Exploring the Metaverse

Introducing nuances to the conversation around virtual reality.

Imagine being able to teleport anywhere, change your appearance, ride a dragon or build your own fantasy home. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook (now named “Meta”), recently announced the creation of “the metaverse,” an immersive virtual world in which you can do all these things.

Zuckerberg’s vision is not new. Immersive online video games like Fortnite and Roblox have been around for years. The term “metaverse” was coined in a 1990s novel titled SnowCrasher, in which characters escaped a dystopian reality through a virtual world. Entering the metaverse requires a virtual reality (VR) headset that covers the eyes with stereoscopic views that track as you turn your head.

The metaverse uses “avatars” to represent users, allowing us to choose how we appear – taller, or completely different – a robot or unicorn. Zuckerberg claims the metaverse enables a “deep feeling of presence,” and further enhancements to VR promise even more fidelity. Besides hand tracking devices there are also omnidirectional treadmills enabling you to walk, run or jump in a virtual world. Others are developing bodysuits which enable you to feel sensations as you interact within a virtual world.

The metaverse can be used to work, play, shop and socialize, enabling people to meet in ways that are far more immersive than Zoom. Businesses can use the metaverse to market and advertise their goods. Schools could use VR to take their students on a journey inside a blood vessel or to the bottom of the ocean.

The computer science department at Calvin University has a VR setup and some of our students have created virtual worlds, including a virtual model of Calvin’s campus with a lemonade stand equipped with a cannon that shoots lemons.

New technologies like VR are often either celebrated or criticized. But thoughtfully engaging new technologies requires much more nuance. Virtual reality is part of the technical possibilities in creation; although they can be misdirected, they should not be dismissed out of hand.

Tools & concerns

For example, VR is currently being used to train pilots and surgeons in virtual environments where mistakes do have real world consequences. Architects can use VR to evaluate new buildings in a way that is not possible with traditional blueprints. Scientists and engineers can use VR to visualize complex systems for insights and understanding. VR enables delightful entertainment possibilities, virtual travel experiences, and expands the horizons for housebound people.

But there are many legitimate concerns. How will VR impact our sense of identity as we present ourselves in any form we wish? How will companies like Meta monetize VR? Will VR bring perverse and violent games, pornography, addictions, loneliness, and confusion between the virtual and the real? Many have worshipped using Zoom during the pandemic, but what are the implications of church in VR?

What use is a body?

VR comes with additional philosophical and theological concerns. As people become more immersed in VR, will they become more susceptible to a new kind of Gnosticism that undervalues the importance of embodied human existence? The writer Wendell Berry laments that “our bodies have become marginal . . . because we have less and less use for them . . . we use them only as shipping cartons to transport our brains and our few employable muscles back and forth to work.” The Christian philosopher Craig Gay reminds us that “Christ’s incarnation is an extraordinary endorsement of ordinary, embodied being.”

VR is part of the creational possibilities that we are called to responsibly unfold. We have seen that recent technologies like social networking can come with significant consequences when pursued for their own sake or strictly to maximize profits. The question is, can we develop VR responsibly and in a normative way, unfolding its good possibilities while avoiding harmful distortions? Guiding such a development will demand that it not be left in the hands of computer scientists and profit-driven corporations alone; it will require the expertise of psychologists, philosophers, artists, social scientists – and the contributions and insights of thoughtful Christians.

Author

  • Derek Schuurman

    Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin, he worked as an engineer and taught for many years at Redeemer University. He is a fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation and an Associate Fellow of the Kirby Laing Center for Public Theology. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013) and a co-author of A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers (IVP, 2022).

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