The next wave of computing will create opportunities for increased target reach, a deeper understanding of consumers, and new data collection types. Where will this take place?
It’ll take place where the digital and the physical converge in a place often referred to as the metaverse. It is a new 1 to 1 digital copy of the world that is searchable, clickable, and machine-readable. With this comes great opportunities and a great responsibility for those in the marketing, communications, and advertising professions.
In the metaverse, marketers will no longer be confined to ads on flat screens. They’ll have a whole virtual universe to create immersive, 3D experiences for the companies and brands they represent.
As the mediums marketers use expand and evolve (print, radio, TV, the internet) so do the ethical guidelines and practices. The internet allowed marketers to study where customers move their mouse or look on a screen. In the metaverse, they’ll be able to track body movement, brainwaves, and physiological responses.
Many consumers tend to accept privacy policies when downloading a new app without reading them. They might be aware that companies and advertising agencies use their data like location and clicks to deliver targeted ads. Some consumers might also know that companies share their data with third parties but might feel like they don’t have any control over it.
When a scandal breaks about data leaking or misuse of app user data, these spark outrage among consumers. Yet, this does little to deter them from downloading apps or reading the terms of service more carefully. It’s worrisome to think that this type of consumer behavior will likely flow over into the metaverse as more everyday people buy VR headsets, AR glasses, and AI-enabled devices.
For marketers representing brands, the metaverse opens a whole new host of challenges (along with many opportunities). The metaverse creates a world of infinite possibilities for brands to create experiences, be part of world-building, and engage with customers in entirely new relationship-building ways. However, the technology is not without danger. Deepfakes, big data, and cyber-attacks could all damage a brand and its customers. Marketers need to be metaverse savvy as these types of technologies are already gaining steam.
“In a new world where we extend reality and defy reality, a world where data fuels the progress we make in the metaverse, we have to hold big tech accountable for transparency and ethical use of data being collected. This is why at XR Safety Initiative, we continue to help build guidelines around privacy, Ethics, and Safety for the emerging realities,” said Kavya Pearlman, Founder & CEO of XR Safety Initiative, an organization whose mission is to enable trust and help build safe, immersive ecosystems.
Here are some of the ethical and privacy considerations that professionals need to be aware of as the metaverse is being built so that we move away from a hyperreality to a protopian one.
Negative Physical Responses
Today, brands are already taking advantage of augmented reality to enhance their products with AR ads. In 2019, Burger King released an AR ad campaign where customers could “burn” ads of Burger King’s competitors, earning them a free burger. The augmented experience showed a competitor’s ad going up in flames.
When incorporating ads in the metaverse, it’s important to consider the sensory impact of the experience. Examples of hyper-reality like this one, show how ads overlaid on the experience can be so overwhelming a person will never want to go back. Sensory overload can trigger seizures in some people who suffer from epilepsy. Even as frame rates improve seamless transitions into the metaverse, users might still get motion sickness.
Kids and the metaverse
What happens in the metaverse doesn’t stay in the metaverse. We already know what people experience in virtual reality impacts their memory, can desensitize them, or make them feel like they already did some action before, even if they never did it in reality. Marketing to adults in the metaverse is one thing, but to kids, it’s another. Theoretically, anyone can be anything in the metaverse but it’s still important to know some key pieces of information, like a person’s age. So even if someone looks like an adult, companies still know they’re not and should be treated as such.
Biometric data is already available through virtual reality headsets, that track a user’s environment, physical movements, and dimensions when they use an XR device. Through headsets and eyeglasses that allow people to access the metaverse, companies can track eye movement, which virtual environments a person goes in, what body movements they make, how long they stay in an environment, and their physiological response to an experience, like heart rate.
There have been several incidents in the last years where apps have exposed personal and even medical information from millions of Americans, in one case even exposing patients’ HIV positive status.
Brainwaves from BCIs
Brain-computer interfaces (BCI) are soon to be a way to access the metaverse. BCIs can be worn on the head like headphones, on the wrist, or work through eyeglasses. BCI technology tracks brain wave patterns and deducts thought processes through machine learning. A direct link to someone’s brain opens whole news types of data to be collected and analyzed.
Brain-computer interface companies like Neurosity design their headsets with security in mind. With Neurosity’s device, Notion, “brain waves are automatically translated into encrypted metadata by the N1 Chipset.” In the metaverse, marketers will be able to tell how someone is accessing it, via VR headsets, AR glasses, or BCIs but personal thought patterns should be protected.
Protecting Digital Twins
Of course, in the metaverse, it’s not just people that will be virtualized but things as well. Buildings, objects in the home, items in a store will all be represented digitally via a virtual twin in the metaverse. Who’s to say which of these objects are acceptable to digitally recreate? Can anyone see any virtual twin in the metaverse? For instance, if a house with all it’s personal objects is in the metaverse, can anyone walk into it or just the real-life owners?
Deepfakes & Alternate Representations of Reality
Marketers in the metaverse will need to invest in cybersecurity to avoid data scandals and manipulation of brands. Deepfakes, hacked avatars, and manipulated objects are some of the types of malicious behavior marketers will have to stay on top of. For instance, MIT and Mozilla recently released a deepfake video that shows President Nixon announcing that Apollo 11 had not succeeded in its mission to the moon. This video of an alternate reality of sorts has gotten a lot of coverage and helped further the conversation about deepfakes and ethics.
Above All, Respect The Consumer
Government laws are slow to catch up to new technologies and metaverses. Marketing companies can prepare themselves for the metaverse by developing best practices to guide ethical based decision making. Best practices should include how marketing companies respect consumer’s data, how to respond to misinformation attacks, along with why type of technologies and experiences to use in the metaverse.
Pearlman shares that as we build these brave new worlds fueled by augmented and virtual reality, we need to proactively address safety, privacy, and ethics in this domain. Without informed consent and lack of awareness around risks that these sophisticated technologies bring along, we are walking a thin line between trust and dystopia.
That’s why it’s now that professionals need to start having these conversations and setting best practices. Pearlman adds that in a world where seeing is no longer believing, the only way to establish and retain trust is via ethics, accountability, transparency, and human-centric design.
Now is the time, not later.