6. Virtual Worlds and The Metaverse

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

Down to basics
Down the rabbit hole
What's out there?
Things to keep in mind
Further resources
Down to basics

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.

Spatial computing refers to the collection of techniques and tools used to capture, process, and interact with three-dimensional data in various technologies and applications.

Down the rabbit hole

1. Changing perceptions and bridging the empathy gap

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.

2. Digital twinning as a virtual ‘time-machine’

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.

3. Creativity-boost in conservation decision-making

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?

4. The real-world benefits of going digital

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.

5. Transcending political borders

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.

6. An alternative future for zoos?

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.

What's out there?

  1. EcoPeace MiddleEast has developed a virtual world simulating the real-world Jordan Valley. The virtual platform enables Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli stakeholders to visit the site as avatars and cross borders virtually in a location where real-world access is limited. Their platforms enable people from these three nationalities to come together and learn about regional environmental challenges, visit families in digitally-twinned villages and engage in gamified simulations showing the past and possible futures of the Jordan River.

  2. Various organisations are creating digital twins of Earth for diverse purposes:

    An MIT lab is using digital twinning to enable different stakeholders to co-create stories of climate futures. For example, one of their teams is creating an Indigenous-led, site-specific digital twin that simulates a future in which great herds of buffalo roam free again, while another team is digitally twinning the Yawanawà Shukuvena village in the Brazilian rainforest in order to imagine its sustainable future in 2180.

    Destination Earth (DestinE) is an initiative led by the European Commission to develop a highly accurate and interactive digital twin of Earth to monitor, simulate and predict the interaction between natural phenomena and human activities.

    Nvidia’s Earth-2 are building a physically accurate, high-fidelity and ultra-high-resolution replica of Earth continuously running and recalibrating to its real-world twin to predict climate and weather events at the regional and global scales. They aim to enable accurate local predictions that users can “see and feel”, and that are visually impactful and interactive enough for every stakeholder to see the impacts of their actions or inactions on their close environment.

  3. Symbiosis/dysbiosis is working with microbiologists, mycologists, physicists, ecologists, coders and VR technologists to create a multi-sensory, immersive platform allowing users to experience the invisible, multi-species entanglements taking place on and around us. It includes visualisations of plants, fungi and microbiomes and records real-time, human biometric data. The closer the visitor's personal biometric data ‘aligns’ with the living fungal biodata, the more they are able to visualise the microbial connections and ‘travel’ within the mycelium network. 

  4. The Global Collaboration Village is an initiative by the World Economic Forum, Microsoft and Accenture to lay the foundations for a new metaverse platform aimed at fostering virtual, multi-stakeholder cooperation. The Global Collaboration Village is designed to enable a creative space to imagine alternative futures, explore ideas and systems transparently and safely, and envision what the future of engaging multi-stakeholder collaboration could be.

  5. Rewild is a collaborative project between Google, Netflix and others offering an augmented reality nature experience. Through this initiative, users can transform their daily surroundings into vibrant ecosystems as they watch scenes from the Netflix documentary series Our Planet and interact with endangered wildlife up close.

  6. Greenverse is currently developing a virtual world with a primary focus on environmental conservation and innovative models of carbon credit economies. Their model, called ‘preserve-to-earn’, involves digitally twinning real-world natural environments (initially in Greenland and Surinam). Users will have the opportunity to own digital replicas of these natural assets and contribute to their conservation efforts in the physical world.

  7. WWF Germany’s virtual world campaign offers users the opportunity to journey through different digital ecosystems to raise awareness and encourage donations in the form of NFT sales.

  8. Phoria is an extended-reality (XR) studio developing various XR projects for social and environmental impact. Their projects include Ecosphere, an immersive VR nature docuseries in collaboration with WWF enabling viewers to be immersed in various ecosystems and ‘teleport’ into the frontlines of conservation efforts. Another project, Ecosphere - United Nations: Futuring peace, enables viewers to hear stories from Pacific Islands communities and use their cultural knowledge to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Unsettled is an exhibition at the Australian Museum that tells the stories of First Nations peoples in their fight for recognition. The exhibition was digitally twinned to enable global access and wider exposure. Greenpeace also has a virtual experience allowing users to go onboard Greenpeace’s vessel and learn about their ocean campaigns. It is completely accessible using 3D mapping, 360-degree photos and videos and live streaming.

  9. Wild Immersion is a company producing VR experiences to educate people about nature conservation.
Things to keep in mind

  1. Some of the considerations under the same section in the Smart Contracts, Blockchain and Web 3.0, Cryptocurrencies and Tokenization, NFT and DAO chapters.

  2. User experience (UX): Virtual worlds derive their impacts from the experiences they provide to users, so a user-centric design is essential. By catering to user needs and desires, organisations can increase engagement and appreciation for the conservation message conveyed. Seeking expert advice in UX design can optimise the virtual world for maximum user experience, leading to potentially better conservation outcomes.

  3. Accessibility: Evaluate the capacity of your target audience to access your virtual-world experience and take steps to ensure their effective and inclusive involvement. This can involve providing education and outreach to address potential barriers.

  4. Financial sustainability: Organisations should consider how they will sustainably fund their virtual world or metaverse presence. This may include the use of in-world currency and virtual goods or experiences.

  5. Extinction of experience: This term refers to the decline of people's direct interaction with nature, which may have negative impacts on conservation efforts and human well-being. Organisations developing virtual world applications should carefully assess whether and how their projects contribute to the extinction of experience, and take necessary measures to minimise such influence.

  6. Environmental cost-benefit assessment: The use of servers, data centres and devices to power virtual worlds can have significant environmental impacts, like a larger carbon footprint. Organisations can mitigate these impacts by developing virtual worlds on existing platforms that are powered by renewable energy sources and by implementing responsible procurement practices. When considering the potential environmental harm, it is important to weigh it against the potential benefits of the project.

  7. Perceptions: Consider how the virtual world you develop will be perceived by different audiences. With the potential to change perceptions comes great responsibility. Contemplate any unintended consequences of virtual representations of communities, other species and ecosystems in the real world. Evaluate how your virtual experience is perceived by a diverse range of audiences before making it publicly available.

  8. Technical resources: For conservation organisations developing virtual worlds, it's crucial to prioritise the technical infrastructure of the platform. To ensure a smooth and efficient user experience, consider collaborating with or hiring tech experts with the necessary skills and knowledge. 

  9. Interoperability: Interoperability between different virtual worlds and the wider metaverse may provide further use cases and value for users. Consider which popular platforms offer interoperability and the potential benefits of collaborating with them to further your project.

  10. Privacy: Consider the privacy of users in virtual worlds or the metaverse. This includes the collection and storage of personal data, as well as the use of user-generated content.

Want to get in touch?

Email the project team at  info@unearthodox.org
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