Metaverse: What’s the Risk?

You've probably heard the term "metaverse," which is being embraced by numerous tech companies. The company formerly known as Facebook…

Jan 20, 2022

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by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News

You’ve probably heard the term “metaverse,” which is being embraced by numerous tech companies. The company formerly known as Facebook is so committed to the idea, that it’s renamed itself “Meta” to symbolize its deep dive into this new online world.

There is no simple definition of metaverse, but the term dates back to the 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, which, among other things, featured virtual real estate.

In its simplest form, metaverse stands for virtual and augmented reality (sometimes combined under the term “extended reality.”) Even before its name change, Facebook staked a claim in that world by acquiring Oculus, which builds VR headsets. Meta now has a division called Reality Labs, with devices like VR headsets, smart glasses and, is eventually expected to offer augmented reality glasses.

But metaverse has other implications, including the ability to be represented by one or more avatars that can appear across platforms. Just like the regular you can go to Starbucks one day, McDonalds the next and a fancy bistro the third, your avatar may someday be able to travel from a game operated by one company to a social event hosted by another.

Metaverse is also about commerce, and some have tied it into crypto currencies like bitcoin. That manufactured avatar — which is not really a person but can act like one — may someday have a wallet full of crypto, which isn’t really money, but functions like it. That avatar can not only spend that money but might be able to earn it by providing goods and services inside the metaverse. And, just like you can drive the same car or wear the same clothes to different venues, avatars in the metaverse may be able to take their digital goods with them as they travel from platform to platform.

Partially exists now

Some elements of the metaverse are already here. Since 2003, Second Life has allowed users to create avatars to play games, attend meetings, conduct business, and even buy and sell virtual real estate. It was taken very seriously by large and small companies like IBM, Reuters, NPR and others who had real estate, training venues and other presence in this virtual platform.

Clearly products like Meta’s Oculus VR headsets, Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality goggles and other VR and AR products are early examples of metaverse products, albeit without some of the elements metaverse advocates want to see included as the metaverse unfolds.

Gaming platforms are also early examples of what can happen in the metaverse and the increased interest in the metaverse is likely among the reasons Microsoft, this week, paid $69 billion to acquire Activision Blizzard gaming company. Roblox, a platform that enables independent developers to create interactive games enjoyed by millions of children and a growing number of adults has long been enabling players and creators to create avatars that can hang out, interact, and exchange currency (Robux) with other players in virtual worlds.

Another metaverse-like product is Pokémon Go, a popular augmented reality game platform that enables people to interact with computer generated images superimposed against the real world through their smartphone’s camera.

Arguably, anyone who uses Zoom or other video conference tools is tipping their toes into the metaverse. While such products rarely involve avatars, they do enable virtual meetings and optional computer-generated backgrounds. I’ve been to numerous meetings with people who are sitting at home but appear to be in some exotic location — sometimes using filters to change their appearance or even their species. Filters are also part of social media apps including Instagram and Snapchat, which enable people to change the way they look to the world. Snapchat and Instagram are not (yet) the metaverse, but they’re a step in that direction.

Where it could be going

How the metaverse evolves is still somewhat unknown, but we do know that some very large companies will spend billions rolling out their own ideas of what it will look like. Apple — the world’s largest company in terms of market value — is said to be working on augmented reality glasses that will put it squarely in the metaverse. The company already has augmented reality tools for its iPhone and other products I’ve already mentioned Microsoft, the second most valuable tech company, with its early development of the HoloLens AR glasses, its X-Box gaming platform and, now, its acquisition of Activision Blizzard.

Google hasn’t talked a lot about the metaverse, but it was one of the first companies to launch AR glasses, and even though Google’s Glass so far hasn’t become a consumer product, there is an enterprise version that Google is promoting for business use just as Microsoft has — so far — promoted its HoloLens products for enterprises rather than consumers.

Snapchat was early with its Spectacles wearable camera, and its newest model has augmented reality functions. Although I don’t have any inside information on this, I do expect the company to fully integrate the product into its Snapchat service just as Meta will ultimately intergrade its headsets into Instagram, Facebook and other social media properties.

Concerns and hopes

The integration of the metaverse into social media means a further blurring of the lines between reality and alternative realities. In some ways, which could be good. People can explore alternate views of themselves, experimenting with gender, physical abilities and powers that are beyond those of mortal humans. But I must admit it’s a little scary right now given how an increasing number of people are living in alternate realities when it comes to the real world around them — like who won an election and other conspiracy theories. I do worry about how AR and VR could be used by extremists and bigots to normalize what has previously been marginal ideas and behaviors.

As someone whose been working in the world of internet safety since 1994, I can easily imagine all sorts of harm that can come from VR, AR, crypto and other aspects of the metaverse, which is one of the reasons ConnectSafely, the nonprofit I head up, is working on ways to mitigate potential harms, including developing guides and other materials to advise parents and others on how to safely use current and future products. We’re also using whatever influence we might have on Meta, Google, Snap, Roblox and other companies we work with to get them to build safety, security, and privacy into their products.

Just as the internet created challenges for safety, privacy and security, the metaverse will add even more challenges. Safety experts worry about stalking, bullying and uncivil behavior in virtual or mixed reality worlds. The metaverse could provide forums for misinformation and manipulation. There will of course be advertising, and as Brittan Heller and Avi Bar-Zeev wrote in The Problems with Immersive Advertising: In AR/VR, Nobody Knows You Are an Ad for the inaugural issue of the Journal of Online Trust and Safety, “Imagine five years from now, you’re walking down a street wearing your own mixed reality glasses… A virtual car drives by — it’s no coincidence that it’s the exact model you’ve been saving for.” Without regulations to prevent it, advertising in the metaverse could make today’s TV and movie product placement seem as ancient as grainy old black and white silent movies.

While I don’t know exactly where it’s going, I do know that the metaverse represents a paradigm shift every bit as powerful as the emergence of the World Wide Web in the 1990s and social media in the early 2000s. The optimist and activist in me says that maybe we can get it right time by building a metaverse that doesn’t have the problems associated with the internet as we now know it, but that will only happen if everyone — industry, governments, advocacy organizations and end-users — all do our part.


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