Metaverse to play surrogate to nature, but how mature is the technology?

Published: Tue 5 Mar 2024, 9:37 PM

The UAE offers a strong regulatory environment and infrastructure like Al Wasl Dome, for simulating natural wonders through VR, augmented reality, or mixed reality

By Shalini Verma

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It is no secret that spending time in nature brings a sense of calm. The ‘Soft Fascination’ theory suggests that in nature our attention resources get restored because one need not focus. Natural aromatic compounds such as phytoncides help release serotonin and dopamine in our brain, which trigger positive emotions.

But not everyone has the time or resources to frequent natural habitats, which are especially out of reach for people with accessibility challenges. Extreme weather forces us to stay indoors. Eco-warriors urge tourists to avoid fragile ecosystems.

Emerging technology promises immersive virtual experiences of the real world. The Metaverse – the persistent 3D virtual reality (VR) world - could play surrogate to nature, and potentially help humans experience the joy of nature. The study 'Effect of a Nature-based VR Environment on Stress in Adolescents' was conducted by Elin A. Björling et al. While exploring Nature Treks VR using Oculus Go headset, participants experienced a temporary reduction in stress. However, some participants saw through the “fakeness” of the environment.

Dr Donna Z. Davis, Ph.D., the director of the Oregon Reality Lab in Portland, and an expert in VR therapy said, “There are many people who are still not comfortable in a VR headset and the challenges to mass adoption as a result of lack of quality experiences and the costs involved continue to limit its use.” Head-mounted displays and haptic gloves are evolving, but challenges like motion sickness and VR hangover remain.

Dr Davis believes that early adoption would likely be for specific needs. “There is a good bit of research that has pointed to the power of presence and interactivity in these spaces, especially for people who often live in isolation. For example, people with disabilities who may have limited access to the world around them can find communities, abilities, and experiences that are quite fulfilling. In such a study, we had a participant who took it even further and said the experience was literally life-saving.” noted Dr Davis.

The UAE offers a strong regulatory environment and infrastructure like Al Wasl Dome, for simulating natural wonders through VR, augmented reality, or mixed reality. Multisensorial immersive technology has made phygital art popular in Dubai, which blurs the psychological and physical distance between city-dwellers and nature.

Emerging immersive technologies and spatial computing will shape the Metaverse in recreating natural sights, scents, and sounds. Simulations involves machine learning, photogrammetry, aerial scans of scenery and digitally hand painting objects. Nature-inspired ambient music and wearable scent dispensers aim to add authenticity. The illusion of embodiment would allow users to perceive their virtual body parts, say when running their haptic gloves through digital blades of grass.

Yet, can technology create an authentic experience of a walk in the woods? The human brain is a complex web of neurons that trigger emotions through electrical signals. The Metaverse could trigger such signals if it relied on first principles. For instance, our brain interprets the constant pitch of sounds in nature as non-threatening.

New nature simulation initiatives focus on scientific accuracy. Biologist, Dr. Duncan J. Irschick, is the Director of the Digital Life Project by the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Since 2017, his team of designers, photographers, and researchers have been building scientifically accurate 3D models of endangered animals. The 3D animation of a young green sea turtle that survived a shark attack is stunning, even on a 2D screen.

The challenge is to capture the geological and biological diversity in form and function. “The biological diversity is mindboggling,” said Dr Irschick. Tools to create authentic foliage apply procedural generation algorithms, to bring randomness in tree networks. Techniques like ray casting spread procedural details like moss across the landscape. Machine learning renders the texture of vegetation and animals, and applies scientific rigor in the digital organisms’ behaviour.

Users will demand virtual nature experiences to become more authentic as evident from gamers’ insatiable appetite for richer graphics. “I expect more and more people to demand more realistic animals,” believed Dr Irschick. “When people say the words sea turtle, what does that mean? There is more than one species of sea turtles. There are adult sea turtles, juvenile sea turtles, females, males, different geographical races. I think people care about these differences.”

Shalini Verma
Shalini Verma

Simulating nature needs plenty of data. Dr Irschick’s team has created meticulously detailed 3D models of about 100 animals. He reckons that in a couple of decades, there will be a substantial library of 3D models of animals that are currently being created for gaming, science, and conservation research, which will form the baseline data for machine learning.” Generative AI will bring scale by learning patterns and quickly building diverse 3D models.

But in the end, will the human brain respond positively? Dr Hari Subramanian, Professor of Neuroscience, neuromodulation expert and thought leader in brain behavior, believes that it is highly plausible. “A virtual walk would generate an optimal neural activity, eliciting sensations of relief and rejuvenation,” he said.

Dr Subramanian believes that people seek stress relief from virtual games and cinema because their brains already have residual anxiety. The same principle would apply to nature simulation in the Metaverse as a willing suspension of disbelief would kick in.

Shalini Verma is an entrepreneur and writer. She tweets @shaliniverma1

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