A woman wears an Oculus VR headset
Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

How to build a safer, more inclusive metaverse

Protocol Next Up

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week: The OASIS Consortium wants metaverse companies to embrace ethics from the get-go and filmmaker Neill Blomkamp talks volumetric video capture.

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The Big Story

A new group wants to bring ethics to the metaverse

Depending on who you ask, the metaverse is either the future of social or a dystopian nightmare. Tiffany Xingyu Wang, co-founder and president of the OASIS Consortium, believes it could turn into either of those two things — and she's been busy to make sure the industry gets it right.

Wang soft-launched OASIS in recent months with a podcast focused on safety for emerging social platforms. On Thursday, OASIS relaunched as an industry consortium that will promote ethical standards and practices for the metaverse. Wang spoke exclusively to Protocol Next Up about the need to build a safer and more inclusive metaverse, and the role her group wants to play promoting those efforts.

The metaverse is a chance for a do-over, Wang said. "Over 40% of U.S. internet users have experienced online harassment," she told me. A key reason for that has been that today's social platforms were built without safeguards, with companies only embracing moderation once things got ugly. "I hope we can learn from those mistakes," Wang said.

  • Getting this right from the start will be critical. "The 4Chan people will come to the metaverse if we don't have guardrails," Wang said.
  • And while harassment has been ugly on existing social platforms, it may feel even more personal and threatening in life-like virtual environments. "The impact will be much bigger," she argued.

Making safety a priority will require dedicated personnel. Metaverse companies need to hire people dedicated to making it a safer place now, and not when problems start to pile up, Wang believes. "We need to build a workforce for trust and safety for the metaverse," she told me.

  • And we're not just talking junior-level roles, or armies of low-paid temp workers chugging through moderation tasks.
  • Instead, Wang wants metaverse companies to hire chief trust officers to signal that trust and safety are C-level priorities.

Having a diverse workforce is also key. "You can't imagine a policy to be inclusive if everyone on the product team is white and male," Wang said. Building a safe and inclusive metaverse will require diverse and inclusive companies, which again needs to extend to the C level. "[Diversity and inclusion] is a grassroot need, but needs to be a top-down effort," she said.

OASIS Consortium wants to promote a renewed focus on safety, privacy and inclusion for the metaverse with a panel of experts that includes executives from companies like Agora, dentsu, Fandom, Kuaishou Technologies, The Meet Group, Pandora, Riot Games, Roblox, Wildlife Studios and others. "I call them the philosophers for the metaverse," Wang said.

  • The group will publish white papers and blog posts as well as hold events to promote ethical standards for the metaverse.
  • Wang will also release another season of the OASIS podcast, with a special focus on government and regulation.
  • The biggest push will be the release of a consensus document of shared standards later this year, with a goal of having companies across the industry commit to adhere to those values.

Such an ethics rulebook for building the metaverse couldn't come soon enough, Wang believes. "We need to think about it now," she told me. "We can't repeat history."


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Watch Out

How director Neill Blomkamp is reinventing movie-making

Neill Blomkamp, best known for directing the dystopian sci-fi film "District 9," decided to make a low-budget horror movie when Canada's film industry shut down last year because of COVID. To produce "Demonic," which is being released in theaters Friday, Blomkamp had to improvise — which is how he came up with the idea to use volumetric capture for key parts of the movie.

Volumetric capture involves dozens of cameras to film an actor from all angles. The process is often used to create 3D assets for AR and VR content, but Blomkamp effectively used it as a replacement for traditional motion capture — the kind of filming that requires actors to wear black spandex suits full of white trackers, which then gets used as raw material for visual effects animation.

Those kinds of visual effects-heavy productions can get expensive quickly. "The process of volume capture is much more cost-effective than motion capture," Blomkamp told me during a recent interview. "This movie wouldn't have been makeable at the budget level that we were at [without] this technology."

  • For Blomkamp, using volumetric capture wasn't just about saving money. "I was just obsessed with the technology, I wanted to do something with it at some point," he told me.

"Demonic" turned out to be the perfect project for it. "You have a person who is in a virtual simulated environment because they're in a coma," Blomkamp said. Turning actors into 3D assets ended up being the perfect way to get the aesthetic just right. "I love the way it looks," Blomkamp said.

  • That look includes the imperfections introduced by the capture process. "The issue is resolution, because you have to get enough cameras close enough to the characters," he said.
  • This also explains why volumetric capture hasn't been embraced more widely by Hollywood yet. "It would be perfect for a movie like 'Avatar,'" he said. "But if you're making 'Avatar,' it currently isn't at the resolution that would be required."
  • Still, volumetric capture does offer a lot of possibilities, including reusing assets in other contexts. Blomkamp told me that he has plans to eventually release "Demonic's" 3D assets as a kind of VR extra.

Blomkamp is no stranger to new technology: In 2017, he cooperated with Unity on the short film series "ADAM," which was produced entirely with the company's real-time engine. When COVID hit, Blomkamp reconnected with Unity to get some help with the production of "Demonic."

Recently, Blomkamp made headlines by joining Gunzilla Games as chief visionary officer. He told me that he sees a lot more progress in gaming than in Hollywood these days. "I don't see that much evolution on the film side of things," he said. "You're telling a story to a passive audience. On the game side, that's where all the evolution is going to happen."

Fast Forward

  • On Protocol: The quest for sustainable consumer electronics. Check out my new two-part series about making greener gadgets.
  • T-Mobile is selling fiber internet now. The telco gave up on operating its own TV service; now, it's trying to sell people the pipes for their streaming needs.
  • Trusted Media Brands has acquired Jukin Media. The company behind Reader's Digest now owns the company behind FailArmy.
  • TCL launches a dedicated webcam for its new Android TVs. This makes TCL the latest TV maker to embrace video chatting.
  • Facebook Connect is happening Oct. 28. Expect a bunch of AR and VR updates from Facebook for the event, which will once again be an online-only affair.
  • On Protocol: ITC judge sides with Sonos in Google spat. The verdict, if confirmed, could result in an import ban for Google speakers and smart displays.
  • CES is requiring proof of vaccination to attend, as is the NAB Show. Still not clear that anyone wants to go to a big Vegas trade show right now.
  • Comcast and ViacomCBS are launching a joint streaming service. SkyShowtime will launch in Europe next year.
  • Roku has ordered more "Reno 911" episodes. The four new episodes will be half an hour each, as opposed to Roku's 10-minute Quibi fare.
  • On Protocol: Facebook's answer to Zoom fatigue is VR meetings.This week, I joined a meeting in VR to learn about meetings in VR.

Auf Wiedersehen

Remember "Inception?" I'd like to imagine that a 2021 version of the movie would look a little bit like this AR/VR experiment — and personally can't wait until I have an AR mini-me on my desk. Either way, it's probably a good idea to start choosing your totem, just in case.

Thanks for reading — see you next week!

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