Conceptually, the metaverse promises a lifelike, immersive virtual world where people can meet, work and play using devices like virtual reality (VR) headsets and smartphones, among other gadgets. However, there is no consensus about what the metaverse actually looks like in practice.
As Zachdev, I am personally betting on the metaverse as just one part of a broader trend in the digitization and intellectualization of online socializing with elements of entrepreneurship and networking.
Mark Zuckerberg’s rush into developing the metaverse during this ongoing pandemic was to give society an immersive digital reality to interact, learn and discover. However, I recommend that as crypto investors, we all have to be aware that Mark Zukerburg’s one objective is to build a business around where people spend their time and attention.
In September, Facebook announced it was investing $50 million into building out the metaverse, and a month later, it changed it’s name to Meta, a branded commitment to it’s belief in social virtual reality. While in theory you can do everything in the metaverse that you can do in real-life, it’s not totally clear yet why you would want to. Outside of gaming, training, and very niche collaborative work, people don’t have a good reason to strap a screen to their face. We’re seeing how virtual characters become one’s emotional support companions, becoming digital confidents with whom you can share your ideas and feelings, and they are available 24/7 for you.
These characters have a short term and long term memory function, meaning they can come back to thoughts you’ve shared in the past. If you share your inner worries, your problems, the AI will come back to those topics and even give you personal advice.
Having a bot as a fly-by-night therapist of course raises questions, like whether there are mechanisms in place to prevent bots from being trained to go rogue like Tay Bot, the Microsoft AI that was quickly trained to be racist. Also, what happens to all the data generated from these conversations? And can a social network really be entrusted with our mental health at all? If the last two decades have shown us anything, it’s that social networks don’t act in the best interest of their users.
There is something to the idea that virtual reality can improve mental health ranging from anxiety, simple phobias to post-traumatic stress disorder or social anxiety.
The reason virtual reality works so well has to do with the way the brain makes memories in relation to physical space. Just as tastes and smells can form and trigger a cascade of remembrances, so too can our movements.
More recently, researchers have found that virtual reality works well with GPS systems, enabling memories to form in a different way than when we are just tooling around on our computers. It is effective in modifying memories and experiences more than any other technology. We are looking at how modern medicine use virtual reality to treat patients with eating disorders, both as a method for teaching patients how to regulate their emotions around food and for altering distorted perceptions around the size of their bodies. Using Virtual Reality to enter into a real body that is more similar to your own correct shape and in this way, trick your brain and correct the distortion. Eventually, it will be an effective method for treating mental health issues when the anxiety is tethered to a specific memory or place, as in post traumatic stress disorder.
As I was reflecting about it, Meditation is done with eyes closed. The whole point of it is to quiet the mind, blocking out all external stimuli. So the reason why virtual reality can be a tool for meditation, is that for a brief moment it can take you out of the space you’re in without closing your eyes. Let’s say you’re at the office, and there’s a mess on your desk. When you close your eyes, you will still be thinking about the mess on your desk. But if you put on a headset, and suddenly you’re sitting next to a pond and bugs are chirping in your ear, the papers on your desk will feel less present.
However, we have to be aware that just as this technology has the ability to improve mental health, it could also have the opposite effect. Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook’s own research showed that Instagram can negatively impact teen girls, in some cases leading to eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and low self esteem. Now imagine that rather than reading about something online or even seeing photos, you can experience it. That difference has a profound impact on how we internalize information.
To end off, the metaverse is much more than the latest marketing buzzword. It has unlimited opportunities for brands to reach and engage with consumers in new, meaningful ways. Metaverses don’t need to be limited to one platform, as long as there is a shared, continuous experience. Your metaverse life might take you from immersive, VR environments, to 3D environments rendered on a conventional flat screen, to 2D applications on your mobile phone, depending on what you want to do. The important factor is that there is continuity between the activities and environments, in terms of the user experience and avatar you control.