The Metaverse: could virtual paradise become a nightmare reality?

There’s a risk that - without proper controls - the digital phenomenon of the Metaverse will facilitate deep-rooted problems far worse than those created by social media. Alexandra Leonards looks at the potential threats and gains of an augmented world.

Society has been catapulted into a new digital age – with some experts saying the world is a decade ahead of where it would have been if the pandemic had never happened.

With growing reliance on technology for everything from work to socialising and shopping, it should be no surprise that global tech giants – Facebook, Google, TikTok, Microsoft, and Apple – have decided we’re ready for the next technological leap into a parallel, digital universe in which people exist, interact, game, chat and shop as ‘avatars’ or digital versions of themselves.

But as we make strides into the Metaverse, some are warning that – much like the advent of social media – augmented and virtual reality are developing faster than our understanding of – and preparation for – its consequences for wider society.

Why do we need the Metaverse?

Ken Kutaragi, the inventor of the PlayStation, recently told Bloomberg News that he “couldn’t see the point” of the Metaverse.

“You would rather be a polished avatar instead of your real self?” he asked. “That’s essentially no different from anonymous messageboard sites.”

Some would argue that the so-called “father of the PlayStation” was right, but there are plenty that say the Metaverse will be much more than a polished version of day-to-day life.

“Reading an e-book sitting on the shore of the lake at sunset surrounded by nature is a wonderful experience, but doing that floating in space with stars dying and being born again all around you is why the Metaverse has a reason to exist,” says Roberto Schiavulli, head of games and interactive experiences at Dark Slope Studios.

According to him, the point of the digital phenomenon is not to recreate what we already have but instead to break the barriers of physics, building new digital environments that people want to spend time in. The studio he works at, for example, has developed a new form of reality TV that uses game-engine workflows, game mechanics, and motion capture technologies to transport participants between real and virtual worlds to explore relationships, navigate adventures, and perform challenges.

What will the Metaverse be like?

It’s worth pointing out that there are two very different versions of the Metaverse in development. One is totally immersive – an avatar-based virtual reality with similar features to some of the digital formats people are already using, like virtual concerts or gaming, but delivered in a much more unified and expansive way.

The other form uses augmented reality to build layers into the real world – perhaps by using holograms or smart glasses. We’ve seen this at play on a small scale with the Pokémon Go gaming phenomenon, in which players search for the cartoon characters in real world locations such as parks and tourist attractions via their smartphones.

“The augmented Metaverse absolutely will transform society,” says Louis Rosenberg, chief scientist and CEO of Unanimous AI, a company pioneering algorithms modelled on the biological principle of ‘swarm intelligence’. “In fact, by the end of this decade, it will be very clear that today's ecosystem of phones and desktops will be overtaken by augmented reality hardware for accessing the augmented Metaverse.”

Rosenberg believes that people will come to view the augmented Metaverse the way they do the GPS in their car, internet access, or mobile phones.

“You didn't know you needed it, but once you start to rely upon it, you feel like it is essential,” he explains.

The chief exec predicts that while the virtual Metaverse will be popular, it won’t change society as significantly as the augmented version. He says that while there will be a variety of providers, because there is only one “real world”, augmented society will be more cohesive, with the public seeing it as a single Metaverse experienced with different layers of content.

This enhanced world has the potential to impact everything we do – from how we shop, socialise, and work, to how we access education and entertainment. By 2030, says Rosenberg, the augmented Metaverse will start to rival the existing infrastructure of phones and desktops as the primary means by which we access digital content.

Fred Langford, director of online technology at Ofcom, gives an example of how augmented reality might be used in the future.

“Imagine walking down the street being made aware of particular buildings, the history of them, and being able to bring things to life,” he says. “You could overlay buildings with what they looked like 200 years ago.”

Dr Ian Hughes, animation and games SG chair at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT – who also goes by his online handle and pen name Epredator – helped integrate thousands of IBM employees into virtual worlds, where they hosted meetings on platforms like Second Life, as early as 2006.

He says that the concept of the Metaverse will move existing digital interactions from flat documents, webpages, and photos into spatial ones that are more in keeping with how we have “evolved” to experience the physical world.

“Looking at a photo of a place is very different to being in that place with other people, if you can’t be there the Metaverse will deliver that experience,” adds Hughes.

Emily Safian-Demers, editor at Wunderman Thompson Intelligence – which recently published a report exploring the ins and outs of the Metaverse – agreed that the phenomenon will allow for more immersive, organic, and intuitive digital engagement.

The research says that as well as being social and decentralised, the Metaverse will be reactive, meaning the environment and people inhabiting it will respond in real-time; persistent – it’ll be a place of perpetual and continuous existence where life continues whether or not people are online; interoperable, it won’t be tied to any one platform; and limitless – there’ll be no cap on the number of users or worlds.

“The Metaverse will look and feel more like the physical, 3D world, making it easier and more natural for people to navigate than clunky e-commerce sites and infinite-scroll grids,” adds Safian-Demers.

If the past 18 months have been anything to go by, the Metaverse is likely to be an important trend for consumer-facing sectors like retail in the coming years.

“For industries such as retail, even before the onset of the pandemic, traditional brick-and-mortar stores were under pressure to stay competitive in a market increasingly dominated by e-commerce,” says James Morris-Manuel, EMEA managing director of 3D space capture company Matterport. “Using digital twin technology, retail businesses can now remodel and reshape hundreds of stores remotely.”

Consumers can already use digital twin tech to virtually try on clothes, check out a new shop before it opens, or visualise whether new furniture fits in their homes before buying.

This kind of technology also grew popular in the property sector when lockdowns prevented buyers from touring properties in person. Meanwhile, museums shifted online to produce virtual replicas of historical sites, and some music concerts even went digital.

While elements of virtual and augmented reality are already a part of many peoples’ lives, society is still at a distance from this idea of a unified, persistent, and immersive simulated world.

“We’ve got a lot of technical advancements that need to be made before the vision of the film Ready Player One [comes to life],” says Fred Langford, at the UK’s digital and media regulator Ofcom. “What we’re sort of waiting for is some of those killer apps that really get everyone wanting to [get involved with] augmented reality.”

Langford also points out that in order to be adopted on a widespread scale, the hardware and devices used to access it must be able to support activities in the Metaverse and brought down to a cost that is affordable for most people.

Will the Metaverse be safe?

When Facebook, one of most recognised brands in the world, controversially ditched its name to reflect its move into the Metaverse, rebranding as Meta, the company was careful to mention safety as one of its top priorities.

“Privacy and safety need to be built into the Metaverse from day one,” wrote Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg in October.

But in January, it was reported that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) had questioned the company about its parental controls for its Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headsets.

The news came a month after the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) warned that the Metaverse is “not safe for kids”, claiming that Meta’s VR Chat is already “rife with abuse, harassment, racism, and pornographic content”.

“When Facebook launched the Metaverse for Oculus just in time for Christmas shopping, its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, pledged that privacy and safety is at the heart of Virtual Reality,” said Imran Ahmed, CCDH chief executive in December. “But our researchers discovered that, contrary to his promises, [the] Metaverse is a haven for hate, pornography, and child grooming.”

Ahmed even went as far as to say that any parent that had bought a headset for their kids should be aware they could be exposing them to “serious danger”.
It is concerning that even before the Metaverse has really set sail, there are already issues being flagged about the technologies behind it.

While Ofcom is largely optimistic about the Metaverse and its benefits, the organisation’s director of online technology does point out some possible safety issues with the augmented Metaverse.

“We know that there’s ‘nudifying’ software around, so how do we know if someone is walking down the street nudifying every person they are looking at in live time, that’s a worrying prospect,” he says. “Could it mean people would post potentially illegal or harmful material on the street – just as someone catches it in their line of sight?”

A polarised society

Unanimous AI CEO Louis Rosenberg has been outspoken on his concerns about the Metaverse, writing several articles recently that warn of the potential consequences of a vast shift to augmented reality. He’s most concerned about the potential loss of a “shared reality”.

“Social media has radically changed how people consume information, many of us now living in our own information bubbles, with curated news that match our own personal views and biases,” he says. “At least we can still have authentic real-world experiences in public spaces that offer some level of common ground.

“But the Metaverse, especially with augmented reality, will take away this last bastion of universally shared experience.”

He fears a world in which people walk down a street teeming with virtual content that simply reinforces personal views and biases, making people believe everyone in the community thinks the way they do.

On the other hand, he says, walking down the same street, they might see vastly different content, promoting opposite views and values that make users believe opposite things about the same citizens. This could push people from their own information bubbles into their own custom realities, explains Rosenberg, polarising society more than social media ever could.

The ultimate platform for misinformation

Misleading representations of society – like those already seen in chat rooms and across social media – could also take place in virtual worlds, and even be designed with this motive in mind.

“But in a virtual Metaverse that supports extreme views, everything will seem even more real,” warns Rosenberg. “After all, the whole point of a Metaverse is to fool your senses, making you think virtual illusions are real.

“This will make the metaverse the ultimate platform for misinformation.”

It may also become much harder to tell the difference between real people and simulations. This could lead to the development of computer-generated avatars driven by algorithms -bots in human form- that are created to push a certain agenda.

“These ‘agenda-driven artificial agents’ will look and act like other users and will engage us in ‘conversational manipulation,’ targeting us on behalf of paying advertisers without us realising they aren’t real,” he says. “This is especially dangerous when the AI algorithms have access to data about our personal interests and beliefs, habits and temperament, all while monitoring our emotional state by reading our facial expressions and vocal inflections.

“If you think targeted ads in social media are manipulative, that's nothing compared to the conversational agents that will engage us in the Metaverse.”

Regulating the Metaverse

Ofcom executive Fred Langford says that to address some of these potential issues, it’s important for regulators like Ofcom to develop guidance that can differentiate between what is and isn’t acceptable in the Metaverse.

“Let's not stop your innovation, but we will intervene if you go outside of those acceptable parameters just for the sake of it,” says Langford.

He explains that there will likely be areas that are riskier than others, so it will be important to identify what those risks are and mitigate them as much as possible.

“But you do need regulation in place to be able to do that and I'd say that’s why I'm quite a fan of the Online Safety Bill, because it looks at the systems and processes rather than diving in straight on particular pieces of technology, and I think that's what’s needed for when new tech comes on board,” he adds. “Otherwise, you're designing a regime that fits today and by the time it's in, the tech has moved on and it's not applicable.

“There needs to be some redress so if it does get out of hand, you’re not just shrugging your shoulders, which is effectively what people have been doing for years.”

While the new Bill could mark a step in the right direction, last month a report by MPs claimed that the draft legislation would fail to prevent the sharing of the most “insidious” images of child abuse and violence against women and girls.

The document – published by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee – said that law is “neither clear not robust enough to tackle certain types of illegal and harmful content on user-to-user and search services”. With these issues already being flagged, whether the Online Safety Bill will be sturdy enough to address some of the new challenges the Metaverse is likely to bring, is up for debate.

Dr Ian Hughes, from BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, puts the onus on users themselves to ensure safety in the Metaverse.

“As we evolve our awareness of digital interactions, we can create more robust ways to protect ourselves, if you consider representing yourself or who you want to be in a virtual world, people who know you and how you act, move, speak, where you hang out and so on will be more sensitive to someone trying to be you, whereas today a copied photo and a name on a website can fool people,” he says. “Unique ownership and proof of provenance of digital goods, presence and any form of content may also help.

“However, it is our responsibility to one another, not the technology that we should rely on.”

Louis Rosenberg believes there is still time to get things right in the construction of the Metaverse – both virtual and augmented.

“It will likely require a combination of industry self-regulation and government-imposed regulation to ensure consumers are protected from damaging impacts that are even worse than we have seen from social media,” he says.

Roberto Schiavulli from Dark Slope Studios agrees that regulation is important moving forward.

“While we strive to create worlds that benefit players, social media proved that systems and businesses can hardly self-regulate themselves, we will need to rely on governments and external organisations so that we can provide a safe and fair place for all the users,” says Schiavulli. “We want to collaborate with all parties to achieve that.”

While the development and adoption of Metaverse technologies are in their early stages, tech companies have the opportunity to build in protections, rules, and safety from the very beginning, identifying possible risks before they escalate – a strategy the industry has largely failed to roll out for other digital technologies like social media. Governments and regulators, which also have a responsibility, must act swiftly to manage or even stop the unwanted impacts of the Metaverse before they get out of hand.

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