The Metaverse May Lead to Better Science — ScienceDaily

By | May 26, 2023

In 2021, Facebook made “metaverse” the buzziest word on the web, renaming itself Meta and announcing a plan to build “a set of interconnected digital spaces that let you do things you can’t do in the physical world.” Since then, the metaverse has been called many different things. Some say it is “the future of the Internet”. Others call it “an amorphous concept that nobody really wants”.

For Diego Gómez-Zará, an assistant professor in the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering, the metaverse is something else: a tool for better science.

In “The Promise and Pitfalls of the Metaverse for Science,” published in nature human behavior, Gómez-Zará argues that researchers should take advantage of the metaverse for research, while guarding against the potential dangers that come with working in virtual reality.

Virtual environments, real benefits

Together with co-authors Peter Schiffer (Department of Applied Physics and Department of Physics, Yale University) and Dashun Wang (McCormick School of Engineering, Northwestern University), Gómez-Zará defines the metaverse as a virtual space where users can interact in a three-dimensional environment and take actions that affect the outside world.

The researchers say the metaverse benefits science in four main ways.

First, it can remove barriers and make science more accessible. To understand these possibilities, says Gómez-Zará, we do not need to speculate in the distant future. Instead, we can point to ways in which researchers have already begun to use virtual environments in their work.

At the University College London School of Pharmacy, for example, researchers have created a digital replica of their laboratory that can be visited in virtual reality. This digital copy allows researchers in different locations around the world to meet, collaborate and make decisions together about how a research project should move forward.

Similarly, a virtual laboratory training course developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention teaches young scientists in many different locations to identify the parts of a laboratory and even carry out emergency procedures.

This example shows another benefit: improving teaching and learning.

Gómez-Zará explains, “For someone training to be a surgeon, it is very difficult 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 damaging. 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 effect 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’ve all become comfortable with video conferencing,” says Gómez-Zará. “But that doesn’t mean participating in 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 that the metaverse can also be used to create entirely new experimental environments.

“If you can get data and images from a place, you can create a virtual copy of that place in virtual reality,” explains Gómez-Zará. For example, he says, we have images of Mars taken by satellites and robots. “These can be used to create a virtual reality version of the environment where researchers can experience what it’s like there. Eventually, they can even interact with the environment from a distance.”

Potential pitfalls

Gómez-Zará emphasizes that realizing the full benefits of the metaverse will also require us to avoid several pitfalls associated with it.

There are still barriers to using virtual reality. Virtual reality glasses and related equipment, while becoming more affordable, still require a significant investment.

This problem is related to a larger problem: Who owns the metaverse? Currently, a few tech companies control the metaverse, but Gómez-Zará notes that there have been calls for agencies and others who support research to invest in building an open, public metaverse. In the meantime, he says, it’s important for researchers to think through issues of ownership and privacy whenever they work in the metaverse.

However, his overall message is one of hope. “We still tend to associate the metaverse with entertainment and casual socializing. This makes it all too easy to dismiss,” he says. “But look at how quickly we’ve all adapted to technologies we rarely used before the pandemic. It could be the same way with the metaverse. We need the research community to explore it. That’s the best way to plan for the risks while acknowledging all the possibilities. “

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