Making Your “XRSelf” Yours in the Metaverse | TechPolicy.Press

Imagine a Metaverse where you design your avatar to represent your gender, ethnicity, and even your unique abilities (perhaps a gymnastic avatar!). You will also want to dress as you would likely do in the real world, wearing the same black T-shirt and pair of sneakers you wear to meet your friends in real life, or you might want to embody an entirely new sense of style. You eventually become fond of your “XRself,” and you use it to build new relationships and even buy some properties in the virtual world. However, this exercise would be meaningless to you if you cannot take your XRself anywhere you like in the Metaverse.

As extended reality (XR) technologies expand their potential to open new digital environments, more users are expected to populate these spaces. If the Metaverse were to become our primary place to work, play, interact, and create, users would need to be able to benefit from the identities they create and the elements they interact with across multiple virtual environments. Interoperability—the ability to use data to enable movement, transactions, and participation across different XR platforms and ecosystems—will be pivotal to developing an inclusive and human-centric Metaverse, as well as one that incorporates users’ voices.

Interoperable identity standards are essential to achieve this objective. They can enable users to maintain a stable XRself across virtual worlds while giving them unique and decentralized capabilities to control their digital identities. To harness the benefits of a truly open Metaverse, we need to incorporate these standards as early as possible in the Metaverse design. Not doing so risks jeopardizing much of what makes the immersive experience of the Metaverse appealing in the first place.

But why should we care about controlling our identities in the Metaverse in the first place? Part of what makes living and interacting in the XR world revolutionary is that users can have the same or similar experiences that they would in the real world. Experiencing things like a sense of belonging, relationship building, reputation management, or property ownership are all part of our daily lives in the real world, so we want the Metaverse to embody them, too.

In the real world, we base our interactions with all these things on the way we conceive ourselves with respect to others: through our identity. Being in control of our identities is the very basis for a Metaverse where users are empowered to shape their digital experiences, express themselves authentically across platforms, and unleash their creativity without restraints. Indeed, our digital identity is so fundamental for facilitating online inclusion and participation that the US Agency for International Development has called it the single greatest factor in a person’s ability to participate in global development.

Unfortunately, due to how the XR landscape is being developed and thought of, it is unclear whether the dream of a fully interoperable and human-centric Metaverse can become a reality. According to Andrew McStay, in contrast to the initial stage of the Internet, which was designed to be decentralized and with the public good in mind, the Metaverse is foreseen as owned and rented by existing Internet platforms. As it stands now, the Metaverse seems much more like a fragmented technology that encompasses multiple systems rather than one system envisioned to be open and interoperable.

The problem with a fragmented ecosystem –as the one we’ve seen thus far in Web 2.0– is that users face switching costs that impede them from migrating to different providers, even if they feel dissatisfied with the platform they are locked in. This not only entrenches platforms’ market power but also creates an asymmetry between users and the companies that manage our identities and data. It limits our autonomy to decide which platforms we want to use, our control over the information we want to disclose and with whom, and our ability to benefit from our digital identities.

Interoperable identity standards create a way to shift power back to users, giving them control over their XR selves. While the actual identity standards governing the Metaverse are yet to be determined, there are already proposals to grant control and autonomy to users and offset hegemony-tilting effects on the platforms. One of these proposals is the self-sovereign identity approach (SSI) for the Metaverse. As a 2023 IEEE paper describes, the SSI entails a blockchain-based decentralized authentication method that individuals can use to authenticate themselves across different platforms without giving any identity data to centralized platforms.

Using SSI, users are empowered to selectively disclose their personal data and to maintain as many XRselves as they desire, each of which is kept secure and in the user’s total control. This enables XR users to have a stable identity without locking them into one specific digital identity for their entire XR experience. Stability, in turn, has the potential to accelerate inclusive development and “increase the accuracy and reliability of identity data and credentials.” Regardless of whether SSI is the specific model to be incorporated into the XR space, the only way to tackle the current asymmetry between users and platforms is to provide users with decentralized capabilities to control their digital identities.

There are, of course, several reasons why companies might want to include interoperability standards for digital identities in the Metaverse architecture. These standards open the door for small businesses to foster new worlds and creative possibilities, making the entire Metaverse more attractive to users. More importantly, by agreeing to an interoperable Metaverse from its infancy, companies can set themselves up to offer more compatible services to future shared consumers. This can not only help ensure the Metaverse’s enduring utility and appeal, but can also speed up XR technology adoption by removing obstacles for users who want to benefit from the multiple XR ecosystems.

However, it is unlikely that, without strong interoperability mandates, the large platforms will agree to give away total control and ownership of users’ identity data. Because these companies’ business models rely on locking users into their platforms to profit from their personal data, they don’t have enough incentives to flip to an entirely decentralized model. So far, however, there is no interoperability mandate that addresses this issue. In Europe, the Digital Markets Act (DMA) mandates large tech companies designated as “gatekeepers” to be interoperable with third-party applications, along with horizontal interoperability between competing interpersonal communication services.

In part, as a reaction to the DMA, Apple, Meta, and Google created the Data Transfer Initiative (DTI) in 2023. The DTI is a non-profit organization that further develops the Data Transfer Project (DTP), a project created by these same companies in 2018 to enable service-to-service data portability, with the ultimate goal of permitting users to move their data between providers. In the US, the proposed ACCESS Act of 2023 also incorporates data portability and interoperability rules, including a mandate for large communications platforms to maintain a set of third-party-accessible interfaces for competing communications providers.

Although these initiatives should incentivize XR companies to set third-party-accessible interoperability and data portability standards, none of them mandates companies to set a decentralized model for identity authentication. Furthermore, while data portability and one-to-one interoperability with third-party services might enable a partial degree of interoperability, the policy’s goals could be achieved only through the widespread adoption of open and common technical standards.

To operate with a decentralized model of digital identities, the XR platforms would need to work together to develop the identity system, defining the standards that will apply and determining how the system will adapt to future technological changes. However, groups of volunteers set technical standards, and given the extensive time commitment involved in such work, standards risk being shaped by larger companies’ self-interest.

For example, the Metaverse Standards Forum (MSF), an industry-wide effort to harmonize standards for the Metaverse and which includes tech giants like Google, Meta, and Microsoft, has the stated purpose of coordinating all the standards being developed by different organizations in XR-related domains, including the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Open Geospatial Consortium, and the Spatial Web Foundation. The problem with a Metaverse entirely governed by standards groups like the MSF is that openness standards will likely collide with the business perspective of the large companies leading those groups.

Another alternative comes from voluntary initiatives like the Fediverse. The Fediverse is a group of many independent, interoperable social media platforms that allow their users to interact with each other across those platforms. Because these platforms use open-source protocols, people can choose to register on any Fediverse platform and still connect with users of other interoperable platforms. ActivityPub is the most famous Fediverse protocol, and recently, Meta announced that its Threads service will be compatible with ActitivyPub-compliant servers.

While some have called the Fediverse an alternative to the Metaverse, in that the Fediverse is more about connecting existing internet tools than creating a whole new digital world, there is nothing that impedes bringing a decentralized model like the Fediverse to the 3Dworld of the Metaverse. This would need the same platforms working on the Fediverse to make its interoperability rules compatible with the unique technicalities of the XR stack, but it is not impossible.

If we want a Metaverse where we can own and control our identities, we should not rely entirely on the same big companies that have locked us in on today’s platforms. While standards groups like the MSF or initiatives like the DTI might have incentives to bring interoperability into the Metaverse, these incentives naturally conflict with their business models. Voluntary initiatives like the Fediverse can be one decentralized model to look at when designing the Metaverse. Still, we should also be mindful of the technical and resource limitations of these voluntary groups.

Legislators have a great opportunity to include interoperability mandates for the Metaverse when amending existing interoperability rules or passing new ones. In doing so, legislators should keep in mind that their rules will not be effective if they do not consider the uniqueness and complexities of the XR space and if they do not directly mandate decentralized models for identity management. Now is the time to implement a human-first approach in the XR space, and starting with user identity standards provides the baseline upon which users can build their own voices within their XRselves.

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