Unleashing the Positive Power of the Metaverse: Catherine Allen

For the final interview in the series Digital Democracies:Voices, Practices, Stories, Futures, Donna Close and Professor Helen Kennedy are chatting to Catherine Allen about how we can support positive experiences in the metaverse and challenge negative behaviours.

Donna Close: Hi Catherine, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Catherine Allen:  I’m Catherine, CEO of Limina Immersive, which is now a consultancy research organisation.  I’m deep into a report for the Institute of Engineering and Technology into potential harms in VR and Metaverse, and how to mitigate against them. (The report Safeguarding the Metaverse is now released, June 2022.)

Limina began with the aim of creating an accessible way into VR and immersive technologies through public exhibition modelled as a fun day out. Our approach was content-centric and from the perspective that you did not need to know much or even care much about technology to enjoy it.

Alongside that we began to work with universities and researchers to come to understand more about what the sector and what audiences and members of the public might want. This included the wonderful Vision for Women in VR project which was so crucial our vision.   We then fed this knowledge back into the sector to help make it more inclusive and more mainstream as well as address the diversity issue. Our aim was to help the industry succeed in reaching broader audiences. So there is both a commercial and a moral imperative behind our research.

Prof Helen Kennedy: What for you would you say are the key problems with the current direction of travel in the development of the Metaverse?

Catherine Allen: One key issue is the demographics of the decision makers and the people building it. It’s a known issue in technology already but its a much bigger issue when you start thinking about the Metaverse. This is because it is much more akin to thinking about land, society and culture.  It is similar to constructing a town, establishing new norms and maybe even in the future new laws and governance.  The people with the power in this space have grown up around technology so that means it skews younger, more male and disproportionately white.  There are already some issues arising. The scalability of space can support a mass magnification of effects. In the physical, real world, there’s only so many people who can come to and fit in a physical space. In the Metaverse you can have hundreds of thousands of people at one time.

A big concern is how VR gets trivialized and dismissed as silly fun and games and just for teenagers. In fact, it is a powerful future technology and if we don’t take it seriously and put blinkers on that means that we’re not doing the important critical work of thinking and talking about what it could be.  Tech companies are putting billions and billions into building a new metaverse – It’s like the GDP of a small country. The people who would usually be critiquing interventions of this magnitude, for instance esteemed and established journalists and academics can sometimes dismiss it as trivial, and as a fad.

Woman wearing VR headset
Image credit: Shutterstock, Oleksandr Khmelevskyi

Donna Close: What can we bring of our understanding of creating societies in the real world to the digital?

Catherine Allen: The real world is a great parallel and we can unlock from that what we know about the real world when we created civilizations: the importance of a justice system, human rights and democracy, where citizens are represented by people that they have been voted in and chosen.

I don’t use the term ‘public space’ when talking about the Metaverse because there just aren’t any.  They feel open and public as long as you’ve got a headset and a Facebook account or a Microsoft account, but they’re not.  You might only know this when you get your account suspended and there’s no recourse, and that can happen at any time seemingly on a whim.

As the Metaverse grows this can become an issue with real life consequences.  Imagine you were a host of an NFT/ physical sneaker shop in the Metaverse and you make your money from commission. It’s your life and then it suddenly cut out and you don’t know why? Maybe because some 12-year-old somewhere in the world hacked into your account? And there is no redress and nothing that can be done about it.  Also, you might start getting worried about whoever that platform owner is and concerned about saying anything negative about them as you can’t afford for them to suspend your account. We know that feelings like that are really unhealthy for society. Those examples are from situations I know have happened so I’m not projecting that far into the future.

Prof Helen Kennedy: Where might the resistance to these more problematic aspects come from and what role could grassroots organisations play?

Catherine Allen: I have a lot of hope for Meta and the larger companies. I know people who work for these organizations and there is a free culture of being able to voice concerns and space for healthy conversations that lead to good things.

In terms of external to these, there is legislative moment, with UK government, EU and states across the US critiquing and legislating.  In their last 10K Report Meta identified their biggest risk as coming from regulation from US and international jurisdictions.  This has been supported by lobbying from campaign groups who are pushing for change such as the NSPCC who were pushing for the Online Safety Bill to be strengthened and specifically to reference activity and not just content. These new laws that are being drafted across the world could be a call to action to these groups and I really hope that there’s enough digital immersive literacy for existing groups to feel confident in critiquing and providing a constructive push just as the NSPCC are doing.

There might be other groups that begin to emerge that have been directly affected by some of the harms that we are beginning to identify. For instance, something I’ve experienced myself is the disassociation from your own body when you come out of VR. It can be a really unpleasant feeling that can last weeks.  I have had that experience but was able to ground myself through drawing on my experience in yoga and tai chi but others may not be able to do that. You could imagine that this might lead to accidents – somebody might have a car crash because of that.  Maybe as more people have this experience and get affected by this they might create a campaign group.

You could also imagine people campaigning who have had their accounts suspended for reasons that they cannot understand.  If they have been shut out of their earnings, their livelihoods, maybe they might create a campaign group as well.

Donna Close: How can we support positive experiences in the Metaverse and challenge negative behaviours?

Catherine Allen: When you go into VR, there’s necessarily less critical distance because in order for the magic to work – because it is like a magic trick, it is an illusion – you have to commit to it.  You’ve got to take the plunge. My tips would be from having talked to many, many Limina audience members is to go in collectively with people you know in the real world and when you come out of it, talk about your experiences afterwards.

Also don’t be afraid to use your voice afterwards, and to share feedback with the platform. Many of these spaces are still in beta. They’re officially asking for feedback, so give it.

Finally, get your MP to do VR. It will really help in the long run up for them potentially to represent you as a constituent in the future.

Prof Helen Kennedy: How might our actions in the Metaverse link to our actions in the real world, particularly in relation to environmental action?

Catherine Allen: There is a view within the VR community that the Metaverse is a competitor to aviation.  If you can have an experience that feels super engaging, maybe not photo realistic, but with the presence and intimacy you need for meetings, we can achieve that without the need for travel.

Also, when we think about some of our great life experiences – holidays, a new car, a high end restaurant – there is a lot of carbon involved.  Imagine instead going to your local VR centre, 15 minutes-walk away from your home. Imagine that centre has haptics and smells and is a fully multi-sensory space where you can have a really memorable experience. The future does not necessarily mean we’re going to be in our little individual units in our house but there might be some kind of community opportunities for portals into immersive experiences.  This would have a huge impact on our need for environmentally damaging activity.

Cinematic Shot Of Senior Grandfather With Vr Glasses and Granddaughter
Image credit: Shutterstock, HQuality

Donna Close: What would you take from your experience of the Limina VR theatre into the creation of these Metaverse/ VR community spaces?

Catherine Allen: Everything for our Limina VR events was driven by our duty of care to the audience. At the time this was key as we were dealing with first timers but even in the future assuming people have more experience in VR, they still need care – in case they are having a bad day or have underlying issues.

This should be supported by stronger health and safety regulation – for example bars and nightclubs are regulated, right? There’s a licensing system and age verification necessary and this is monitored and enforced.  VR is as powerful as alcohol so why not have regulation that allows us to harness the wonderful positives of VR and limits the damage? Alcohol is an interesting analogy because it’s part of society and is accepted but also its regulated. We know it’s power and that’s why we regulate it.  Its use is embedded in cultural norms and behaviours. You learn as you’re growing up, like how much alcohol is too much alcohol. You learn things like it’s good to have a meal with glass of wine, not to drink on an empty stomach. We learn these together as a society and individually. I hope this can relate to VR that positive norms and behaviours becomes lore passed down from generation to generation.  Maybe VR will become normalised through being embedded in ritual and ceremony in the same way that alcohol is.

Prof Helen Kennedy: Can you share with us and our readers your story, your vision of the future?

Catherine Allen: The problem with digital technologies so far is that they have only engaged our eyes, fingers and brains. The Metaverse and VR/AR offers us an embodied internet.  As we bring our bodies into the picture that increases their relevance. Maybe by being re-connected to our bodies we might improve our connection to nature and the Earth. That has been my experience. In lockdown I spent a lot of time doing rock climbing in VR in beautiful natural environments, and then when I went to Madeira on holiday by myself last year it was absolutely incredible. I felt more aware of nature by thinking about the craft that had gone into creating virtual versions of this. I felt real awe and tears came to my eyes

Image credit: Shutterstock, LUMEZIA.com

In addition, by doing all this fitness in VR I had improved my cardio.  I also had the confidence to do the trip on my own and I am not sure I would have before. I have seen that people who do VR exercise report improved fitness but also connection with the body. It can increase our body confidence and our connection to it and our health and our fitness.

This experience shows that we can create a really sunny, positive future if we embrace immersive technologies responsibly, we may actually improve our relationship with our bodies and the Earth.

I have spent quite a lot of time delving beyond the obvious [VR experiences] that get pushed on the platform and there are experiences out there that already show this future and alternative visions for VR such as Climb/ Climb 2, Nature Treks, TRIPP & Dance Central.

Donna Close: Is there one single thing that you would change in order to fast forward to the better future?

Catherine Allen: The one thing would be that if we could have more immersive literacy now. Imagine if every 16 year-old had the opportunity to experience several different VR experiences, and then gets the opportunity to critique it in the same way they would do in English or Media Studies. I think that would equip the people who are going to be the creators of the future with confidence and encourage a wider range of people to build the Metaverse.

Catherine Allen
Catherine Allen

Catherine Allen, Co-Founder and CEO of Limina Immersive