In a nutshell: Imagine a world where the physical and digital converge; where our interactions, work, play and transactions happen in a vibrant, interconnected digital space. Virtual worlds are immersive, computer-generated environments allowing dynamic interactivity. They extend far beyond gaming, offering novel forms of collaboration, commerce, education and more.
Key Features: Immersive Experiences | Interactive Environments | Digital Twins | Customisable | Engagement
Virtual worlds offer exciting opportunities for immersion in customised, computer-generated environments. They enable dynamic interactivity with other users and objects. They can give organisations a chance to create exceptional experiences and reach wide audiences in creative ways. Virtual worlds can also be seen as a core component of the broader concept of ‘the metaverse’.
The metaverse takes virtual worlds to the next level by linking various digital experiences into one shared, interconnected space. This ambitious vision for the future of the internet integrates technologies like augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), cryptocurrency and blockchain and spatial computing9 to create an immersive, interlinked virtual space that users can access through various devices.
The widely accepted end goal of the metaverse industry is to create a seamless convergence of our physical and digital lives that might result in a unified, virtual community where participants can work, play, socialise, transact and create together.
In recent years, both virtual worlds and the metaverse have gained significant momentum and interest. The COVID-19 pandemic hastened a shift towards digital experiences and progress in related technologies has made it more attainable. This has also caught the attention of a number of governments and investors, some of whom see potential economic and social opportunities within the metaverse. As a result, there have been several substantial investments in this field.
Although virtual worlds originated in the realm of gaming, they now go beyond entertainment, with novel forms of collaboration, commerce, education, communications research and other applications that have the potential to impact society and change the way we interact with each other and our environment. Their global accessibility, affordability and increasingly customisable nature mean that virtual worlds could help shape our lives in the years to come and potentially become the next frontier for human ingenuity and creativity.
Although the broader vision of the metaverse has yet to become a reality, virtual-world platforms are already available and could be utilised for various purposes as the field continues to evolve.
Blockchain is expected to be a fundamental building block within the metaverse, providing a decentralised and secure infrastructure for transactions through cryptocurrency, ownership and transfer of digital assets through NFTs, automated and trustless interactions through smart contracts, and new forms of collaboration through DAOs. Additionally, blockchain may contribute by creating ‘virtual identities’ and reputation systems and provide users with more control over their data inside the metaverse.
9Spatial computing refers to the collection of techniques and tools used to capture, process, and interact with three-dimensional data in various technologies and applications.
Virtual worlds offer compelling opportunities to bridge the empathy gap between humans and non-humans, which is often a challenge due to an innate tendency to better empathise with beings that are similar to ourselves (‘in-group favouritism’10), and the societal ‘extinction of experience’11 with nature. Immersive virtual experiences have the potential to serve as ‘empathy drivers’ by allowing users to witness and interact with the natural world in ways that are difficult or impossible to replicate in real life. For example, imagine being able to walk through a virtual forest and witness the intricate processes happening within plants, or being shrunk down in size to explore the microbiomes inhabiting the ecosystems around us. Imagine being in the simulated body and mind of another species, hearing and seeing their approximate sensory experience and going through challenges that they are facing from their viewpoint. Such virtual experiences may have the potential to transform perceptions and challenge preconceived notions regarding topics or issues that are sometimes deemed less appealing, such as those related to non-charismatic species or ecosystems perceived to be less appealing to humans, like swamps. Developing such immersive experiences has the potential to make conservation efforts more engaging and accessible in a way that encourages empathy and could inspire policymakers, donors and individuals to make better-informed decisions and mobilise resources for conservation.
Digital twinning is the process of creating a digital replica of a physical system or space, which enables simulations, visual demonstrations and analysis to be performed in a virtual environment. By replicating real-world ecosystems, digital twinning can simulate a range of environmental scenarios, allowing individuals to experience the potential impacts of different actions on the ecosystem in a vivid and immersive way. Leveraging digital twinning for conservation could help people more readily grasp complex environmental systems and interactions or the consequences of actions in ways that might encourage them to make different choices in the real world. Imagine stepping into a digital twin of a habitat you know well and then teleporting through different possible futures to vividly experience the adverse effects of climate change, or alternatively, explore optimistic scenarios that demonstrate the positive effects of collective regeneration efforts. You can also choose to turn this virtual ‘time machine’ backwards to experience the area’s historical habitats as a means to overcome the shifting baseline syndrome that often hinders conservation efforts. Whether it be the past or several alternative futures, digital twinning provides opportunities to experience and explore nature through time in vivid and impactful ways.
The physical environment or setting in which a creative process or decision-making occurs may influence its quality and outcomes12. Conservation processes, such as project ideation and decision-making, often take place in closed offices or through remote conferencing like Zoom. However, virtual worlds offer opportunities to hold such processes in immersive settings. For example, meetings could be held around a campfire in a digital twin of the natural habitat being discussed or hosted by community representatives in a digital twin of a local village. Additionally, participants could take on the avatars of different animals in these virtual settings. How might such a change in setting and experience affect decision-making? Could it enhance the creativity of participants to generate ideas they may not have considered otherwise?
Virtual worlds, despite being an energy-consuming industry, can help reduce ecological and financial costs while increasing participation and diversity. For instance, by conducting conferences and meetings in virtual worlds, organisations can eliminate the need for physical travel, thereby reducing emissions and costs associated with holding or attending such gatherings and potentially creating more equitable access for people from all geographies and backgrounds. Looking beyond remote convening, the digitisation of various industries provides opportunities to reduce their environmental impacts. For example, transforming fashion or merchandise experiences into digital ones reduces the physical production of goods and minimises waste. When assessing the direct and indirect environmental impacts of virtual worlds and the metaverse, it is crucial to balance them with their real-world environmental benefits.
Across various regions of the world, political and physical borders can hinder collaboration, engagement and the resolution of regional environmental challenges. Virtual worlds provide the potential to bridge these barriers and enable communities on either side of a contested border to come together, engage with one another and collaborate on the real-world environmental challenges of the region. Whether addressing water resources, biodiversity loss or climate change, virtual worlds could help transcend traditional borders and promote regional cooperation from the ground up.
Zoos have long been a topic of heated debate, with proponents arguing that they contribute to education, research and wildlife conservation, while detractors raise concerns about animal welfare, the perpetuation of outdated views of animals as objects of entertainment, and their actual impact on conservation efforts. However, virtual zoos may offer an alternative experience with potential benefits such as better accessibility, cost-effectiveness, potentially improved visitor experience and elimination of animal welfare concerns. The concept of virtual zoos may encompass interactive educational content delivered through augmented and virtual reality experiences that simulate real-life interactions with wildlife. They could also serve as digital portals into live animal sanctuaries or wild habitats, streamed in real time, thus immersing visitors in the animals' world without disturbing their natural behaviour or habitat. Unlike traditional zoos, such experiences remove the need to keep animals in captivity for display purposes, while promoting conservation in an engaging manner. Visitors can potentially be face-to-face with animals in their digitally twinned natural habitats, experience their naturally recorded behaviours and gain multiple perspectives into their lives. Moreover, virtual zoos can serve as alternative funding models for shelters or breeding programmes that require animal confinement but do not publicly display them like traditional zoos. Despite the complexity of this issue, virtual worlds may offer an innovative and compassionate alternative that is worth exploring for the benefit of all stakeholders involved.