The metaverse is coming, but Big Tech’s latest obsession needs safeguards

·Technology Editor
·6 min read
Ariana Grande will be the latest artist to host a concert in the metaverse via 'Fortnite.' (Image: Epic Games)
Ariana Grande will be the latest artist to host a concert in the metaverse via 'Fortnite.' (Image: Epic Games)

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Our future digital reality will need rules to keep people safe online

On Aug. 6, pop star Ariana Grande will kick off her latest concert. But the show won’t be in front of a packed arena. Instead, she’ll perform in front of thousands of fans via Epic Games’ “Fortnite.”

The Rift Tour, as the concert is called, will run from Aug. 6 to Aug. 8 and feature five shows that “Fortnite” players can join and watch virtually with their friends. Grande joins a growing number of artists including Travis Scott and Killer Mike entering the tech industry’s newest obsession: the metaverse.

A persistent and virtual world accessible through augmented reality, virtual reality, or even smartphones, the metaverse is being hyped by CEOs ranging from Facebook’s (FB) Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s (MSFT) Satya Nadella to Nvidia’s (NVDA) Jensen Huang, and, of course, Epic’s Tim Sweeney.

The pandemic — and its accompanying social distancing — has also made the idea of a virtual world more appealing, especially as the Delta variant spreads. I, for one, have used a number of virtual and augmented reality apps since the pandemic. While they’re still in their early days, these apps reveal a sneak preview of the metaverse.

“The notion is that all of us can join a shared virtual space where we get to be spatially arranged with one another in a similar manner that you'd have in the real world, but combining that with all the things that virtual worlds offer — the ability to create and build 3D content on the fly and to do things that are fantastical,” explained Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

But the metaverse comes with risks. Experts warn that metaverse hosts like Facebook and Epic need to address practical concerns before they create full-fledged, digital worlds. Political disinformation, user harassment, and crypto scams already pervade the digital world, and they’ll only become bigger problems as we enter the metaverse — unless companies tackle them head-on.

Accountability in the metaverse

To help visualize the metaverse, it’s best to think of it as a digital version of reality. The online life simulator “Second Life” is a form of metaverse where you create your own avatar and explore a virtualized version of the real world, as are, to a degree, massive multiplayer online games like “World of Warcraft.” The gist is you have an avatar that you customize and use to interact with other people’s avatars in a virtual setting.

'Second Life' is a kind of early metaverse where you create an avatar and live your life as you want. (Image: Linden Lab)
'Second Life' is a kind of early metaverse where you create an avatar and live your life as you want. (Image: Linden Lab)

But as the 3D digital world becomes more interactive, people will need to be held accountable for their behavior in that universe, NYU Tandon School of Engineering professor Carla Gannis told Yahoo Finance.

“We really need to think, as we're thinking about the metaverse, about accountability, thinking about, are we just going to perpetuate the problems we have in grounded or, base reality, into this metaverse?” Gannis explained. “The ills of human culture and society can be persistent, unless we're actually thinking ethically about these things.”

Look no further than Facebook as an example of the kind of double-edged sword the metaverse could wield. Facebook has allowed people to meet up with long-lost friends, find life partners, and connect to people with similar interests. But it has also amplified online harassment and the spread of disinformation on topics ranging from the election to COVID-19 vaccines.

And while social media companies like Facebook and Twitter work to tamp down on such abuses, they haven’t eliminated them. In a virtual recreation of our world, harassment could be far more powerful than what’s found on social networks. Instead of someone writing comments on your profile page or sending you direct messages, they could walk up to you and scream at you, or follow you across different metaverse regions.

“Humans are humans and...I don't know how you escape that simply because you make it slightly different in a digital sense,” IDC’s Lewis Ward told Yahoo Finance.

Getting the cash straight

The metaverse as conceptualized by films like “Ready Player One” is a single place where users can interact in an uninterrupted world. For now, however, Gannis explained, the metaverse is separated into a series of fiefdoms, whether those are “Fortnite,” Mozilla Hubs, or some other form of virtual world.

Mozilla Hubs is an app that offers an early glimpse of what the metaverse's social aspects could be life. (Image: Mozilla)
Mozilla Hubs is an app that offers an early glimpse of what the metaverse's social aspects could be life. (Image: Mozilla)

For the metaverse to truly take off, metaverse operators will need to address how users purchase items in their worlds, create and sell goods, and turn their virtual cash into fiat currency.

“To operate a metaverse...we need digital money,” Gannis said.

While non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, came along at the right time to allow artists and creators to sell their works in the metaverse, a centralized source will need to serve as the backbone for how currency changes hands in these new, virtual worlds.

“You have to have certain real world, fundamental social blocks underneath the [metaverse] in place, or it's all built on quicksand,” Ward explained.

The metaverse will be the world you want

While the metaverse will need rules to safeguard users, a new virtual world could also bring users unique experiences — like playing basketball with LeBron James, flying across the planet, or conducting a symphony in front of a packed house at Lincoln Center.

“There's ... a beautiful lack of attachment to a fixed identity in VR that can give people freedom when they feel sort of unbounded,” explained Caitlin Krause, founder of the XR studio MindWise and a technology and wellness educator at Stanford University.

For now, the metaverse is still in its infancy and a game with LeBron might not be in the cards for most people. But major companies are staking their futures on it. Facebook’s Zuckerberg has called it the successor to the mobile internet and one of the most “exciting projects that we’re going to get to work on in our lifetimes.”

But if the metaverse brings along the kind of problems that have plagued social media, it might never be the kind of paradise experts and consumers dream it could be.

Daniel Howley is tech editor at Yahoo Finance.

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