MDE#00 The metaverse: trick or treat?
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The 21st century is governed by data. In the last decades, we have witnessed increased digitization of processes and datafication of society. From the use of smartphones that track our location and communication patterns through apps to the digitization of industry where devices increasingly assist us. Every action performed through an electronic device is recorded and stored in a database. It is not surprising to witness the exponential increase in the volume of data that has happened in the last decades.
Let's now discuss the metaverse, this highly controversial word populated with hype. In simple terms, the metaverse is the next internet. An "experiential" internet where we interact in 3D. And it is not something new: augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) devices were already researched in the late 1960s. In the early 1990s, Mark Weiser  could already foresee his vision for the metaverse. Except that he called it ubiquitous computing:
Ubiquitous computers will help overcome the problem of information overload. […] Machines that fit the human environment instead of forcing humans to enter theirs will make using a computer as refreshing as taking a walk in the woods.
He was clearly referring to the use of AR, where virtual content is overlaid on top of our reality thanks to AR headsets or mobile phones. The concept of the metaverse is not new. It became democratized and, at the same time, overhyped since Facebook’s rebranding to Meta in October 2021.
So, why does the metaverse matter? The metaverse is a shift in dimensions. From 2D to 3D. From the flat screen to 3D content around us that makes us experience a new reality. There are two possibilities to enter the metaverse today: one is through AR, in which you see virtual content overlaid to the real world. The other is through VR, in which you are immersed in a virtual world that is 100% computer-generated. The metaverse is a total game changer for the human brain: when we perceive content in 3D, it is harder for our brains to distinguish between what is real and what is not. In simple words, the metaverse plays with reality by adding virtual content to it. By doing so, it also tricks our reality and tricks our brains too.
TRICK OR TREAT?
That is the question, and ultimately it is our responsibility to leverage both. The real power of the metaverse does not come from the devices per se. It is about the interaction between them, the system we are creating right now, and ultimately the use we will make of these devices as humans and citizens. As with all powerful tools, their use is human responsibility combined to human invention. Let me explain: as innovators and technology builders we also have a part of responsibility: to envision, code, prototype, build, and ultimately deploy a metaverse ecosystem that protects people and cares for their well-being and safety.
With time, AR/VR devices will become lighter. Instead of bulky headsets, we will reach the point of having devices that are very similar to a pair of glasses. Ray-Ban Stories are a clear example of what the future might look like. These are smart sunglasses that take pictures and show on-demand content at the same time that their appearance blends with any other "non-smart" sunglasses. These smart sunglasses adhere to the concept of invisible computing: they look like any other sunglasses except for two cameras positioned close to the lenses that we overlook unless we get close to the device.
One of the ultimate goals for any device is to become so natural that it is embedded in the fabric of everyday life in a way that we do not think about the device, but about the service it provides. In a way, we end up losing the awareness that there is technology in the background and that data about us is still being collected.
THE METAVERSE: AN EXPONENTIAL INCREASE IN DATA COLLECTION
Indeed, the amount of data collected by AR/VR devices that will enable the metaverse will increase exponentially. Let me explain: the number of cameras and sensors embedded within AR/VR devices is much higher than an average smartphone. The Meta Quest 2 headset, the commercially most successful VR headset to date, presents 4 external-facing cameras that can determine the user's position in the space. High-end VR headsets such as Varjo VR-3 also present integrated eye-tracking for more detailed foveated rendering and hand-tracking for natural interactions. Plus, accessories such as Vive Facial Tracker enable the capture of full lower-face motion for creating more realistic avatars and VR-based video conferencing. And rumors about the upcoming Apple AR headset claim that the device will pack a dozen cameras.
These are all technological improvements to enable an optimal user experience of the metaverse. However, as we learned from Web 2.0 (our current internet), beyond looking at data to optimize users´ experience, data has become a new currency. Companies providing services in the web get access to our data and exploit it to their advantage either for marketing (targeted ads), or by selling it to third parties. The metaverse presents higher and alarming stakes as the data collected is not only about basic information (i.e., email, name, age, occupation), but about sensitive biometric data and behavior patterns unique to each of us (i.e., hand, body, eye, and facial tracking).
Some of the key players in the space are pioneering projects that target data collection with AR devices to learn and create safe practices for users in this space. Google's recent testing of AR prototypes, and Meta's project Aria are examples of research in this area. We are yet to see what these upcoming devices will look like, including their underlying data collection mechanisms. For now, let´s commit to building an ethical metaverse!
 Weiser, M. (1991), “The Computer for the 21st Century”, Scientific American, Vol. 265 No. 3, pp. 94–104, https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004.
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