April 5, 2022
If you believe Mark Zuckerberg, we are no more than five years away from commuting to work via virtual reality headset, meeting colleagues as avatars, and spending much of our working lives (providing tons of data to Facebook) in VR. Five years is unrealistic considering the metaverse is still largely unformed. We’re at least a decade away from a persistent, interactive, and shared virtual world parallel to our own and accessed (ideally) through a single gateway. Nevertheless, millions of dollars are flowing into enabling and precursor technologies, and companies like Mercedes, Walmart, and HSBC are experimenting and filing trademarks to carve out a place in today’s most popular virtual worlds.
Whether the next evolution of the internet, a dystopian Meta-controlled future, or a new way of labeling XR, the metaverse needs a lot of work before it can become real. Here are some of the biggest challenges to realizing the Metaverse.
Privacy concerns top the list: In a December 2021 survey, 87% of U.S. adults reported feeling concerned about their privacy if Meta were to succeed in creating the metaverse (Statista). Other concerns include hacking, impersonation, and, of course, data use.
The information that can be collected in VR is extremely intimate. When coupled with advances in Machine Learning, it will open entirely new categories of personal data that privacy experts fear will turn the metaverse into the ultimate surveillance tool. A 2019 study found that gaze alone can reveal one’s age, gender, ethnicity, emotional state, sexual preferences, and other personal details. What sensitive information will tech companies infer from our eye movements, facial expressions, biometrics, etc. in the metaverse?
On the work front, employees fear metaverse data will be used against them for hiring, promotion, and other career-impacting decisions. Even with consent, questions remain like who can see the data and where is it stored. As of now, there is little to no guidance on developing privacy-first metaverse experiences or protecting one’s identity while in the metaverse.
Security and Legal
The commercial, legal, and regulatory implications of the metaverse are enormous. Take intellectual property, for example: What are the limits of IP, ownership, piracy, and patents in the virtual world? Are there digital land rights? How do brands deal with counterfeit digital products? Do you need a license to practice law in the metaverse?
The metaverse also presents a new arena for hackers and new opportunities for criminal behavior. How will misconduct be reported? What recourse do victims of avatar identity theft have? Are financial transactions protected?
There are many, many issues to think through, especially as companies begin to stake claims in the metaverse. With little regulation and a reliance on volatile cryptocurrencies, businesses are advised to exercise caution when investing in the metaverse and to facilitate early conversations between IT, compliance, legal, finance, and security.
Yes, safety is still an issue in the virtual world. We’ve already seen cyberstalking, cyberbullying, revenge porn, and more in virtual reality. In a 2018 survey, 50% of women reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in VR. Earlier this year, a woman was allegedly groped in Meta’s Horizon Rooms. It’s naïve to think that online harassment or interpersonal workplace issues will disappear when we socialize and work in the metaverse.
But it’s not only biased and sexist behavior that’s worrying. Safety in the metaverse encompasses physical safety and mental health, too. Cut off from their physical surroundings, headset-wearing VR users have been known to get injured. And when asked about the dangers of the metaverse, 47% of people said addiction to simulated reality, followed by problems related to privacy and mental health (Statista). Remote work is already isolating. Will working in the metaverse make us even lonelier?
Whatever Zuckerberg thinks, there’s no guarantee that people will want to spend time in the metaverse. 78% of Americans think the metaverse is just hype, while 65% of young people (ages 18-24) just aren’t interested in the metaverse (Klaviyo). Then there is the hardware: Current-generation VR headsets are relatively lightweight, but save for designers and engineers, most people would not want to wear one for an entire workday. The barrier is both physical (motion sickness, eye strain, etc.) and mental: Those who’ve spent hours working in VR report feeling disoriented, disembodied, isolated, and even claustrophobic.
In enterprise, Forrester’s J.P. Gownder believes the last two years of virtual meetings will slow VR’s adoption among regular workers. Employees will need a highly compelling reason to wear VR headsets beyond the shortcomings of Zoom. Case in point: Venture capitalist Christina Ku’s attempts to move all her meetings to the metaverse have been met with resistance by colleagues and employees alike. Avatars are simply not a substitute for in-person interactions…yet.
Lastly, there are technical challenges such as computing power, connectivity (bandwidth), and interoperability. According to Accenture, most companies aren’t ready for the majority of customer interactions to be digital, which means they’re already behind in preparing for the metaverse.
Cost may be an issue, too: Though you can snag a VR headset today for under $300, enterprises need to account for additional costs like faster WiFi and high-performance computers (especially for collaboration use cases requiring real-time rendering). Furthermore, a true ecosystem of virtual worlds, where a person’s digital assets can be carried from one world to another, would require a level of partnership among Big Tech companies that’s contrary to their nature and profits.
Food for Thought
In addition to the above, there are issues like environmental sustainability and even somewhat existential questions like, Will metaverse products reduce the inherent value of actual objects in the real world? I don't know if it's possible to create a safe, secure, and responsible metaverse, but as companies today seem to be of an “act now, think later” mindset, improvements to the metaverse will likely come about in a reactive or retroactive fashion.