A Notre Dame researcher says we should look beyond the hype and see how virtual reality can make scientists more effective. But to reap the benefits, researchers must also plan well and avoid potential pitfalls.
In 2021, Facebook made “metaverse” the hottest word on the web, renaming itself meta and announcing a plan to “create a series of interconnected digital spaces that allow you to do things you love to do in the physical world.” can not do”. Since then, the metaverse has been named in many different ways. Some say it is the “future of the internet”. Others call it “an amorphous concept that nobody really wants”.
For Diego Gómez ZaráAssistant Professor at the University of Notre Dame Faculty of Informatics and Engineeringthe 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 scientists should use the metaverse for research while protecting themselves from 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 in which users interact in threes can -dimensional environment and take actions that affect the outside world.
Researchers say the metaverse will benefit science in four main ways.
First, it could remove barriers and make science more accessible. To understand these possibilities, according to Gómez-Zará, we don’t have to speculate about the distant future. Instead, we can point out how researchers have already started using virtual environments in their work.
For example, at University College London School of Pharmacy, scientists have created a digital replica of their laboratory that can be toured in virtual reality. This digital replica allows scientists in different locations around the world to meet, collaborate and make shared decisions on how to move a research project forward.
Similarly, a virtual lab training program developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention teaches young scientists at many different sites how to identify the parts of a lab and even conduct emergency response.
This example shows a second benefit: the improvement of teaching and learning.
Gómez-Zará explains: “It is very difficult for someone who is training to be a surgeon to do a procedure correctly for the first time. And when you’re working with a real patient, a mistake can be very damaging. Experiential learning in a virtual environment can help you try and make mistakes without ill effects, and freedom from ill effects can improve research in other areas as well.”
Gómez-Zará is also working with a team from Notre Dame Virtual Reality Lab understand a third potential benefit related to the social side of science. The research team investigates the effects 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 been able to have video conferences,” says Gómez-Zará. “But that doesn’t mean that 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 more accurate replica of what we would have offline and could prove to be much more effective.”
Gómez-Zará says the metaverse could also be used to create entirely new experimental environments.
“If you get data and images from somewhere, you can create a virtual replica of that place in virtual reality,” explains Gómez-Zará. He says we have images of Mars, for example, taken by satellites and robots. “This could create a virtual reality version of the environment in which scientists can experience what it’s like there. After all, they could even interact with the environment remotely.”
Gómez-Zará emphasizes that in order to take full advantage of the metaverse, we must also avoid several associated pitfalls.
There are still hurdles to using virtual reality. While virtual reality glasses and related equipment are becoming more affordable, they still require significant investments.
This issue relates to a larger issue: who owns the metaverse? A few technology companies currently control the metaverse, but Gómez-Zará points out that there have been calls for agencies and others that support research to invest in building an open, public metaverse. In the meantime, he says, it’s important for researchers to think about ownership and privacy issues whenever they work in the metaverse.
However, its overall message is hopeful. “We still tend to associate the metaverse with entertainment and casual socializing. It makes it all too easy to dismiss,” he says. “But look at how quickly we’ve all adapted to technology that we rarely used before the pandemic. It could be the same with the metaverse. We need the research community that explores it. It’s the best way to plan for the risks while recognizing all the opportunities.”
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