I was recently involved in a research project using virtual reality (VR) to explore the impact of virtual green spaces on mood and well-being. I tried out the tech – an Oculus VR headset – on myself first and was instantly transported to a beautiful forest clearing, surrounded by deep green foliage with the sound of birdsong and leaves blowing in the wind. As far as immersive VR experiences go, it was blissful. The only thing missing was other people. The metaverse, however, will soon change that.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the metaverse is an interconnected virtual world where digital avatars from around the globe can congregate to shop, study, socialise and work. Essentially, the metaverse is where the internet meets immersive technologies, such as virtual and augmented reality. Many industry insiders refer to these emerging developments as Web3, an evolution made possible by faster mobile networks, advances in virtual reality and the rollout of blockchains and cryptocurrencies.
I won't be sitting alone in my virtual reality forest for much longer. My colleagues will join me in avatar form. Rather than sharing my screen, I will point to the virtual sky, where the content of my presentation will be projected on to a fluffy white cloud for my fellow workers to see. A week later we will hold the team meeting on a tropical island hideaway.
Opening my mind to the possibilities of the metaverse, I begin to realise just how significant and far-reaching this development could be. For example, I imagine metaverse psychotherapy sessions, where the client's avatar accurately expresses their body language. Body language is something many therapists say they miss when working online using current two-dimensional (non-immersive) technologies such as Zoom.
Beyond enhancing client-therapist communication online, the metaverse could also enable clinicians to conduct powerful therapeutic techniques known as behavioural experiments. For example, this might involve safely exposing clients to feared situations such as public speaking, flying in an aircraft or coming across a spider. Traditional VR has already proven helpful in therapy. It is easy to see how elements of the metaverse could become therapeutic environments.
I can also imagine a virtual classroom with students from all over the world. The students' AI-powered avatars would express life-like emotions. So, if a student is puzzled, a teacher can see it in the eyes of the student's avatar; if the student is bursting to speak, teachers can see that too.
I recently taught an online (Zoom) class as an avatar and I was amazed at how quickly I got used to being avatar-me. The students in the class gave the avatar-led experience a high rating. Although, thankfully, they still seemed to prefer the real me.
An industry survey published by Statistica in 2021 ranked the UAE as having the highest social media penetration rate in the world. It is evident that the UAE is well-placed to be a leading contributor and beneficiary in the digital well-being research agenda.
There are plenty of indicators to show that the metaverse isn't merely coming – it is already here. Its presence will become increasingly evident as more online experiences can be accessed through virtual and augmented reality. There are already reports of children opting to have their birthday parties in shared online environments such as Roblox (an online game). Even weddings are taking place in the metaverse. Such occurrences are primarily a legacy of Covid-19. The pandemic forced us online, and many of us just got used to it. We may now even prefer the digitised version for certain aspects of our existence.
As we make further progress in technology, it is worth considering how living more of our lives online will influence mental health, and what implications might the metaverse – Web3 – have on our psychological well-being. The truth is, we are still reeling from the technologies that grew up on Web2. For example, we have not all that long ago been alerted to the fact that social media use can become compulsive and highly problematic. It took until 2019 for the World Health Organisation to recognise internet gaming disorder as a diagnosable psychiatric entity. The initial suggestion that it might be a problem was made in the late 1990s.
At best, the metaverse might provide a helpful temporary diversion for those overwhelmed by problems in the offline world. However, even here, we need to be cautious. Activities that help us escape real-world pain tend to become habit-forming or addictive.
On the darker side, being divorced from reality and immersed in a virtual world may lead to delusions and psychotic symptoms. In a recent article for Psychology Today, Phil Reed, a professor of psychology, points to growing evidence of a link between online technology use and clinical problems associated with delusions and hallucinations.
As online technology touches more aspects of our lives, it is increasingly essential to develop sustained research programme to understand the affects of online technologies on our mental health. Such research programmes should also focus on how best to use emerging technologies to promote psychological well-being.
As it stands, research on Web2 and how it affects us mentally, is still very much a work in progress. As for the psychological and social implications of the metaverse, so far, we can only speculate.