The Metaverse explained for university leaders: opportunities and decisions ahead (4/4)

Who should universities watch?

The question is to what extent universities feel the need to step into the developmental space around XR technologies, and who should they be watching. Which evolutionary pathways will win out is unknown. Meta/Facebook has brand identification with the Metaverse concept in its advocacy of VR. Given the serious trust issues with Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, the challenge to revenue from Apple’s changing advertising policy, and TikTok’s growing share of advertising revenue, the future of Meta is uncertain.

Google has innovated in the XR space for several years, not least with its long-standing, sometimes apparently covert,  commitment to Google eyewear. No one should discount what happens at Google Skunkworks. Microsoft has the advantage of being the foundation for the majority of business enterprises’ ecosystems and has a cross-platform strategy. Although I have to say I don’t see the attraction for users to be able to integrate Team meetings into Meta’s Horizon environment but Microsoft has also invested in gaming technology with its Xbox and XR hardware technology.

Apple has not made much public noise around XR technologies beyond integrating AR functionalities into its recent iPhone releases. However, its promotion of AR design tools for its platform arguably gives it an edge. Apple and its peripherals are clearly being aligned with an AR future. Technology that allows for the real world to be scanned and proximity detection linked to location services on an individual’s phone also represents opportunities. Apple also encourages third-party developers to innovate around its technology base, as opposed to Meta’s approach which appears to seek to absorb potential competition.

If you are looking to review institutional strategies in the light of challenges and opportunities presented by the Metaverse, please feel free to get in touch with spa@sijen.com

Opportunities in co-development

The opportunities for Universities will range from providing their learning community as a test-bed for any of the major players to purchasing XR artifacts.

It is not a binary choice but its useful for leadership to contemplate the two extremes. This could mean a corporate co-development of a  high-tech laboratory on campus, or it could be a unique academic course in which an AR artifact serves as a learning resource. There are many points in between.

Think small. Technological opportunities will present themselves as access devices become smaller and cheaper. Universities would be wise to pitch their engagement at a realistic level for the present, such as AR experiences through individuals’ smartphones rather than anticipating students will embrace body-integrated technologies, such as AR contact lens. It will be a stretch to get everyone into full haptic bodysuits (pun intended).

Think foundations. Universities may want to evaluate their research strategies and partnerships in the sciences and steer them toward industrial needs for developments in sensors, displays, battery life, network, and computer performance. In the social sciences and humanities, the social and cultural impact of XR is severely neglected. Leveraging some research funding for the implications of use is an opportunity. Proactively approaching the technology providers and providing them with a critical review of the impact of emerging technology is something funders should be encouraging.

Lessons Learnt. What smart institutions learned from the Second Life land grab in the 2000s is that building virtual campuses did little to advance the experience of either students or staff. The only beneficiaries were the 3D modelers and designers who learned a great deal. The more insightful money has been focussed on the immediacy of the experience rather than the grand architectural gesture. Universities who want to develop some expertise in XR should start by identifying a teaching problem, brainstorming an experiential solution, and then group-design an XR, most obviously an AR, solution, with their in-house capacity if it exists or in partnership with commercial design outfits (someone like eonreality.com perhaps). You need to tread carefully in this space and take legal advice. However, I would suggest that beyond simply adopting existing 3D visualizations using existing XR technologies, universities would be wise to seek to develop effective learning visualizations in the arts, humanities, and social sciences and license them.

Avoiding hype. If universities are set on creating a virtual presence, there are a range of options. Different platforms offer different capabilities. Decentraland allows people and organizations to buy land and build in a 3D world, with the limitation that it is limited to Windows PC. There is still Second Life of course. Platforms like Spatial.io allow creators to build immersive virtual spaces that can be accessed via a VR headset. It is important that institutional leaders keep their expectations of a Star Trek holodeck in check. These VR platforms require ongoing development in 3D graphics rendering, simultaneous location and mapping (SLAM), sensor advances and integration, raw computational power, and high-speed connectivity. Different facets of technology are developing at different rates. This makes predictions highly problematic.

Access matters. Universities also need to consider the issue of digital equality and access. Even AR technologies delivered on smartphones require a certain level of sophistication in the devices that students possess. Having reliable high-speed communications is essential for an effective immersive experience and to overcome the worst of the motion sickness associated with VR. Download storage capacity and increasingly streaming speeds will be a continuous challenge. We can expect AR glasses and VR headsets to gradually reduce in size and weight in order for them to be worn for sustained periods of time. 

University leadership decisions

Where on the curve will you join?  Leaders need to consider where in the adoption curve they are best positioned. I would suggest they decide on whether they want to be at the cutting edge of immersive VR pilots, seek to excel within a specific research niche in supportive technologies, or sit behind the leading edge and avoid unnecessary risk. I have recommended to my clients they should be exploring AR learning experiences in the short term.

How future-proof is your information technology policy? I would suggest they undertake an annual review of policies and student charters to ensure they are up to date and to inform internal awareness

Where is the benefit for students? Which parts of their curriculum can serve as the testing ground for emergent virtual pedagogies? What is the learning challenge that is being confronted? Is it important enough to pay for the relevant hardware to allow students to engage? What are the actual learning outcomes the effort is designed to enable?

Conclusion

There is a danger of FOMO (fear of missing out) and I understand that. The truth is you are not going to wake up one day and find the rest of the world is living inside Zuckerberg’s Metaverse. Yes, there will be seepage between online gaming communities and commercial networking tools, but I do not believe the majority of humans will want to suspend their real-world experience in favour of full VR immersion.

The reality is that AR has been around for more than a decade in a servable form (I first integrated AR elements into learning materials in 2013), and the fact that it has been slow to spread across the discipline spectrum should tell us that we have the time to make considered decisions. 

If you are looking to review institutional strategies in the light of challenges and opportunities presented by the Metaverse, please feel free to get in touch with spa@sijen.com

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The Metaverse explained for university leaders: challenges for universities ahead (3/4)

Press coverage of recent cryptocurrency disruptions and the significant staff reductions at Twitter and Meta is giving pause for thought amongst investors and futurists, as well as university leaders considering the future of the Metaverse.

The fact that you may feel like you cannot keep up with the news is understandable. The collapse of the cryptocurrency platform FTX, the apparent meltdown underway at Twitter and the 11-year sentence handed down to Elizabeth Holmes for the Thanos fraud do all have something in common. The digital world is sufficiently obscured from the majority of people, sometimes deliberately, and the ‘trust train’ may have now hit to buffers, reminiscent of the end of the dot-com boom.

So what of the metaverse? I did not mean to imply that it is a fanciful dream that will never have an impact on higher education,  but I have reservations.  I received some negative feedback for comparing 3D Cinema and VR technology adoption curves. I stand by my contention that such technology developments need to take more account of user expectations, as well as their user experience. Demographic patterns play a huge part in any technological innovation. The challenge for most Universities is to decide whether they are best to invest in low-tech entry materials and approaches to build a foundation for future ‘metaverse’ technologies or to join a narrow range of institutions that are innovating around these emergent technologies.

If you are looking to review institutional strategies in the light of challenges and opportunities presented by the Metaverse, please feel free to get in touch with spa@sijen.com

The obstacles for entry are less technical than they are learning design and delivery related. Clearly having sufficient finance in place is an obstacle for some, but even for those that have the cash to spend, knowing where to invest is crucial.

The technologies already exist for building VR immersive experiences, and some a free to try out (Unity.com), and the headsets and accessories are in theory available within reach of those on a medium or high income, although with the current cost of living crisis one might anticipate that Meta’s sales expectations for its latest headset to fall short. But creating a test suite, a development platform to create VR immersive environments, requires a greater degree of investment.

If I was a betting man (and I am not), I would agree with those who believe that Zuckerberg is willing to sacrifice the social platforms (Facebook, Instagram), with their declining demographic, in favour of speculative investment in the future. The future for him is the Metaverse. However, there is no clear evolutionary path for the Metaverse. That includes the challenges mentioned previously, those of wearable technologies, computer power to sustain them, the privacy legislative framework, and the broader legal implications. There are billions around the world without internet access, millions without reliable broadband, and millions who do not have the disposable income, time, or inclination, to while away hours as a virtual avatar. It might be ‘cool’, but is it really worth the time and effort?

Legal frameworks are struggling to keep up with the rapid technological changes society faces. The European Union is possibly the most active in seeking to impose guardrails around digital technologies. Some of these are privately welcomed by the big technology companies, who lend some of their legal minds in pursuit of meaningful legislation, while other legal restrictions are resisted. Profit still comes first after all.

Esports, a growing share of the online gaming space, certainly benefits from advances in hyper-real 3D immersive technologies. A business paying to advertise inside these game spaces, whether the hoardings around a virtual pitch or track, or branding on virtual apparel, makes sense. Whether this gaming trend will fruitfully spill over into academia, I am doubtful.

What should universities do?

There are things universities should do, in my view, to ensure they are ready to react (if I’m wrong) and VR technologies become more integrated into the learning experience of a wider group of students.

They should have both a Student Charter and an Information Technology Policy that are both reviewed annually. Things move that fast. And all students and staff should be asked to reassert their commitment each year. The executive summary for both of these documents serves to enhance the digital literacy of the entire learning community.

Privacy and ‘netiquette’ are concepts that are intertwined in the experience of staff and students. I can use abusive language, within limits, and ALL CAPS to insult people on Twitter and face little in the way of challenge. If I was to stand in London’s Leicester Square and do the same thing, say exactly the same thing hurling abuse at a passerby, it would not be too long before a couple of Police officers would turn up and move me on. Failure to comply would likely result in arrest and being charged with disturbing the peace. Imagine that scenario now within a virtual world. Who is the Police? What penalties would I face, if any? The behavioural norms we associate with the real-world fall apart in the digital sphere. That is already true today given the vile abuse faced by female academics in particular.

Is your institutional policy framework designed to cope with this scenario?

A student group, registered with your Student Union, organises a virtual event, hosted on a third-party application ( ZOOM for example) using a license owned by the controversial speaker themselves. The event requires registration but this is also done by the speaker themselves, and the event is advertised without any explicit endorsement from the student group themselves through it is heavily advertised verbally and using paper flyers around campus. During the event, some students mount a protest, disrupting the event. The event attracts huge criticism and excepts of the ZOOM meeting go viral on TikTok and Telegram, with some of the student’s name and affiliations being attributed. The mainstream press seize on the event as an example of both the ‘no-platform’ policy position you hold and the ‘woke, liberal elite’ attitudes in evidence.

My advice to a recent University client was that they should run ‘war games’ scenarios with senior student leaders and Heads of Department around exactly these kinds of scenarios. Because the challenges institutions face are less about being overrun by technological developments than it is one of uncontrollable user scenarios.

And explore AR in the short term. That’s for the final blog in this short series.

If you are looking to review institutional strategies in the light of challenges and opportunities presented by the Metaverse, please feel free to get in touch with spa@sijen.com

Image credit: generated using DALL-E

Metaverse explained for University Leaders: What is currently possible within the Metaverse? 2/4

I am not selling anything here. That should be self-evident given that my answer to the question “what is currently possible within the Metaverse?” is, not much. I could even suggest nothing, because ‘it’ doesn’t exist yet, certainly in the form it aspires to. What we have instead are partial experiences, glimpses into the promise of what the future holds. In part one of this four-part blog, I explored the definitions of what the Metaverse might be. We don’t have it yet.

Recent press (including this from the NYT), in part the reason for the delay in issuing this second of four short articles, have highlighted how deeply unpopular the concept of an immersive working environment in the Metaverse actually may prove to be. Meta’s own Horizon platform, the immersive environment that is the company’s manifestation of the Metaverse, is proving unpopular even amongst its own employees. Essentially, the Metaverse still remains largely the domain of ‘video games’. There is a serious risk of over-inflating the promise of a virtual reality workspace. Just as 3D films have repeated the cycle of innovation, technology breakthrough, costly implementation, partial deployment, and customer non-engagement, so it looks like the Metaverse risks repeating this trajectory.

If you are looking to review institutional strategies in the light of challenges and opportunities presented by the Metaverse, please feel free to get in touch with spa@sijen.com

Nonetheless, we should discuss what is currently accessible for educators. There are a range of AR and VR visualisations that aid learning. These include 3D visualisations of the human body for medical purposes, and of engineering and architectural designs that aid a deeper understanding of structure. The challenge for academics is to confront themselves with the question of whether learning gained through these 3D renditions adds enough value to warrant associated costs. If you were a medical science student before these visualisations were available, are you likely to have learned anything new from these 3D renditions? Are these 3D images necessarily enhanced by viewing them using VR headsets? It might be a ‘nice to have’, but does it warrant the not insignificant investment in staff training and equipment?

What is currently available in the commercial world,  notably in disaster response and security contexts, are a series of hyper-real representations of real-world scenes, as opposed to fantasy worlds, in which skills can be perfected. The most obvious in the public consciousness would be flight simulators on which pilots learn to master new aircraft. Surgeons have also benefited for some years from the VR renditions of difficult procedures that can be rehearsed before opening up a patient. Touching on a humanities field, but still with a foot firmly in the technical realm, the restoration team working on the Notre Dame in Paris collaborates within a VR version of the fire-gutted cathedral, discussing and experimenting with approaches before tackling the real thing. 

There is no doubt that the human brain is clever. Having a 3D visualisation of an object or a scene, displayed on a flat screen, satisfies most cognitive engagements. Is immersion in virtual reality either helpful or necessary?

Graphic design and game design students would undoubtedly benefit from practice suites to be able to design 3D models and game interactives. Saving individual students the cost of investing in the kit that is likely to be constantly upgraded as IT equipment manufacturers attempt to recoup their investments.  However, unless there is a distinct visualisation requirement,  asked of by current or emergent practice within the profession to which university programmes are aligned to, I would suggest there is no need to invest heavily in developing the in-house capacity to create VR experiences. It remains cheaper, not cheap, but cheaper, to employ either a third party, or your own student designers, to create experiences. 

What is less certain is the role that AR will play in the Metaverse. That’s for next time.

If you are looking to review institutional strategies in the light of challenges and opportunities presented by the Metaverse, please feel free to get in touch with spa@sijen.com

Metaverse explained for University Leaders:
 A simple guide to the immersive future (1/4)

University Leaders will doubtless come away from the latest round of late summer conferences with ideas about how to seize some real estate in Metaverse. With some caveats, I would suggest it is worthwhile that Universities start thinking now about how to harness the potential.


If you are looking to review institutional strategies in light of the challenges and opportunities presented by the Metaverse, please feel free to get in touch.


In four separate postings I want to outline:

  1. What the Metaverse is and is not.
  2. What is currently possible within the Metaverse
  3. Where are the challenges for universities in journeying into the Metaverse
  4. The opportunities likely to emerge over the next few years within the Metaverse.

What the Metaverse is and is not.

It is not yet here. The Metaverse is conceived as a series of intertwined digital experiences, from the presentation of personalised content based on physical proximity to the fully immersive virtual reality experience. The Metaverse is not a single ‘place’, it is rather an experience. It is envisaged as being an experience in which you, the individual, spend time between the virtual world and your flesh-and-blood existence.

Definitions are as varied as they are numerous as the label ‘Metaverse’ has some commercial cachet. Existing technologies, immersive gaming and virtual worlds have adopted the label of Metaverse. Even some commercial teleconferencing companies have chosen to use the label to describe their all-walls solutions.

Whilst several technologies play a part in building the Metaverse, including headsets, graphics platforms, blockchain encryption and so on, these individual technologies do not in themselves represent the Metaverse (Gillis, 2022). They are all pieces. They are yet to come together as a complete pattern. We are some years away from sufficiently integrated experiences that would warrant the label of Metaverse. The two experiences underpinned by this array of technologies are Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), both covered by the term Extended Reality (XR). AR could be defined as overlaying elements of digital representations on top of what we experience in the real world. AR is largely synonymous with Multiple Realities (MR). VR could be defined as the creation of immersive alternate reality. Big Think has a more detailed series of definitions (see here)

Definitions

Most commercial definitions of the Metaverse emphasise the connectivity between different digital experiences. They recognise already that no one wants to have to create multiple digital selves to participate in different experiences. How commercial realities will affect this aspiration is uncertain. Anyone who has signed up for multiple streaming services, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, etc, will tell you, it can be frustrating.

My working definition for Vice-Chancellors of the Metaverse is:

A series of experiences of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), grouped under the banner of extended reality (XR) facilitated by technologies (headsets, touch-sensitive haptic clothing, etc). Participation in the Metaverse allows individuals to create a digital version of themselves (digital-twin) and immerse themselves ‘inside’ the internet, as a representation of the digital world.

A shorter version is:

Metaverse is the intertwining of increasingly immersive digital spaces, experienced through XR technologies by you as your digital twin.

Implications

What this will look like in practice is open to question. At one extreme, a favourite film plot for the dystopia, individuals will spend most of their time ‘plugged in’ to a virtual ‘Matrix’, experiencing less and less human contact. More positive perceptions suggest a reality where working at home does not mean you cannot participate in person at a stand-up. Simply pop on the virtual reality headset and hyper-real representations of your team members appear in the space chosen for the meeting. Wearing a touch-sensitive technology suit (a haptic suit) would mean you can shake the hands of a new member and feel the pressure of their handshake. In its most utopian representation, it could be equated to the holodeck from the Star Trek franchise, a fully immersive hyper-real experience.

It is worth remembering that the concept of the Metaverse is not a new one. It has been around for at least 30 years. The term Metaverse is frequently attributed Neal Stephenson, in his 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash (1992). Star Trek’s own holodeck television representation began in 1988. Its conceptualisation within education was explored in 1995 when John Tiffin and Lalita Rajasingham described virtual learning experiences that were fully immersive in their work In Search of the Virtual Class (1995). An inspiring read, all the more so because it is now 26 years old.

The challenge for university leadership is to know whether to invest and get ahead of the wave, uncertain as to the regulatory frameworks that are likely to be imposed, lack of clarity about the implications for personal privacy, and doubt as to which of the big players will set the technological standards that will allow for interoperability.

In summary

The Metaverse IS coming, will be complex, untidy, multispeed, digitally divisive, and fragmented in its realisation and implementation. The Metaverse IS NOT a product or service you can buy for your students.

Next time: What is currently possible within the Metaverse


If you are looking to review institutional strategies in light of the challenges and opportunities presented by the Metaverse, please feel free to get in touch.


Gillis, M. (2022, August). Emerging Technologies Ushering the Life Sciences Industry into the Metaverse, according to Accenture Report [August 2022]. Newsroom Accenture. https://newsroom.accenture.com/news/emerging-technologies-ushering-the-life-sciences-industry-into-the-metaverse-according-to-accenture-report.htm
Stephenson, N. (1992). Snow crash (Reissued). Penguin Books.
Tiffin, J., & Rajasingham, L. (1995). In search of the virtual class: Education in an information society. Routledge.

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