MDE#01 The 10 Commandments
Designing a responsible metaverse
⏳ 9 min read
Let’s go back in time to 2005. We were about to experience a new way of social interaction and information exchange in just a couple of years thanks to 2 critical inventions. First, the iPhone (2007) revolutionized telecommunications. Second, the appearance of social media apps, with Facebook (2006) leading the way, transformed the way in which we share information. The synergy created by having a small powered computing device (the smartphone) and apps that enable keeping in touch with our friends and communities has changed how we interact and behave socially.
Back then, nobody would have expected the huge social impact that the smartphone combined with social media apps would have on society: on how information is shared, on how behavior is shaped by technological exchange, on how notifications impact our cortisol levels, on how attention is captured and fragmented… And above all, on the impact of technology on our overall well-being.
And this is why today, at the dawn of the metaverse era, it is crucial to start thinking about ways to responsibly code, build, and deploy the future technological ecosystem known as the metaverse. Here, I will refer to the metaverse as a vision for the next wave of computing that is ubiquitous, seamless, and immersive—making use of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies. The metaverse will allow the convergence of augmented and virtual spaces in a unified digital reality that will pervade most layers of society in the upcoming decades.
The metaverse will impact human well-being and social interactions in a way we have not seen before. This is not science fiction; it is science fact. Research on the neuroscience of AR/VR technologies that power the vision for the metaverse clearly demonstrate the persuasive effect of AR/VR devices and their highly engaging nature. Let´s dig into this!
The metaverse will be persuasive. Indeed! Ever heard the expression: see it to believe it? The metaverse will present digital 3D content either in a virtual environment (VR) or in your real environment (AR). This digital content is a stimulus to your brain that is highly real (because of the 3D aspect and the interactive properties) and thus can “trick” your brain and can effectively convince you. If I present you with an ad for a soft drink in a newspaper, it has maybe a 1/5 persuasive effect (0 being not persuasive at all, and 5 being very persuasive). The same refreshment on TV may get a 3/5. And if I put a virtual copy of this soft drink in front of you, in your living room, with an AR app? This virtual copy would feel almost as if you were holding the soft drink in your hand: the size, the vibrancy of the packaging, the smell—for smell, check here ;-). The 5/5 is easy to get.
The metaverse will be engaging. Another science fact backed up by research. Several studies have revealed how AR/VR technologies are more engaging than computers, even for experienced AR/VR users. Curious about the studies? Check the bibliography from my PhD dissertation . I am sure you´ll find it delightful! ;-)
Going beyond these science facts, if we combine the persuasive effects with the highly engaging nature of AR/VR experiences, we can easily deduce that AR/VR experiences are addictive. Remember the phenomenon of Pokémon Go? It was one of the first games exploiting AR combined with geo-location. A true success that also entailed dangers, especially for children, related to privacy, distractions, and strangers. Parents, you can check this article from Forbes and this one from the American Safety Council.
Now that we know a bit more about the effects of AR/VR on our behavior, let´s recognize that AR/VR are powerful technologies with tremendous potential for positive impact. For example, they have the potential to bring communities together in ways we have not seen before: AR and VR allow for a 3D embodied experience. Imagine a remote call where you meet a friend in a 3D environment and you start a conversation. The graphics and the experience as of today (late 2022) still need to catch up to compete with reality. However, it is just a matter of time until the computational power and infrastructure enabling computer graphics will get to the point of creating a digital reality that will be almost indistinguishable from real-life experiences.
Wait and see.
But don´t wait to act.
The time to commit to an ethical metaverse is now. When it is being shaped, when the basis is being set. Overestimating the risks that the metaverse will bring is not an exaggeration. The Jordan Times declares:
Anticipating the metaverse’s ethical challenges is still possible; but the clock is ticking. Without effective independent oversight, this new digital domain will almost certainly go rogue, recreating all the abuses and injustices of both AI and social media, and adding more that we have not even foreseen.
That´s why there’s no time to waste. You are in the right spot. Carved on digital stone, found in the immense database of the internet, the 10 commandments are here.
THE 10 COMMANDMENTS
In the following lines, I summarize the paper “The Ten commandments of Responsible AR” , which sets an excellent basis of 10 rules to address the ethical challenges in the metaverse. It´s long but worth the read. Let´s dive into it!
Guarantee the privacy of metaverse users.
Guarantee the anonymity and privacy of non-users.
Clarify issues of both physical and virtual ownership in the hybrid world.
Protect the mental and physical health of metaverse users.
Strengthen human capacities in a fair and dignified manner.
Protect people´s cognitive autonomy.
Ensure fair power relations in the hybrid world.
Create public spaces in the hybrid world.
Design the hybrid environment in a socially responsible manner.
Make a joint effort to create a responsible metaverse.
Commandments 1-3 mainly address regulations. The metaverse implies AR/VR devices that collect a huge amount of data from the user, including sensitive data such as eye gaze, facial tracking, and movement data. It is crucial to minimize the use of sensor data from AR/VR devices, anonymize it, and regularize it to avoid abuses from companies (shhhh… it is a type of data that has the potential to be very lucrative, especially for marketing purposes).
But, the data collected is not limited to users (commandment 2). It also spans our surroundings and the people in them. As AR/VR devices may integrate facial recognition to identify other people, imposing a moratorium on metaverse applications that collect biometrics in public spaces is recommended until the space is regulated. Commandment 3 specifically addresses AR and the grey area in property rights over augmented spaces. Who is going to regulate this space? When? Until now, digital content can be overlaid without restrictions to a physical space owned by someone.
Commandment 4 addresses digital literacy skills as a critical asset to incorporate into school curriculums and universities. Given the addictive parameters of immersive experiences, the overall population (especially the younger ones) should be aware of the stakes that immersive technologies have over human cognition and well-being.
The metaverse will undoubtedly create a larger breach between the privileged and the unprivileged (commandment 5).The gap will grow wider because of the requirements to access AR/VR technologies and the infrastructure needed to power AR/VR, which will go beyond 5G technologies. To avoid the risk of the “digital divide” we, builders of the metaverse, should think about inclusivity to balance inequalities versus making the gap more obvious.
Regarding AR/VR software design, it should be designed to not make people dependent (commandment 6). This is one of the biggest challenges to date. On one side, AR/VR technologies are very engaging. On another side, one of the key drivers for monetization in apps is engagement. Tech companies foster engagement. So, my question here is: where to find the balance between monetization and human well-being? How could we achieve both? What needs to be leveraged?
Following on the topic of tech companies, there is a clear asymmetry in power relations between AR/VR corporations and their users (commandment 7). The only way to mediate is through regulations (aka governments). In Europe, the Digital Markets Act sets the ground for a fairer digital market competition.
Commandments 8 and 9 address public spaces in the metaverse. The vision for the metaverse encompasses both private and public spaces where digital information merges with our physical world. How will we design public metaverse spaces? What should be allowed versus what should not? How can we safeguard the legacy of the public sphere versus personalized content?
Finally, the 10th commandment is about you. It’s about all of us. It´s about each one of you reading this post. It’s about our responsibility to shape this space. We know that tech companies are driving the race, and we should acknowledge their contribution. However, the vision for the metaverse should be shaped by all actors of society, and not only by corporations. Putting these commandments into action would lead to a metaverse that cares for user privacy and puts mental and physical health as its top priority.
The metaverse will be a space where the good, the bad, and the ugly will find their place. These commandments are to serve as inspiration. For now, let´s write the 10 commandments and recite them every morning and evening (ha!). Thanks for reading until the end. Let´s commit to building an ethical metaverse!
 Bravo, A. (2021). Beyond the Screen: Immersive Information Visualisation in Engineering Design. Technical University of Denmark.
 Royakkers, L., Snijders, D., van Est, R. (2022). The Ten Commandments for Responsible Augmented Reality. In: de Paz Santana, J.F., de la Iglesia, D.H., López Rivero, A.J. (eds) New Trends in Disruptive Technologies, Tech Ethics and Artificial Intelligence. DiTTEt 2021. Advances in Intelligent Systems and Computing, vol 1410. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-87687-6_13
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