Inside the metaverse: Watch out for real threats in the virtual world

As with any new technological advance, there isn’t going to be a straight, upwards trajectory of growth in the metaverse, says Venus Dhuria, co-founder of app developer AppyHigh.

Among the things that could keep that arrow from trending upwards are universal questions that have faced new technologies since, probably, the taming of fire: What will it be used for, and how will experience providers keep users safe? How will the quality of experience be standardised? How many will pay for this new advance, and how often?

What is certain is that the metaverse is a chance for a do-over in the virtual world. It is a chance to disrupt the walled-gardens approach (where every site and platform exists as a silo) and invite everyone out into the open. While it is unlikely that everyone will mingle in one giant overlapping parallel reality, there is hope that at least some metaverse platforms will remain more open than most online platforms are today, if only to offer users a more seamless experience.

“I don’t think there will be one metaverse. But my hope is that the open ones will win and force everybody to be more open, because it’s better for every user. If content can travel in and out of metaverses, then I can invest more time and effort in my digital identity,” says Stefano Corazza, head of augmented reality, vice-president and fellow at software solutions company Adobe.

The truth is that, as with today’s social-media platforms, a few giants will likely emerge, with largely “walled” experiences. The common elements will likely involve product placement, launches and sponsored events.

Leading tech companies already operating in this space include Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook), Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Microsoft, Roblox and Nvidia.

As they build their complex virtual realities, let’s discuss an important factor that isn’t raised enough in metaverse conversations: the “engine”. The engine acts as the foundation of a metaverse. It determines how real the avatars can look; how customisable they can be; how complex a world one will be able to build.

The three most popular metaverse engines currently in use are Unity by Unity Technologies, Unreal by Epic Games and Mercury by Adobe. Unity and Unreal both started out as engines for games, about 15 years ago. They have also been used in animation, virtual-reality and augmented-reality experiences.

Meta’s Builder Bot, still in development, is using artificial intelligence (AI) to drive the creation of sophisticated future worlds in which a user can, for instance, use voice commands to wish virtual objects into being. Antoine Bordes, managing director for AI at Meta, points out that the exact contours for Builder Bot are still being worked out in terms of the quantum of human-generated models that AI will be able to pick from. “That is why this is still in the lab and not a final product,” he told HT in February.

Risk assessment

The real challenge isn’t likely to be the technology. It’s keeping the technology safe. How does one avoid a cyberbully or cyberstalker in a metaverse? How does one prevent identity theft or the siphoning off of user data?

“Things like proving your digital identity, data protection, and how ownership rights are granted for creators of digital assets are some challenges creators are likely to face,” says Vipasha Joshi, country manager at Jellysmack, a US-based company that represents and works to promote content creators.

Most of these worlds aren’t even up yet and already, in November, Meta confirmed that a beta tester had been groped by a stranger on its collaborative VR platform Horizon Worlds. The company has promised to integrate better blocking features.

Discussions about how laws would apply in these virtual worlds are also ongoing. “It will be essential to identify means according to which the matter of jurisdiction will be applicable,” says Alex Dzyuba, founder and CEO of US-based immersive-technology consultancy Lucid Reality Labs.

Meanwhile, the metaverse business looks set to boom, by as much as 37% a year, according to a global Research and Markets report released this year. Data breaches in the gaming world and the world of NFTs or non-fungible tokens are a testament to the challenges that lie ahead. And that’s before even factoring in the potential for theft, infringement and copyright violation in a virtual world where you can also own, and sell, what you create.

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