The battle to build a kid-friendly metaverse

Campaigners and experts warn the wider ecosystem of the metaverse must take action to ensure child safety

Campaigners and experts warn that the wider ecosystem of the metaversus must take action to ensure the safety of children.

As a young woman buckles on her vest and headset and is immersed in a virtual world, Mainak Chaudhuri excitedly talks about the technology’s potential.

“This is the first step to the metaverse,” Chaudhuri of French start-up Actronika told AFP at this week’s VivaTech trade show in Paris.

The vest can give users the feeling of being ravaged by the wind or even feel the breath of a monster on their back, and it can be used to enhance movie watching, education or gaming.

It’s a family-friendly take on the 3D immersive web, now commonly known as the metaverse, and fits in well with some of the interactive experiences already widely available for children—such as virtual trips to museums.

But campaigners and experts are increasingly warning that the wider ecosystem must act child safety to ensure that the benign vision is realized.

“The biggest challenge is exposing children to content that is not intended for them,” said Kavya Pearlman, whose NGO XR Safety Initiative campaigns to ensure that immersive technology is safe for everyone.

The issues she envisions range from children being exposed to sexual and violent material, to concerns about young people being used as… content creators or have inappropriate contact with adults.

While the metaverse has not yet been widely adopted and the technology is still in development, early adopters have already revealed serious issues.

A woman’s claim that her avatar was sexually abused in the metaverse sparked outrage worldwide.

Concerns about the future of technology have only grown as the economic opportunities have become clearer.

‘Colossal’ money

Metaverse-linked investments reached $50 billion last year, according to research firm McKinsey, which predicts the figure could more than double this year.

“We’re talking absolutely colossal amounts, that’s three times the investment in artificial intelligence in 2017,” McKinsey partner Eric Hazan told AFP.

The most important of the investors is tech giant Meta, which owns Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp, among others.

The company has already taken steps to give parents more control over the content their children interact with while using VR headsets.

Meta and many of its competitors are marketing immersive products with a lower age limit of 13 years, although it is widely believed that: younger children will use the technique.

Pearlman is concerned about a wider concern that very little is known about its possible effects on young people‘s development.

“Organizations have not yet validated these experiences from a scientific perspective,” she said.

“Still, they allow children to be exposed to these new technologies, practically experimenting with children’s developing brains.”

The metaverse has shifted the paradigm, according to Valentino Megale, a neuropharmacologist researching the problem.

While the public has so far only consumed what others have created, in the metaverse “we will be part of the digital content,” he said.

“This makes everything we experience in that world more appealing,” he told the RightsCon conference on digital rights last week, adding that this is especially true for children.

Experts worry the industry needs to be looked at critically before the rot sets in.

‘Ethical basis’

The solution, they argue, is for the builders of these new virtual worlds to implement child protection measures into the ethos of their work.

In other words, every piece of software and hardware must be constructed so that children can use it and must be protected.

“We’re potentially going to have a huge impact on their behavior, their identity, their emotions, their psychology at the exact moment they shape their personality,” Megale said.

“You have to provide an ethical basis and safety by design from the start.”

One of the most controversial areas of product design is the type of suit that allows users to feel all kinds of sensations, even pain.

Such suits are already made and simulate pain by electric shock

The products are intended for military or other vocational training.

Chaudhuri said the products developed by his company Actronika use vibration instead of electric shock and are completely safe for anyone to use.

“We’re about engaging the public and not necessarily doing a real-time firefighting scenario or a battlefield scenario,” he said.

“We don’t cause pain.”

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© 2022 AFP

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