How can we develop a safe, just metaverse that’s fit for all?

Beyond entertainment, the metaverse could also help resolve social issues.

Beyond entertainment, the metaverse could also help resolve social issues. Image: Unsplash/Ales Nesetril

Johnny Wood
Writer, Forum Agenda
Robin Pomeroy
Podcast Editor, World Economic Forum
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The Metaverse

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  • The metaverse can potentially improve access and provision of healthcare, education and much more.
  • But developers need to ensure what they are building is socially valuable and accessible to everyone regardless of where they live.
  • The World Economic Forum’s newly launched ​​Social Implications of the Metaverse and Privacy and Safety in the Metaverse reports examine some of the challenges involved.

A turbo-charged internet, a next-generation digital world, or a distant dream that may never fully materialize.

We’re talking about the metaverse: a collection of shared digital spaces for real-time interaction and activities – a continuum that blends digital worlds with the physical world.

Whatever your view, the magnetic appeal of creating this virtual new world continues to attract research, development and investment. The value of the metaverse is projected to reach $1 trillion in the coming three years, according to research from Accenture.

But how will it shape our world? Two recent reports by the World Economic Forum shed light on privacy and safety concerns and the social implications of developing the metaverse.

In a Radio Davos podcast, host Robin Pomeroy discussed these issues with Pearly Chen, Vice President at HTC, and explored some real-world uses of this emerging technology and how it could change lives.

How can technology move the metaverse beyond gaming platforms?

The metaverse's potential lies far beyond today's gaming platforms, employing virtual reality (VR) to transport people to virtual spaces and experiences that make you believe you are actually there and that it's real. But this relies on many new technologies to push the boundaries of what's possible.

Wearing a VR headset, people could be transported to sites like the Egyptian pyramids, visit Notre Dame cathedral before it was damaged by fire, or journey back in time to see first-hand what life was like.

"All of this different content that is enriching and life-changing needs to be created, and AI plays an important role in that. And blockchain, as a foundational infrastructure technology, must provide that trust layer for transactions, identity, and ownership. And then there's 5G and next-generation high-speed networks that will allow these super-low-latency requirement experiences to come to life," explains Chen.

"It's important not to be blindsided by the hype because that's usually pretty dangerous. It brings a frenzy of capital attention or expectations, and then we crash pretty hard, which can have a big impact on start-ups, founders and companies in the ecosystem.

“So we have maintained our vision of what we hope to build, converging all these different cutting-edge technologies. Consumers don't necessarily need to know all the ins and outs, but the central challenge is how we bring these technologies together to give people a more enriched and meaningful digital experience.

“Take the smartphone era as an example. That digital experience primarily now exists for billions of people on a flat screen that we hold in our palms. As we evolve into this next phase of a personal computing platform, it will simply be a much more intuitive, spatial and immersive experience. And that's what I call spatial computing or some call XR (extended reality).”

Figure illustrating the definition of social value in the metaverse.
Ensuring social value is an important part of efforts to develop a metaverse for all. Image: WEF

Can the metaverse make us more healthy?

Beyond entertainment, the metaverse could also transform sectors like healthcare, education and help resolve social issues.

At the same time, there are challenges, such as ensuring equal access and adoption of these new technologies – developing a metaverse that’s sustainable, equitable and inclusive. And it must empower all users, wherever and whoever they are, to benefit from its economic impact.

“In healthcare today, doctors often make decisions based on 2D images that they have to construct three-dimensionally in their heads before performing a critical surgery,” says Chen.

“This can be done exponentially better using this immersive interface in artificial intelligence tools.

"A doctor can now go into the patient's brain or heart together with the patient to better understand the medical condition and plan how to increase the operation's chances of success.

"You're immersed in your anatomy using 3D models converted from your actual MRI or CT scans. You understand where the tumour and arteries are and what is a better incision point to improve the patient outcome. And helping the patient understand what's happening makes things a little less scary.

"Other applications include delivering physical or mental health therapies through virtual reality headsets in the comfort of the patient's own home instead of a clinician's office. Or bringing VR experiences to senior homes in assisted living environments."

Can immersive education enhance learning?

Immersive media could also help people learn, absorb and retain information more effectively. Being there, seeing things firsthand could have significant learning advantages for students, compared to learning by resources like textbooks or video.

"Many enterprises are starting to use virtual reality for staff training, whether it's procedure-based, hard or soft skills," Chen says.

"There are so many things where simulation can add a layer of understanding, retention and engagement with the content.

“This is a great platform of learning, for learners of all ages, but when kids go into VR, everything is so natural for them. They touch things. They manipulate things. They understand things very easily without explanation. I think kids and senior people are surprisingly great target VR users.

“Teachers, educators and companies can easily create learning materials that are customizable and repeatable to accelerate learning and achieve much better outcomes.”


How is the World Economic Forum contributing to the metaverse?

Will the metaverse be accessible to all?

As with many technologies, developing the metaverse is not without its social challenges.

There’s the risk of increasing the digital divide between the world’s technological haves and have-nots, for example, where billions of people without connectivity and the requisite digital tools are, therefore, unable to access the metaverse and its applications.

“Consumer electronics evolve very quickly and the cost of components comes down quickly,” Chen predicts.

“Smartphones that started out as an elitist new gadget have now become the centre of everybody's lives and livelihoods, even in low-income countries.

“So it is important to push the boundaries of these new technologies that will always carry concerns of unintended societal consequences and impacts.

“VR headsets are expensive because they use a lot of on-headset or on-device processing. When that can be offloaded to the cloud, to the edge or to other computing devices, the display in front of your eyes should become significantly cheaper, lighter and more comfortable to wear.

“Such a device can still be expensive to access now, so it's important to develop a bridge to browser-enabled three-dimensional experiences too, to make sure more people have access.”

Should we be optimistic or anxious about the future?

With so much uncertainty surrounding the development of the metaverse, what should parents, teachers and others need to consider when bringing these technologies into their home or classrooms?

We have been here before. The early days of the internet were filled with promise but some are pessimistic about some aspects of today’s online and social media impact.

So, is the metaverse a cause for optimism or anxiety?

“If we design our business models around attention, eyeballs and content, or create content to ride the algorithm and reach your target audience, social media or content consumption behaviour becomes a certain way. One that’s not desirable for parents or society as a whole,” warns Chen.

“With such benefit of hindsight, we can design this future in a more mindful way. People need to be consuming immersive digital experiences because it enhances and benefits their lives, not because it provides better data to sell them more products and services.

“And that's why for us, the metaverse or whatever we call it in future needs to be open and transparent. There needs to be a very healthy business model that rewards creators.

“We need to back the right founders to build with the right intentions and vision. And we need to, as an industry, come together with all the stakeholders and agree how we treat data privacy, how we design safety and ethics framework.

“What matters is the right vision, what to build, who to back, and how to put the right values and frameworks in place so that this future is what we want to see for our children.”

Pearly Chen, Vice President, HTC, Head of Business Development & Content Partnerships

“Power-charged by the development in generative AI, everyone can become a creator. I feel that's really important because everyone needs to participate in this metaverse concept or this digital future. We really want it to be built by the people for the people.

“I think with the right parameters, frameworks and tools in place, the kids will be empowered to build a future that is good for them.”

Click on the link below to listen to the full episode and learn more about the risks and rewards of developing the metaverse.


The World Economic Forum is working with public and private-sector stakeholders to provide strategic guidance for the development of a secure, interoperable and economically sustainable metaverse.

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