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January 06th, 2022 | by Sooyoung Choe

A Step Toward The OASIS (5/5): OASIS for good?

Dystopia is a common feature in fiction that picture the near future where reality and virtual reality become indiscernible. The popular narrative goes something like this: the protagonist is fascinated by a virtual reality content/game/society, but soon realizes that there is a dark conspiracy behind it, or a virtual reality content/game/society originally created for a benevolent cause somehow ends up falling apart after a series of unforeseen side effects. THE MATRIX series, TOTAL RECALL, SWORD ART Online, BLACK MIRROR, as well as READY PLAYER ONE are well-known examples in popular entertainment that envision such dystopian future caused by the evolution of virtual reality.

It is perhaps too optimistic to assume that the public will embrace the metaverse in anytime soon. The current ‘metaverse craze’ may be a passing fashion. The concept of metaverse is still too virtual to make the public realize how it can transform our everyday life. I think most people consider the metaverse as a version of gamification of life, something similar to playing with our avatars in a virtual game world.

Metaverse is way beyond that. The ‘transformation of a 2D online experience into a 3D spatial experience’ and the consequent ‘homogenization of offline and online experiences’ in the metaverse will change humanity forever. Humans have never inhabited a 3D virtual world (or a completely mediated version of physical reality) that parallels the real world. Not because we have never dreamed of having one, but because we never had the possible technology to create one. The virtual world has always been separated from the 3D physical reality. Accessing the virtual always required a type of 2D medium (paper, TV, screen, smartphone etc.,). A 3D virtual world experienced through a 2D medium is still a 2D experience because that is how our brain interprets it.

Once people begin to anticipate the issues accompanied by the homogenization of offline and online experiences, anxiety will prevail. There are so many stories of how technology can take a wrong turn. For example, we grew up hearing countless stories about how AI may take over the humanity. Such ‘apprehension’ about the metaverse can be strong enough to halt the metaverse evolution even when every technology, content, business model and the market demand is ready for the next step.

Therefore, I find it necessary to discuss our fear and anxiety about taking the final step toward the OASIS in this closing article of the series, “A Step Toward The OASIS”.

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An example of “face filters” from the BBC1 series, Years and Years (2019). Teenagers in the series wear face filters to hide their true selves, while their parents wish to talk to them face to face in reality. (reference: Radio Times)

Anxiety Factors

The Fear Against the Weakening of Physical Body

This problem is only casually discussed at this point. However, the fear against the weakening of our physical bodies or the loss of corporeal capabilities is the most fundamental fear behind the creation of “realistic online experience” that transcends the boundary between the online and offline experiences.

The future where human bodies lose their traditional value could sound very dystopian unless you are an advocate for “transhumanism”, who believes that the bodies can be perishable once the technology for a complete brain scanning of your ‘data’ become available. The Matrix and Sword Art Online show such dystopian future. Wall E’s portrayal of the 29th century where humans suffer from (or don’t even realize the suffering of) obesity and the weakening of their bones is another example. I believe that the majority of people would not give up their offline physical bodies for online entertainment. Therefore, the metaverse or the OASIS has to solve this issue related to the physical body before entering into the majority’s everyday life.

Layering the physical and virtual reality can be one possible option for a more seamless convergence of the online and offline experiences. A number of companies’ recent investment in the development of a display device that incorporates both VR and AR and the emergence of ‘XR’, which encompasses multiple online and offline experiences, are a few of current experiments in making a seamless transcendence towards the virtual. Niantic’s global success of the ‘PokemonGo’ benefitted from advertising the vision of using AR technology to make people walk around more. It showed a positive application of AR technology. In contrast to the popular imagination of a dystopian future where we all lose our corporal strength, XR technology can be useful in promoting physical activities.

https://youtu.be/vZt5MW63_a4

In this matter, it is interesting how several of early popular VR games also motivated active physical movements. <Beat Saber>, <Super Hot> and <Pistol Whip> are not meant to be experienced standing still. They make you move, a lot. Those who have played these vigorous VR games will be free from the anxiety towards the weakening of human bodies in the metaverse.

Meanwhile, there is another end of this story considering the relationship between the physical body and future XR devices. Commercialization of more advanced devices, such as BCI (Brain-Computer Interface) or smart lens, can intensify the current apprehension about the physical impact of XR devices. These technological innovations that lead to a direct manipulation of organs and neural activities are fearful, in spite of the experts’ predictions about how they are the ultimate goals of the current HMD or glass-type XR products.

BCI may sound attractive to some. However, if such device that can manipulate our neural signals to create bodily sensations and movements is invented and commercialized, human bodies will soon become completely useless. Our society (South Korea) has been prohibiting pleasure-seeking activities that can cause great harm to our bodies. Drugs, gambling, and prostitution are illegal in for the reason. If the development of the metaverse (or the OASIS) only focuses on creating an exciting virtual experience indistinguishable from reality, there is a higher chance of it falling into the dark market shown in popular cyberpunk films, even when the technology, business model and the market demand become available.

Also, from the business perspective, producing a virtual reality indiscernible from physical reality may not be as productive as once expected. It has been proven that humans can feel their ‘presence’ without being inside a realistic environment. Experiments have further shown that we behave quite similarly in a virtual space as in reality, even when we consciously acknowledge our existence in virtual reality. If so, then it will be more effective to allow the users to move across the two worlds, being conscious of their differences. When we log into a virtual office for work, do we ever question if the virtual office and the real office are distinguishable or not? Thus, the ‘virtual reality that humans cannot distinguish from physical reality’ illustrated in popular fiction like The Matrix or Total Recall, may one day become technologically possible, but not productive in its use.

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In the novel READY PLAYER ONE, the OASIS is a virtual world completely indistinguishable from reality. Why did the film adapt the novel in a way to portray the OASIS as separable from reality? (image reference: Digital Trends)

What about Privacy?

Did the Google Glass back in 2013 really fail because of its imperfect technology? Was technology the only reason? What about the fear against its built-in video camera that enabled ubiquitous recording at any time? Many experts claim that the popularization of XR device is a matter of time if its size decreases into the size of sunglasses or even smaller. However, even if such practical XR device could be produced, the privacy issue raised by the Google Glass goes the same for it and the public will probably not accept such threatening device.

What if the camera is taken out of a glass-type XR device? Will it resolve the privacy issues? A few years ago, smartphones encountered a similar privacy problem for its camera feature, but camera was never taken out because smartphone cameras had more advantages. A glass-type XR device user will no longer have to take out one’s smartphone to take pictures or record videos. One will simply have to blink or swipe to use the camera from the XR device. I predict that the fear against its abuse will not stop the developers from putting a camera option to a new XR device. They will try to prove that XR cameras can be used for good causes. Requiring a click sound (in South Korea, silent recording is prohibited) or a visible red light once a user begins to record a video or take a picture may be a possible compromise.

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Out of all the commercial AR glasses, ‘Focals’ by North was closest to the design of sunglasses. But the Focals did not include cameras. In June 2020, Google took over the company. (reference: North)

I do not know how Facebook, Google, or MS is preparing for the privacy issues of ubiquitous surveillance camera. I wonder what kind of new features will be added to their forthcoming products to protect their users. I anticipate that the Silicon Valley experts who work under the motto of ‘overcome the technological limits with a better technology’ will promote XR glass as a protective surveillance technology, rather than a threatening device crossing the privacy boundaries. For example, a new option of deactivating a neighboring camera which attempts to record one’s activity without permission could be devised. A sensor that can detect and control the surrounding suspicious XR glasses would be able to protect each user from unauthorized recording. If such feature becomes available, more users will understand XR glass as a protection device against unwanted surveillance recording, setting a revised boundary in privacy.

The Fear of Losing Control over Personal Information

Last year, when Facebook launched ‘Oculus Quest 2’, it also announced a new Facebook account-linked login requirement for all new Quest users. It startled the discussion on the security issues concerning personal information. (For more: Why should we talk about ethics in VR)

Unlike the privacy issue regarding the unapproved recording or photography, there are varying reactions to this issue of protecting one’s personal information online. Those who prioritize the efficiency of linked accounts across multiple platforms voluntarily provide their information without hesitation. They overlook the danger of losing control over their private information. Conveniency is easier to detect than danger. Some even think that providing their personal information to various service providers would protect them from stumbling upon dangerous strangers online.

In the early days of the Internet, when the ‘login’ feature first came out, the advocates for personal information safety protested against the online ‘login’ activities. They argued that providing one’s personal information to the web companies is extremely dangerous because it meant giving up one’s information to strangers. They also pointed out the possibility of the companies abusing their users’ personal information. However, the log in activity quickly became popular and we can now enjoy a variety of customized online experience and interact with other online users by logging into our personal accounts.

Online space is attractive because it can expand the scope of our social activities. By logging into an online space, you can gather more information and meet more people. You can be connected to people who share the same interest with you more easily online. If online service providers react too strictly to the issue of ‘privacy protection’, they end up restricting the users’ online social activities. There are cases of such limiting regulations leading to the downfall of online social services.

As Cyworld, an early South Korean online social platform, recently began to reboot its service, the discussion on the cause of its downfall is also reemerging. There are different theories. I claim that the change in its security setting from ‘open to all’ to ‘friends only’ caused the fall of Cyworld, which was once the most popular online social platform in the country. What was created in order to protect private information led to the end of the platform. Cyworld could sustain its service for a while as a community platform after the change in its security setting, but it lost its past vigor as a business platform in expanding its users’ social network. In South Korea, Facebook soon took over the popularity of Cyworld. (In 2014, Facebook also made a similar change in security by adding a ‘friends only’ option, only after it undertook Instagram in 2012. Instagram maintained an open public setting and overtook the expansive social network from Facebook. As a result, Instagram quickly transformed into a popular advertising platform).

Online services can flourish only when the users believe that there is more to gain than to lose upon giving their personal information to the service providers. It is critical, however, that the users have the control over their decisions on to how much information they would like to reveal. The option of changing one’s privacy setting should be easy to use.

Online Ethics

Ethical problems occur online because many people naively think that the offline ethical rules do not apply to online behaviors. There is a prevalent misunderstanding about online ethics. The conventional 2D online experience is metaphysically different from our physical reality, so it may have been easy, or even natural to take different ethical standards toward our online behaviors. However, when online experience becomes 3D spatial experience as in the OASIS, there is only one option for online ethics: the same ethical standards must be applied to both virtual and physical worlds. The following behavioral standards practiced in <Second Life> should be applied to all current and future online platforms.

Linden Lab’s Behavioral Standards

  1. Linden Lab encourages social interactions between users across multiple countries. The use of derogatory or demeaning language or images based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation is prohibited. Actions that marginalize, belittle, or defame users or groups are similarly prohibited.
  2. Harassment can take many forms. Communicating or behaving in a manner that is offensively coarse, intimidating, threatening, or causes annoyance or alarm is not allowed.
  3. Any act of violence toward a user’s avatar, including an act of intimidation or bullying such as repeatedly shooting or pushing, will not be tolerated. Creating or using scripts that singularly or persistently target a user and prevent a user’s enjoyment of the Service is also not allowed.
  4. It is important to respect the personal space of another user. We strongly encourage you to be mindful of your movement, hand gestures, and your avatar’s positioning relative to other avatars.
  5. All content, activity, and communication within the Service must adhere to the Content Guidelines, including but not limited to, abiding by any limitations on the type of content permissible in certain areas of the Service.
  6. Sharing personal information about other users, either directly or indirectly, without their consent—including, but not limited to, gender, religion, age, marital status, race, sexual orientation, alternate account names (including account statuses, such as whether it is on hold, suspended, or active), and real-world location beyond what is provided by them in their user profile—is not allowed.
  7. Linden Lab aims to provide users with an enjoyable experience on the Service.
  8. Impersonation of another user, stealing another user’s identity, or claiming recognition for content created by another user are all strictly prohibited.

From “Metaverse Virtual Economy” written by Hyung-wook Choi (the book title loosely translated in English)

Furthermore, if we can feel the ‘presence’ of other online characters in spite of their non-human appearances, then all online figures need be treated as if they exist in the real world. I argue that the ‘diversity’ in online avatars can expand our sensibility towards accepting diversity in the real world. It can have a bigger impact than being a simple entertainment. The Pengsoo (a giant penguin character) syndrome in South Korea showed how we are capable of taking a fictional figure as an intellectual being, close to human. If we can accept a giant penguin as an identity, then I see no reason why we would not be able embrace other diverse virtual characters.

Will virtual humans, indistinguishable from real humans, populate the OASIS? A variety of virtual humans appearing on Instagram and those developed from the Epic Game’s ‘Metahuman Project’ show that the industry is going toward such direction, but the future of diversity in the OASIS seems bleak. Online diversity is possible only when the same ethical codes against discrimination are applied online. If not, discrimination will persist in the OASIS. In the film Blade Runner (1982), replicants have to prove themselves indistinguishable from humans in order to survive. If we begin to justify the discrimination against virtual humans based on their differing appearances, the virtual humans will end up having look more like humans to prove their values. Yet, if we do not discriminate those who appearing to be human from real humans and apply the same ethical standards when interacting with them, virtual humans will no longer have to make such effort.

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Alita, the leading character in the film Alita: Battle Angel (2019). Alita looks close to human but has a dissimilar face and body. Alita has to prove herself as a human to be accepted by other humans in the world. (image reference: Polygon)

Different laws of physics and special abilities are possible in a 3D online space. These new rules can add to safeguard the human rights to enhance online experiences. The ‘personal bubble’ is a representative example.

‘Personal bubble’ was first created as a follow-up solution to the sexual harassment that happened in QuiVR, an online game, in October 2016. A one-time solution of deleting the assailant’s account or force quitting the account forever was an option. But the QuiVR developers sought for a lasting solution and invented the ‘personal bubble’ feature. It allows each player to bounce off any threatening players when they come across the customized personal boundaries. Online players can use this feature to protect themselves, which is impossible in the real world. The ‘personal bubble’ later became available on Sansar, VRChat and other social VR platforms as a possible option.

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Personal distance differs depending on how familiar you feel about certain people. Typically, one allows close friends to approach up to 50cm, but feels anxious once a stranger comes close to a 3m distance. Depending on your psychological comfort level, you can customize the diameter of your personal bubble. (reference: Design Observer)

Online program developers should be attentive to the users’ behaviors in order to design more appropriate features. Such effort is indispensable for the popularization of the OASIS. In the novel <Ready Player One>, there is a special log off rule. Typical web sites and online games allow an instant log off whenever you want, but the OASIS players in <Ready Player One> have to wait for 60 seconds before logging off from their accounts.

Logging out of your OASIS account while you were engaged in combat was the same thing as committing suicide. During the log-out sequence, your avatar froze in place for sixty seconds, during which time you were totally defenseless and susceptible to attack. The log-out sequence was designed this way to prevent avatars from using it as an easy way to escape a fight.
- Ready Player One

In the novel, the 60-seconds rule prevented the players from running away from any ongoing battle. But I predict that this unique feature will force the players think twice before they commit any harmful activities because they will not be able to run off from the scene.

Other Factors

There are other factors that require future discussions. One example is the concern about the long-term harmful effect of XR devices. There is rising fear against a possible deterioration of eyesight and lasting brain damage caused by electromagnetic frequency radiation. The XR experts should collaborate with medical professionals to conduct more research to either undermine or support these fear factors. Their research findings should be made transparent to the public.

Here is one anecdote.

A debate about the age requirement of VR HMD emerged at the end of 2019. Currently, most of VR devices, including the Oculus, encourage a 13 or above age requirement. Following this age restriction, the South Korean Ministry of Education sent out an official order to prohibit the use of VR devices in elementary schools. Schools went against the order, arguing that there was not enough empirical evidence to support the restriction. The debate went on for a while, but eventually faded away and the number of VR education programs for elementary school students has been increasing again recently. I am not taking any particular side on this debate. I argue, however, that a reasonable decision is possible only when objective empirical experiments and data become available to the public.

Keep Fighting

Back in 1995, I remember the moment I first got connected to the Internet using a web browser application (Netscape Navigator to be specific) on my PC. There were glitches and the web page took some time to become readable. But I clearly remember the excitement of finally becoming a global villager online for the first time. I was no longer just a Korean, but a member of the ‘global village’ (it was a popular phrase back then) on the Internet.

25 years have passed, and both my life and the world have changed a lot. I still live my life in the physical world as a Korean, but I am simultaneously connected to the online ‘global’ world 24/7.

Transforming the online experience into a 3D experience brings out even more excitement than the experience of being connected to the Internet for the first time. Those who have an optimistic vision for the XR’s future share a similar exciting encounter with XR. I am one of them. I believe that the metaverse experience will change our life. The question is how much it will improve our life in a “good” way. Remembering how the Web and smart phones have, the metaverse will also make a mark in history. Its impact may be less than we’d like but more than we fear. We have to take one step at a time, step by step without seizing.

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“Less than I’d have liked, but more than I had feared.” A quote from the protagonist’s voice-over narration at the end of Waking The Dead (1999). (Image reference: MUBI)

Ready Player Two (Epilogue)

“A Step Toward The OASIS” series started from a simple motivation. I revisited the novel “Ready Player One” before the much-anticipated publication of “Ready Player Two” in South Korea. “Ready Player Two” came out last year on November 24th in the U.S and it seemed like it made it to the best-selling list. Nine months have passed (original article in Korean published in August) and still there is no news about it being translated into Korean. The book does not seem to have provoked much discussion in the States. Meanwhile, the public enthusiasm about the metaverse in South Korea led to the reprinting of “Snow Crash” in the country and more people are beginning to use the word ‘metaverse’ instead of ‘OASIS’.

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A virtual event on Big Screen VR at the time of READY PLAYER TWO publication (Reference: Upload VR)

I was looking forward to the publication of <Ready Player Two>. I was even ready to challenge myself to read it in English if it were not published in Korean. But I no longer feel the need of it. I realized that the people in the industry have more to say about the future than the novels. There are more visions in the real world than in the fiction. We can build the future by communicating with the visionaries like Mark Zuckerberg, Jensen Huang, Tim Sweeney, Mathew Ball, Kent Bye, Charlie Fink, Dean Takahashi and Tipatat Chennavasin.

Peter Drucker’s quote referencing Abraham Lincoln’s famous line, “the best way to predict the future is to create it” is perfect for the current state of the metaverse.

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Mark Zuckerberg’s interview with The Verge on ‘metaverse’ (Reference: The Verge)
But you can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it.
- Mark Zuckerberg, 2021
What virtual and augmented reality can do, and what the metaverse broadly is going to help people experience, is a sense of presence that I think is just much more natural in the way that we’re made to interact. And I think it will be more comfortable.
- Mark Zuckerberg, 2021
I don’t think in the future, people are going to call the work that individual companies do a metaverse. Hopefully, if we’re successful collectively in building a system that’s more interoperable, and where you can teleport between things, it should all be the metaverse, each company should not have its own metaverse.
- Mark Zuckerberg, 2021

The end. (To be continued…?)

Ep05. What is stopping us from taking the final step? (OASIS for Good?)

Written by Sooyoung Choe

Original article: ixi (August 16, 2021)

Translator: Da Ye Kim

Cover: Mina Hyeon

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