Breaking down 'the walled gardens': Data Sciences Institute explores the future of the metaverse

March 17, 2023 by Sara Elhawash - Data Sciences Institute

The metaverse may be the next big thing, but its success hinges on transparent data practices. On Feb., 24, the Data Sciences Institute (DSI) ⁠— a tri-campus, multi-divisional, multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary hub for data science activity at the University of Toronto and affiliated research institutes ⁠— ventured deeper into the virtual world as part of the DSI@UTM’s focus on Responsible Data Science event titled “Data and the Metaverse” hosted at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

The DSI supports research activity in "responsible data science" and encourages innovative data science methodology development and application. This includes initiatives such as this event, which aimed to explore the implications of data creation, collection, analysis, and deployment in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).

With VR/AR providing opportunities for research and innovation, speakers explored the future possibilities, challenges and implications of data in the metaverse, which is described as the “universe of universes.” However, according to the associate director of DSI@UTM, Bree McEwan, the VR industry seems to be stuck in the “walled garden” phase of this potentially revolutionary interactive technology. “Until the VR industry figures out how to move beyond these walled gardens, the metaverse may never live up to the hype,” she says. The walled garden phase is a mediated environment that restricts users to specific content within a website or social media platform. “But for the technology to work, it has to collect data about us. In the metaverse you are data,” McEwan added.

The event featured several panel discussions on related topics, such as the potential improvements or deployments of VR/AR technologies, the data infrastructure of VR for researchers, and policies for the future regulation of the metaverse.

The panelists, including Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, James McCrae of Magic Leap, Luke Stark of the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University, and Daniel Wigdor of the Department of Computer Science in the Faculty of Arts & Science at the University of Toronto, discussed pragmatic solutions for VR data to satisfy industry needs and protect users, potential concerns with collecting data from VR users, and how policy makers should approach data collection from metaverse users.

One of the attendees, Pinyao Liu, came all the way from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver to learn more about the intersection of data science and the metaverse. He says, “I liked the talk on representation matters, particularly regarding API representation, it was insightful in emphasizing the importance of designing with intention to minimize harm — a valuable lesson for designers, researchers, and large corporations.”

“The event also included an opportunity for attendees to experience VR/AR. Third-year UTM Research Opportunity Program student, Fahim Kamal shares, “This event is to introduce people to the VR world. I have been involved in courses in immersive environment design where we had the opportunity to design different 3D assets for VR spaces, so this is relevant.”

One of the key themes of the event was the need for a balance between interoperability and privacy. McEwan emphasized the need to protect individual instances of social interaction from surveillance and commodification while ensuring data can contribute to interoperability. “By building VR systems that are interoperable across platforms and devices, we can create a VR ecosystem that truly serves the public and fosters innovation”, she says.

The event ended with a call to action by DSI for those in the virtual reality industry and research community to collaborate on solutions to move beyond the current walled garden state of the industry. “DSI programs and initiatives are designed to facilitate collaboration as well as the development and application of new data science methodologies and tools in a training-focused environment to push into new frontiers,” says Lisa Strug, director of the DSI and professor of statistical sciences, computer science and biostatistics, and a senior scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children. This event proved to be a valuable opportunity for the VR community to come together to discuss the future of data and the metaverse.