By James Hayes

Gartner predicts that by 2026, 25% of people will spend at least an hour each day in the metaverse for purposes of work, shopping, socialising, entertainment and therapy. What’s more, they’ll be doing so through a range of devices, not just virtual reality (VR)  headsets.

The phenomenal take-up means this burgeoning network of interconnected virtual worlds is rolling out so fast that it’s outpacing our ability to ensure our safety as we explore those new digital worlds.

Meshing VR and augmented reality (AR) with the global internet opens unlimited scope for fascinating immersive experiences. But we already know that it can also take its visitors to virtual situations where they’re exposed to negatives, such as forms of harassment and abuse.

The potential harms of an unsupervised metaverse will become heightened as VR is increasingly used for a range of human-centric applications in which the safety of individuals is critical. VR is already being used for therapeutic applications to help treat anxiety and phobias.

The metaverse’s potential to provide opportunities for retail therapy is also already being keenly exploited with 24/7 opening hours. Leading retail brands like Selfridges, Benetton, and Walmart have already opened stores in the metaverse.

For the workplace, the metaverse will also bring benefits in virtual learning and development, by providing a virtual domain in which colleagues can interact, collaborate, practice and problem-solve. Trainees would be able to learn hands-on skills from experts – even of the hands they interact with aren’t physically present. The scope for metaverse-enabled skills transfer could make a tangible contribution to addressing skills gaps across sectors, including STEM.

Such scenarios will likely entail interactions between known individuals in supervised virtual spaces. The ground rules here will help keep metaverse users in a good place. But what happens when people enter open social spaces, where the nature of the virtual encounters is unpredictable and potentially harmful?

Already, concern is being voiced by experts in immersive technology about the way many people are rushing to the metaverse before some basic behavioural protocols have been established. For this reason, they are calling for the hazards that metaverse users might encounter to be addressed at industry, regulatory and government levels.

This debate touches on questions of key importance because the full value of the metaverse will be achieved only if the safety, privacy and other rights and expectations of users are safeguarded.

There are also physical-world challenges to consider, such as metaverse user health and safety and the supervision of children.

These and other problematic issues are best addressed through a clear understanding of appropriate ways of using metaverse-associated equipment, such as headsets, and risks in users’ physical environment (their real-world surroundings) as they explore virtual dimensions.

As the new report from the IET explains, there are clear benefits to be gained from the early safeguarding of metaverse users. As well as the obvious benefit to individuals, there are economic and societal paybacks for putting safeguards in place sooner rather than later.

While the safety of individuals is of utmost importance, people who invest in the metaverse for vocational and commercial purposes are right to expect that certain safeguards be implemented that make the metaverse a safe place for all.

Informed debates about metaverse safety have now begun. In future blog posts here we'll focus on some specific challenges and actions that will help ensure that time spent in the metaverse is a life-enhancing experience for its intrepid visitors.

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