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Why representation now means a much better metaverse-to-come

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Building out the metaverse, where users interact in a virtual world in real time, raises many big questions, including, will this metaverse or new reality reflect our highest aspirations? Will it serve as a model for healthy, inclusive ecosystems?

“It depends on who’s designing it,” said Anastasia Staten, executive director of the ESA Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the video game industry during the second day of the GamesBeat Summit.

She was joined by a panel of industry experts who are knee-deep in designing and developing the metaverse-to-come right now, to talk about what’s needed to design and build the metaverse so we can deliver diversity, equity, and inclusion that fosters a sense of belonging.

How the pandemic is impacting the metaverse timeline

The conversation began with a discussion of the current tech landscape, which cannot be talked about without also mentioning the pandemic, and how it has affected the way people interact with all technology.

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Joanna Popper, global head of XR, go-to-market, at HP pointed out that while the pandemic has had devastating economic and health care impacts on the world, the technology industry has been pushed light-years ahead, as has readiness for it.

“A big part of that, too, is making sure that technology is more evenly distributed,” Popper said. “For example, when schools were sent home, many people didn’t have access to laptops. Companies like HP and many others focused heavily on how we could make sure people have computers that are able to connect to take people back to school, and make sure we didn’t continue to increase the digital divide.”

Parallel to that, some of the key building blocks of the metaverse have also made some leaps forward, including spatial computing, virtual worlds, and 3D gaming engines, which, among other benefits, has improved how folks are able to combine entertainment with community, and play games as well as chat with friends. But perhaps even more significant is the ways identity can be embodied in these increasingly social virtual worlds.

They let gamers “bring themselves and their self-expression, whatever way they feel they want to represent themselves on a specific day, being able to own that persona and change it depending on their view of themselves on a particular day or a particular platform,” Camera said. “That has greatly helped show the difference between the internet as it is right now and the vision of where the metaverse is going in the future.”

Beyond gaming: The metaverse as culture

The metaverse will improve game playing and interactive entertainment, but it can go so much further than fancy game platforms. While Oculus’ focus has very much been on gaming platforms, they’re starting to look beyond that, said Clorama Dorvilias, product manager, at Meta/Oculus VR.

“With the next iteration of the headset, we’ll start looking at how we can enable productivity and leverage VR as a utility in our culture and society,” she said. Education and the workplace will be powerfully impacted by VR in the future, she predicted.

“With the emergence of the internet, that’s given us opportunities to be able to access a lot of these core needs that we have as humans — to play, to socialize, to learn, to work — without the need for having to travel physically a certain distance,” she said. “With the pandemic, we were accelerated into that futuristic world. Over the last 20 years of the internet, we’ve become a global economy because these physical barriers have been reduced or broken down. We’re now interacting with people around the world in ways we wouldn’t have been able to, with so much more ease and access.”

Some of the biggest barriers to education around the world are simply access to a physical school, Dorvilias said. But VR can make experiential learning and social learning, as a group, and as a community available to everyone.

Inclusion now impacts the future

Many of the technology use cases pushed forward by the pandemic are based on communication, connection, and community, said Jasmine Roberts, software engineer, augmented reality, at Google. The next step in creating a more inclusive world is simply by providing that access to everyone.

“The fact is that our education model is centered around people having to pay,” Roberts. “In the future there should be more scholarships specifically for people in marginalized groups attempting to get into this. There’s not adequate representation, not just in terms of underrepresented minorities, but also not representation of women in these rooms and spaces.”

In terms of engineering, the best we can do as individuals is to provide mentorship to people, she said, and it takes a lot of effort and willingness.

“We also have to be willing to push back on people who think that marginalized groups are getting unfair advantages by being given unfair opportunities,” Roberts added. “Realistically speaking, if the metaverse does parallel the real world, it needs to have the same demographics and same demographic considerations. It’s as much about pursuing the work, continuing to do the work, and also trying to educate people — politely — who don’t understand why certain groups are in certain positions.”

While there are many companies focusing on how to create a more representative workforce, there’s a really long way to go before the workforce in these spaces is representative of the population at large, Popper added.

For companies, there are three key areas: recruiting, retention, and rewarding, she explained. You need to be proactively, thoughtfully recruiting the best talent from all different backgrounds and identities around the world into your workforce, with the ultimate goal of creating a fully representative team. And then once people are in jobs, you need to retain them by paying them fairly, rewarding them, promoting them, and giving them opportunities to shine.

“The other important thing is for companies to understand why they’re doing this,” she continued. “It’s not checking a box. It’s to actually make the best product. It’s to have the best financial returns. It’s to have the best stock price, to have the best leadership, to have the best decision-making. There’s been study after study showing that when you have a representative workforce, a representative leadership, all of those things are stronger and better. If your company is not actively pursuing this, doesn’t actively have this at the center of its values, you’re not doing your fiduciary duty for your company.”

But conventional companies won’t be the only way to have a stable, long-term career — the metaverse is unlocking the potential for a creator economy, Dorvilias pointed out. People around the world will be able to create their own businesses, express themselves, share their passion, and find ways to connect with other people around the world who also have those unique passions.

“That, to me, is the most exciting part about inclusivity in the metaverse,” she said. “People are starting to be able to have more access and empowerment, to have more control over their own economic opportunities that they didn’t have pre-internet.”

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