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Considerations for meaningful metaverses: cornerstones of success

Immersive technologies of all varieties are enabling new computing environments that will affect the fabric of emerging commercial and societal landscapes. Crucial considerations will play a role

At South by Southwest (SXSW) in March 2023, a select group of experts discussed the prospects of immersive technologies – specifically augmented and virtual realities (AR and VR), together extended realities (XR) – looking how they could be a driver for future societies.

They identified and discussed privacy, persistency, data interoperability and portability, content availability, purpose and authenticity, and equality and equity as important considerations to use these technologies in meaningful ways to create successful and lasting metaverse applications.

As social media has resulted in problematic privacy issues, new environments will no longer have the luxury to ignore the topic. XR headsets necessarily require sensors to measure many user metrics to enable immersive experiences, most obviously to identify movement and where users are looking. But the ability to measure a wide range of user information also establishes very problematic privacy issues, creating legislative challenges to ensuring responsible use of XR-related opportunities.

Jussi Mäkinen with Varjo, a manufacturer of advanced headsets and software solutions, highlights these concerns. With VR headsets one can track the eye movement, noting exactly what users are looking at and even measure the intensity of their gaze. Such measurements are needed to render images and to allow effective movement in virtual worlds. But such analytics can also identify the sexual orientation of users, for instance, based on their gaze and how they are looking at people. For regulators, data ownership and data-use considerations will become an issue.

Commercially valuable applications abound and therefore privacy issues will proliferate. Eye tracking can note what users are looking at and related analytics can identify how excited or aroused users are – the connection to measuring brand engagement and product interest, for example, is obvious. Corporations then will try to leverage such data directly or sell such data to third parties. Therefore, the development of legislative frameworks will be necessary to regulate what type of information is permissible to capture, how data can be collected, and when information can be used for what purposes.

Another crucial aspect is persistency of metaverse environments. Mäkinen sees it as the crucial requirement to allow such environments to be shared with and among people. Simply put, an environment that isn’t always on and available won’t establish reliable applications that users will want to engage with.

Anssi Komulainen, director at Gaia-X Finland, a European initiative to develop a framework for digital governance for cloud and edge technology solutions, suggests that immersion doesn’t really require particular technologies, because immersion can happen in the imagination of the user. More important was persistency; metaverse-related environments and worlds need to continue so that virtual representations can emerge successfully and gain relevance.

Nokia head of trend and innovation scouting Leslie Shannon – author of Interconnected realities: how the metaverse will transform our relationship to technology forever – stressed that persistency is a crucial requirement for the success of metaverse platforms.

Komulainen forecasts that more and more people will use an increasing number of virtual environments and services, making data interoperability and portability more important. He wonders how regulators and companies could ensure that data interoperability will prevail so that users will not get locked into one platform. Data portability will play a role so that users can take their avatars and virtual objects from one metaverse to another without drastic changes in look and capabilities.

Komulainen warns that if policy makers don’t act early enough, an anti-competitive environment for metaverse applications might take roots, and implementing regulations then could become difficult, if not impossible.

Conceptual hurdles

Miikka Rosendahl, CEO of ZOAN, whose products and services find use in applications across industrial environments such as maritime training, cautions that interoperability is a current buzzword. Companies are not working on interoperability. Existing incentive structures work against interoperability. He questions if interoperability is one of the areas that will require legislating if such a characteristic is desirable.

Shannon argues that consumers are not really asking for interoperability, noting: “Just because we could possibly do something technologically, it doesn’t mean that we’re solving a problem that users actually are clamouring about.”

Interoperability and portability of data face conceptual hurdles. Varying purposes of different types of environments will limit compatibility of features and capabilities – a gaming environment is very distinct from a collaborative design tool, let alone from sensor-data-based digital-twin landscapes. In fact, such object or capability portability might contradict the very goals, values, and strategic rule sets of environments that cater to different groups, market segments and purposes.

A Computer Weekly article from 2022 offers some legal considerations. In gaming environments, the goal of an attack initiative might be to steal an object or a flag. In the process of doing so, destroying bridges or enemies’ weaponry was par for the course. In work environments, similar behaviour arguably should constitute a crime. For instance, in collaborative design environments, stealing code or blueprints will certainly not further trust in these environments. But where will gaming environments end and work environments start?

Rosendahl suggests a type of citizenship for virtual worlds, similar to the way people use passports to travel globally to other countries. His team is working on an identity protocol, a virtual identity code (VIC), for storing user-related data that allows rendering ones’ avatars in different environments.

VICs could become a type of standard to enable transferability, similar to the way apps can be used across many current online platforms. Such transferability could be automated in many ways and essentially work in the background without users even being aware.

He adds that content creation is still insufficient in the metaverse, in part because of the currently high costs to develop quality content. But communities need content to create valuable destinations for users. Artificial intelligence might play an important role in creating content and environments for communities with varied interests.

Mäkinen observes that great communities have a sense of purpose. He notes that many of the online networks and worlds that have been abandoned never established a purpose. The question is: what is the joint mission, why should users join? Infusing purpose into metaverse platforms will be an important aspect in driving diffusion.

Komulainen adds that authenticity is a crucial part of creating believable and credible platforms and networks – similar to creating communities in real life. Communities do not necessarily have to solve problems, but they have to offer something interesting that people can rally around and contribute to.

A question of equality

Journalist Louise Andrén Meiton, head of the business and economics section at Svenska Dagbladet, shows concern that the gaming and technology sectors, at least some segments of them, are dominated by men.

The question then becomes how to ensure that this new, emerging landscape will feature a balanced gender representation. Shannon highlights that the picture is complex. She points out that more women than men use the metaverse and, within corporations, more women initiate metaverse projects – she believes that the social aspect of the new computing environment could be one of the reasons for this phenomenon – but the companies that work on building the metaverse are led by men.

Shannon refers to a study by McKinsey & Company from November 2022, Even in the metaverse, women remain locked out of leadership roles: “The reality is that women are spending more time in the proto-metaverse than men are and, according to our data, are more likely to spearhead and implement metaverse initiatives. However, just as in the tech sector as a whole, women represent a minority in the metaverse economy.”

The juxtaposition is noteworthy. Women represent the majority of metaverse’s power users, spend more time in the metaverse, and spearhead more metaverse initiatives than men. But nine out of 10 of the leadership roles in organisations that create standards for the metaverse are held by men.

Rosendahl spoke of his company’s experiences in attracting talent and his difficulties in finding and hiring female developers. Wärtsilä Voyage head of growth Vesa Koivumaa, saw a need to initiate changes at the institutional and organisational level to ensure gender equality. Mäkinen adds the need for general rules and regulations to ensure fair treatment across genders to create productive and socially responsible metaverse user and working environments.

Regional issues also establish a divide in the way the metaverse will find use and to what degree its benefits can be leveraged professionally and personally. Koivumaa observes that the technological infrastructure and the resulting connectivity vary across regions. He experienced first hand the difficulties of using advanced platforms across regions with different levels of technological availability.

Rosendahl adds that African communities in particular are underrepresented on many platforms, but he was cautiously optimistic that these communities can be served better in the metaverse and get proactively involved.

The development of metaverse-related applications will time. As Koivumaa reminded SXSW: “This development of immersive environments is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Read more about the metaverse

Martin Schwirn is the author of Small data, big disruptions: how to spot signals of change and manage uncertainty (ISBN 9781632651921). He is also senior adviser, strategic foresight at Business Finland, helping start-ups and incumbents to find their position in tomorrow’s marketplace.

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