Suddenly you’ve heard little about the “metaverse,” the virtual universe that NFT enthusiasts and tech bosses say would have a huge impact on our lives. This is probably because most of the attention is currently focused on more pressing issues, such as the war in Ukraine, and perhaps also because the NFT market has collapsed. However, various big and small players are constantly building universes where you can socialize, work, dance and get rich.
This development is not entirely fun: scams are the order of the day in the world of cryptocurrencies and NFTs, an extreme amount of data can be stored, and the anonymity of an avatar gives people the opportunity to brazenly misbehave. . Not to mention the danger that soon we will no longer be able to distinguish between virtual and real reality.
In the Netherlands, the WODC, the science center of the Ministry of Justice and Security, commissioned the consultancy firm Considerati to conduct research on the potential dangers of the metaverse. We spoke with cybercrime and privacy professor Bart Schermer, who contributed tips on how to prevent a full-blown metaverse dystopia. In any case, he doesn’t think the fantasy of the metaverse will go out like a candle. “These tech parties put a lot of money into it. I hope it comes one way or another, left or right.”
Late last year, Mark Zuckerberg laid out his big Metaverse plans with a video. In it, his Horizon universe didn’t exactly look attractive or promising. The drinks he attended were wooden and uncomfortable, in the office environment the avatars had no legs and in his virtual house he was quite unsociable. Lots of people on the internet and myself laugh at that.
But I didn’t laugh when I put on the VR goggles recently, because with them the latest virtual worlds feel real. Awkwardly dangling digital limbs that look silly on a screen suddenly look like your own semi-paralyzed legs: an unsettling experience. In addition, I felt emotional connections with the beings that inhabit the virtual worlds that I visited. The mischievous little robot from Horizon’s First Steps game filled me with suspicion and disgust, a mysterious fellow dancer in a virtual club seemed to be dancing with me and I was terrified when I was ambushed by zombie dogs in a shooting game. Schermer calls this tendency to empathize the “Proteus effect,” after the Greek god who could change shape.
“That effect has long been a factor in discussions of whether violent games make you violent. And what little research there is shows that the Proteus effect is stronger in virtual reality than in the traditional video game. This affects not only people who behave violently in virtual worlds, but also those who become victims of it. That’s why there was such a stir when a woman was attacked by four men on Horizon. “Things like this already happened in Second Life in 2005, and even in the early days of the Internet, when there were only text-based applications. Those were just very rudimentary messages or images. But as those glasses and other wearable devices become more real, the experience becomes more realistic and you can feel compromised about your online integrity.”
And where you can just take your VR goggles off in a gaming environment if it all becomes too much, that’s more difficult if you’re working in the metaverse, for example. “As more and more experiences take place in a virtual world, you become more and more involved in that virtual world. And then it becomes more difficult to distinguish: what is the physical world and what is the virtual world? They are all experiences, with the same kind of impact on your psyche. When you’re in a virtual reality all day, your brain subconsciously begins to accept things that happen there as real. That is also what Morpheus says in Matrix: reality is made up of electronic impulses that are interpreted by your brain.” According to Schermer, it has in fact been shown that this is how it works. “You can see that in Virtual Reality therapies, they just work. And there are also soldiers who learn actions in virtual reality that they can use in the real world.”
Augmented reality, augmented reality with the phone or Google glasses, can also lead to disturbing situations. This became apparent during the Pokémon Go hype, when people started looking for Pokémon in random backyards. In addition, simple messages on social networks already ensure that some people find themselves in a completely different reality. According to Schermer, AR can amplify that. “It becomes difficult to have a normal conversation when you see a fruit bowl with your AR glasses and I see a bouquet of flowers. We cite extreme examples in the report, such as the hypothetical situation where a tech millionaire in San Francisco filters homeless people off the streets. And if you look at me with AR glasses, aren’t you doing a secret search? Or put a nude filter on? Technology already allows us to do that.” He says this can also be used by tech giants to collect data about you. “It is possible to scan an entire house in a thousandth of a second and then recognize and see objects with the help of AI – that’s a five-year-old TV, this person probably wants an ad for a new one. These are privacy issues that we need to resolve together.”
The report that Schermer and his colleagues sent to the House of Representatives last year reads in some places like a dystopian science fiction book. Still, according to Schermer, it will be some time before the legislation is introduced. “You will see that it will only be regulated when those lenses really break through and there are a lot of applications.” He also thinks that things must first go wrong before politicians realize the importance of such laws. “It works reasonably incident-driven.”
Banning technologies that could potentially lead to disastrous results is not an option, he says. “That is also one of the dilemmas that we describe in the report. You don’t want to put in all kinds of laws now so that no company dares to innovate more, because it’s completely regulated. But if it’s too late, it becomes very difficult and expensive to put the genie back in the bottle.” Schermer stresses that more research needs to be done on the influence of virtual reality and augmented reality, before anything meaningful can be said about it. Still, he has a strange feeling about it. “I’m not easily preoccupied with technologies, but I find them exciting.”