The battle to build a kid-friendly metaverse

Paris: As a young woman dons her jacket and headphones and plunges into a virtual world, Mainak Choudhury talks excitedly about the potential of technology.

“This is the first step towards the metaverse,” Chaudhry of French startup Actronika told AFP at this week’s VivaTech trade fair in Paris.

The jacket can give users the sensation of being in the wind or even feeling the breath of a monster on their back, and can be used to improve movie watching, education or gaming.

It’s a family-friendly vision of the immersive 3D internet, now more widely known as the metaverse, and aligns well with some of the interactive experiences already widely available to children – such as virtual trips to museums.

But activists and experts are increasingly warning that the broader ecosystem needs to start working on child safety to ensure good vision is achieved.

“The biggest challenge is that children are exposed to content that is not intended for them,” said Kaviya Perelman, who has carried out her NGO Safety XR Initiative to ensure immersive technology is safe for everyone.

The problems she envisions range from children’s exposure to sexual and violent material, to concerns about using young people as creators of content or inappropriate contact with adults.

Although the metaverse is not yet widely adopted and the technology is still in development, early users have already revealed serious problems.

A woman’s claim that her avatar was sexually assaulted in the metaverse sparked global outrage.

Concerns about the future of technology only increased as economic opportunities became clearer.

‘enormous’ money

Metaverse-related investment exceeded $50 billion last year, according to research firm McKinsey, which expects the number to more than double this year.

“We’re talking about very huge sums of money, and that’s three times more than investing in AI in 2017,” Eric Hazan, a McKinsey partner, told AFP.

At the head of the investors is tech giant Meta, which owns the likes of Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp.

The company has already implemented measures to give parents more control over the content their children interact with while using the VR headset.

Meta and many of its competitors market immersive products with a minimum age of 13 – although it is widely accepted that younger children will use this technology.

Perelman raises a broader concern that little is known about the potential effects on youth development.

“Organisations have not yet verified the validity of these trials from a scientific perspective,” she said.

“However, it does allow children to be exposed to these new technologies, and to have a hands-on experience with children’s developing brains.”

The metaverse has changed the paradigm, according to Valentino Miguel, a neuropharmacologist who researches the issue.

While the audience has so far only consumed what others have created, in the metaverse “we will be part of the digital content,” he said.

“It makes everything we experience in this world more compelling,” he told Digital RightsCon last week, adding that this is especially true of children.

Experts worry that the industry needs close scrutiny before mold appears.

‘moral basis’

The solution, they argue, is to ensure that the builders of these new virtual worlds inculcate child protection measures in the ethos of their work.

In other words, every piece of software and hardware should be built on the basis that children may use it and will need protection.

“We probably have a huge impact on their behavior, their identity, their emotions and their psychology the moment they form their personality,” said Miguel.

“You need to provide an ethical foundation and safety through design from the start.”

One of the most controversial areas of product design is the type of suit that allows users to feel all kinds of sensations – even pain.

Such suits are already being manufactured to simulate pain through electric shocks.

The products are intended for military or other professional training.

Choudhury said the products developed by his company, Actronika, use vibrations rather than electric shocks and are completely safe for anyone to use.

“We are in the process of engaging the public and not necessarily implementing a real-time firefighting scenario or a battlefield scenario,” he said.