More realities of Extended Reality (XR) | by Avi Bar-Zeev | Aug, 2021

Much of what we think we know about XR is wrong

These ideas are widely believed and often aspired to, but unfortunately remain largely bunk. Let’s take them apart, unpack and hopefully debunk.

The most important take-away from the previous article is that Virtual Worlds exist primarily inside our minds. They’re our mental models for the world around us, whether it’s real or virtual. Communication, and most of XR, is about how we share and anneal these mental models among people.

As you may have heard once or twice recently, folks are calling this next phase of on-line experience “The Metaverse.” Folks 30 years ago heralded the internet as “Cyberspace.” Yeah. Stuff can finally be more 3D and immersive.

Thus far in internet history, we’ve built a vast web of mostly 2D dynamic layouts that show the artifacts of people: articles, photos, videos, tweets. But rarely do we interact directly with other people on-line, except in games, audio and video chat (and even those are limited in terms of interactions).

The next phase of digital experience is where we more directly re-introduce people into the mix. In retrospect, the most fitting term may be The Internet of People. I gave an awkward talk on this in 2015. It’s essentially like the open web: decentralized, extended to everyone, everyplace, for everyday lives. I’ve also jokingly called the “AR Cloud” side of this the World Wide World.

I’m not cool enough to name things. But “Cyberspace” and “World Wide Web” eventually reduced down to just “The Web” in popular use. We don’t know yet what this next thing will be commonly called. Something short, I hope.

But one thing is certain: for some folks, the Metaverse is just a Meta-purse. Depictions in gushing articles of its potential to take over everything— that ignore our real human needs, real behaviors, and the realities of life — are just as limited as a Web lacking humans. So let’s actually talk about people

Avatars are People too

The term Avatar is appropriated from Hindu religion, meaning a deity (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) incarnated on Earth. It has come to represent our proxy or vessel inside virtual worlds. It can take any form, most often human, ranging from cartoonish all the way to “uncanny valley,” and someday beyond.

The details are largely up for debate. A single approach may not fit all uses.

If we understand that virtual worlds exist primarily inside our own minds, then it becomes easy to see how avatars may actually be projections of our self-image, self-esteem, and/or ego.

Some theories of “self” predict that misery, stress and certain kinds of mental illness arise from a schism between our inner and outer selves. Body and appearance is just one dimension. Many of us spend our lives trying to live up to external expectations. We may carry painful memories, even lies, from childhood. We may feel trapped in roles, relationships, sometimes in our bodies too, that just don’t feel right.

If so, then virtual worlds might provide a pathway to change the outer self to better explore the inner. Some VR services —like Second Life, VRChat and Neosprovide the means to significantly customize your avatars, not strictly limited to human forms. And they allow anonymity to boot.

While tuning our outer selves to explore our inner truth is an important goal, it can go wrong when we react to external pressures instead. A salesperson in XR could gain an edge by becoming taller and better looking. Any of us might feel pressure to crank up our attractiveness to feel more “loved.” This creates even more social pressure, in a negative feedback loop.

Think of how many people today internalize an external pressure to wear makeup or buy branded fashion, or fit impossible weight goals IRL. Think about eating disorders, compulsive consumerism and low self-esteem. And consider that advertising and buying “upgrades” are two of the most lucrative on-line business models already.

Unless something changes, the new social victims in XR will be more of the same we see IRL. How do we keep from falling into this trap yet again?

Grief is not Good

Let’s talk about on-line harassment and abuse. I don’t want to overly scare anyone, because there’s an ocean of social goodness in on-line worlds. But it often only takes one asshole to poison the waters. And these problems persist. It’s been 20 to 30 years now since they were first seriously studied.

Back in 2001, I recall being in Second Life for two whole minutes before I was accosted. Even though I worked there, I didn’t go back in. If someone’s first experience in social XR is abusive, they’re unlikely to come back anytime soon.

Harassment in virtual environments earned its own jargon: griefing. The debate became toxic too, especially towards women, minorities and anyone who stood up to bullies. Griefing culture is linked to the “alt-right” movement, openly adopting Fascism as an end-goal. They’d rather give up our collective freedom than geniunely be nice to everyone.

Even when they think they’re being nice, we still hear: “It’s all virtual, get over it,” and “You’d be safer with a male avatar.” That’s like blaming a rape victim for their choice of clothes. The same people arguing “it’s all virtual” get triggered into fits of rage by simply disagreeing with them on-line.

The introspection is not there, and the bunk is clear. If a group of like-minded players enters a Battle Royal style MMO, then they’ve all temporarily agreed to a few anti-social rules. Even mosh pits have rules to protect people.

People entering social VR only ever agreed to the basic rules of social interaction. Griefing is non-consensual abuse. Each perpetrator is a de facto abuser. How much do you want to bet this mirrors their real life too?

Predators can also groom victims for future abuse by deception, being friends, until they are in a position to do significant harm.

Will the Warlords of The Metaverse (Facebook, Nvidia, Roblox*, Epic, and other game companies) stop the abuse and commit to giving all customers a safe experience, or will they tell their customers to “get over it” too?

[* Roblox was designed for kids but wants to be a Metaverse for everyone.]

Real Names to the Rescue?

Facebook requires real-name accounts for their VR devices. Some claim this adds accountability. But I think it’s more that “Facebook friends” begin with IRL relationships, as in “something to lose.” And let’s be honest: this policy is more about Facebook combining personal data streams to better serve us ads.

On Twitter, where we may use real names by choice, our feeds are more randomly exposed. We see people bullied, harassed and doxxed here too. Accountability is about “getting cancelled,” but that doesn’t stop the hate.

And so bad behavior continues, despite hoardes of social media staff handling more reports of abuse and even employing new AI tools to find abusers. As it stands, Facebook does almost nothing about fascist trolls leading their daily misinformation feeds. It’s not like they don’t know who these people are.

Why do we think this will be any better in 3D?

Physical wounds from IRL crimes hopefully get medical and police attention. Emotional wounds more often go untended. Since Virtual Worlds exist primarily in our minds, the trauma from hostile encounters can affect us just as much as any physical trauma might.

Ralf Koster has been designing social VR spaces since the 90s.

I often wonder if we’re setting ourselves up for extra problems by calling these things Avatars or MetaHumans. These terms dehumanize the targets.

We want folks to treat them as least as well as we treat real people, not as toys or inanimate objects, right? So why don’t we just call them people?

Other solutions to griefing involve making people mutually invisible and intangible, when coming close without permission. But griefing doesn’t require proximity. Third parties can still see whatever goes on. Harms can include boxing someone in with objects to imprison them, using “game powers” at a distance, or spawning offensive content nearby.

The best solution I know of to deal with repeat abusers is to report them and ban them. Perhaps we never allow strangers (only friends) to interact with us without strict accountability. The most karmic solution separates abusers into a parallel world, seen to other abusers as the people they previously abused.

The Empathy Machine?

Could abusers who re-experience their own attrocious behavior from the victim’s perspective gain empathy and growth?

It’s highly unlikely. The abuser may be coming from a deep feeling of emptiness and unlovability, without the tools to get their needs met in a healthy and effective fashion. They may have suffered abuse themselves. So abusing them may only confirm their feeling a total lack of self-worth.

Experts on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) training for workplaces tell us a similar story. Putting office workers into VR experiences where they personally experience racism may actually make the subject more defensive and averse. They may avoid their Black co-workers more — feeling guilt, shame, maybe even anger over their experiences. At the very least, these encounters are emotionally draining and less conducive to learning.

However, interviews with people telling their personal stories, and seeing 3rd-person scenes of events from a safer vantage point, can achieve more positive results. I’ve learned recently that it’s even better to design VR experiences that have positive outcomes between people of radically different backgrounds, creating bonds through inspiration and mutual success. We can learn to see other people as whole people, not just victims or perpetrators, and have real empathy across the spectrum.

Similar learnings come from educational VR experts, including the Holocaust Museum’s VR efforts, where role-playing a concentration camp victim is the last thing we want to do. As with experiencing racism, it can cause trauma, even PTSD. Let’s see history in 3D from a safer distance and learn something.

For the serial abuser, therapy may be the only thing that helps, and even that requires the person to make a concerted effort to understand and change.

All our personality types carry childhood defense mechanisms that can dig us farther into, instead of extricating us from, our own worst fears. Being healthier involves learning how to recognize these patterns and avoid the traps. I claim no superiority on that front.

Empowerment and Disempowerment

Invisibility, as in the Holocaust Museum example above, is a superpower that would probably have significant social side-effects IRL. I wrote an article about the enlightening side of superpowers and another about the caveats.

Technology has been on a steady march, from campfires to rocket ships. We gradually overcome our shared limitations in a physical universe. In both AR and VR, we can apply new tech powers to exceed these limits. Changing our personas to improve inner/outer alignment is one new power. But we can also virtually fly, teleport, go back into history, and come closer to true telepathy.

The main downside of this technology is when it gets applied unevenly.

Griefing is a power imbalance where one person uses their power to hurt another. So are “road rage” and terrorism. Google Glass failed at first, largely because it gave powers to the wearer at the expense of those around them.

When power is applied unevenly at a societal level, we get oppression, discrimination, mass incarceration and even genocide. This genie is one we need to keep a very careful lid on. We have to slowly and deliberately raise the empowerment level of everyone as uniformly as possible, not only for early adopters or the wealthy.

But even that isn’t enough. Think about what happens when two equally powerful beings get into a fight. We like to imagine this a lot: see Batman vs. Superman, King Kong vs. Godzilla. But all fictional superheroes and monsters have limits — kryptonite, declining power levels, or moral codes — to constrain them. If not, they’d make for terrible stories.

Our real-life personal kryptonite is more tied to our levels of emotional and intellectual understanding of the events unfolding around us, especially with regard to other people. This leads to the question of what happens when we, as highly empowered beings, piss each other off in virtual worlds, where we have the means, opportunity, and now motive to obliterate each other?

The Internet of People, The Metaverse, or whatever “Field of Dreams” may someday become the safest world we know. But for now, it’s not nearly safe enough. In fact, it’s only really safe in the sense that, when things get bad, we can escape to IRL. We appeal to governments to protect us and regulate. But the companies that hope to profit from these worlds don’t really care about our individual experiences yet. Thus far, we’re just data to them, just stats.

This is another massive power imbalance we can’t seem to fix.

For now, this space is still the wild west frontier, with crazy “gold rushes” enticing many to stake their claims: investors, entrepreneurs, inventors and even artists. Our leaders, poets, academics and philosophers are still too far behind. This is not a movement of and by real people. Not yet.

Still, there are some who feel that this path leads to us to eventually live in The Metaverse, with all our powers, even abandoning our physical bodies. That’s up next.

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