CripTech Metaverse Lab Engages Disabled Creators to Prototype the Future of Immersive Technologies | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

CripTech Metaverse Lab Engages Disabled Creators to Prototype the Future of Immersive Technologies

By Vanessa Chang
A banner with a high-contrast background in blue and orange featuring simple abstract 3D shapes, including cubes and an arch. The text 'CripTech Metaverse Lab' is prominently displayed left of center. Three individuals are depicted within circular frames,


July 19, 2023 (San Francisco, CA) Leonardo, a nonprofit enterprising think tank at the nexus of art, science, and technology, and Gray Area, San Francisco’s cultural incubator, and are excited to announce the premiere of three VR artworks exploring accessibility in the metaverse, selected from the inaugural CripTech Metaverse Lab. Artists Indira Allegra, Nat Decker, and Melissa Malzkuhn were chosen to receive $20,000 each in development stipends to create prototypes produced in collaboration with technical and production partners VIVE Arts, VIVERSE (HTC), and New Art City. The artwork prototypes will be unveiled at Gray Area Festival: Plural Prototypes, October 19-22nd, 2023.


Historically, disabled users and creators have been left out of design considerations for emerging technologies. By envisioning new creative pathways for people with disabilities to engage with immersive technologies, the selected projects enrich metaverse social and sensory experience for all. Two of the works will be developed on HTC’s VIVERSE, an immersive platform that empowers poeple to design their own immersive spaces: Malzkuhn's project reimagines the concept of the Deaf Club, a vital part of Deaf culture and storytelling globally, within the digital realm; a living weaving that sings, Allegra's TEXERE will be an immersive platform for collective grief and memorialization. Decker’s TOUCH, produced in collaboration with virtual art space New Art City, will be an interactive poem exploring narratives of the boundaries of physical intimacy and infraction from the perspective of a queer disabled person. 


Lab member Melissa Malzkuhn says: “The concept of a metaverse is so new, that there is no universal definition of it yet; which is what makes it exciting — I left the lab convinced that the best metaverse experience will start with the most marginalized. That is when people truly learn something new. It is beyond VR enabled avatars sitting in a meeting room. It is about world building and shifting the narrative.”


In February 2023, the CripTech Metaverse Lab brought together ten disabled creatives — Panteha Abareshi, India Allegra, Nat Decker, Antoine Hunter, Melissa Malzkuhn, Maia Scott, Stephanie Sheriff, Andy Slater, Jennifer White-Johnson, and Iris Xie — to experience immersive artworks, engage in critical discussions, and create new speculative artworks. This pioneering collaboration addresses accessibility challenges in virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and spatial audio by enabling disabled creators to actively shape the future of immersive technologies. The Lab featured virtual and in-person events, facilitated by disabled usability researchers Jennifer Justice and Frank Mondelli, access doula Claudia Alick, teams from Leonardo/ISAST and Gray Area, and industry partners VIVE Arts, VIVERSE and Meyer Sound. Results of the convenings will be shared through a white paper published in the Leonardo journal, an online research archive, and through programs at the 2023 Gray Area Festival.


Leonardo’s Disability and Access Lead, Lindsey D. Felt, says, “CripTech Metaverse Lab is an experiment in collective creative access. It is thrilling to witness and be in community with creators whose engagements as non-compliant users show us the importance of including everyone in virtual worlds. At this inflection point,we need to hold space for disability knowledge and artistry.”


“At Gray Area we believe artists have a vital role to play in shaping an equitable and regenerative future for society,” said Barry Threw, Gray Area’s Executive and Artistic Director. “Our Access program centers artistic inquiry as a means to help us better understand our present, and envision a more inclusive future; and the CripTech Metaverse Lab demonstrates the power of this approach.”


By reimagining the boundaries of immersive technologies and ensuring diverse representation across a number of experiences, the CripTech Metaverse Lab plays a pivotal role in shaping the future of the metaverse and fostering a more inclusive and equitable society.

About Leonardo

Fearlessly pioneering since 1968, Leonardo serves to convene, research, collaborate, and disseminate best practices at the nexus of arts, science and technology worldwide. Leonardo’s global network of transdisciplinary scholars, artists, scientists, technologists and thinkers experiment with cutting-edge, new approaches, practices, systems and solutions to tackle the most complex challenges facing humanity today. As a not-for-profit 501(c)3 enterprising think tank, Leonardo offers a global platform for creative exploration and collaboration reaching tens of thousands of people across 135 countries. Our flagship publication, Leonardo, the world’s leading scholarly journal on transdisciplinary art, anchors a robust publishing partnership with MIT Press; our partnership with ASU infuses educational innovation with digital art and media for lifelong learning; our creative programs span thought-provoking events, exhibits, residencies and fellowships, scholarship and social enterprise ventures.

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About Gray Area

Gray Area is a San Francisco-based nonprofit cultural incubator. Our mission is to cultivate, sustain, and apply antidisciplinary collaboration — integrating art, technology, science, and the humanities — towards a more sustainable and equitable future. Since our inception in 2008, Gray Area has established itself as a singular hub for critically engaging with technology in the Bay Area, while also reaching a global audience. Through our platform of public events, education, and research programs, we empower a diverse community of creative practitioners with the agency to produce meaningful, category-defying work.


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About VIVE Arts

VIVE Arts harnesses cutting-edge technology to transform the way culture is made, shared, and experienced. Over the past six years, VIVE Arts has pioneered the use of immersive technologies in the art and culture sector, inspiring boundary-pushing artists, creators and leading international institutions to use VR, AR, XR, AI and blockchain for the first time, creating ground-breaking digital artworks and experiences. A leader in the art and technology space, VIVE Arts develops digital innovation projects which preserve the world’s heritage and culture, offering new ways to engage and extend access to wider audiences. 


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VIVERSE is an open and user-centric 3D place that connects people from all walks of life to a boundless virtual world. We strive to empower as many people as possible to explore, work, and play in a safe environment. Every experience is unique, and your transactions and data are secure. VIVERSE provides an array of tools and services for individuals, creators, corporations, and developers to build and explore in this immersive space. 


Visit the VIVERSE website here:

About New Art City

New Art City is an artist-run virtual space with the mission of providing an accessible tool for authoring and experiencing art online. Their browser-based toolkit allows artists to build 3D multiplayer websites without code, and includes a screen reader accessible catalog view in each exhibition. Since 2020, over 5,000 artists have exhibited their work with the toolkit, and these exhibitions have reached over half a million visitors. New Art City’s curation and product design prioritizes those who are disadvantaged by structural injustice. An inclusive and redistributive community is as important to the project as the toolkit itself. 


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About the Artists

For more information about the artist cohort, please visit the CripTech Metaverse Lab website.