The concept of the metaverse is revolutionary and has the potential to transform the world as we know it. The use cases are endless and span across many different aspects of life, including healthcare, work, and shopping. However, there are legal and ethical hurdles that must be crossed in order to ensure that the metaverse becomes a benefit to society.
The rise in remote work
Covid fuelled the growth of remote work but also showed that remote work has its own constraints and challenges. One, unlike an office environment, remote employees can’t fully integrate with an office culture because it limits participation. Two, there are practical limitations to multiple use cases like meetings, demonstrations, training, and ad-hoc meetings. For example, a remote employee might find it difficult to virtually follow and absorb classroom training or recreational events at the office. It might be difficult to interact with colleagues on an ad-hoc basis, unlike in an office environment.
The metaverse can potentially address these problems. Remote employees can be put through immersive experiences and they find themselves walking around in a virtual office space, interacting with the digital avatars of their colleagues, and participating in meetings. Exploring software applications on a 2D computer screen might be limiting because it doesn’t foster a full understanding. The metaverse can change even that by providing full 3D experiences so that employees can explore on their own, which could enhance employee productivity and happiness.
Impact on the Environment
There are two schools of thought on the impact on the environment. One school of thought maintains that the environment will become cleaner because of a reduction in carbon emissions as remote work increases and the demand for real estate goes down. But, the other school of thought maintains that the metaverse could lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The data we have projects a grim picture of the environment. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Virtual Reality production could consume a lot of energy and that can become a source of bad effects. A recent study found that just one model of AI could generate 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide which is 5 times more than a car will generate in its lifetime which is scary. Cloud gaming, an essential component of VR, could raise carbon emissions significantly by 2030. AI and VR both use high-resolution images which consume significant amounts of energy. Facebook and Microsoft have been among the most serious promoters of the metaverse but the huge investments they’re making in data centers could seriously impact the environment.
Impact on education
The metaverse and other AI technologies have the potential to change learning experiences around the world. It will simply remove the physical barriers. Students irrespective of their physical locations can have immersive learning experiences. A few ways in which the metaverse can transform the world of education:
- An immersive learning experience in Virtual classrooms.
- Participating in Virtual campus activities. It will feel like being physically present on campus and participating in various events.
- Participating in lab activities as if the student is physically present in labs and doing the experiments.
- Working directly with prominent personalities in various fields like some top-level doctors, scientists or engineers, regardless of your physical location.
Impact on shopping experiences
The metaverse is going to change the customer shopping experience. The future will be a virtual shopping world, where the customers will be present as a virtual avatar and do the same activities as if they are physically present in the store. The metaverse going to impact all the retail segments like fashion, FMCG, home decor, apparel, and many more. The metaverse could potentially revolutionize the shopping experiences with the help of technologies like AR, VR, and sophisticated sensors. Some of the possibilities include:
- Offering personalized shopping experiences
- Brands can learn more about the customers and their preferences.
- Creating virtual events to improve customer engagement.
Impact on mental health
Before proceeding on the potential impact on mental health, it’s important to note that the analysis and data are of preliminary nature and many things could change. There are both bad and good effects. As it is, the effects of prolonged exposure to digital devices are well-chronicled and known. People have been struggling with their mental health and clarity amidst an explosion of digital technology. Some people believe that the Metaverse could take this to another level. Phil Reed D.Phil., who teaches psychology at Swansea University, points to numerous mental issues that the metaverse could cause or aggravate. For example, it could cause somatic depression, symptoms, psychoticism, paranoia, and serious mental illness.
However, on the other side, the metaverse could enable those with mental health issues and seeking support to reach out to the appropriate people or forums in an immersive experience. It’s basically taking the availability and the potential of online support groups, forums, and mental health professionals to another level. But we must note that these discussions and analyses may be just scratching the surface. According to Jeff Wong, the Global Chief Innovation Officer at Ernst & Young (EY), the metaverse isn’t meant to replace existing modes of interactions but should complement these.
Challenges and issues
While the metaverse seems to be a game-changer and understandably excites many of us, there are multiple challenges and issues that need to be addressed before it gets going at scale:
- Privacy & Legal issues – Cybersecurity Company ExpressVPN surveyed 1,500 remote employees, asking them their opinions on the metaverse, and found that many of them had expressed reservations about the potential attacks on their privacy. Built-in AI can potentially access individual data more than ever before and that constitutes a big risk. The legal side of data privacy has to be considered carefully.
- Cost of the metaverse infrastructure – the cost of setting up the metaverse is another area to be considered. The cost includes technology, human resources, and the carbon emissions that accompany those.
- Health-related issues – the metaverse, as already discussed briefly, can aggravate mental health issues. It can be addictive to people who are already addicted to technology. Young kids are increasingly spending more time engaging with electronic devices. This could lead to various mental health issues like depression, anxiety, hallucination, and detachment from reality, which could lead to physical lifestyle diseases like obesity, hypertension, and diabetes.
- Onboarding retail stores – retail stores may not be interested to invest in the metaverse model which is yet to be tested.
The Way Forward
The metaverse can do great things for our planet but there are a number of risks and costs associated with it. One, corporations such as Meta and Microsoft should be under the purview of a clear legal and ethical framework that provides them with certain responsibilities. For example, there should be clear guidelines on data collection and their usage, consent, and legal redress in the event of abuse. Two, such corporations must commit to clear guidelines on the environmental impact of AI and VR development. There should be quantifiable metrics to measure the performance. Third, an empowered committee comprising practicing and qualified mental health professionals must frame guidelines on the usage of the metaverse. Finally, a comprehensive guideline that amalgamates all these guidelines must be developed and that will evolve with time.