In 1992, American author Neal Stephenson published his breakthrough novel Snow Crash which became an immediate pop culture sensation. The fictional narrative follows a brilliant hacker named Hiro as he travels back and forth from a real-life dystopian Los Angeles to a parallel online virtual world that allows him to escape the dreariness of his reality. But it’s probably not the storyline or the character development that will stand the test of time. What is very likely to endure, however, is the word that Stephenson coined to name his virtual reality world. He called it the “metaverse”.
It is the first known reference to what today is considered a common word to describe a three-dimensional virtual world where people can interact with each other as well as with computer-generated characters.
In very simplistic terms, the metaverse is a computer-generated universe. In a more scholarly characterisation, the metaverse is “an interconnected web of social, networked immersive environments in persistent multiuser platforms. It enables seamless embodied user communication in real-time and dynamic interactions with digital artefacts.” It is a simulated environment that allows you to – among other things – play games with friends, collaborate with colleagues, meet new people, give and receive gifts, attend events, and even invest using a specialised virtual currency. It is, in essence, a surrogate form of existence.[adthrive-in-post-video-player video-id=”pZEK4Vii” upload-date=”2023-01-07T09:05:02.000Z” name=”Eurasia Conference_ Mental Health Blogging as an Intervention.mp4″ description=”” player-type=”default” override-embed=”default”]
And while the metaverse is conceptually designed to be a place of productivity, engagement and prosperity, just as with all forms of social technology, there are both costs (cellular networks and apps, for example) and risks (such as harassment, privacy, and security) associated with it. So, one of the most pressing questions – as it relates to the future of the metaverse – is how to assure that it is affordable, open, and safe.
A 2022 paper offered an overview of the main challenges that the metaverse will face regarding privacy, governance, and ethical dilemmas. It also identifies current trends and approaches that current online worlds are implementing in their solutions to a more sustainable and safe metaverse. The recommendations the researchers proposed include allowing users to control the privacy settings of their individual experience, implementing tools to deal with players’ misbehaviours and strategies for encouraging positive behaviours. Central to this premise is the development of software code in such a way that it shapes online environments and the behaviour of users.
Many tech firms are committed to building and maintaining an ethical metaverse and are proactively conceiving approaches to prohibit the worst aspects of humanity that somehow always seem to troll their way into any virtual environment. The Oasis Consortium, founded by Tiffany Xingyu Wang in 2020, envisions a metaverse where consumers can engage free from online hate and toxicity. The Consortium, consisting of game firms and online companies that include influential powerhouses such as SiriusXM, Pandora, Grindr and Salesforce, has already developed a set of standards designed to help other organisations focus on user safety during the developmental process.
One of the most vital ethical considerations is the issue of identity fraud and theft because they pose a major risk in the metaverse. There is a serious need to protect users’ digital identities. Theft and fraud are already major problems on the internet, and the metaverse will contain far more personal information than our Google accounts. Aside from credit card and bank account details, Meta was reportedly gathering biometric data, including users’ pupil movements and body poses, to create their avatars and hyper-targeted advertisements. Along with strong passwords, multi-factor authentication, advanced firewalls, and advanced threat detection technologies, we will need to implement visibility and analysis throughout the fabric of the metaverse to detect anomalies, uncover illicit activities, and maintain safe and positive experiences for all. Data will have to be encrypted and password-protected at all times, whether it is in transit or at rest.
Ensuring that financial data will be protected is critical because, in reality, a metaverse is an advanced form of the next-generation internet and, exactly like this generation’s internet, it will not be entirely free. Because this is a technology that is still very much in its infancy, it is difficult to accurately predict how much it will cost. Obviously, there will be costs associated with the hardware required to access the virtual worlds (such as headsets and controllers), but from that point on, there’s no reason that it has to be any more expensive than the modern internet is today.
Today, however, the cost to enter the metaverse is prohibitive. A survey conducted in March 2022 revealed that 46% of respondents indicated that cost was a “major reason” for not owning a virtual reality headset. So major metaverse players such as Meta, Apple, and Microsoft are investing billions of dollars in an attempt to create breakthrough technologies that will help keep the cost of participating affordable to more end users.
While a safe, secure, and accessible virtual environment should eventually be achievable, it is clear that most parents question if that is the case today. A survey conducted by Wunderman Thompson in April of this year indicated that 72% of parents who are familiar with the metaverse are worried about their children’s privacy in the metaverse, and 66% are worried about their kids’ safety. It is clear that developmental algorithms and design models need to consider mechanisms that reward and incentivise positive behaviour and community-building. And assessments of pre-released versions need to include far-reaching and diverse voices that prioritise the security of the experience over profits.
Clearly, the future of the metaverse is impossible to predict with any level of certainty. It is not a stretch, however, to suggest that this evolving interactive virtual space will become an increasingly important part of our lives in the years to come. And it has the potential to revolutionise the way we network with each other – provided, of course, we prioritise the critical aspects of advancement.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.