Fourth Industrial Revolution

How will 'presence and awareness cues' like body language change as we interact more in the metaverse?

A woman wearing a 3D visor experiencing the metaverse

Metaverse: Reading body language. Image: Photo by UK Black Tech on Unsplash

Anna Schneider
Professor of Business Psychology, Trier University of Applied Sciences
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The Metaverse

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  • As communication moves from the physical to the digital realm and then on to mixed reality, the information that we share through body language, tone and cadence choices is changing.
  • With the help of AI and other developing technologies, these 'Presence and Awareness Cues' (PAACs) have the potential to outperform human senses in future metaverse interactions.
  • Around 90% of consumers rely on PAACs in their daily online interactions, but little systemic work has been done to develop standards and safety practices in this area.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was told that video calls could replace face-to-face communication in many aspects of daily life. It quickly became clear though that this was not the case. Contactless communications simply could not replace in-person interactions.

Humans are acutely attuned to a lot of subtle communication cues during face-to-face interactions, from the slightest changes in body language to tone and cadence choices. We know when the person we talk to is paying attention. We can empathise with others. We can anticipate their reactions. No current digital service can provide the same level of information. But for how long?

It is true that even the earliest phones gave us 'superhuman capabilities.' Dial and ring tones gave us clues about whether someone was available to talk, no matter how far away they were. Today, there are a whole host of features built into online communication services that let us augment how we share information about ourselves. They also help us understand if others are present on a particular service and give us clues about their behaviour patterns. Filters, receipt and read checkmarks and status messages are just a few examples of how they take shape.

Today’s devices and services continue to unlock even more of these superhuman capabilities. Within my research, I define these as Presence and Awareness Cues (PAACs). With more computational power, smart algorithms and novel functions, emotion recognition and live video manipulation are just a first glimpse of the arsenal we will be able to use to project ourselves and perceive others in online environments.

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Sensing in the metaverse

As the metaverse promises to deliver true mixed-reality experiences, the superhuman capabilities we have in online environments will begin to seep into our day-to-day interactions. This led me to the question of how important such cues are today and how consumers will likely react to emerging features. My results suggest that the decisions we make about PAACs will substantially impact consumers and have significant implications for widespread metaverse adoption.

In a survey of more than 18,000 respondents across six countries (China, France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the US), I found that around 90% of communications and social media services users already rely on functions signalling presence and awareness.

To explore the role such functions may play in a metaverse, I split the sample into three groups of respondents according to their level of experience with any augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) applications or devices. The first group of respondents had no experience with AR/VR applications. The second and third group contain respondents who had either come into contact with AR/VR technology before or were current AR/VR users respectively.

Have you read?

Savvy users manage their online selves, but others may be at risk

The survey results consistently show that those who had experience with metaverse-linked technologies used PAACs in online environments much more. This trend was particularly pronounced in the US and Europe.

Metaverse technology users regularly built mental profiles of the people they interact with across various online services. The average respondent without prior metaverse experience was unlikely to do the same.

Given their practical understanding of these kinds of mental profiles, metaverse users were also found to meticulously manage their online presence. They altered their behaviour based on who else was simultaneously online on the same app. Again, non-users of metaverse technology were unlikely to pay so much attention to others online.

While digging deeper into how we manipulate our own online presence, I found that respondents would avoid presence and awareness signalling based on four main factors: (1) the location they were signalling from, (2) the situation they were in, (3) who they were contacting and (4) what app they were using. All four factors show roughly the same pattern of signalling avoidance across the three groups.

These behaviour trends meant it was no surprise that all respondents said they would likely be more restrictive in their signalling of information if they were put in a pervasive internet environment that offered even more specific PAAC functions. On the other hand, the results also suggest that there is a general appetite for more nuanced signalling functions, especially from current metaverse users.

My previous research established that by using different communications and social media apps consumers proactively manage who can access which part of their online selves. These results underline the importance of understanding and managing how we represent ourselves online. While the survey suggests that current metaverse users already pay a lot of attention to this, less technologically savvy users may struggle to make the right decisions.

We must talk about standards and regulation of online self-representation

The standardisation process for the metaverse has only just begun. PAACs must be considered during this standardisation process. Consumer protection agencies and regulators should also be paying close attention to PAACs. Metaverse PAACs have features that make them susceptible to abuse.

First, they are sticky. They can be stored or shared in ways that we may not be happy with.

Second, they can be manipulated either by the users themselves or by others. This can make it difficult to trust the authenticity of PAACs.

Third, PAACs can be targeted to specific recipients, while being withheld from others in the same VR or AR space. The representation of a person you see could be different from the one that your neighbour sees.

Fourth, PAACs will eventually be augmented by artificial intelligence to change what we see or others see about us. It will then be significantly easier to aggregate and interpret information shared across different contexts.

Fifth, PAACs may become more covert as internet applications become more pervasive and develop new functions. We may only learn how vulnerable we have been long after an interaction.

This research is an initial foray into learning about how we project ourselves and see others in the metaverse, but it highlights how badly we need metaverse developers to begin thinking about PAACs. If we don’t get this right, consumers may lose trust in emerging technologies. Clear standards and regulatory guardrails must be developed to build trust and level the playing field for a human-centric, successful metaverse.

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