VIDEO: Real guardrails in immersive technologies: navigating the metaverse safely

Many people are unfamiliar with the term ‘metaverse’ and what exactly it is. Some believe it is the ‘next big thing’ in the tech world, others will tell you it is already here.

The reality is that billions of dollars have already been invested into metaverse technologies where people live/work/play in connected virtual or augmented realities. Early versions seen in the gaming world like Roblox or Fortnite are already being used by millions of children around the world. 

Metaverse Safety Week is an international initiative led by the XR Safety Initiative, to bring together policy makers, industry leaders and influencers to address the risks to safety, data protection, privacy and trust within this emerging ecosystem.

One of the pioneers in this field is author, inventor and entrepreneur Dr Louis Rosenberg.

In this exclusive interview with the ODPA, he explained to us what exactly the metaverse is, why it matters, what its benefits are and what the risks are if society doesn’t push for this developing immersive reality world to be properly regulated. 
In this conversation with ODPA communications officer Katherine Levy, Dr Louis Rosenberg explains why he feels that advances in immersive technology could benefit society, provided these are subject to regulation to prevent the exploitation of users. He says that the metaverse has great potential to have a “profoundly positive impact on society” but to get there it needs “guardrails to protect the public” from the downsides as well. 

A pioneer in augmented and virtual reality and CEO of artificial intelligence company Unanimous AI, there are few people in the tech world better placed to talk about the pros and the cons of these rapidly developing immersive media* platforms. Dr Rosenberg has also written extensively about the virtual world now known as the metaverse*, ranging from fictional narratives to news articles and academic papers about cutting edge developments. 

At the ODPA we found his fictional narrative “Metaverse 2030” (available as an audio play here) particularly poignant, as it takes you on an immersive and light-hearted journey into what an augmented world could be like. It doesn’t dwell on darker themes but nonetheless there is a cautionary subtext which runs throughout, without painting an apocalyptic vision of the future.

  1. At the ODPA we are always looking for inspiring content to help engage the community in the fight to do what’s right with people’s personal data and bridge the gap between the regulatory world and real life. This is the beating heart of our social initiative Project Bijou, to encourage cultural change through sharing stories and experiences. 
  2. Dr Rosenberg says he is: “ a true believer that virtual and augmented reality, which is now called the Metaverse can really be positive for society but at the same time, I’ve been at this long enough that I am really concerned about the risks.”
  3. An outspoken advocate of regulation on the international stage, Dr Rosenberg explains: “Without regulation, we will go down the same path as social media went where companies had good intentions, developers had utopian visions, but the business models evolved and companies pushed themselves to compete further and further in different directions and you end up with this very negative outcome nobody expected. In the metaverse the same thing will happen unless there is regulation and yet it will be worse because the technology is so much more intimate.”
  4. Dr Rosenberg calls for regulation to be introduced before it is too late:  “I talk to policy makers in countries all around the world and one of the things they often say is, well, we can’t even regulate social media, how are we going to regulate the metaverse and my answer is, you can’t regulate social media because you waited 10 years too long. You can actually regulate the metaverse because the business models aren’t fully developed, if you just put simple guardrails in place then those business models will develop in a different way.”
  5. On why regulation is particularly needed in online spaces children use: 
    “In the metaverse, all these dangers – tracking, profiling and also targeting are going to be more dangerous for kids. Even with traditional advertising, kids have a harder time telling the difference between an advertisement and just an authentic experience. In the metaverse, we are all going to have a harder time telling the difference unless there’s regulation and so the level of protections for kids is even more important than for adults.”
  6.  Dr Rosenberg believes there is huge potential if these technologies are handled carefully: "For 30 years the technology has been developing to be the most effective tool for fooling the senses that we could create, that’s the entire purpose of virtual reality, augmented reality, that’s to blur the boundaries between what’s real, and what’s not real. To create a suspension of disbelief around completely fabricated things and so when we think about the dangers of the metaverse, we need to realise that those things can be used against you, that the metaverse could become the most powerful tool of persuasion that we’ve ever created because it has the ability to fabricate anything and it has the ability to track and profile you at levels we’ve never seen before. That said, regulation and guardrails could prevent that and could make the metaverse a safe and magical place that can do really amazing things for medicine and education and entertainment - but we need the guardrails.”

Louis Rosenberg earned his PhD from Stanford University and holds numerous patents for VR, AR, and AI technologies. He began his career at the US Air Force Research Laboratory in the early 1990s where he created the first functional augmented reality system. 
In 2014 Dr Rosenberg founded Unanimous AI to amplify the intelligence of networked human groups using the biological principle of Swarm Intelligence.  The idea resulted in Swarm AI, an award-winning technology used by a wide range of organizations from Fortune 500 corporations to the United Nations. He also gave a TEDx Talk on the power of Hive Minds. To help push for safe metaverse technologies, Dr. Rosenberg volunteers as the Chief Scientist of the Responsible Metaverse Alliance and as the Global Technology Advisor to the XR Safety Initiative (XRSI). 

If you are unfamiliar with terms used when discussing the metaverse, here are some broad definitions: 
  • Metaverse
    The word ‘metaverse’ has been around since the early 1990s and usually refers to virtual online worlds accessible via immersive media technologies like augmented and virtual reality. Instead of using a computer to go online, you use an augmented or virtual reality headset to enter a digital world where you can play games, socialise, shop, attend medical appointments and even work.  People typically experience metaverse platforms via avatars - a digital version of themselves. Existing metaverse platforms include gaming platforms like Roblox, Fortnite and Minecraft.
  • Virtual Reality 
    Virtual Reality (VR) uses technology to fully immerse users in a virtual world, cut off from real life. Users wear headsets and / or motion tracking sensors to plunge into an alternative, immersive reality.
    The concept has been around for decades. VR is used in a variety of ways such as helping plan or perform complicated procedures like brain surgery, and the United Nations has also used VR films to recreate conditions in refugee camps and inspire humanitarian empathy.   
  • Augmented Reality
    Augmented Reality (AR) enables users to see and experience the real-world with digital imagery overlaid, so it enhances the physical environment rather than creating an exclusively virtual bubble. 
    The game ‘Pokemon Go’ is a good example of AR in real life. Players use GPS on their smart phones to hunt for characters that appear on their screen, overlaid onto real-world settings.
  • Artificial Intelligence 
    The term Artificial Intelligence (AI) is usually used to describe machines that can sense, learn, infer and perform activities usually associated with human intelligence. 
  • Machine Learning 
    Machine Learning is the method that produces Artificial Intelligence. It’s a catch-all term for a computer program learning and adapting to new data without human intervention. Able to process vast amounts of information, it can be applied in a variety of areas, such as in investing, advertising, lending, organising news, and fraud detection.
  • Web3 
    Web 3.0 or Web3 usually refers to the imagined third phase in the internet’s evolution where it is decentralized (rather than control being held by a handful of big tech companies) and individual users have more ownership.
  • Bad Actors 
    This refers to a person or organisation responsible for actions that are harmful, illegal, or morally wrong. The term ‘threat actor’ is also used in a similar way.  

Other useful resources:
BBC Radio 4 - File on 4, Roblox: A Dangerous Game?
METAVERSE 2030. Preface: As a young researcher at Air… | by Louis Rosenberg | Predict | Medium
Mind control: The metaverse may be the ultimate tool of persuasion | VentureBeat
The metaverse: What is it and how soon will it work? - CBBC Newsround
Apparently, it's the next big thing. What is the metaverse? - BBC News
New hope for humans in an A.I. world | Louis Rosenberg | TEDxKC - YouTube
What is Artificial Intelligence (AI)? | IBM
What is AI? What does artificial intelligence do? - CBBC Newsround