How to capture the value of the metaverse before it's too late

Monday, November 21, 2022

"We will be moving from a world that is flat and watched in 2D to an interactive world in 3D. Thus, we won't be observers anymore but will immerse in this new reality." Denise Silber, Co-Founder of VRforHealth and Basil Strategies, believes that the metaverse will make an appearance in healthcare. It's just a matter of time and removing existing barriers like access to technology, missing interoperability, and insufficient computing power.

Currently, we experience the pre-era of the metaverse: Virtual Reality (VR), for example, helps healthcare professionals train for surgery or deal with difficult patients.

There are also VR applications for therapeutic purposes. The most advances are offered for pain, anxiety, and physical therapies. For example, during exposure therapies for arachnophobia, the patients don't have to conjure the image of a hairy spider in their minds to induce anxiety. Instead, they just need to put on the goggles to immerse themselves on the training ground. These are not just games – even though VR roots in gaming – but tools whose effectiveness and clinical benefits have been demonstrated in research studies. It's now been discussed to classify some VR applications as digital therapeutics so doctors can prescribe them.

Metaverse vs. Web3.0

The term metaverse comes from the 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash and is composed of two words: meta and universe. The book describes a futuristic world where people become programmable avatars. They live in a three-dimensional virtual space, a metaphor for the real world.

When Facebook was renamed to Meta, everybody started talking about the metaverse the company has been trying to build, with mediocre results so far despite USD15 billion invested in 2021 alone. What the metaverse should be and look like, Facebook left open to the imagination.

Instead of creating yet another definition of the metaverse, the University of Saint-Gallen in Switzerland reached out to experts from different fields to ask them about the properties of the metaverse. The respondents agreed that the metaverse is: virtual, interactive, social, immersive, decentralized, interoperable, extensible, open, blended, and live.

Aren't these features of web3.0? "The metaverse is not web3.0 but rather the output of web3.0. So, think about web3.0 as the web with decentralized applications," explained Shalini Trefzer, Data and AI Specialist at Microsoft.

Web3.0 is characterized by interconnectivity, ubiquity, trustlessness, and permissionlessness; it's enabled by AI technology, 3D graphics, blockchain, and rising computing power.

Web3.0 is focused on the question: "Who will rule and govern the internet?" while the metaverse concentrates on how users use the Internet-based virtual world and interact with each other.

It's not just technology. It's a social (r)evolution

"What is the future we will bring to the new generation? Will they know in the world of breakthrough technologies what it means to be a human when the border between real and unreal will blur?" asked Dr. Nicoletta Iacobacci, Professor at Webster University Geneva and Jinan University (Guangzhou, China).

When we talk about the metaverse, we tend to miss the point, she insisted: Technology is never neutral, and the metaverse is one of the most invasive innovations that will change how we live, interact with each other, experience things and live our social lives. We still don't know the long-term consequences. Will our society – as we know it – fall apart? How will our behavior change? Will we have to set new rules for social interaction?

Iacobacci agrees that it's fantastic to be an augmented human, to break the barriers that exist in the real world, and to be everywhere we wish to be. But the critical question is: what for? Will it make us happier or wealthier? Or will this new world be burdensome, striking us down to loneliness and mental health problems? We have yet to research how the human brain will react to all these stimuli in the metaverse.

Participants of the discussion: Shalini Trefzer (Data and AI Specialist at Microsoft, Dr. Nicoletta Iacobacci (Professor at Webster University Geneva, and Jinan University, Guangzhou, China), Dr. Quy Vo-Reinhard (Co-Founder, Chief Data Officer and Director at dHealth Foundation), Denise Silber (Co-Founder of VRforHealth, Founder of Basil Strategies)

How to protect digital identity

Do you know precisely what data – from your smartphone or wearable device – is used or sold to third parties? Do you have control over it?

Most of us will reply: no. So now imagine that it's not a separate device that generates the data but your entire digital twin in the metaverse: your shopping choices, your behavior when driving a car, the places you visit, etc. Before diving deep into this brand-new world, we should look closely at key pain points in healthcare today: data privacy, data silos, lack of interoperability, and no motivation for citizens to share the data.

According to Dr. Quy Vo-Reinhard, Co-Founder and Director at dHealth Foundation (DAO), the key for a metaverse that is safe and transparent would be Web3.0 based on blockchain.

"In web3-driven healthcare, blockchain-based tokens can be used to incentivize sharing data and services for communities, while the ownership of data remains in the hands of an individual. We need a solution to ensure that people can control who has access to their data (and why) to have full control over their digital twin. Web3 enables them to trace and track the usage of their health data," according to Vo-Reinhard.

A digital twin is a cluster of data reflecting our real person. Now imagine that the data that comprise your avatar belong to one company. Attacking one provider would enable hackers to get their hands on hundreds of thousands or even millions of medical records and other sensitive data.

Vo-Reinhard is convinced that only blockchain can prevent such data leakage. "It's in our interest to transfer the power from centralized and monopolistic tech platforms like Google, Apple, and Facebook back to the Internet community," highlights Vo-Reinhard. The challenge is not to build a platform but to rethink the patient's path in the digital world, design the future of healthcare and then overlay it with assistive technology.

When will the metaverse replace conventional VR?

Although the term "metaverse" is new, the idea of living in an unreal world is ancient. Around 380 BC, the Greek philosopher Plato developed the "Allegory of the Cave" – a concept to reflect on the nature of belief versus knowledge. Plato wanted to explore how the senses, especially the sense of vision, are connected to gaining knowledge.

In early 2000, people were fascinated with Second Life – a multimedia platform that allows people to create an avatar for themselves and interact with other users.

But the actual acceleration came with smartphones and cheap VR goggles. People worldwide use VR headsets to travel in space and teleport to fascinating places to forget their pain, illness, or disability. However, all these experiences still take place in a separate, very limited virtual world.

Technology and infrastructure are the easiest things in the mass adoption of the metaverse. However, interoperability, equitable access to this innovation, and user-friendliness are harder to achieve. Plus, the most challenging – but at the same time most important point – is to ensure that privacy and data safety as human rights will be respected in a complex virtual world.

We must approach the technology carefully to ensure that the benefits outweigh the risks. It includes strengthening digital and VR literacy in societies and educating new generations on navigating the new world. If we don't start to shape the metaverse, it will shape our lives. It means: big tech will shape the world we will be immersed in – that's the biggest danger.

If you have missed the Open Mic Next in Health series – Healthcare meets the metaverse, you can watch it here: