask a question or give feedback via an online form at the bottom of the Department of Industry website on this topic.

It is good to see human-centred values and human, social and environmental wellbeing now included. A closer look shows that older people, people with disability, people from diverse backgrounds and children are included in these principles by virtue of including human rights. The Fairness Principle includes mentions of Inclusion and Accessibility. 

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