Monday, September 19, 2022

Is Privacy Possible in the Metaverse?

Everyone's talking about the Metaverse, a through-the-looking-glass meld of virtual, augmented, and online worlds in cyberspace.But few are discussing its delivery system—smart eyeglasses and headsets--and if these will reshape the public sphere into a goldfish bowl. VR’s immersion substitutes one reality for a dreamier version. A dream, or perhaps a privacy nightmare.

What is a reasonable expectation of privacy in public: In a car? On a porch?

Very quickly, smartglasses will redefine what’s public, as we’re surrounded by those who record audio and video and stream this as they pass by. Facebook says don’t worry, theirs has a little light to alert passersby. Common sense says some people will patch over that. What if someone puts smartglasses next to the bed, turned on. How will such recordings be used and stored? These serious questions deserve study before the devices become widely used.

Opaque or clear, Rx or not, stylish or not, glasses that compute are the future of visual aids. Smartglasses are “smart” because they’re computer- and phone-enabled. They come in three varieties: Augmented- (AR), Mixed- (MR), and Virtual Reality (VR).

AR and MR smartglasses overlay a hologram on your lenses or on a transparentscreen, or even on your retina. Both types accomplish this by using minicameras to survey surroundings and situate you.

The wide-angle lenses, processors, and holographic projectors miraculously fit into something like a standard-sized eyeglass temple, paired with a computer or smartphone. MR smartglasses aim for interaction with surroundings. VR glasses transport you to a new reality by obscuring your sight. They’re vacations hanging on your nose, therapy without the couch.

Smartglass applications are exploding. Surgeons operate while streaming images to a classroom. Skiers use head-mounted displays to monitor speed, elevation, and weather. Hunters wear them to factor in wind speed when taking aim. In such glasses, how will society function when everyone is tuned in and won’t come out?

The impulse to immerse ourselves in another world is centuries old, but by 1930, science fiction had already VR glasses: “You speak to the shadows and the shadows reply…would that make real a dream?” wrote Stanley Weinbaum in Pygmalion’s Spectacles. Then there was the early ‘60s Sensorama, sitting in a cabinet you watched a film while experiencing vibration, smell, and sounds. Unfortunately, odors drifted from one scene into the next, creating an unappetizing Smell-o-Rama. Mention smartglasses and people think of Google Glass. Google expected its “Glass Explorers” to be technology leaders. Instead, they got thrown out of bars for surreptitious recording. Legal problems mushroomed. Scientists demonstrated how the device could capture passwords at an ATM, by filming finger shadows as people tapped in numbers.

Since Glass was withdrawn, dozens of devices have been hung or strapped on. New uses emerged: checking floor plans, testing designs, and advertising. Product placement is coming. One day a ten-foot-tube of toothpaste could float before your eyes.

Yet, smartglasses have a lot to offer: reminders to take medicine, reading aids to the blind; help on the job, and much more. Smartglasses could the first computer widely worn. But not so fast. Tolstoy wrote that in an unequal society, “as ours is, every victory over nature will inevitably serve only to increase that power.”

Beyond privacy, what concerns me most are the powerful dissociative effects of the metaverse, as represented in the film Ready Player One, where people in VR gear dance alone in their apartments and children play with pre-programmed imaginary friends. When we disassociate, we forget who we are as individuals and as a society. With this comes the inability to believe our eyes. We call this “seeing things.” “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears,” Orwell commented in 1984. “It was their final, most essential command."

Left behind in the real world could be the qualities which distinguish humanity as a species: concern for nature, empathy, mutual understanding.

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