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Robert Rodriguez/CNET

The Metaverse Is Trying to Figure Out Your Comfort Zone

Commentary: Connecting to others in the metaverse is already happening. But it needs to feel more natural, too.

Something strange happens to me when I enter virtual worlds with my VR headset: I feel alone. I've noticed this happens again and again, no matter what virtual space I stumble into. The irony of feeling so disconnected despite the promise of endless ways to connect isn't lost on me. 

But that changed recently. 

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Robert Rodriguez/CNET

Standing in a bare virtual room created in AltspaceVR, along with two other actors and with Jeff Wirth, director of the interactive acting-focused Interactive PlayLab and my VR coach, I found something far more uplifting. We stood close to each other, paying attention to when our avatar eyes drifted, an automatic move created by Microsoft's virtual worlds app to simulate eye contact without eye tracking. We learned to move our heads to trigger this eye movement and more intentionally create a sense of presence. Wirth also reminded me that, as I spoke, my hands stayed too still. Moving my hands more, and animating, made my avatar more expressive. I had to learn to perform, in a sense, to better express myself as a human.

These brief moments of connection give me hope for the future of the metaverse, a layer of virtual worlds that the largest tech companies are betting is where we'll hang out, spend money and live our digital lives. The metaverse promises to be a social playground, a series of magical doorways to meet people and make friends. And yet, in these new destinations, metaverse apps can end up delivering alienation as well as community. It's often unclear which you'll get at any time. Despite all my hours in VR, my comfort with these experiences ebb and flow. 

If we're ever going to form a deeper society that lives between worlds, in virtual spaces as well as physical ones, we'll need better control of these tools, and understand the norms of these virtual spaces. That's likely to happen as more companies like Apple and Google enter the metaverse, but it remains a major question as the metaverse starts to take hold: Are these virtual spaces, often with cartoon avatars, an extension of real society, or are they their own unique spaces? 

Answering that question, and figuring out how we should be behaving in these virtual worlds, is critical. Harassment and toxic behavior in VR is already a real problem, as well as a lack of proper safety settings to keep kids from mixing with random adults in virtual world apps. 

While VR had a slow start, it's likely to pick up steam with so many invested in the metaverse. It's estimated that Meta's already sold around 10 million Quest 2 headsets, and browser, phone, PC and game console-enabled metaverse destinations are intended to catapult numbers much higher. Mass adoption of these platforms means tackling the same challenges that social media is still struggling to figure out, with the added dimension of a virtual space that could be far more impactful than any subtweet or comment. 

I take some faith in the future thanks to some VR acting classes. My conclusion: The more connected we can be without the strange mediation of text or emoji, the better. In some ways, like a phone call, VR interactions can feel more real than social media feeds  – as long as everyone's on the same page trusting each other. That's easier said than done in a universe where trust in people seems more frayed than ever.

At least one other person is optimistic about the future. 

"When we feel more connected, we treat each other better," Wirth said. 

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Robert Rodriguez/CNET

Alone together

Wirth is a veteran interactive actor and improviser, and has begun to build spaces in VR that can be workshops to express identity through avatars. I met Wirth over years of following the immersive theater landscape, and I volunteered to dive in and explore the moment I heard about the project.

He sees exaggerated performances with avatars in VR as a similar process to how we learn to perform in any real-life scenario, something that becomes more natural as we grow accustomed to the VR tools. 

Standing next to these actors, being closer than I usually am to anyone since the COVID era began, our conversations start to feel more natural. I remember the experience as being real, even though we were avatar cartoons. And I try to talk with my hands more, to compensate for not having enough facial expressions. 

As Wirth explained, we assume our body language and expressions communicate in virtual spaces, and when they don't, miscommunications and alienation can happen. That can be the start of arguments or disconnection. 

I can relate to this. I feel it all the time. And it feels like the start of how to build communities in virtual worlds.

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Me, alone, in a random psychedelic maze I found in AltSpaceVR. Not the improv class, but my avatar. Sometimes it's hard to connect with people in virtual worlds unless I've made plans.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Wirth sees most online conflict stemming from states of disconnect, like flame wars decades ago, or even the imperfect stand-in for emotions that emoji serve now. It's no accident that Big Tech has left figuring out human interaction in the metaverse for last, because it's the hardest part to solve. 

"The most difficult things to do, programmatically, are the things that make us most human," Wirth said, feeling that we don't have a well-developed body language for VR yet. Wirth thinks that will come, with practice and conscious work. It's all still weird prosthetics now, game controllers in my hands and a big headset on my face. Eye tracking and hand tracking suggest more natural, subtle body language to come, but will people feel comfortable trusting headsets to track us with so many cameras and sensors?

I found myself learning to trust, and listen, and be aware of my own movements. Much like trust games in improv, which involve a lot of listening and group focus, the trust in connecting with others can follow too. In one exercise, I learn to virtually walk at my own normal walking speed, small movements of the controller. The exercise is experimental, but it reminds me to be more aware I'm actually in a virtual world. I'm always tempted to hop away and treat it like a video game. But the more I learn to really feel like I'm there, the more I treat it with respect.

They're baby steps toward something resembling connection and community, even if that end goal remains far away. 

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A virtual concert at BRCvr in AltSpaceVR in 2020 that I went to, with Diplo showing up as a holographic scan.

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Where the I becomes many

Knowing what the norms of behavior are for most virtual worlds is hard, because the rules of engagement are often looser. Wander into a random space in VRChat, or meander through the virtual world app Rec Room, and you'll see what I mean. Usually, avatars are half-engaged, at best. Tapping into existing communities, and codes of behavior, is a huge help. As the metaverse remains half-defined, strong existing communities are probably the best way to start.

One of the largest metaverse gatherings I've seen in the past two years was a virtual version of the Burning Man festival, also held in AltSpaceVR. BRCvr, an event and organization that synthesized Burning Man's principles virtually, was turned into a stand-in for the closed physical event during the pandemic in 2020, and continued in 2021. Athena Demos and Doug Jacobson, who led the creation of BRCvr, said they learned a lot about the keys to a successful virtual community. One of those is having established principles to build on. Burning Man's own tenets were used to help remind creators and attendees of what behavior in that space should feel like.

"One of our principles says that you have to create a project that's bigger than any one person can do themselves," Demos said over a Zoom call. "And that invites people to participate in it, participation being a principle, and radical inclusivity. Everyone's building a platform, but not thinking about the community aspect of it."

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A view of the entrance to BRCvr's virtual playa, 2020.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

The BRCvr creative process often started over Zooms, and from there went into VR. The creative team wanted to make sure participants were able to connect and feel rooted in real-world relationships that then carried over. And in those VR worlds on the virtual playa, which mirrored the structures and sculptures at the physical Burning Man, Demos wanted to make visitors feel like participants, not observers. 

"What does that participation look like? And how can they get more involved? That builds community," Demos said of what's missing from metaverse spaces looking to draw communities in. That's how you get people on your platform."

BRCvr's festivals had community-volunteer rangers who helped moderate events, and greeters who helped people find their way. Demos and Jacobson said that responsibility has to come from the organizers of an event, not necessarily the platform itself, just like creating any other real-life event at a venue. "It's helpful in the early days to have an existing community, because that existing community will have a huge motivation to get through whatever the technological layers they need to get through to get to the hangout zone," Jacobson said. 

Demos sees community standards, built through the community itself, as the way forward. "We can't just have everyone with a personal bubble, right? The solution is conflict resolution, working with the public, and having everyone feel like they're part of the whole. The problem isn't in the metaverse. The problem is systemic."

Demos, Jacobson and Wirth are aiming for a similar goal: getting more empathy between people, bringing down barriers and establishing trust. That's not easy, especially in a world full of trolling and harassment. But the path forward, through small communities, makes me feel optimistic. At times, it made me feel welcomed. 

This year's Burning Man will take place in person in Black Rock, Nevada, while BRCvr's experience of a virtual Burning Man may happen later in the fall, as a sort of place to relive the experience again. But Demos and Jacobson are working on ways to bridge the metaverse and reality together, via portals where avatars can look out on Burning Man, and those at Burning Man can look back in. And the year after, they intend to blend the worlds further. 

"Our big crazy project is called Within the Window," Demos said. "The metaverse is actually where the physical and the digital worlds meet. It's not just the digital. It's the space between them. Avatar to avatar, consciousness to consciousness. We can meet at the metaverse."

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Horizon Worlds, Meta's virtual worlds space, has already had to change its boundary systems to address harassment. Further evolutions are likely to come.

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The massively social world to come

VR can already be a strange place, but in open social platforms, it also means understanding whether you're all agreeing to the same behavior norms for that shared experience. It again reminds me of improv: Without agreeing to what gets created between performers, and respecting the rules that exist in a game or a space, you can create a state of denial. It can get chaotic fast. Trolling in games is also the result of this lack of respect. 

Philosopher David Chalmers, in his recent book Reality+, sees agreement on the realism of the space as of the challenges in virtual societies: Game worlds or play spaces have one set of rules, but "once one sees virtual worlds as genuine realities, however, then the ethics of virtual worlds becomes in principle as serious as ethics in general."

This is where existing platforms are going to need to act fast to keep bad behavior in check, and prevent random trolling and harassment, especially in public zones where proper moderation or community support may not exist. Microsoft's AltSpace VR closed many of its public spaces earlier this year, and instituted personal privacy bubbles for avatars, mirroring what Meta also added to Horizon Worlds.

Many VR participants, including Wirth and BRCvr's Demos and Jacobson, don't necessarily see bubbles as the real long-term answer. Despite providing protection, they also restrict intimacy.

Companies like Meta, which are aiming for millions of people to both play and work in the metaverse, are going to need those boundaries clearly defined. Meta's vice president of metaverse, Vishal Shah, told me the process is a work in progress: "It was important for us to make [personal boundaries] a default, because it helps set norms." 

Shah said personal contacts with existing relationships find the boundaries off-putting, which is why Meta created a new, smaller boundary with friends. "You're going to start seeing more from us in those kinds of ways," Shah said, saying Meta is exploring ways to create more nuanced audio that filters unwanted strangers, or audio bubbles that protect from random encounters. "Maybe the rules around a public space, like the Plaza, are different than private instances, or invite-only type spaces, where the intent on why you went there is different."

Meta's approach has moved to trying to reinforce community behavior through employees acting as guides in these open areas instead of just using signs, but it also means leaning on a lot of trust that participants will behave. 

"In those public spaces, regardless of what the norms are in more of the private or smaller community groups, everyone is part of enforcing that if they've been there before," Meaghan Fitzgerald, Meta's product marketing director for Horizon Worlds, said in an interview. "What I think makes this scalable is that there is an understanding that is shared among people who are the denizens of this space, and they are part of educating others."

Shah and Fitzgerald said that the rules of engagement are being figured out, and as Shah pointed out, the real-time, in-person nature of most VR and metaverse meetings is a lot different from the asynchronous, broadcast nature of most social media now. Social VR is almost always a live experience with appointment-based connections. Getting those moments synced with the rest of our internet lives remains awkward. I find it best when I'm connecting with just a few people I already know, just like any Zoom or phone call, and keeping the rest of the noise out.

I tend to know the rules of any virtual connection with friends and colleagues that I throw together, because we're there for a particular purpose, and we know the social codes. I've been playing VR mini-golf and a role-playing game called Demeo with old college friends for the past few months, and it's been a lot of fun. But to me, even if these are angular polygon avatars, I see them as my friends. And these games have their own rules. The acting class I popped into had its own structure. 

Even if the metaverse suggests a massively social multiverse, it's also hopefully going to be a place with smaller, more personal interactions. If that's the case, then great: I need more connection that matters. Maybe it's as simple as making sure metaverse meetings have a purpose in the first place, and making sure everyone knows what that purpose is. The less open-world and free-form, and the more contained and purposeful, the happier I am. Virtual improv classes and connections with friends are great. It's the rest of the massively social metaverse I'm not so sure about.

Correction, April 10, 2022: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of Black Rock, Nevada. It also misidentified BRCvr, one of several volunteer-run virtual experiences endorsed in 2021 by the Burning Man Project.