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Lots of people are now dreaming about the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One. No longer the domain of science fiction, McKinsey predicts the metaverse will be worth $5 trillion by 2030. The time to make sure inclusion — and not the digital divide — prevails in the metaverse is now, according to those creating the program.
Meta is sponsoring the first training class for Beyond Inclusion at the XR Bootcamp (an online training program), and the partners are encouraged that this could be the beginning of a program that could train 100 applicants a year and eventually much larger numbers. The Games for Change event in New York this week is supporting the initiative as a media partner.
The Beyond Inclusion project is the result of an alliance that includes Meta, the CyberXR Coalition (a diversity and inclusion movement headed by XRSI), and XR Bootcamp. While Meta is funding the pilot project, the group is asking for more sponsors and hiring partners to support the mission of training 100 diverse ready-to-hire metaverse engineers every year.
“Representation matters. We’re committed to reaching a candidate pool that is as broad and diverse as possible, which is why we are proud to support the Beyond Inclusion Scholarship Program,” said Rob Sherman, deputy chief privacy officer at Meta, in a statement. “As companies and organizations build for the metaverse, it’s important that people from underrepresented communities have a seat at the table from the beginning — influencing product strategies, policies and perspective.”
Why it’s necessary
The aim is to create a more inclusive metaverse by removing the financial barriers for aspiring XR professionals, said Kavya Pearlman, CEO of XRSI (XR safety initiative). Meta is providing scholarships for the applicants to go through the training program, which requires a lot of resources.
Pearlman was a hairdresser when she learned that she could study for a career in cybersecurity. She decided to pursue the career, studied for it, and became a cybersecurity officer. But she said she is still paying off the student loans for the costs. That kind of cost can prevent underrepresented minorities from even trying to find careers related to computer science and the metaverse.
In recent years, the immersive technology domain has been experiencing unprecedented growth, and the demand for AR/VR engineers has risen by over 1400%. The big technology companies are competing to secure the best talent. However, not everyone has the opportunity to benefit from the growing opportunities in the XR industry. The inclusion of underrepresented groups in tech industries has stalled.
Black talent only represents 6% of coding bootcampers. It is partly due to Coding Bootcamp tuition rates, ranging from $7,800 to $21,000 annually. The current percentage of Black talent in technical roles represents a mere 0.6% increase since 2018 — less than a percentage point after years of publicly touted investment in diversity and inclusion.
Automation, income inequality, and lack of access to wealth creation through investment and entrepreneurship negatively impact marginalized communities, the coalition said. While these challenges go way beyond access to education, one of the solutions to ensuring equal representation is eliminating financial barriers to education, especially where this representation is particularly low.
“If something like this program existed in 2012, I wouldn’t have all these student loans,” Pearlman said. “I had this idea that we need to create this equitable model where people don’t have to take tons of loans to be able to become XR creators, engineers, etc. I discussed this with Noble (Ackerson), who is leading the charge on diversity and inclusion. And together, we started to knock at a few companies doors to ask, ‘Hey, who will fund this idea?'”
They found success with Meta, which has been criticized for its lack of diversity, and created a core team to set up a program.
“It is natural that they took to it and I’m really appreciative that they did because it now gives us the foundation to educate 100 people each year, which is our aspirational goal,” Pearlman said.
“To create fair and equal work opportunities, we need to eliminate financial barriers to entry in immersive technologies and provide equitable measures like fully funded scholarships,” Pearlman said. “We need corporations to fulfill their social responsibility and collectively go beyond just inclusion by committing to increase the representation of underrepresented identity groups. This benefits not just the marginalized community but the entire technology ecosystem.”
And that is what the CyberXR Coalition and others involved recognize as a barrier for more diversity and inclusion in the metaverse. The coalition wants to raise enough funds to enable a minimum of 100 applicants every year to join the XR industry workforce.
Ackerson, president of the CyberXR Coalition, said that when he was pitching a startup in 2014, the venture capitalists would respond that he wasn’t ready for VC money yet, and he should raise a friends and family round.
“I’m looking around me and, financially, I don’t have family that has $25,000 to give me for an idea,” Ackerson said. “That’s intrinsically challenging. There are other challenges, like networks that are open and inclusive.”
A collaborative effort
This collaborative effort with XR Bootcamp will create a beginner and experienced level talent pipeline, allowing employers to select from a diverse pool of talented XR professionals. The metaverse is expected to have its roots in augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) and gaming, and that is where the training will happen, said Ferhan Ozkan, cofounder of XR Bootcamp, in an interview.
Of course, Pearlman believes that this isn’t a one-way street where companies do good out of the kindness of their hearts. They also benefit from having more diverse perspectives that reflect the people that they’re creating products for. And so companies should look at XR Bootcamp as an investment.
“The thing that we are really wishing that we can talk about is how we can make it 1,000 people or 10,000 people trained per year,” Ozkan said.
To do that, it would probably take other big companies to step up and join the effort, like Apple, Google, Qualcomm, Intel, and numerous other big tech companies.
Ackerson said, “this is personal to me, and I am proud to lead this effort. All my life, I’ve been dealing with visible and invisible inequalities. Now that we are creating a new technological domain, I can’t stress enough the need for diverse voices and inclusive solutions to ensure that we get the outcomes that speak to our values. We can do better together.”
Ackerson said that he hopes corporate sponsors will step up to support skill-to-job ready educational programs for underrepresented talents.
Ackerson said he is West African by heritage but not birth. And he had heard stories of Ghanaian history and an inspirational character known as the Woman King. In 2016, Ackerson participated in a game jam he decided to bring this story to VR. To do that, he realized he need a lot more XR training. But he didn’t find the resources and released a less-than-hoped-for app instead.
“There was no real structure for this. The motivation behind me was not to be the next game studio. Absolutely not. At the time, I had a a one year old and I was thinking that I come from a family of storytellers. West Africans are storytellers,” Ackerson said. “What if I could bring in immersive storytelling with this through VR and or AR? I did not have the funding or the network. I left XR because it was too nascent. There is a lot of talent, but there is a lack of training.”
How the program works
Rahel Demant, XR Bootcamp cofounder, said the first cohort will train for four months. The program has a monetary value of about $7,000. When they complete the program, they will have a portfolio with a finished project to show potential employers.
The trainees have to commit about 25 hours a week of time, Ozkan said. The trainees complete assignments that steep them in the latest tech, including the Unity game engine. It’s not a replacement for college degrees, but it recognizes that not everybody has the time or money to go back to college to get an expensive degree, Ozkan said.
“Through the scholarship, we literally want to make it completely accessible for those who are wanting to do this,” Ozkan said.
School curricula tend to change slowly, but the requirements that companies need from their employees are changing rapidly.
“What I love about the XR programs is they are super agile,” Pearlman said.
Demant said XR Bootcamp has already been training hundreds of people in XR programs, but the candidates who come to the training via corporate training budgets aren’t as diverse as what the industry needs. This program represents a chance to make the metaverse more inclusive by training students and getting them jobs by the time they finish the program.
“It’s a beginner level, but it’s demanding. We are helping them but we want them to fail fast so that they can upskill faster. But while they are failing fast, of course, we are really helping them so it’s all in a safe and supervised environment,” Ozkan said. “Maybe it’s the most difficult path, but we have positioned ourselves for the last two years where we will not feel successful if we don’t graduate them and place them. There are other initiatives to upskill in terms of XR. But I haven’t seen any that have a direct focus on job placement.”
Of course, no one really knows what the metaverse will be yet, or even how to define it. But it’s clear it will be the convergence of many different technologies, and training people in those technologies is the stepping stone to getting them jobs, Pearlman said.
“All of this creator power is going to be unleashed and the impact is exponential,” Pearlman said. “When that explosion happens, we want to be ready. So it’s not going to be the digital divide is amplified.”
For sponsorship inquiries, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The CyberXR Coalition is a diversity & inclusion effort headed by XRSI. The coalition was formed in the year 2020 to address the global necessity of diversity, equity and inclusion in the cybersecurity and XR domain. The main goal of the coalition is to address social and technical biases in emerging technologies that foster a sense of belonging for all.
XR Bootcamp is a global online academy, offering skill-to-job beginner and advanced XR development courses. Curricula are developed and taught by award-winning VR, AR and mixed reality (MR) professionals. XR Bootcamp’s courses are for designers, game developers, managers and coders who want to learn how to prototype XR Applications and learn AR, VR, and MR development.
XR Safety Initiative (XRSI) is a 501(c)(3) global non-profit that promotes privacy, security, and ethics in immersive environments. XRSI’s mission is “to help build safe and inclusive immersive ecosystems” by discovering “novel cybersecurity, privacy, and ethical risks and proposing potential solutions to mitigate them.”
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