Brunel University London: Brunel, Cambridge and Meta launch £1m investigation into equitable VR

Brunel University London is to join forces with tech giant Meta and the University of Cambridge to explore the future of ‘Social Virtual Reality,’ and how the metaverse might me made more equitable for disabled and older people.

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the £996,000 project will investigate how the virtual world can be made inclusive and accessible to those constrained by age, illness or disability in the physical world.

‘Social Virtual Reality’ (SVR) refers to online spaces, accessed via a VR Headset, where users are able to interact with each other. A number of popular services have popped up in recent years, including VRChat, Rec Room and Meta’s own Horizon Worlds.

The majority of SVR platforms include some form of gameplay, and usually encourage users to generate their own content, from personal avatars to fully customised virtual environments.

“The buzzing world of SVR has the potential to open up a wide array of opportunities for disabled and older people to engage with life and improve its quality,” said project lead Dr Vanja Garaj, Director of Research at Brunel Design School.

“The possible opportunities are vast, ranging from entertainment in general and tackling loneliness, to upskilling through SVR-based training and improving employment prospects. SVR could help people work remotely or gain employment in the Metaverse-based economy in the future.”

The research team, which also includes experts from the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Open Inclusion and Digital Catpult, will look into a range of factors that can limit people’s capabilities in the physical world, including vision and hearing loss, dexterity or mobility problems, and mental health or learning difficulties.

SVR grew significantly during the pandemic, with people seeking out new forms of entertainment after being forced inside and barred from socialising in person.

“The pandemic instigated some original trends, such as the hybrid experiences of a live music show,” said Dr Garaj.

“For example, Travis Scott performed a live gig in Epic Games’ Fortnite, delivering the world premiere of his latest track to the platform’s huge community.”

The project will kick off in July and run until June 2025, with the team aiming to develop an ‘SVR Inclusion Framework,’ which will include a collection of tools and guidance for making the metaverse more accessible to older and disabled users.

Project partner Meta, owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, is the world’s leading VR company, producing the highly popular Meta Quest headset and running their own SVR platform, Horizon Worlds.

“We see Social VR as a significant step towards the “full-blown” Metaverse and Meta is leading the efforts to establish this new global network,” said Dr Garaj.

“Having Meta support the project helped justify the project rational at the proposal stage and we are also looking forward to receiving their valuable feedback as the project unfolds.”

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