While technology has historically provided the power to connect us, it has also divided people based on accessibility. Nowhere is that more apparent than the continued difficulty for rural residents to get cheap and plentiful access to high-speed internet, a necessity many in large cities take for granted. The Biden Administration recently announced an increase in funding to try to close the last mile of high-speed internet scarcity, excellent news to the 19 million people still without access.
This has created the digital divide: where access to the internet, cost of devices, lack of broadband, lack of space for people of all walks of life has deleterious effects on their prosperity.
Considering how many companies are switching the hybrid working models and how much of today’s commerce and social interactions happen online, lack of access has dramatic costs.
We must address that gap while also paying attention to the next technological revolution: virtual reality. As with many technologies, there will be high- and low-price points. The affluent will buy the top-of-the-line model and stock it with high-cost IP-dependent games and apps. But we cannot forget those with less money, who will need to access VR for training purposes, healthcare reasons, and, if the metaverse takes off, communing with friends.
While it may be easier to fix affordable VR than laying fiber optic cable in rural areas, we must start working today to make VR as accessible as possible. While, as stated above, the affluent may be able to afford the top-of-the-line tech, we must develop VR hardware and software solutions to be as inclusive as possible for people of all income levels, races, and backgrounds.
Why it’s important
VR is no mere video game delivery system. It is increasingly an educational tool, entertainment vehicle, social connector, healthcare solution and training platform. It will increasingly be a part of how students learn and professionals receive important training.
Here’s how we can ensure no one gets left behind during the VR revolution
- Continue to support low-entry point devices. Alphabet Inc.’s launch of Google Cardboard in 2014 demonstrated people could access VR for little money. In its five year run, Google shipped at least 15 million units. Though it halted production in 2019, the cardboard concept lives on thanks to the decision to open-source its Cardboard SDK, which we discuss below.
- Develop open standards. Application development is big business, and there will be no shortage of big game and application intellectual property that will be made available at a significant cost. That is undeniable. But the industry must support and developers should support the creation of open and royalty free standard opportunities as well. Google’s VR website now directs people to directly purchase the next generation of Cardboard devices made by others who now use the open-source SDK.
- Browser-based VR. There’s no doubt many who can afford it will spend most of their VR time using those aforementioned pricey games and apps. But imagine the Internet if you had to pay to access everything. The VR web is the great equalizer, and the browser is the way to access the web. Firefox unfortunately discontinued its VR browser, but, like Alphabet, provided its code to another company Igalia, which created an open source browser, Wolvic, based on Firefox Reality’s source code.
- Make accommodations for everyone. Inclusivity is not just about price. As VR takes off, there are those who predict that the metaverse will become the next internet, where people spend significant time connecting with and communicating with friends, family, and businesses. We must account for those who have disabilities such as deafness or visual impairment. For the former, people who communicate by reading lips may have difficulties in VR, so we need to ensure we work hard on enabling and perfecting automatic captions. For the latter, app developers must put as much effort into sound quality as they do the visual experience.
- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The goal here is twofold: one, create opportunities for creators of color and those from other backgrounds to meaningfully participate in the building of VR (Meta held a great roundtable on this topic) and two, ensure we build in a way that empowers people from different backgrounds and communities to use VR to live their authentic selves.
- Ways to participate for free. Device manufacturers and application providers should work together to ensure people can have high-quality VR experiences through libraries (either in person or by checking out a fully-stocked device). Additionally, they should provide school districts, especially those in underserved communities, with devices and applications to bring education into the 21st century.
- Private-public partnerships. Governments must be involved in ensuring wide distribution of accessible VR through grants, which open up opportunities to use VR for carceral rehabilitation, education, and community affairs.
Companies involved in this space owe it to the people they serve to ensure as many people have access to some facet of VR for low cost or free. Not only is it the right thing to do civically, it creates a potential future customer who may graduate into purchasing an advanced headset and games in the future.
As you can see from the above examples, we cannot depend on companies alone to make things more affordable, especially public companies that have fiduciary duties to shareholders that may cause them to shut down unprofitable VR projects.
The industry should partner with local, state, and national governments, schools and libraries, and the open-source community to create a VR world that works for everyone.