Why the Metaverse Needs to Establish Behavior Standards

Connecting with people in the metaverse is already taking place. But it also needs to seem more natural.

Why the Metaverse Needs to Establish Behavior Standards

Strange things happen in virtual worlds if I wear a VR headset: I feel alone. A lot of the time, this happens no matter what kind of virtual space I’m in. I don’t see the irony in how disconnected I feel even though there are so many ways to connect.

I used to think that way, but recently, things have changed a lot

With two other actors and Jeff Wirth, the director of the interactive acting-focused Interactive PlayLab, and my VR coach, I stood in a bare virtual room made in AltspaceVR. I found something far more positive. We stood close to each other, paying attention to when our avatar eyes drifted, an automatic move made by Microsoft’s virtual worlds app to make us look at each other without having to move our eyes.

We learned how to move our heads in order to make our eyes move and feel more like we were there. During my speech, my hands were too still. Wirth also told me that I should have moved them more. When I moved my hands more and animated them, I made my avatar look more like me. I had to learn how to act, in a sense, to be able to better express myself as a person.

My hope for the future of the metaverse is based on these brief moments of connection. The metaverse is a layer of virtual worlds that the biggest tech companies think we’ll hang out, spend money, and live our digital lives in. In the metaverse, there are supposed to be a lot of magical doors where you can meet people and make friends. In these new places, metaverse apps can make people feel isolated as well as make them feel like they belong. It’s not always clear which you’ll get at any given time. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time in virtual reality, I’m not always comfortable with the things I do in it.

For us to build a deeper community, we’ll need to be better at controlling these tools and learning the rules of the virtual worlds they live in. As more companies like Apple and Google join the metaverse, that’s likely to happen. But as the metaverse takes hold, what will happen? Virtual worlds, which often have cartoon avatars, are they a part of real life, or are they their own separate places?

That question needs to be answered, and figuring out how we should act in these virtual worlds is very important. A lot of people are being harassed and behaving in a bad way in virtual reality, and there aren’t enough safety settings to keep kids from getting into trouble with strangers in apps.

VR got off to a slow start, but with so many people invested in the metaverse, it’s likely to pick up speed soon. It’s thought that Meta has already sold about 10 million Quest 2 headsets. Browser, phone, PC, and game console-enabled metaverse destinations are meant to make that number even bigger. When a lot of people start using these platforms, they face the same problems that social media is still trying to solve. But they also have the added benefit of a virtual space that could be far more powerful than a subtweet or comment.

I have a little faith in the future because I took some VR acting lessons. My conclusion is that the more connected we can be without weird things like text or emoji, the better. When everyone trusts each other, VR interactions can be more real than social media feeds. In some ways, like a phone call, VR interactions can be more real than social media feeds. People have less faith in each other than ever before.

At least one other person thinks the future will be better than it is now.

Alone together

He has been doing interactive acting and improv for a long time, and he has started to build places in VR that can be used as workshops for people who use avatars to show who they really are. Wirth is a person I’ve known for a long time because I’ve been following immersive theater for a long time. When I heard about the project, I jumped right in.

He thinks that overdoing things with avatars in VR is like how we learn to do things in real life. As we get used to the VR tools, it becomes easier.

Our conversations become more natural when we are close to each other. Since the COVID era began, I have been closer to these actors than I usually am to anyone else. I remember the experience as real, even though we were avatars. I also try to talk more with my hands to make up for not having enough facial expressions.

Wirth said that we think our body language and expressions communicate in virtual spaces, and when they don’t, we can get into trouble and become isolated. That could start a fight or a breakup.

I can understand this. I always feel it. When you start to build communities in virtual worlds, it feels like this is the first step in the process.

During times when we feel more connected, Wirth says that we treat each other better.

Many conflicts on the internet are caused by people not being able to communicate with each other. Wirth says that flame wars from decades ago, and even the imperfect emotions that emoji show now, is signs of this. It’s not a coincidence that Big Tech has put figuring out human interaction in the metaverse last, because it’s the hardest part to figure out, so they did it last.

Wirth said that the hardest things to write code for are the things that make us most human. He thought that we don’t have good body language for VR yet. If you keep at it, Wirth thinks you’ll get better and better at it. In my hands, I still have game controllers and a big headset on. It’s all still weird prosthetics. With eye-tracking and hand tracking, it looks like more natural, subtle body language is on the way. But will people be able to trust headsets to track them with so many cameras and sensors?

There were times when I found myself learning to trust, listen, and be aware of my own moves. When you play trust games in improv, which are all about listening and working as a group, you can also build trust in your ability to connect with other people. During one of the exercises, I learn how to walk around a virtual world at my normal walking speed.

I make very small movements with the game controller. The exercise is just for fun, but it makes me more aware that I’m in a virtual world. Always, I want to jump away and treat it like a video game. That is, the more I learn to feel like I’m there, the more I treat it with care.

They’re small steps toward something that looks like connection and community, even though the goal is still a long way off.

Where I turn into many

If you don’t know what the rules of engagement are in most virtual worlds, it’s hard to figure out what to do. Take a stroll through VRChat or the virtual world app Rec Room and you’ll see what I mean. Most of the time, avatars are only half-engaged. Getting help from other people and their codes of behavior is a big help. As the metaverse is still not very clear, strong existing communities are probably the best way to start.

It was one of the biggest metaverse gatherings I’ve seen in the last two years, and it was also held in AltSpaceVR. During the pandemic in 2020, BRCvr, an event, and organization that brought together Burning Man’s principles online, was used as a stand-in for the closed physical event. In 2021, the event and organization kept going. In the process of making Burning Man in VR, Athena Demos and Doug Jacobson learned a lot about how to make a virtual community work. This is what they said: One of them is having a set of rules to work from. Burning Man’s own rules were used to help people remember what they should do in that space.

A view of the entrance to BRCvr's virtual playa, 2020.
A view of the entrance to BRCvr’s virtual playa, 2020.Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

When you work on a project, one of our rules says that you have to make it bigger than one person can do alone. Demos said this on a Zoom call. Then people can join in, which is a good thing because it’s a principle of participation, and it’s very inclusive. Everyone is building a platform, but not thinking about how it will work with other people.

The BRCvr creative process often started with Zooms, and then moved on to VR from there. It was important for the creative team to make sure that people could make real-world connections that then stayed with them when they went online. And in those VR worlds on the virtual playa, which looked just like the structures and sculptures at the real Burning Man, Demos wanted people to feel like they were part of the event, not just spectators.

That participation: “What does that look like?” There are a lot of ways they can get more involved. That makes people feel like they belong, Demos said. That’s what metaverse spaces are missing if they want to bring people in. How do you get people on your platform?

Burning Man’s VR festivals had rangers who helped run the events and greeters who helped people find their way. A real-life event at a venue is just like setting up an event on a platform. Demos and Jacobson said that the responsibility for an event should come from the people who set it up, not the platform itself. Having a community already set up in the early stages is good because that community will be very motivated to get through whatever technological layers they need to get to the hangout zone. Jacobson said this.

It’s what Demos thinks is the best way to move forward: standards set by the people who live there. It’s not good for us to just give everyone their own private bubble. How to solve problems is to work with the public and make everyone feel like they’re a part of the whole. In the metaverse, there isn’t anything wrong. It’s a big problem.

Demos, Jacobson, and Wirth all want to make people more empathic, break down barriers, and build trust. If you live in a world that is full of trolling and harassment, that isn’t easy. But the way forward, through small groups, makes me feel hopeful. At times, it made me feel like I was at home with them.

As a way to relive the experience again, there may be a virtual Burning Man in the fall. This year’s event will be in-person in Black Rock in Arizona. There are ways to connect the metaverse and the real world, but Demos and Jacobson are working on ways to make that happen. They’re making portals so avatars can look out on the real world, and people at Burning Man can look back in. There are more plans for the next year.

Demos: “Our project is called Within the Window. It’s a crazy idea.” “The metaverse is where the physical and digital worlds come together,” says the teacher. The digital isn’t the only thing that has changed. It’s the space between them that’s important. This is how it works: Avatars and consciousness go hand in hand. The metaverse is where we can meet up.

Horizon Worlds, Meta’s virtual worlds space, has already had to change its boundary systems to address harassment. Further evolutions are likely to come.

The world to come will be a lot more social

People who use open social platforms need to figure out if they all agree on the same rules of behavior for a shared experience. VR can already be weird. It’s like improv again: If you don’t agree with what other people do and follow the rules of a game or a space, you can be in a state of denial. A lot can happen very quickly. It also leads to people trolling in games.

David Chalmers, a philosopher, wrote a book called Reality+ recently. In it, he says that virtual societies have a lot of problems because people agree that space is real. As soon as you start to think of virtual worlds as real, “then the ethics of virtual worlds become in principle as important as the ethics of all other things.”

To keep bad behavior under control and stop random trolling and harassment, existing platforms will need to act quickly. This is most important in public places where there may not be enough community support or moderation. Microsoft’s AltSpace VR shut down a lot of its public spaces earlier this year. It also added personal privacy bubbles for avatars, which is similar to what Meta did with its Horizon Worlds game.

Many people who use VR, like Wirth and BRCvr’s Demos and Jacobson, don’t think bubbles are the long-term answer. Even though they protect you, they also make it hard to be intimate.

As many people as possible play and work in the metaverse, companies like Meta will need to make sure that those boundaries are clear. VP of Meta’s metaverse Vishal Shah told me that the process is still going on. “It was important for us to make [personal boundaries] a default, because it helps set norms,” he told me.

Shah said that people who already have a relationship with someone don’t like the boundaries. This is why Meta made a new, smaller boundary with friends. People will start to see more of Meta’s work in that way, Shah said. Meta is looking into ways to make audio that filters out unwanted people, or audio bubbles that protect people from random encounters. Public places, like the Plaza, may have different rules than private places, where the reason you went there is different.

Meta’s new strategy is to try to encourage community behavior by having employees act as guides in these open areas instead of just using signs. This means that Meta has to trust that people will behave.

If someone has been to a public place before, everyone is a part of making sure it stays that way. Meaghan Fitzgerald, Meta’s product marketing director for Horizon Worlds, said this in an interview. It’s possible because people who live in this space understand each other, and they help teach other people.

Shah and Fitzgerald said that the rules of engagement are still being worked out. Shah said that the real-time, in-person nature of most VR and metaverse meetings is very different from the broadcast nature of most social media now. Social VR is almost always a live experience that happens at a specific time with people who meet up. It’s still hard to get those moments to match up with the rest of our online lives. I like to connect with a few people I already know, just like I would on a Zoom or phone call, and keep the rest of the noise out.

My friends and coworkers tend to know the rules of any virtual connection I set up with them because we’re all there for a specific reason and we know the social rules of the road. For the past few months, I’ve been playing virtual mini-golf and a role-playing game called Demeo with old college friends. It has been a lot of fun. But to me, even though these avatars are made of angular polygons, I see them as my friends even though they aren’t. These games also have their own rules. During my trip to the acting class, I found that it had its own rules.

Even though the metaverse suggests a very social multiverse, it’s also likely to be a place where people can have smaller, more personal interactions there, too. It would be great if that was the case. I need more connection that is important to me. It might be simple to make sure metaverse meetings have a goal in the first place and make sure everyone knows what that goal is.

The less open-world and free-form I am, and the more contained and focused I am, the more I enjoy myself and feel better about myself. People who take online improv classes and connect with friends are great. Because of how social it is, I’m not so sure about the rest of the massively social metaverse.

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