More than just a buzzword: Metaverse can pave the way for better science
31 May 2023
One researcher urges us to transcend the hype and explore the untapped potential of virtual reality in boosting the effectiveness of scientific research – but planning around potential pitfalls is paramount.
Image: Diego Gómez-Zará/University of Notre Dame
In 2021, Facebook made "metaverse" the biggest buzzword on the internet, rebranding itself as Meta and announcing a plan to build "a set of interconnected digital spaces that lets you do things you can't do in the physical world."
Since then, the metaverse has sparked mixed reactions. Some consider it to be the "future of the internet". Meanwhile, others call it "an amorphous concept that no one really wants".
In an insightful article titled, "The Promise and Pitfalls of the Metaverse for Science", Diego Gómez-Zará, an Assistant Professor at the University of Notre Dame, sheds light on the transformative power of the metaverse in advancing scientific research.
However, he emphasises the need for careful planning and awareness of challenges to harness the full benefits of virtual reality.
Virtual environments, real benefits
Collaborating with co-authors Peter Schiffer of Yale University and Dashun Wang of Northwestern University, Gómez-Zará defines the metaverse as a three-dimensional virtual space where users can interact in a three-dimensional environment and take actions that affect the world outside.
The team highlights four key ways in which it can revolutionise scientific endeavours.
First, it could remove barriers and make science more accessible. To understand these opportunities, Gómez-Zará says, we need not speculate about the distant future. Instead, we can point to ways researchers have already begun using virtual environments in their work.
At the University College London School of Pharmacy, for example, scientists have made a digital replica of their lab that can be visited in virtual reality. This digital replica allows scientists from around the world to meet, collaborate and make decisions together about how to move a research project forward.
Similarly, a virtual laboratory training developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention teaches young scientists in many different locations to identify the parts of a lab and even conduct emergency procedures.
This example shows a second benefit: improving teaching and learning.
Gómez-Zará explains, "For someone training to become a surgeon, it is very hard to perform a procedure for the first time without any mistakes. And if you are working with a real patient, a mistake can be very harmful.
"Experiential learning in a virtual environment can help you try something and make mistakes along the way without harmful consequences, and the freedom from harmful consequences can improve research in other fields as well."
Gómez-Zará is also working with a team at Notre Dame's Virtual Reality Lab to understand a third potential benefit, one related to the social side of science. The research team studies the effects of online environments on a team's work processes. They find that virtual environments can help teams collaborate more effectively than video conferencing.
"Since the pandemic, we have all become comfortable video conferencing," says Gómez-Zará. "But that doesn't mean getting on a video call is the most effective tool for every task. Especially for intense social activities like team building and innovation, virtual reality is a much closer replica of what we would have offline and could prove much more effective."
Gómez-Zará says the metaverse could also be used to create wholly new experimental environments.
"If you can get data and images from somewhere, you can create a virtual replica of that place in virtual reality," Gómez-Zará explains.
For example, he says, we have images of Mars captured by satellites and robots. "These could be used to create a virtual reality version of the environment where scientists can experience what it is like there. Eventually, they could even interact with the environment from a distance."
While acknowledging the significant benefits, Gómez-Zará urges caution regarding potential pitfalls and barriers.
For example, virtual reality goggles and related equipment, while becoming more affordable, still require a significant investment.
This issue relates to a larger one: who owns the metaverse? Currently, a few technology companies control the metaverse, there have been calls for agencies and others who support research to invest in building an open, public metaverse.
In the meantime, he says, researchers need to think through questions of ownership and privacy any time they work in the metaverse.
His overall message, though, is a hopeful one. "We still tend to associate the metaverse with entertainment and casual socialisation. This makes it all too easy to dismiss," he says.
"But look at how quickly we have all adapted to technologies we used rarely before the pandemic. It could be the same way with the metaverse.
“We need the research community exploring it. That is the best way to plan for the risks while also recognising all of the possibilities."