The Metaverse, a Reality Check | What is it and what are the dangers?

The Metaverse, a Reality Check

By Jeannette Qhek, B.Soc.Sci.; Arief Tjitra Salim, B.Eng; and Associate Professor Mohamed Dirani, Ph.D., MBA, GAICD

metaverse

Back in the 1990s, when the term “Internet” was first introduced, many were unaware and confused by it. Yet, it was quickly embraced as the “next big thing” in technology because of how vastly it had impacted our lives. For better or for worse, the internet has drastically shaped the way we work, learn and socialize. In a similar way, talking about “the metaverse” in today’s context is somewhat like having a discussion about what “the internet” meant in the 1990s. So, what exactly is the metaverse and how will it impact our lives?

What is “the metaverse”?

The concept of “metaverse” isn’t new. The term was first coined in the 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. It was reignited again when Facebook rebranded itself to Meta in October 2021. But this time it has taken a non-fiction tone. According to Mark Zuckerberg’s promo Meta clip, the metaverse promises a digital reality where we as avatars roam around a 3D digital landscape, where everything and anything is within our visual reach.  Wearing virtual reality (VR) headsets, one can expect to check into work, shop, hang with fellow mega-friends and attend virtual concerts. The clip left many with mixed feelings, but curious.

 

the metaverse

The metaverse doesn’t stop at Facebook, Microsoft has also created a new service called Mesh that uses mixed-reality technologies, allowing employees to work together virtually following the Covid-19 pandemic. Other companies like Roblox, Nvidia and Unity have since followed the lead and are increasingly invested in building the infrastructure that is required to bring the technology to both consumers and businesses.

The introduction of the metaverse hasn’t been everyone’s cup of tea. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of naysayers and skeptics too. One of them was the Chief Executive Officer of Take-Two. He was skeptical that the metaverse is not what consumers want. “I’m skeptical that we’re going to wake up in the morning and intentionally sit at home, strap on our headsets and conduct all of our daily activities that way,” Zelnick said. “We had to do that during the pandemic, and we don’t really like it so much.” The inventor of PlayStation, Ken Kutaragi, also pointed out that the headsets used would be cumbersome and called them “simply annoying”.

In a recent interview, Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, teased the metaverse idea, saying: “Sure you can put a TV on your nose. Not sure that makes you in the metaverse”. Musk, for one, is certainly not compelled with the idea of anyone strapping a screen to their face all day and not wanting to ever leave. “When I grew up, it’s like don’t sit too close to TV, it’s going to ruin your eyesight. And now we’ve got TV, it’s like literally right here,” he added.

Paradigm shifts in industries

In fact, glimpses of the metaverse are already seen in different segments of our lives, from gaming and entertainment to sports and retail. The gaming industry has been taking the lead in embracing the metaverse. Games like Minecraft, Roblox and Fortnite have been described as the closest corollaries to a full-fledged metaverse. Millions of people are already spending hours a day in these online spaces where players can socialize, shop and assemble their own avatars rather than being tied to pre-existing characters.

In the retail landscape, big companies like Adidas have launched a line of non-fungible tokens (NFT) called “Into the Metaverse” which gives retail customers who hold the NFT a right to purchase special merchandise. Despite different adoption rates across major industry players, the metaverse ecosystem is expected to expand and grow in the coming years.

Opportunities in the metaverse

As the metaverse brings the online and offline worlds closer together, it offers new opportunities for businesses to massively scale and individuals to explore new ways of connecting with each other. If you think about it, engaging with a virtual 3D avatar customer service agent rather than a corporate employee in a chat window may build a more immersive and memorable customer experience. For an avid video gamer, a metaverse may be the utopia they are hoping for, as they get to conveniently switch between online gaming and virtual socializing.

With digital identities, there is also endless potential for people to explore alternate characters for themselves. This sounds like the perfect platform for pure escapism and entertainment for individuals.

metaverse virtual reality

Dangers in the metaverse

While the metaverse promises to offer a new and exciting dimension to the internet, it may mask dangers to the user and society.

1. Security and data risks

The tech giants are currently already using consumers’ data to customize their products in a way that elicits a desired emotional response. We have all experienced how our devices try to sell us targeted products using the data collected from our online social media activity. With the metaverse, the type and usage of data collected are predicted to be exponentially more invasive than what we are seeing today. It is not just our behavior, but also our biometrics, vocal tone, breathing rate and body temperature that can be captured in a 3D virtual environment. With such leverage, how much more will our behaviors be modified and manipulated?

Considering the potential extent to which our data can be harvested from the metaverse, we need to be asking if the regulations we have in place today are sufficient to prevent the exploitation of our personal data, privacy and security.

2. Cyber-crimes and digital safety

The lack of regulatory oversight in the current early stages of the metaverse has already seen an increase in cyber-crimes – from online thefts to sexual harassment. According to Cisco security experts, a new generation of metaverse scams are carried out in virtual environments to exploit smart contracts via hacking, social engineering and hosting of fake services to hijack digital assets. Recently in Meta, a beta tester reported that she had been virtually groped by a stranger on Horizon Worlds. While feeling deeply troubled, there was nothing she could report or do about the incident as the perpetrator’s identity is protected by the anonymous nature of the metaverse.

Now, can we even begin to imagine the extent of psychological trauma experienced by the victims if the line between reality and the virtual world continues to blur and real-life physical sensations are being simulated in the future metaverse? Given the inevitable nature of the platform, there are serious concerns about whether it can really be made safe for adults, let alone younger children who are far more vulnerable to such attacks.

3. Health risks

Mental health

The metaverse could potentially also exacerbate mental health issues as people are more separated from reality. Health experts suggest that the excessive use of virtual realities, may potentially exacerbate mental health issues.[1] Dr. Daria Kuss, the Lead for the Cyberpsychology Research Group at Nottingham Trent University, stresses that “It’s conceivable that the excessive use of virtual realities, such as [Horizon Worlds], may be associated with the experience of symptoms of mental disorders, including addiction, depression, and anxiety, similar to the overuse of the internet more generally”.

As people are predicted to be constantly exposed to an idealized “perfect” version of themselves in which they created via their personalized 3D avatar, self-esteem issues may surface from the discrepancy between actual and portrayed idealized image, which is already a problem among many teenagers today. Therefore, more research certainly needs to be conducted to understand the harmful effects of the metaverse, especially on younger people’s well-being.

Physical health

Over the last two years, the pandemic has notably accelerated the digitalization of our lives. We have witnessed a drastic reduction in outdoor exposure and an increase in sedentary lifestyles. The increased dependency on digital screens and virtual zoom calls for work meetings and family reunions have also given rise to a phenomenon of “zoom fatigue”. A large 6-year prospective cross-sectional study conducted in China even revealed that the prevalence of myopia among primary and secondary school children almost quadrupled during the COVID-19 pandemic home confinement in 2020 as compared to the highest pre-pandemic estimate. [2]

With the coming of the metaverse era, we are likely to experience greater fatigue of all types due to a longer-term immersion in virtual worlds. According to research by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, these virtual experiences can induce physical eye strain, eye fatigue, blurry vision and migraines. A study published in 2019 also suggests that eye fatigue among users of VR headsets results from the discrepancy between virtual and perceived depth.[3] When used for prolonged periods, VR headsets can potentially lead to eyesight damage and the development of myopia. It leads to not just eye health issues but overall deterioration to our overall physical health, as devices that emit light are harmful to the organs when illuminated near it.

virtual reality metaverse

Concluding thoughts

With a lack of jurisdiction and regulatory guidelines, it remains to be seen how adaptable and socially responsible one can be when left to interact in the metaverse. As of the current 2D virtual world, it seems like humans are already struggling to cope. Not to mention, the blending of virtual and physical realities has more recently added on to the plethora of issues we have yet to find solutions for. As exciting as this new emerging era may seem to many, it is worth considering, reflecting and perhaps also speaking with your communities about the potential impacts before committing to the goggles and couch.

Going forward, the metaverse will likely become a major part of our lives. Just like the internet, the way of using the metaverse will define its impact. “All of these new tools, and all of these new possibilities, could be used for good or for evil,” said Mitch Prinstein, the chief science officer for the American Psychological Association. Hopefully, various stakeholders involved can consider a more coordinated approach to manage the potential health risks that come with the realities of the metaverse to safeguard our next generation. Perhaps, we should also consider if by design, we as humans were ever equipped to handle the metaverse. One may argue that we need a reality check, before the metaverse makes a tool out of us all.

References

[1] Kim, S., & Kim, E. (2020). The Use of Virtual Reality in Psychiatry: A Review. Soa–ch’ongsonyon chongsin uihak = Journal of child & adolescent psychiatry, 31(1), 26–32. https://doi.org/10.5765/jkacap.190037

[2] Wang J, Li Y, Musch DC, et al. Progression of Myopia in School-Aged Children After COVID-19 Home Confinement. JAMA Ophthalmol 2021; 139(3): 293-300.

[3] Wang, Y., Zhai, G., Chen, S. et al. Assessment of eye fatigue caused by head-mounted displays using eye-tracking. BioMed Eng OnLine 18, 111 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12938-019-0731-5

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