What’s real, and what’s not?

What’s real, and what’s not?

Marks Musings – May 2023

By Mark Harris, CrisisFit® Crisis Management Lead and Advisor with Sheena Thomson Consulting.

A few weeks ago, I was watching television when an Metaverse advertisement came on. The headline was “The metaverse may be virtual but the impact will be real.” As I watched I was shown firefighters moving through a burning house, followed by medics visualising a patient’s problems with adapted spectacles, and finishing up with a virtual school field trip to visit a herd of mammoths. At the end of the advertisement a reassuring voice picked up on the headline. We were informed that the metaverse may be virtual, but the impact will be real. And this is my point.

Of course, enhanced virtual reality will have benefits. Having served in the military, I totally understand and endorse the ability to enhance training with ever-improving visual effects and more immersive experiences. This is to ensure soldiers are trained to the best level. The same goes for training the medical profession, improving law enforcement and firefighters' capabilities, training health and safety teams, and improved simulators for airline pilots; yes, I get all that. But is a virtual reality space in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users a step too far?

I have read a number of articles which recognise the positive aspects of the metaverse for many applications. However, these articles also highlight a number of potentially negative concerns. I remember some years ago worrying about what my children were up to on the computer. Later, I remember being concerned about what they were really seeing and receiving on their mobile phones. What controls are there in the metaverse to protect children? And it’s not just about protecting children. What is stopping perfectly reasonable and plausible avatars from scamming your grandparents?

And once you’re conformable with your own avatar and you're suited up for the full experience, how do you react to a virtual physical assault? Or is it an actual physical assault as it happened in virtual reality and wasn’t real?

There are many more areas of concern. Will virtual meetings with product development teams be vulnerable to competitor hacking? What legal protections are there for metaverse activity?  Also, have the implications for mental welfare been fully explored? How will you explain to a young impressionable person that what happens on in the virtual isn’t real?

Now, I’ve never been adept at maths, however when I look at Extended Reality (XR), the canopy over Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), and Mixed Reality (MR), the one common denominator I see is ‘R’; reality. The adverse experiences and potential mental welfare issues will be real, and the impact will be real; it’s not left in the virtual world. It is not a case of waking up in a sweat and thankfully saying “phew, it was just a dream”.

So, returning to the Metaverse advert and its headline, I couldn’t agree more. The metaverse may be virtual reality but the impact is real. So with that in mind, have you gathered together the risk management team, the legal team, the human resources team, the communications team, your issues and crisis management champions and worked through scenarios? Have you talked through the issues and crises that may impact your employees and your services or products are your response plans ready?

Finally, I’m not sure I need a virtual reality field trip to study mammoths. I’m happy with what I know about mammoths from Manny in that Disney classic film Ice Age.