Don’t Jump Into the ‘Metaverse’ Just Yet, Warns Georgia Tech Digital Media Expert

Woman with VR headset.

Posted December 1, 2021

Since Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the social technology company’s name change to Meta in October, the topic of the “metaverse” has pushed its way into nearly every news source. While many debate the potential risks to mental health, privacy, and human rights, everyone seems to have skipped over a vital piece of information — the metaverse does not yet exist. In fact, it may never materialize in the form Zuckerberg has promised.

With the metaverse being merely a concept, its definition varies among companies and scholars. Facebook describes it as “a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you.”

Janet Murray, noted scholar of digital media and Distinguished Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, cautions not to accept the metaverse as promised by Zuckerberg, and not to start picking out your avatar’s outfit just yet.

“There will be no such thing as a metaverse in the sense of another universe that people plug into,” Murray said. “There are going to be applications of virtual reality and applications of augmented reality, but they are not going to merge into a pervasive experience of unreality. We will still be living in the physical universe. If people start thinking that this is an inevitability, then they will have false expectations of what is possible with the technology.”

The result of these false expectations, according to Murray, is that people will prematurely lose confidence in the whole idea of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). If people are disappointed after experiencing the first applications of a novel metaverse, the funding for VR and AR could decrease or dry up completely. This would mean that serious applications — such as those for medicine or education, which take longer to develop — would no longer have the support needed to become fully functional.

“It’s a difference between thinking of the metaverse as a venue that can be monetized and thinking of it as a set of new formats and genres that can offer imaginative experiences and explanations of reality that could not be captured in other forms of media,” Murray said. “If you are focused on selling advertising, you can lose sight of more specific design goals that can only be achieved by time-consuming iteration on particular applications that people actually want to engage with.”

Just a few of the questions surrounding the metaverse include the potential risks to mental health, privacy, and human rights. Murray noted that the actions of Facebook leadership had already proven the newly renamed company could not be trusted with these issues. But she pointed out that addressing such questions at this stage, when the metaverse remains a futuristic fantasy, is “like worrying about whether super-intelligent AIs are going to take over the world.” Instead, she would like to see increased pressure on tech companies to confront existing ethical problems, such as promoting disinformation on Facebook.

“By the time the next generation of VR and AR applications are actually here, they won’t be so excitingly novel that we have to have some other name for them,” Murray said. “It’s going to be made up of distinct genres with clear boundaries and limitations, like going to the movies or entering a theme park. It is not going to feel like another universe where people merge into some alternate reality that is different from our grounded physical reality.”

Murray has also recently participated in a panel sponsored by The Verge titled “What the Heck is the Metaverse?” and was a guest on an episode of the BBC podcast The Inquiry discussing the metaverse.

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Cassidy Chreene Whittle
Communications Officer
School of Literature, Media, and Communication | School of Modern Languages