When asked to describe some of the positives of the advancement of XR, respondents shared wide-ranging visions of what they imagine will take place in improved metaverse spaces of the future: interactions with famous people, playing-field experiences with prominent athletes, travel to exotic and fun locales (e.g., archeological digs, mountaintops, historic scenes and other-worldly places), deeply enriching learning experiences, remote medical procedures, disaster-response flexibility, the creation of new kinds of communities, expanded venues for commercial exchanges, a flowering of creativity in the arts and fashion and fully automated encounters with smart agents handling such things as accounting, professional training and mental-health counseling.

Some offered answers that covered a variety of issues and raised a number of questions about how the metaverse might unfold.

Kevin Carson, American futurist and political writer and commentator, said, “My hope is that the platforms will be primarily free and open-source software, and that their expansion will be in tandem with economic relocalization and shifts to direct production for use in the face of capitalism’s terminal crises. My fear is that they will be proprietary walled gardens. The most promising and genuinely beneficial area for adoption would be something along the lines of the D-space platform in Daniel Suarez’s novel ‘Freedom,’ or the shared virtual space of the Acquis project in Bruce Sterling’s ‘The Caryatids’ – a meta layer for coordinating things like local economy projects, with semantic tagging and embedded information. I think the technology will be adopted for a lot of separate projects.”

Metaverses properly constructed could also facilitate changes in daily behavior toward more environmentally sustainable production, transport, services, consumption and lifestyles.

James Hochschwender, futures strategist with Expansion Consulting

James Hochschwender, futures strategist with Expansion Consulting, said, “Metaverses have the potential for contributing positively to needed and/or desired cultural evolution, such as toward a future world in which the half of the world’s population who, because of automation and AI developed by 2040, shouldn’t have to work at a traditional job for their entire ‘working life’ could instead focus on self-actualization or the exploration of human potential. Metaverses properly constructed could also facilitate changes in daily behavior toward more environmentally sustainable production, transport, services, consumption and lifestyles. There will be a wide range of interactive online services like utilities, banks/finance, retail commerce, gaming, health diagnostic and treatment services, education and learning, entertainment and social gatherings and interactions. The potential of immersive experiences will allow, for example, the opportunity to experience exactly what new furnishings and décor might look like in one’s own home/apartment before making a purchase. Health applications will expand upon today’s nascent teledoc interactions, offering more-intimate ones that include diagnostics and treatments. A variety of educative elements could be built into such spaces. They will allow for immersive armchair travel experiences to see global places and cultures. Also on the positive side of the ledger, metaverses can allow people to interact with famous people – from politicians to sports and arts celebrities – in ways not possible in real life. People will be able to experience sports from an ‘on-the-court perspective’ useful to aspiring athletes as they learn their sport and enjoyable as entertainment for diehard fans.”

Clifford Lynch, executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information, responded, “Right now ‘the metaverse’ is being heavily hyped but there’s not much there.

  • We will see more-immersive digital spaces by 2040, but I’m skeptical about how much they’ll be networked, scaled up and omnipresent because the tendency is for proprietors of immersive spaces to silo and try to maximize people’s time in one space. There are strong business reasons for this.
  • We will see gradual improvement and increasing use of VR technology by specific communities who populate specific immersive spaces.
  • It will be interesting to see when these spaces will begin to be widely populated not just with real people’s avatars but with software agents that interact with the people in interesting and useful ways (not to be confused with the very, very primitive chatbot technology that is taking online customer service to new lows on many sites). This might include simulations of living people, or reanimations of the dead.
  • Today’s video conferencing collaboration technology has gotten very good and very inexpensive. It has become ubiquitous for large parts of the population, at least in wealthy countries. We are going to have to move far beyond today’s clumsy and cartoonish avatars wandering around a virtual office in order to displace this type of video conferencing for synchronous collaboration.
  • There’s a big opportunity to design immersive spaces for education, cultural experiences and virtual tourism (through time and space, places real and imagined) but these will be focused more on interaction with the place or events rather than interaction among visitors present in the space.
  • Another set of issues has to do with scale and purpose. We seem to have some idea how to scale environments where those present have a common purpose and some sense of shared social norms: massive multiplayer games, MOOCs, some kinds of organizational collaboration environments. Experiences with things like Second Life or social media today suggest that when you aggregate very large numbers of people in an environment without a common purpose and set of social norms, things tend to deteriorate quickly.
  • Mirror worlds are already taking hold in a range of process-optimization activities (manufacturing, for example, or maintenance of equipment), and we are going to see a great deal of growth in this technology/methodology, particularly as tools improve. Inevitably, these will be networked sooner or later. But the emphasis here is not on people or their interactions; many of the mirror worlds don’t include people, or only include them in very simple ways. As sophisticated multi-agent simulation gets more commonplace, that will change. There are already really interesting developments in things like traffic planning, modeling emergencies in large facilities or modeling the spread of disease using these tools. But again, this is mostly simulation and modeling, very different from immersive spaces full of people.
  • Today’s user interfaces for virtual settings are clumsy. This will continue to be a barrier. There’s been only limited progress. One could imagine some kind of neural connection completely changing the picture here at some point at a technical level; the social, political (including national security), and economic complexities of seeing any significant level of deployment of this interface are another matter. Even doing research in this area, outside of certain specific areas like trying to help paralyzed people, is extremely touchy and sensitive, and full of ethical dilemmas.”

Melissa R. Michelson, dean of arts and sciences and professor of political science at Menlo College, wrote, “The rise of the metaverse will bring both challenges and advantages. On the positive side, it will allow for people to experience things virtually that they cannot otherwise access. Students can perform dissections and anatomical training without the need for real animal or human bodies. People with limited mobility will be able to enjoy virtual travel. Air travel to conferences will be less necessary; teams of people, and even entire conferences, can have virtual meetings. I do not think the metaverse will replace face-to-face experiences, including education and conferences. There is something added by the real world that even a rich metaverse cannot replace. Negatives of the metaverse are similar to those that arise in all aspects of our digital lives: the danger of piracy, of stolen identities, of fraud and of cybercrimes.”

Alexander B. Howard, director of the Digital Democracy Project, wrote, “By 2040, we should expect to see positive applications of augmented reality in education, the sciences, entertainment, manufacturing, governance and more, combined with virtual experiences that mix up holographic avatars with humans in ways that recall Star Trek’s holodeck. In the most optimistic timeline, we will see the best of the generative aspects of today’s crude virtual worlds on Roblox or Minecraft evolve into global marketplaces in which people can buy synthetic goods and services with digital assets. If nation states can shape democratic norms into globally respected laws, billions of humans will be able to work, learn, play and share in new civic spaces in which privacy and security by default protect human rights and civil liberties across platforms and media. Human nature itself will not change, but the nature of being human will be informed by this shift, as will our capacity to push for collective action to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.”

Antoine Vergne, co-director of Missions Publique, an organization working to include the voices of all citizens in global policy, responded, “The metaverse will not be ‘Ready Player One.’ It may end up being an invisible layer of services and applications. For example, I will be able to have a seamless workflow for buying a theater movie and see it on my beamer or headset. 3D immersive virtual reality will be focused on proactive scenarios such as virtual conferences to avoid traveling, support for remote operation by technicians and gaming. These will be limited experiences available only to the elite and middle classes.”

Greg Sherwin, a leader in digital experimentation with Singularity University, wrote, “I can see a boom in virtual tourism, social calls (think BodyTime instead of FaceTime) and virtual gatherings. Not everyone is a fan of video games, hence I see many parts of society opting out or being left out economically. Playbour (work/careers in game settings) should also continue to be a major theme.”

Toby Shulruff, senior technology safety specialist at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, predicted, “Industrial and military applications of extended reality, though less publicized, will be more powerful. Use in educational settings will be promoted but not widely or equally available. XR will increasingly be used for safety training, medical procedures, disaster mitigation and manufacturing. It also has the potential to expand our emotional intelligence through experiences with storytelling, travel and awe of the natural world.”

Tamarah Singh, a global business manager expert in technology-led innovation based in Singapore, responded, “The metaverse might work to further ‘level the playing field’ amongst the privileged, offering access to the American Dream to the mass affluent, educated and/or connected. It also stands to further weaken potentially out-of-date boundaries of sovereignty, offering access to global employment, health care and education at lower costs (subject, of course to systems being adapted to accommodate this – actions like the introduction of global taxation might serve this).”

Mei Lin Fung, chair of People-Centered Internet, wrote speculatively about the positives that might take place down the road, past 2040: “Eventually, employment, businesses and digitization across all industries, across rural and remote areas will be transformed in real life in ways in which digital and physical life integrate and complement each other to achieve human and planetary goals. Once an entire global generation is socialized and educated with sojourns in the metaverse thanks to technology advances beyond the awkward devices of today, Douglas Engelbart’s vision of the Human Augmentation System can enable our collective intelligence to be applied to our challenges and to live our lives in nature, tuning in and out as preferred. Positives of this transition, not to the metaverse, but due to the Human Augmentation System, will advance us to joyful, almost effortless yet deeply meaningful cooperation and collaboration: 1) Meeting existential needs – food, water, air, an environment that supports humans. 2) Coming together to build resilient communities with safety guardrails. 3) Setting up the social and institutional structures for us to live flourishing lives of intentional purpose, engaging with people from all walks of life from anywhere.

“Anyone anywhere will be able to take advantage of opportunities to achieve their aspirations and realize their potential. Businesses can buy and sell from anyone anywhere and can incorporate processes and building blocks in their supply chain that are less wasteful, less energy-generating, more generative in bringing in local talent and creativity at the point of production and the point of consumption, and all points of the global supply chain. We will become more conceptually interconnected by orders of magnitude. Just as neurons that ‘fire together, wire together,’ people from different parts of the world, connected by eCommerce, eScience, eEducation, eHealth, etc., will in their daily social and work lives encounter and interact with people they might have never been aware of without advances that digital transformation and tools developed in the metaverse will enable. Diaspora families will become closer across generations, even if they have been separated by countries and oceans. The power of ‘clans’ will emerge to threaten corporate dominance. Governments will begin to offer digital services but at different levels of competence and effectiveness. The global war for talent will expand beyond corporations to countries.”

Uses of XR will be widened and accelerated in medical, industrial, training and educational settings

Oscar H. Gandy Jr., emeritus scholar of the political economy of information at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “My sense overall is that the most-positive benefits from the development of these systems would be in the area of education and training at all levels. I would also see a rapidly emerging market for applications of this technology for personal development by individuals, whether learning new skills, including language or in health-related self-improvement. I don’t doubt that the kinds of investments being made in gaming will also expand rapidly, but I am not so ready to characterize that kind of activity as being a truly beneficial contribution to society.”

Leah Lievrouw, professor of information studies at UCLA, wrote, “To me, the main positive possibilities for an easy-to-understand-and-use digital immersive environment would be that they might enable people to visualize and do things that would not ordinarily be possible in physical contexts – not just reproducing shined-up versions of the existing everyday world or shopping with fun new avatars, or selling ever-more addictive gaming. For people with disabilities or conditions that limit their mobility or other capabilities, a metaverse-type platform might open new possibilities for communication, rehabilitation or just the ability to act and participate as fully as they like with other people and activities. In education and scholarship, it might really bring some power to the kinds of creative visualization or research possibilities that now must be explored in a more limited way, such as in the digital humanities, data science, public health, urban design, and so on. I don’t see the private sector necessarily being attracted to these kinds of uses. Instead, they’re likely to fight to maintain the business models and data-monetization tactics that already dominate the online world, which depend crucially on nearly unfettered data capture about individuals – as would any immersive metaverse-type platform.”

For people with disabilities or conditions that limit their mobility or other capabilities, a metaverse-type platform might open new possibilities for communication, rehabilitation or just the ability to act and participate as fully as they like with other people and activities.

Leah Lievrouw, professor of information studies at UCLA

Monica Murero, director of the E-Life International Institute and expert in AI-based digital therapy and human-centered AI at the University of Naples Federico II in Italy, responded, “I do not think the evolution of the metaverse will be mature by 2040. I expect to see ‘niche’ uses of metaverse technology, and I expect exciting applications for education, health and some businesses like real estate, learning environments and gaming. Interdigital hybrid teachers may be highly successful in the metaverse in any learning application. It is possible that the entertainment industry by and large may adopt it. A disruptive technology may emerge to offer even more challenging opportunities (and threats) to the current version of the metaverse.”

Alan S. Inouye, senior director for public policy and government relations at the American Library Association, wrote, “Technology innovation continues apace, and there will be high-speed broadband in nearly all areas of developed countries by 2040 – especially so for that subset of a half-billion people in the higher income or wealth brackets. Already there are some limited automated agents involved in routinized service encounters. By 2040, we would expect to find fully-developed automated virtual engagements for many service encounters, with only unusual or complex exceptions referred to expert human analysts. One consequence is the demise of many large-scale call centers – at least for this wealthier segment. We will see three mainstream modes for professional service encounters (accountants, teachers, counselors, et al.): fully-automated virtual agent; virtual engagement with a person; and in-person interactions. The latter will be premium-priced or elite-preferenced.”

Alex Halavais, associate professor of Data & Society at Arizona State University, said, “The advantages of virtual spaces include the ability for users to create their own environments and allow for more creative interactions. There is real potential to not only improve existing structures of education, but to upturn them. Some of the work in Minecraft already shows the potential contours of this – albeit blockily.”

Howard Rheingold, pioneering internet sociologist and author of “The Virtual Community,” commented, “My hope is that the use of AR and VR in scientific discovery (i.e., exploring the possible therapeutic effects of various molecular configurations by examining and manipulating models) and education (i.e., teaching about archaeology by exploring models of archeological digs, teaching about chemistry by manipulating models of molecules) will yield positive results.”

George Capowich, retired associate professor of sociology at Loyola University-New Orleans, wrote, “One positive is to enhance escapes (take a virtual vacation you cannot afford), enhance hobbies (walk around/sail a model ship one builds or drive a model sports car), help with imaging for things like pain relief and meditation.”

Amali De Silva-Mitchell, futurist and founder of the UN IGF Dynamic Coalition on Data-Driven Health Technologies, responded, “VR, AR and MR have a lot of potential for supporting health care and improving mental health patients’ experiences, as well as for medical research and training and delivery. These tools have tremendous potential in education, child and elder care, in workspaces and office meetings in particular, in retail, travel, entertainment. The downsides, such as problems with privacy, security and other potential harms, must be carefully addressed.”

Glenn Grossman, a consultant of banking analytics at Fair Isaac Corporation, said, “Certain categories of our lives could easily adapt to a more AI/VR setting. Education that is interactive (such as live classroom instruction) is often cited better than self-paced online learning. This new approach could allow greater access to learning skills while lowering the barrier to access (such as location to education). There are negatives with any technology, so the burden on our society is to find delivery methods that find this balance of value and avoiding deemed negative elements.”

Richard Miller, CEO and managing director at Telematica, a technology and business strategy consultancy, wrote, “The use of these technologies for interpersonal, small-group and (possibly) large-group communication will have become so performant and realistic that the impact on travel (transportation) will be monumental. This applies to local and longer reliance on transportation. Education and entertainment using XR will (hopefully) reduce the unequal access to information and educational services. Among the most important impacts is the use of augmented/assistive technologies to advance the human-machine interfaces or ‘user experience’ in the continued incorporation of automation in manufacturing, in long-distance delivery of medical services, and in the advanced use of microscopic aspects of biology, biochemistry and medicine.”

The power to ‘travel’ in a data-saturated world will create dramatic and enriching experiences

Some of these experts foresee the metaverse enabling people to have enhanced experiences of both the macro- and micro-dimensions of many aspects of the universe. They believe this will help people examine and analyze the physical world in new ways, and they think this will yield dramatic results.

Howard Rheingold, pioneering internet sociologist and author of “The Virtual Community,” predicted, “AR is likely to be part of daily life. Today, only old people remember having to unfold paper maps, to cite just one example of the way digital media are intersecting with and changing relationships with the physical world. In the future, the power to examine and analyze physical world characteristics with all the computational power of the cloud will (IMO) undoubtedly yield similarly dramatic changes. One trivial example of what is possible with today’s technology: Look at a printed sign in any language and get a quick translation whispered in your ear or overlaid on your field of vision.”

Brad Templeton, chair emeritus at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and director at the Foresight Institute, said, “Interesting metaverse apps I imagine include tourism – putting the knowledge of a local before your eyes as you walk an unfamiliar town, every form of entertainment, new sports and forms of recreation and immersive remote communications. Also of interest – at the point in time when we get virtual worlds with retina-level resolution – is ‘reverse tourism.’ The great sites of the world can’t tolerate being visited by the billions who can now afford it. This is an alternative that helps preserve those special places. Of course, the metaverse allows for all sorts of socialization, where people like doing things with others in a virtual world, not just gaming (which of course they will do) but exploring and partying and watching live entertainment together. It will be of particular value in business, as people work remotely. Because people know that work from home makes them invisible at the office, companies may mandate periods of metaverse socialization for all employees, so they build the bonds lost with WFH.”

Matthew Belge, president and principal UX designer at Vision & Logic, a Massachusetts-based design consultancy, said, “I imagine the metaverse will be used for just about everything humans currently do, from social meetings to business meetings, to sex, to games, to medical work, to simulations. I think the most provocative areas will be where it is too difficult or too dangerous to do in ‘real life.’ For example, climbing Mount Everest virtually, riding a vehicle in outer space or plunging to the bottom of the ocean. It will also be used for synthetic environments where real-life constraints have no meaning – synthetic worlds with their own physics and reality. People have an innate desire to connect with other people, it is built into the very essence of who we are. The metaverse is just the next extension of that going back, from cave drawings and campfire meetings to town halls to the internet and now the metaverse.”

Rachel Kowert, research psychologist and research director at Take This, a nonprofit organization that provides mental health resources and information to gaming communities, said, “Greater sensory information will inherently provide a richer experience. I am most interested in the way it may change our daily lives in terms of feeling socially connected but also in learning and experiential opportunities. Think about being able to explore ancient Rome – walking the streets, hearing the sounds, seeing the people – versus learning about ancient Rome in a book. That potential is exponential. How will this transition change the way we think about our world and ourselves? It has the potential to connect us even more and begin to better understand how we are all on this same little floating rock in the middle of space. I think about the experiences astronauts have when they come back to Earth and realize how small it all really is and how we are all the same – trying to just live our lives as best we can on this planet. I have hopes that the more connected we are as a global society, the more pervasive these thoughts and experiences will be.”

The director of an institute examining the legal implications of emerging technologies commented, “Digital fashion is a game changer beyond just the sustainability benefits found in eliminating fashion creation and distribution in physical form. The dematerialization of fashion has made chic attire accessible to the masses: digital representations of high-end clothing typically sell for much less than their physical equivalents. The technology has also flattened the market, reducing barriers to entry and allowing novice designers to compete and even collaborate with established brands in the metaverse. It also provides an accessible entre into the emerging world of the metaverse, perhaps attracting clothing consumers who might otherwise have little to no interest in a digital world.

“Digital fashion in the metaverse will be amazing. Axiomatically, fashion is an incredibly wasteful business. It demands that we discard and/or replace otherwise functional clothing simply because it is no longer in fashion. More clothing than can ever be necessary is wastefully produced, and much of it ultimately ends up in landfills. A perfect example of waste today is the industry of fast fashion, which embodies some of the worst of this increasingly environmentally unsustainable industry.

“Newly emerging digital fashion can help reduce the climate impact of fashion. Fashionistas can scratch their fashion itch with little impact on the environment. Except for the energy consumed by the blockchains that support the cryptocurrencies that are often used to purchase digital fashions, or that host NFTs typically associated with the haute couture level of digital fashions, these garments are exceptionally environmentally friendly.”