The creepy Metaverse

8th April 2022
Sam Holland

The Metaverse, which can be loosely defined as a point wherein the Internet and immersive computing (particularly VR and AR) form one seamless whole, is an exciting tech term that suggests users’ current, limited – and frankly niche – use of online VR could explode in the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be creepy. This piece considers why an eerie sensation may soon unfold...

In March I wrote an opinion piece that considered how the UE and UI (user experience and user interface) is integral to the success of a product’s design, especially as the two factors are interdependent on each other.

This is particularly true in virtual reality as the experience of both engaging with and controlling VR technology is far from perfect today. This is true even when you consider it by its current standards as simply an up-and-coming technology. Because on a commercial level most people either have no VR headset at all; or, if they do, they (like me) use it only occasionally for casual, and often offline, gaming.

Why is this? My view is that not only is online gaming still too laggy for many users, but there is also the problem that the VR experience is not quite as visually striking as that offered by the conventional audio-visual interface: the 4K television. This is based on VR graphics cards being limited owing to much of virtual reality’s design considerations being focused on the necessary processing power to simulate its 3D worlds.

The resultanttechnical challenges mean that we are currently left with commercial VR that is, at best, promising but flawed; and at worst – gimmicky. But bear in mind that lots of novel technology is not taken seriously until it does become serious. The changing times are a catalyst for tech to go from a nice-to-have to a need-to-have, after all. Think of how the COVID lockdowns saw video calls go from a novelty way of phoning someone to a staple part of online work-from-home meetings and checking in with friends and family.

Now consider what is planned for the future of commercial virtual reality: that said paragon of modern audio-visual entertainment and immersion – the 4K television – may soon be commonplace in the VR user experience. This will be compounded by the now-unprecedented demand for Internet communications that will be faster and more reliable than any other connectivity standard the average person is used to today.

For the sake of argument, then, let’s assume that the next few years will in fact see ultra-high definition virtual reality that is comfortable, engaging, and user-friendly. And all complemented by a new generation of VR processing power and high-speed Wi-Fi 6, 5G, 6G – or any other high data throughput communications technology that will be commonplace in the homes of tomorrow.

In this hypothetical, but conceivable, point in the not-too-distant future, will our VR worlds’ near-human-like depictions of our friends and family, colleagues, and strangers – or even simply their digital avatars that will look like nothing like them – seem in any way natural to our senses? There are many psychological phenomena that reflect the reasons why this will not seem natural, but what stands out is the question of whether these increasing occupants of the metaverse will enter the 'uncanny valley'.

The term uncanny valley was first coined by Masahiro Mori, a professor in robotics, and it refers to the creepy experience of encountering humanoids that are uncannily similar to real people. And while such uncanny valley humanoids are principally androids, digital representations of humans fit firmly in this category as well.

Even now, in fact, the ultra-high-definition graphics that we see in modern 4K gaming alone means that CGI developers have to be wary of the uncanny valley. And this in the context of fictional video game characters on a flat screen: consider this eerie user experience in a three-dimensional simulation of people you may know personally, mixed with a user interface that encompasses far more than simply a games controller interacting with a 4K television. Enter a scenario where your HMI is no longer just used for entertainment, but also research, trading, and online interpersonal communication itself, and you also enter a strange alternative reality indeed.

Put simply, the avatars you interact with will not only be uncannily similar to real people, but the virtual world could be uncannily similar to reality itself.

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