What is the metaverse and what does it mean for learning & development? – Pt. 4

If you’ve read parts 1, 2 & 3 so far, you’ll know we’ve looked at what is, and isn’t the metaverse, how it could be structured, who’s building it and suggested some pop culture references to see what the mainstream thinks. For this likely final part of the series, we’re going to pull out our virtual crystal balls and gaze into the future, when the metaverse exists, and predict some potential components and aspects that will be part of our learning lives.

Avatars

Let’s start with something easy. Of course we’re going to have a form of digital representation in the metaverse, as we already do online. Depending on the use case, this could be humanoid or entirely abstract but there will likely be organisational guidelines for what’s considered acceptable, based upon the purpose of the activity. Technical challenges and stylistic intentions will likely mean that you’ll have variations of a theme of avatar depending where and how you are using it. Standards for rigging and animation will ensure that underneath it all works the same across contents however.

Legs

Whilst we’re talking about avatars, IK (Inverse Kinematics), computer vision and sensors will allow us to have fully tracked and representative legs, rather than being floating torsos as is common currently. There are some systems where legs are included today but the tracking and animation systems tend to fall over (*sic) and produce comedic outcomes rather than realism.

Arms

Same as legs, we’ll have animation systems and methods to accurately represent arms so we aren’t reduced to floating hands. Again there are some examples available today but they also typically struggle with realistic representation that doesn’t look odd.

Faces

In order to be better connected to one another, we will need avatars with facial expressions that match those of the user. Many of us read beyond what is being said and understand emotions of the speaker when linking visual clues and so, trust and understanding will be enhanced for some rather than relying upon a set series of animated expressions. Furthermore eye-tracking will allow a speaker to look specifically at an audience member and for them to feel connected. Eye-tracking also allows foveated rendering, to help reduce technical performance overheads on devices, so only where the user is looking needs to shown in high detail.

Tracking

IK is one way to create automated full-body animation systems but another is to have some form of sensors or cameras to do full-body tracking. This correlates real movement to simulated movement and current systems are generally pretty accurate, under the right conditions. Tracking also goes beyond the user however, with computer vision looking to incorporate every day objects mixed into virtual worlds to blur the lines between whats real and simulated.

Permanence

Currently much of our data is siloed, meaning as we hop between worlds and systems, only our presence within those walls is saved and recalled. With interoperable datasets, our actions, achievements and records of outcomes will follow us around, affecting and impacting everywhere we go, enabling customisation to our preferences and choices.

Blockchain

Whilst we’ve been able to define digital scarcity and asset ownership since the MMO days, blockchain adds another level of irrefutability and records to be attached to data, whether it be a digital asset or a user account. There’s currently a lot of noise around this with crypto and NFTs, and environmental impact, but once green systems are more widespread, they can operate without so much cost and genuine benefits to users.

Digital twins

By creating a 3D replication of real world objects, buildings and places, we can use this data to mesh to the real world, either through virtual representation or mixing the virtual over the real. We can travel to places otherwise impossible to reach or display future, or past builds to review and investigate. If we’re going to be spending more time in a virtual world for work, learning and play, we need to be able to bring accurate, real-world representations into those spaces (abstract, fantasy objects, buildings and places will be relevant too.)

Geo-location

If we know where we are upon the earth, linked to accurate positioning, orientation and scale of digital twins, then we can start to abstract the virtual over the real accurately. Our phones do a pretty good job of keeping tabs on our positions most of the time currently, but there’s lots of noise and inaccuracy around GPS positioning depending where we are. Systems are being built today that can vastly improve accuracy of positioning systems, outside and inside of building and structures.

User Generated Content

Many games have allowed user generated content and modifications for eons, from custom maps to character skins, personal music playlists and sharing of assets and worlds created within the worlds themselves. From a learning perspective, YouTube has grown a use case for quickly learning how to make and fix things (currently being overtaken by TikTok). However today it is easier than ever to become a creator, or builder, and share what you have made with others just by using the phone in your pocket. Using high-end phone cameras and some with LiDAR scanners built-in, we can capture detailed 3D objects from the real world and import them into platforms for sharing and integrating into other applications with minimal fuss. Creation used to be limited to programmers but the metaverse and associated UGC tools allow no-code options to enable anyone with access to the technology at least to become a builder, enabling a more diverse and inclusive group of creators to exist.

Economies

Many people will be happy to capture, create and share content with others for free, building a community and enabling access in new ways but of course there will be those who prefer, or need to commercialise their creations and create new businesses and business models out of doing so. Economies have long existed within games and immersive worlds, however until recently they have been designed to be self-contained within that virtual world, unrelated to established currencies and markets. The current rush to decentralise finance to remove global, country and currency restrictions and costs is driving interest in cryptocurrencies as alternative forms of payment, and investment. Whilst many of these are currently valued based upon demand and availability, future economies will exist that incorporate the needs of a global userbase without the volatility of the market.

Bandwidth

Huge amounts of 3D data flying around between devices will require increased amounts of bandwidth. Early suggestions of what is necessary for the metaverse proposes capabilities not yet widely available. Even though 5G mobile networks are more prevalent in larger urban areas today, the spread is unevenly distributed and capabilities vary region to region depending upon allowed manufacturer of backbone systems deployed. There is a saying with mobile networks that odd numbers promise, even numbers deliver, so perhaps once 6G standards are finalised and technology commonplace, can realistic levels of bandwidth be achievable to service the needs of the metaverse.

Ethics

Aside from laws and limitations that will be in place (see below) there will need to be an agreed, global set of ethical considerations implemented and catered to in order to ensure that resulting metaverse technologies and systems are used for good and benefit the users without putting them or their data at risk or harm. With increased amounts of data able to be captured about a user, the world around them and others within their presence unknowingly, the ethics of the metaverse will be hotly debated until an agree tier of options tied to purpose are able to be implemented by users and builders of the virtual worlds.

Privacy

Following on from ethics, users will have to have greater control over the data captured about them, how it is processed, stored and transmitted, and for what purposes it is used. If we are to have a persistent persona across a variety of purposes, we need to ensure that relevant parties only have access to the information they need for the purposes of visiting that space, whether it be learning, retail, recreation or medical orientated. User data should remain within ownership of the individual, able to choose how much, or little they share when they are traversing worlds in the metaverse with other individuals and organisations they interact with.

Laws

Agreed operational limits, contracts between users, and behaviours are governed by laws that apply to the spaces we inhibit. Whilst real world laws are typically created by regional governments, that we may or may not agree with, but in order to create trust between users and/or organisations, there will be a series of virtual laws that will apply to spaces to allow agreed behaviours to occur within them. Similarly limitations applied by laws or guidelines will exist in order to provide safe spaces and protect users from the freedom of content creation offered, ensuring that curation and gatekeeping is applicable as necessary, much like how content ratings guide appropriateness and empower users to make informed decisions today. When the metaverse blends into the real world, the lines between breaking the law and repercussions will become ever more blurred, it will be user choice to adhere to them and utilise the protections offered.

Social

One thing we can all agree on is that the metaverse will be social. Whether we’re meeting for a design review of a digital twin, collaborating in meetings, hanging out, playing games or a variety of other activities, much like the real world, there will be a series of social norms, expectations and best practice around acceptable user behaviour and tools to manage users we meet, or communities and worlds we manage. Any online interaction is potentially harmful and so tools will have to exist to empower users to mute, block, restrict and control who they interact with, and who can interact with them, in order to provide safe, welcoming experiences for everyone. Of course, some worlds will want to configure their own rules and guidelines so notifications and signposting will need to be available to enable users to understand what to expect, what is accepted within that specific space and what are the repercussions of stepping outside of those boundaries.

Accessibility

Creating a new virtual world, supposedly free of the restrictions and barriers of the real world and physics is somewhat pointless if we create new barriers to entry. These could exist through availability of hardware and the network structure to access the metaverse to design implications of input, user interface and disabilities that are incompatible with how virtual content is rendered, understood and interacted with. Many use virtual worlds to escape physical limitations placed upon them or associated judgement from other members of society, so the metaverse of the future must enable everyone equal and unrivalled access irrespective of abilities. Many tools exist today to render digital content in accessible ways, from text-to-voice, contrast and colour options, text sizes, subtitles, auto-translation and more. These will have to be interoperable with the metaverse at a standards level. However with the emphasis on movement and 6 degree-of-freedom tracking and interactions, systems will have to accommodate users with restricted motor capabilities too.

Conclusion

Many of you who have read this far will be thinking: “But we have all these things now!” And this is true to an extent, however they are incomplete, functions scattered across different applications, non-standardised and unevenly distributed across platforms and systems. Whilst technically we can recreate The Oasis from Ready Player One today, although the film is set in 2045, the cost and effort to do so is generally inhibitive to most users and organisations. However it is likely that the metaverse will take its new form within the next 5-10 years, somewhat sooner than when the film is set.

Depending upon how you define the metaverse, whether you believe its something that has existed in one form for decades, is new today or is yet to be defined and created, the next evolution of computing is exciting and full of opportunities that organisations and users need to be thinking about today, ready for tomorrow. It will happen, how and by whom is still currently being defined but as the next form of the internet, it will play a crucial role in our lives. Whether learning or at work, engaging in play, being entertained and other everyday facets rapidly becoming digitalised and virtual, its up to all of us to make sure it is used for good and to benefit the many, rather than the few. Much like how we do not use terms today like information superhighway or world wide web, we likely will agree the metaverse as it’s being discussed today will be called something else tomorrow, what that is is anyone’s guess. Maybe we’ll just stick with the internet.

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We’re always happy to talk to you about how immersive technologies can engage your employees and customers. If you have a learning objective in mind, or simply want to know more about VR, send us a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.