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by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News

Listen to “A virtual conference tackles metaverse safety issues” on Spreaker.
Larry Magid speaks with XRSI founder Kavya Pearlman (1-minute)

I’m writing from Washington, D.C.,  where I gave two speeches on Tuesday. One was at an event center downtown, and the other in AltSpaceVR. That second venue isn’t a physical place but a virtual one that bills itself as “the leading platform for live, virtual events, empowering artists, brands, and businesses to easily design meaningful experiences that foster community and connection.”

I’m new to AltSpace, but I had to learn it in order to give a keynote address during Metaverse Safety Week, sponsored by the X Reality Safety Initiative, or XRSI, a nonprofit, founded in 2019 to promote “privacy, safety, security, and ethics in immersive environments.”

The organization’s goals are in concert with my nonprofit, ConnectSafely, which has been working since 2015 to promote those same goals on social media and other connected technologies.  Although VR wasn’t on our minds when I co-founded the organization, we, too, are working on metaverse safety through our partnerships with Meta, Roblox and Zepeto.

Larry Magid’s avatar speaking at Metaverse Safety Week conference

Mark Zuckerberg has gone all-in on the metaverse, going so far as to change the name of the company he leads from Facebook to Meta.  I’m not that bullish, but I do think that what we are learning from relatively early experiments in virtual and augmented reality will contribute to a fundamental change in the way we access information, explore the world, learn, work and interact with each other. What emerges likely won’t look a lot like what we see today, such as having to wear bulky and relatively expensive headsets. My guess is that mainstream products will look a lot more like eye glasses at first and then morph into even less intrusive devices like contact lenses. Already, we’re seeing some early examples of less intrusive extended reality eye wear like Google Glass Enterprise, Spectacles by Snap (Snapchat) and Ray-Ban Stories, which are the product of a partnership between Ray-Ban and Meta.

Like a lot of other VR users, I’ve had my challenges with uncomfortable headsets and minor nausea and headaches. The new Quest Pro, which Meta provided to me, goes a long way toward solving those problems. It fits nicely over my glasses, the screen resolution is much higher, and it’s able to show facial expressions, which make your avatar look more natural to those who see you.  It’s the first VR headset I’ve used that is comfortable enough to work in, whether attending meetings or collaborating on documents.

Meta priced the Quest Pro at $1,500, compared with $350 for the Quest 2. Right now, the Pro is aimed at professionals, including developers creating metaverse content, whose professional work justifies the price tag. Obviously, most consumers won’t want to spend that much for a VR headset, but I’m quite sure that Meta and other companies are working on much less expensive headsets that will be as good or better than the Quest Pro. Apple is rumored to be working on a VR/AR (mixed reality) headset that could come out as early as 2023, though I don’t know what it will cost.

Working vs. playing

For many people, gaming is a big draw for VR. I’m not much of a gamer, but I can appreciate the immersive experiences you get by playing within a virtual world where you can see your surroundings, teammates and opponents in 3-D. Depending on the game, you can also take on super powers such as the ability to fly or teleport from one location to another.

Although I’m not a gamer, I am a social animal and a knowledge worker, so I have been attracted to VR apps like Meta’s Horizon Worlds, VRChat and AltSpace VR, which let you interact with other people or attend events including concerts and meetings. My experience in Horizon Worlds consisted mainly of hanging out in a plaza and chatting with fellow avatars, but I did attend a Taylor Swift concert where I was able to sneak onto the stage to see the performers up close without being booted by security as would happen if I tried that at an in-person concert. Although not as compelling as the real thing, I did enjoy the opportunity to view the concert from so many angles.

My most satisfying experiences, so far, have been work oriented. In preparation for my talk at XRSI, I was given a tour of AltSpace VR by XRSI founder Kavya Pearlman, who met me in the auditorium where I spoke.

At first, speaking with Pearlman’s avatar felt a little awkward, but after a few minutes, I almost forgot I was in VR and just focused on the conversation. As it should, the technology and even the room soon faded into the background allowing me to focus on what she had to say.

Even though she, like all avatars, looked like a cartoon character, she was speaking in her real voice about things that were important to me. Even though I knew it was just an avatar – crafted to look something like her real image — I found myself looking at her as she spoke, just as if we were in the same room and in ways that were deeper than if she and I were just in a two-dimensional Zoom meeting. I can’t quite figure out why, but the 3-dimensional experience did make it more compelling.

Need to be “proactive”

Pearlman told me that XRSI’s mission is to be proactive “because we’re talking about remarkably powerful artificial intelligence — superpowers like virtual reality, augmented reality, literally changing our perception of what is real.”  Now VR allows you to avoid typing and just talk with each other, but eventually, Pearlman predicted, you’ll be able to “think about something that gets translated into text and that is realized through XR.”

XR stands for “extended reality,” which includes VR, AR (augmented reality) and other immersive technologies that may emerge in the future.

Pearlman is bullish about XR but not blind to its dangers. “This can be a very powerful weapon, which means we can now manipulate societies, manipulate individuals. We literally have to inform children to say’ hey, what you’re seeing is not real.’”

I agree with her concerns. We are already dealing with an epidemic of misinformation with too many people naively believing what they see on social media without vetting the source. In extended reality, we’ll hear from a lot of “experts” who not only appear to know what they’re talking about but are able to be charismatic  — just the way some demagogues do today — to hook you in emotionally in some very compelling ways.

I also worry about how the immersive nature of the technology will amplify the impact of cyberbullying, time management and advertising that could be so immersive that you don’t even know it’s there.

But, despite my concerns, I am hopeful that, with the help of organizations like XRSI, this time we’ll get it right. With every new technology paradigm shift, there are new winners and losers and new opportunities to get things right and wrong.  Now, it’s time to apply the lessons of “web 1.0 and web 2.0” to what is being built.

As per my talk, I think it went well, but due to the still primitive nature of the technology, I’m not quite sure, because I couldn’t see the expression on the avatar’s faces.

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