We need to be careful about the Metaverse

From “The Metaverse and How Well Build It Together -- Connect 2021” by Meta on YouTube is a demonstration of photorealistic virtual reality (VR) technology by Meta Platforms, Inc. On the left is a completely digital photorealistic recreation of Meta employee Yasser Sheikh. On the right is a Meta employee viewing Sheikh through VR, where she is able to walk around him. Meta says that this is a preview of how in the future people will be able to interact with each other as realistic avatars through VR.

From “The Metaverse and How We’ll Build It Together — Connect 2021” by Meta on YouTube is a demonstration of photorealistic virtual reality (VR) technology by Meta Platforms, Inc. On the left is a completely digital photorealistic recreation of Meta employee Yasser Sheikh. On the right is a Meta employee viewing Sheikh through VR, where she is able to walk around him. Meta says that this is a preview of how in the future people will be able to interact with each other as realistic avatars through VR.

Johnathan Glaskin-Clay, Staff Reporter

On Oct. 28, 2021, Facebook Inc., the company in charge of the social media platforms Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp, made a major change. The company was renamed to Meta, officially Meta Platforms, Inc., and the company announced its newest project– a virtual world called “the Metaverse.” 

On that day, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of Meta, declared, “From now on, we’re going to be the Metaverse first, not Facebook first.”

Also, Meta uploaded a video on its YouTube channel called, “The Metaverse and How We’ll Build It Together — Connect 2021.” Currently, the video has over 5.4 million views and is over an hour and ten minutes long. The video is presented by none other than Zuckerberg himself. 

Now, I had heard of the Metaverse prior to watching the video. In fact, I had watched videos criticizing Zuckerberg’s project prior to watching it, but I wanted to see exactly what he had envisioned; I wanted to see his case. 

After watching the video, a viewer will be able to see many of the potential benefits for the Metaverse, but viewers should also be aware of the many potential problems with its implementation if humanity begins to favor the virtual world over the real.

What does Meta envision for its new virtual world?

In order to grasp an understanding of the Metaverse and what it could be in the future, it’s necessary to understand what Meta envisions and what the Metaverse is to look like. 

“The next platform and medium will be even more immersive,” Zuckerberg said, “An embodied Internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it. And we call this the Metaverse.”

Indeed, one of the main ideas behind Zuckerberg’s vision of the Metaverse is immersiveness. The whole idea is that in the Metaverse everything we do on our computers and smartphones, such as play games, talk to others, shop, and more, will be simulated in a way that feels real.

“That’s what we mean by an embodied internet. Instead of looking at a screen, you’re going to be in these experiences,” Zuckerberg said. “Everything we do online today, connecting socially, entertainment, games, work, is going to be more natural and vivid.”

The video gives several examples of some of the potential experiences in the Metaverse, such as going virtual surfing, exploring the planets through augmented reality (AR), exploring realistic virtual environments, such as playing chess, basketball and fencing with a hologram person, being able to host realistic virtual meetings that feel like one’s actually with the person there, or being able to visit Ancient Rome in a realistic virtual environment.

It should be noted that many of these are “forward-looking statements,” according to Meta, which also stated, “Actual results may differ materially than those expressed or implied in our forward-looking statements.” 

Therefore, the video is more of a proof of concept rather than a complete indicator of all the features that the Metaverse will wield. Meta has no actual way of knowing exactly what it will be able to accomplish in the future. Nevertheless, the philosophy and idea of the Metaverse, a completely immersive internet, is in the works. 

What is the “Metaverse” currently?

First of all, a major component of Zuckerberg’s Metaverse is called Horizon Worlds, which is essentially a VR world-building program, where people can make their own virtual worlds and visit others.

Horizon Worlds is currently released for Oculus Quest users (Oculus Quest is a brand of VR headsets produced by Meta). The avatars in Horizon Worlds look very cartoony and are also legless. It looks nothing like the Ready Player One-esque cyberworld imagined in the book and subsequent movie, but it could be a stepping stone toward one, as Meta is only in the first stages of development.

So far, this article has only discussed Zuckerberg’s ambitions for the Metaverse; it has not discussed other virtual worlds, or metaverses that exist today. 

“The ‘Metaverse’ isn’t a thing because, right now, it is just individual separate metaverses that are often controlled by a large single company,” Andrew Hirschman, an AP Economics teacher, said. “Microsoft is developing a metaverse; what used to be formerly Facebook, now Meta, will try to develop a metaverse, Walmart’s trying to develop a metaverse, as well as kind of new, emerging companies, like Sandbox or Decentraland.”

Because of this, the Metaverse’s rise will probably be like the rise of social media, meaning several different companies will try their hand at creating their own metaverses. And through competition with one another in innovation, some of these metaverses will grow to be major platforms with millions upon millions of followers, as we see with the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram today. It’s important to acknowledge that other companies are working on their own metaverse projects in tandem with Meta to understand that this is not just some out-there idea with which Zuckerberg is toying. Rather, it is a major movement that could change the internet or even the state of reality forever. 

However, none of these current metaverses are even close to being as technological and realistic as described in Zuckerberg’s ambitions, which would require tons of technology to pull off– technology that may not even exist yet. 

“It’s going to take about a dozen major technological breakthroughs to get to the next generation Metaverse,” Michael Abrash, a programmer who works for Facebook, said in the previously mentioned video. “And we’re working on all of them, displays, audio, input, haptics (sending inputs through touch), hand tracking, eye tracking, mixed reality, sensors, graphics, computer vision, avatars, perceptual science, and more.”

Meta is pushing its virtual reality (VR) technology to new heights. For example, they are working on a headset known as “Project Cambria,” a VR headset that will be quite expensive but will have such features as eye tracking and face tracking while still being able to see the real world.

“There is a ton of new tech going into Cambria,” Angela Chang, head of VR technology at Meta, said in the same video. “For example, your avatar will be able to make natural eye contact and reflect your facial expressions in real time.”

Meta has been working on other technology that may be used in the Metaverse, such as photorealistic VR avatars, realistic VR environments, in which objects can be moved in real time. 

Also, for better usability in the Metaverse, Meta is developing Electromyography (EMG) technology, which basically uses activity in the skeletal muscles to act as input commands. This could be used for moving, scrolling and even typing in an AR landscape.

Potential Effects and Implications of the Metaverse

Given all the time, effort and resources being put into the development of metaverses, one has to ask if the idea of a Metaverse, which in this section of the article will be defined as a completely immersive virtual world, as Zuckerburg envisions it, is really a good idea? 

There are two perspectives here: One might say that the Metaverse will aid humanity by creating an environment of opportunity– where two people from different countries can meet as if they were in person, where people can go on epic adventures and experience things not possible in the real world, where many will do work inside the Metaverse, thus not using cars so often and cutting down on CO2 emissions. 

“People would be able to communicate with each other from long distances in a way that’s a lot easier for them, so it’d be like Zoom, but just a lot better,” Freshman Damion Harrison said. “I wouldn’t mind being in a VR meeting with someone; in fact, I might prefer it over an actual meeting.”

Another viewpoint, one that seems to have caught on with mainstream media is this: the Metaverse could come with some serious risks if we’re not careful. 

For example, the Metaverse could pose a significant security issue. Now Zuckerberg has promised that “security and privacy will be implemented into the Metaverse from day one,” but that security has to be absolutely airtight because the amount of data the Metaverse would be able to track is simply astronomical. 

Also, the companies who control the Metaverse would also control what end users see. The companies in control would wield greater power over its consumers, and they might be able to harvest the data of basically everything the consumer does while using the Metaverse– how they move, what they buy, what they do, who they hang out with, and more.

All this information out there could leave consumers vulnerable.

“Digital espionage has already been used by dozens of countries to gain access to commercial intellectual property, proprietary military technology and personal and financial information,” said Zoe Weinberg, a political writer and founder of Ex-Ante, an organization which seeks to fight against digital authoritarianism, in a Dec. 2, 2021, New York Times article called, “The Metaverse Is Coming, and the World Is Not Ready for It.” “A metaverse that contains nearly all aspects of life— work, relationships, assets, identity— could be susceptible to breaches or manipulation from across the globe.”

Also, overuse of technology has become a problem for people today. For example, according to a 2021 study of adult Americans about the COVID-19 pandemic and internet addiction published in Psychiatry International by Jagdish Khubchandani, Sushil Sharma and James H. Price, 41 percent of people were classified as “probable addiction or risk of addiction,” and 14 percent were classified as “definite or severe addiction.”

In terms of social media, according to Statista.com, the average person spends 2 hours and 25 minutes on social media every day worldwide. In the U.S., it’s 2 hours and 3 minutes. This relates to the Metaverse because the Metaverse is supposed to be a social media network, but much more integrated, and there’s no longer the screen to separate the user from the virtual world. This could make it easier to overuse.

“The primary problem associated with the metaverse is addiction,” Manal Agarwal, a technology journalist, said in a Jan. 14, 2022, article published on makeuseof.com called “Could the Metaverse Wreck Your Mental and Physical Health?” “Consider a virtual world with several times the engaging capacity of social media. The metaverse would be a parallel reality that has no bounds. You could potentially create a virtual environment that’s more appealing than the real world.”

Indeed, a reason why social media and technology in general is so overused is the dopamine released while using social media or while using technology, and dopamine is a chemical that makes one feel motivated to do something. 

Since the Metaverse would be much more immersive, and a much larger array of opportunities would be available to the consumer, it could increase the dopamine given off and thus make technology overuse even worse. 

People will get addicted to a virtual world, said Deniz Unay, a social media expert, in a Dec. 21, 2021, article titled, “Metaverse will alter definition of tech addiction,” which was published on Andalou Agency.

“People will experience internal indecisions between the real and virtual world, and as a result, the brain will prefer the virtual universe more with the effect of dopamine,” Unay said. 

At this rate, the Metaverse seems inevitable, so despite the concerns, there is no stopping virtual reality or the companies trying to expand it.

Instead a solution to the potential problems of the Metaverse starts with us now. We need to work hard right now to appreciate the real world over the virtual world. We need to become better at recognizing when it’s time to put down our technology and immerse ourselves in real-world experiences. That way, when the Metaverse does come– and it will– we can enjoy the benefits of it while already being mentally prepared to stay engaged with the real world by avoiding spending too much time in the virtual one. 

With that said, though, government legislation would have to be put in place so that the companies who control the Metaverse are held accountable for their actions and the data they collect. There may even be new crimes invented in the Metaverse to which the law would have to adapt. Governments cannot, nor should they necessarily, prevent the Metaverse from being created, but they can work to anticipate some of the legislative problems and address them now for a smoother integration of the Metaverse into our society.