Professor Bob Stone (Member of the Centre for the New Midlands’ Digital Leadership Board) is a Human Factors specialist and a 34-year “veteran” of the international Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality community. Bob is also Emeritus Professor in XR and Human-Centred Design at the University of Birmingham.
In this article, Professor Stone considers the Metaverse and its potential to transform working practices – or if it is another potentially expensive and speculative concept of what the future may look like.
The notion of a Metaverse – a persistent, online, massive virtual environment with interoperable features that span both digital and real domains – has existed for many years.
Early concepts were reflected in the writings of authors such as Neil Stephenson, in his book Snowcrash, or in William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Later, some of the first functional prototypes and demonstrators were developed as part of the eXtended Reality (“XR” – including Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality) and computer gaming communities. Examples include VPL Inc’s Reality Built For Two collaborative VR system in the late 1980s and, in the 1990s, one of the first major collaborative VR projects, the Distributed Interactive Virtual Environment (DIVE), coordinated by the Swedish Institute of Computer Science (SICS) and the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. SICS’ research initiative MultiG was instigated to design and develop hardware and protocols for high-speed fibre optic networks hosting multimedia demonstrators. The DIVE demonstrators evolved in the 1990s from simple “bot”-like characters (“blockies”) representing human participants taking part in virtual conferences, to more human-like characters, or avatars, with texture-mapped faces and simple limbs. Crude by today’s standards, but since that time, shared virtual spaces have been extensively investigated as potentially offering a cost-effective, carbon footprint-reducing technique for international events and even a world in which participants could “live”, meet other inhabitants and take part in individual and group activities, including shopping and trading virtual properties, such as Linden Labs’ Second Life, launched in 2003.
Today, with efforts very much accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for conferences and international events to go ahead with national and international social distancing well in mind, interest in the Metaverse has exploded on a global level, with all manner of organisations, small and large, offering products and platforms. Just a handful of those organisations active today include ENGAGE, GLUE, Point Media, Spatial, Decentraland, Cryptovoxels and Virbela. In parallel with these technological developments, investors are already planning ahead for doing business within the Metaverse. For example, in April, Decentraland sold over 40,000 square meters of virtual space for $572,000. In March, Vignesh Sundaresan bought The First 5000 Days, an item of “non-fungible token” (NFT) art by Beeple, at Christie’s for nearly $70 million. He aims to show his digital art acquisition within virtual worlds for all Metaverse visitors to enjoy.
It is very difficult to predict which, if any, of these providers will develop a sustainable and manageable product or service and emerge as the frontrunner for future Metaverse developments. Many have already attracted substantial investment, and many more will. But, as has been seen all too often in the past, the current frenzy of investment, often with quite crazy valuations of small start-up companies, may not be sustainable. One just has to remember the “dot-com” collapse of the late 1990s, coming after relentless investment in Internet service providers. We’re seeing similar trends today, not just in the case of Metaverse platform providers, but across the entire eXtended Reality (“XR”) sector.
It is very likely that, within a year or two, there will be casualties. But it is also certain that larger tech-based companies will also generate their own solutions, buying up the smaller casualties who have something unique in their portfolio. Just recently it was announced that the graphics processing giant, Nvidia, was taking forward its Omniverse platform, a tool that enables factories and machinery to be designed, built and tested in a virtual world. Nvidia’s concept relates to a much, much larger “metaverse”, bridging virtual and physical worlds and allowing software to be designed, developed and tested within “digital twins” of factories that represent those that exist in cities across the world. Once simulation trials have been completed, that software will be downloaded to its real-world physical “hosts” – automobiles, aircraft, robots, smart factories, hospital operating theatres, and so on. And it’s not just Nvidia; even players of the popular best-selling “sandbox” computer game Minecraft, are reported to be attempting to construct every city, town, and village in the world on a 1:1 scale, using the game’s characteristically blocky look and feel.
Elsewhere, Microsoft, having acquired the “social VR platform” AltSpace in 2017, is ploughing ahead with its cloud-based Mesh platform, with an eye on developing solutions for telepresence and Metaverse collaboration in advance of wearable technology products emerging onto the scene. And Apple? Well, plenty of rumours about their new XR tech, but it remains to be seen if they have serious plans about the Metaverse, especially after the debacle with Epic following Apple’s banning of the multi-million user Fortnite program from the iOS App Store. Today, many of the Metaverse’s 3D offerings are accessed by conventional computer screen users. In the near future, with developments in both virtual and augmented reality headsets and associated intuitive computer input devices progressing at an impressive pace, more immersive and engaging forms of participation will become commonplace. Hence, it will be interesting to see how, in time, Apple opens out its rumoured VR and AR headsets to support global interaction between users.
Overall, with the vision of many of the organisations listed above, coupled with their undoubted capabilities to deliver, companies in such sectors as defence, healthcare, product development on micro and macro levels, entertainment, education, tourism, finance, broadcasting, and so on stand to benefit from involvement in the future of the Metaverse, Indeed, there may be penalties from those disbelievers who choose to remain behind in the real world.
But, from the perspective of corporate adoption, what does all of this mean in reality? Well, just like the situation that has existed across XR for many decades – and moreso today than ever before – the Metaverse “market” is currently a confused, frenetic and highly risky stage show on an international scale, with no clear indicators of what may happen next. And this is despite the huge global interest, financial investment and intense development programmes that are being undertaking on both an explicit and covert basis.
So can we state now, with some confidence, what are the key aspects that one should bear in mind when it comes to considering how to get involved with, or even becoming an early adopter of the Metaverse and the opportunities it is claimed such a global interactive virtual environment has to offer? Here are just some of the important questions and issues future corporate adopters may need to ask.
From a financial, productivity, logistical and corporate practice perspective, does your organisation actually need – and can it justify – implementing a Metaverse style of working? Are you convinced that a Metaverse implementation will bring benefits, such as returns on investment, corporate savings, reduced time to market, or staff satisfaction? Or are you being swayed by the enormous amounts of hype – are you concerned that your business may be seen to be behind the curve in your market sector? On a related issue, are your key customers and/or suppliers active within the Metaverse? This may be a significant driver in your decision to adopt or not. In any event, be sure to conduct a reasonable degree of research to support your decision. Be sure about the quality and auditability of any research you may find. At the present time, tangible, credible evidence supporting adoption – and not simply enthusiastic statements from Metaverse proponents – is very thin on the ground, especially with regard to the issues raised in this short article.
Another issue to consider is whether or not your organisation already relies heavily on digital prototyping or other computer-based activities, central to the organisation’s services or products? If so, you will undoubtedly have access to resources and assets to help streamline the presentation of your business in a Metaverse context, should you decide to venture into this field.
Will a comprehensive Metaverse implementation actually deliver a future-proof method of working or conducting business for you, moreso than what can be achieved using present-day online video conferencing facilities such as ZOOM, Google Meet or Microsoft Teams? Remember, that virtual concepts, prototypes or products can be presented as shared screen presentations for discussions and evaluation in these formats, so the absence of an “immersive” Metaverse context may not be as inhibiting as you imagine.
Have you consulted with your staff? There may be those who will adapt very well to working in simulated environments or VR. Others may not. Remember, when considering so-called “immersive”, wearable technologies for entering and interacting within current and future Metaverse implementations, that there may well be significant initial hardware, software and training costs, with regular expenditure on hardware technology to keep your Metaverse workstations and “portals” up to date. Also remember that VR sickness, brought about by a variety of technology- and human-related problems will affect 3-5% of the population, regardless of developments in display and optical technologies. Interaction with Metaverse environments can, of course, be undertaken using conventional computer screens and data input devices, whilst still enabling end users to exist and participate effectively within a 3D world.
Are you satisfied that the appropriate protections are in place to prevent the capture and potential misuse of your users’ personal data? Recent Stanford University research (published online in October 2020) found that, under “typical” VR viewing circumstances, out of over 500 participants, body motion tracking system could be used to identify 95% of users correctly when the system had been “trained” on less than 5 minutes of tracking data per person. Now fast forward to the uptake of more capable headsets – those endowed with a myriad of integrated psycho-physiological sensors – eye movement, pupil diameter, facial movement recording, electro-dermal activity (or GSR – “galvanic skin response”), cortisol (stress) sensing, speech recognition and more. How might such data, unless carefully policed, be used in the Metaverse of the future, for business and private purposes? Could the data be used to compromise future employees and employers? What might the influence be of intentionally deployed, or “hijacked”, so-called “Deep Fakes” (AI-based virtual actors with highly realistic personal and convincing behavioural traits) on employees and employers? What is the potential impact and damage caused by cloned/stolen virtual characters? The protection of virtual and real identities poses a significant challenge to the future roll-out and ultimate success of the Metaverse and in securing the trust of its inhabitants.
If you choose to work with a Metaverse platform or “portal” supplier, have you undertaken appropriate levels of due diligence? Have you assessed their track record and pedigree? Can you establish their reputation via previous and current customer testimonials or product uptake history? Is their product used by your competitors, suppliers and/or customers? Do they appear to be trustworthy, especially with regard to online security, data protection and intellectual property protection? Do they appear to be future-proof, not just in terms of a strong business and technology development viewpoint, but also in terms of their financial health and stability, their investment sources, and profit/loss histories? I should state here that, again with the XR community, I never rely on the often dubious and over-inflated market predictions contained within reports that are regularly offered for sale online, accompanied by tempting, freely-downloadable executive summaries. In the 34 years I have been active in this community, I have yet to come across any such publication that has been written by individuals at the “sharp end” of the community – the true “movers and shakers”, nor do I believe the conclusions of the documents and the validity of the sources from which they are collated. They should never be used as evidence in support of an investment proposal, and I believe we will see many of these reports claiming significant business potential in the Metaverse(s) of the future.
There is little doubt that the Metaverse will become as ubiquitous as the Internet, probably commanding more involvement and participation from individuals, teams and corporations large and small than we can imagine today. But always remember, and this applies to the XR community as well as the fledgling, but rapidly evolving world of the Metaverse, no matter which company owns the platform and infrastructure, or offers an introductory or ongoing service, always work with independent consultants in the field, and especially those that are capable not just of advising on hardware and software technologies, but on human-centric issues and Internet or multimedia law. The XR sector has experienced a roller coaster ride of success and failure, hype and reality, since the early 1990s, on approximately an eight-year cycle. The Metaverse will not escape a similar ride.
About Professor Bob Stone, C.Psychol., FCIEHF
Bob Stone is a Human Factors specialist and the UK’s foremost immersive technologies specialist – a 34-year “veteran” of the international Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality community. In 1993, whilst researching VR and robotics at the UK’s National Advanced Robotics Centre, Bob established the world’s first industrial VR team, launching a countrywide collaborative VR initiative, wholly funded by industry.
Bob’s research has taken him from Royal Navy vessels conducting close-range weapons and missile trials to underwater operations onboard submarines and rescue submersibles; and from search-and-rescue helicopter missions to operating theatres and medical units throughout the UK, US and South Africa.
Today, as well as being an Emeritus Professor at the University of Birmingham, Bob works closely with the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine and various UK hospitals, researching the use of VR and MR for physical and mental health restoration and rehabilitation, and for the training of future military Medical Emergency Response Teams. He also has a passion for the Virtual Heritage arena, exploiting VR and AR to help make invisible rural and oceanic historic sites visible once again, particularly around the Plymouth area where he was born and bred.
In 2011, Bob was awarded the Ministry of Defence Chief Scientific Advisor’s Commendation for his contributions to Defence Science & Technology, and, more recently, his team received the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors 2020 Innovation Award for their defence medical work.
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