Virtual world immersion can, in fact, be exhausting for users after extended periods of exposure - often, using the internet can result in significant overstimulation, and this becomes even more the case in a 'virtual reality' environment.
However, it's certainly not all bad news. The metaverse offers users the potential for a virtual experience unlike any they may have seen before, with any number of potential benefits still to be discovered. David Reid, professor of AI and special computing at Liverpool Hope University, believes that the metaverse "will dwarf what the World Wide Web (WWW) achieved." He says that it provides far more flexibility, data, interactivity, and a far more visceral experience than the internet ever did. Anything you can do with the internet you can do in the metaverse, but much better."
Beyond this, Reid feels that the metaverse will help progress AI technology even further. "If you think about how you actually move around the environment, you're basically moving around a virtual environment and you're providing vast amounts of data for a system to actually process. I fully envisage a strong link up between the metaverse and AI as well. The metaverse is the perfect platform for AI to learn from and develop."
Reid goes on to say that whilst the potential dangers of the metaverse should not be underestimated in any way, it is also something to be hugely excited for. "It'll create new jobs that we haven't even considered yet. Nobody would have ever thought about the concept of an influencer when the internet first came around," Reid says.
"Virtuality could really help a lot of older people too or those who are housebound. It gives them the opportunity to mentally get out of their own environments. I can imagine somebody who's bedbound or in hospital would be able to distract themselves from the problems of the real world. The key problem is that if people become too addicted to doing that, they could just prefer this new virtual world."
Mental health experts have begun to warn that, like most things in life, the metaverse should be used and adopted in moderation. Users should be appropriately educated around the risks of the metaverse in the same way that they should be educated around how to best use the internet. The benefit of hindsight and the decades of internet and social media usage that have existed so far should help to inform us of how to build a better society, with all the many benefits of the metaverse, whilst reducing the potential for its not insignificant risks. The blueprint that the internet has provided us should be our first and best tool to help develop institutions and practices that can help users protect themselves in the future. Where we benefit over the dystopian world Neal Stephenson created in his early-90's novel Snow Crash, and the subsequent mid-90's internet boom, this time we won't be going into the metaverse blind to the way progress, in practice, can really look.
'Exploring the metaverse' is a four-part series released by The Difference Engine over the month of June 2022.