Pastor D.J. Soto of VR Church delivers a sermon in his home on Sunday Jan. 23, 2022, in Fredericksburg, Va. Soto sings, preaches and performs digital baptisms in the metaverse to a growing congregation of avatars.
Assuming art is what the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer defined as a “a scene within a scene like in Hamlet,” then perhaps that’s what the metaverse is — a 3D spectacle within a spectacle of virtual reality worlds. Gaming industry leaders envision the metaverse as an online social network that relies on haptic feedback and computer components, such as a VR headset, to synchronize users’ real-time physical movements with a digital avatar. Meanwhile, the metaverse is already presenting novel opportunities and threats to users and Congress is just beginning to discuss its economic potential, security guardrails, and human rights implications.
Focusing first on the financial possibilities, the metaverse’s expected market value may reach $758.6 billion by 2026. According to a 2022 business study by Ernst and Young LLP, gaming industry leaders anticipate that the metaverse will change how companies interact with customers and structure their business models to foster economic growth and innovation in new technologies. The company Meta, formerly Facebook, announced it would “bring the metaverse to life” in 2021 with Horizon Worlds, a virtual social platform.
Other companies, including Verizon, Chipotle, and the fashion brand Gucci, are exploring leveraging the metaverse to enhance brand recognition and capture the emerging market in Web 3.0 — a decentralized version of the internet in multiverse worlds that encompasses an array of new technologies such as nonfungible tokens (NFTs) and cryptocurrencies.
Despite these gains, however, any opportunity in the metaverse also carries privacy and data security risks: “As gamers input more and more personal information into the metaverse to best personalize their unique experiences, gaming companies will be responsible for protecting this user data from cyber criminals,” reports Ernst and Young. Their study also predicts that gaming companies will hire employees with advanced cybersecurity skills and partner with third-party cybersecurity firms to help mitigate cyber risks such as identity theft, intellectual property theft, and financial fraud.
Even the health care industry may stand to benefit from using the metaverse to improve access to, and the quality of, patient care telemedicine visits and educational training simulations. Surprisingly, the Next Web opined that “the biggest challenge isn’t making the metaverse technically feasible. It’s making it comfortable.” For example, some metaverse users report experiencing motion sickness symptoms like nausea and dizziness. Dubbed “virtual reality sickness,” this sensation can occur when there is a sensory disconnect between visual environmental cues and physical body movement, according to the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction. To remedy these adverse effects, app developers are experimenting with visual effects like minimizing peripheral vision during player movement, enabling players to jump from static position to static position, and snap turning — manipulating camera angles to reveal character points of view at either 30-, 45-, or 90-degree angles.
The metaverse also presents challenges for preventing online harassment and sexual assault. In 2021, a woman reported a disturbing incident using Oculus Quest’s VR platform when a stranger groped her avatar and refused to stop, replying, “It’s the metaverse, I’ll do what I want.” Another female reported a similar incident using Horizon Worlds, a multiplayer gaming platform, when her avatar was virtually groped by another avatar during beta phase testing. According to Meta spokeswoman, Kristina Milian, Horizon Worlds is enhancing safety features like “Safety Zone,” which casts a protective shield around avatars to prevent other characters from interacting with it, and also offers safety tutorials to users.
While such actions are helpful, researchers on online harassment are calling for stronger protective measures from tech industry leaders to deter and punish this type of toxic behavior. In an interview with MIT Technology Review, professor Katherine Cross of the University of Washington explained that “the nature of virtual-reality spaces is such that it is designed to trick the user into thinking they are physically in a certain space, that their every bodily action is occurring in a 3D environment … [which is] part of the reason why emotional reactions can be stronger in that space, and why VR triggers the same internal nervous system and psychological responses.” Apart from protecting adult users, some researchers are concerned that children may be targeted in the metaverse, and are therefore urging companies to enact heightened protections.
As Congress begins evaluating the risks and opportunities with the metaverse, members can mine wisdom from antiquity by applying the following concept: Hierocles’ concentric circles of concern.
First, Hierocles’ circles are drawn beginning with the immediate circle of self-interest; then a larger circle expanding outward to represent family; followed by a larger circle representing the local community; then the nation-state; and finally an outer circle representing the global community. This framework enables informed decision-making and planning across stakeholder groups with converging and diverging interests. Policymakers and industry leaders can apply Hierocles’ circles to better visualize the metaverse ecosystem. Doing so can enable leaders to design a regulatory framework that optimizes protecting and balancing community interests across this 3D spectacle.
Zhanna L. Malekos Smith is a senior associate with the Strategic Technologies Program and the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, an assistant professor in the Department of Systems Engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and an affiliate faculty member with the Modern War Institute. The views expressed here are hers alone and not those of CSIS, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.