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OPINION: We can help build a metaverse that works for kids

"It's time for us to build the metaverse we want, not just take the one we get," says Dubit SVP David Kleeman, who imagines the Web 3.0 world as a place that augments kids' development instead of impeding it.
April 4, 2022

If I share a secret, will you promise not to tell? There’s no actual metaverse yet.

For all the talk and press, it’s not here and won’t be for some time. Even massive game (Epic, Roblox, Unity), tech (Meta, Microsoft, Apple) and content (Disney, Netflix) companies don’t have the resources it would take to support the deep and wide content, range of worlds, and processing/storage to be a metaverse unto themselves.

There are several platforms we might call “proto-metaverses”—Roblox, Fortnite, Minecraft and Meta’s Horizon Worlds, for example. But they’re each standalone, unattached to the others, and the metaverse will be distributed and connected.

So, what’s the secret? If we—as kids media professionals—talk now about shaping the metaverse in ways we want it to evolve, we improve the chance of putting talk into action and building in that direction.

The metaverse needn’t be immersion as a refuge from a dystopian world (Ready Player One or Snow Crash). And it doesn’t mean we need to hard-wire our brains to non-stop commercial messaging (Feed).

We can build what we want, rather than take what we get. There are plenty of people building immersive platforms who don’t understand children’s needs and abilities—how they’re engaged, entertained and educated; how to keep them safe. But we do.

In 2010, legendary game developer Jesse Schell gave a talk that envisioned a future “gamified” world. His projection walked a fascinating line between promise and dystopia. He profiled a professor who used game principles to turn participation and task completion into experience points that enabled students to “level up,” and in turn saw improved attendance and performance. On the other hand, Schell talked through a day when everything would be connected: your toothbrush giving you points for brushing that would be reported to your dentist and the toothpaste company.

In the spirit of the metaverse we want, let’s imagine a day for Ruby, a teenager living in a time and place where the metaverse is more fully realized. If you click through the links in the article, you’ll see that—to paraphrase William Gibson—big pieces of the metaverse are here now; they’re just not connected yet. (Bear in mind: Gibson rightly notes that things in this hypothetical context aren’t evenly distributed, and Ruby lives a pretty privileged life.)

When she wakes up, since Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of her home in the US, Ruby and her friend Akira meet online to play guitar; they chat on Discord while jamming via one of the emerging dueting sites.

She still has time before school to meet a different group of friends for some social gaming. Today’s young people swap personas throughout the day, and may have different circles of local and virtual friends for each. As they play, they talk about the game, but pretty soon they’re discussing everything under the sun.

Once at school, Ruby’s class prepares to journey to ancient Greece via virtual reality. They discuss what they’ve already studied and make projections about what they’ll see in VR. The teacher provides the framework for their exploration, previewing what they’re responsible for observing. Only then do the students put on their headsets and explore; because virtual reality is a 360-degree immersion, each person’s journey is unique, and after just a few minutes they remove the devices and compare notes. This metaverse technology adds insights resulting from deep, self-guided engagement to the teacher’s tools.

After school, Ruby has soccer practice—no technology, though her reaction time has been enhanced with immersive training, and AI-enhanced movement tracking on her tablet at home improves her form on free kicks.

When Ruby gets home from school, she settles into her pet project—a game she’s building on Core using her passion for anime. While at school, she experiences the “gamification of learning,” but Ruby considers this time at home as “learnification of gaming”—she’s building purely from intrinsic motivation, though she also knows she’s gaining design, development and coding skills that will help her in school and future work.

Homework tonight involves a chemistry problem set, for which Ruby uses her molecule builder that connects the physical models she builds with an AR app that brings them to life.

Finished with homework, Ruby meets up with friends for metaverse mall hopping, where luxury and affordable brands sit side-by-side (or appear to, with the ability to “warp” across spaces). Her avatar is linked to a scanned version of her actual self, enabling her to try on clothes and get a remarkably accurate sense of how they’ll fit. While she’s buying boots to be delivered to her home, she also picks up the matching virtual version for her avatar. She’ll show them off when she and her friends game tomorrow, since virtual merchandise (“verchandise”) can be taken anywhere in the metaverse, with ownership confirmed on the blockchain.

Ruby enjoys TV time with her family in the evenings (still in a physical living room). They’ve always liked competition shows, and their new favorite—AvaStar—is a talent contest for people represented by their metaverse avatars. The family is hoping they’ll be chosen to have their virtual selves in the audience for the grand finale. Interestingly, the show isn’t on a linear service or streamer, but on a unique channel set up for those who invested in the concept by purchasing a non-fungible token (NFT).

Late at night, Ruby goes into Roblox for a concert by her favorite band. When they came to town, she couldn’t get tickets—the venue only seated 20,000—but in the metaverse, the band’s millions of fans can all come together.

Just before bedtime (and putting all of her devices into the family’s overnight basket), Ruby gets a message from the store where she bought the boots. As a loyalty reward, they’re gifting her an NFT poster for her Fortnite Creative island.

On the weekend, Ruby’s family has a camping trip planned. With AR apps built into their phones, they’ll be able to identify the flora and fauna they see, map the constellations above them, and learn about historic sites, all while hunting for wild Pokémon.

Clearly, Ruby’s days aren’t spent hiding in a haptic suit and headset to avoid the real world. She’s at school, playing sports, hanging with friends and family, and getting outdoors. When she does dive into the metaverse, she’s watching, playing and creating with platforms and content created by media professionals—many with a focus on young people. It’s time for us to build the metaverse we want, not just take the one we get.

A 35-year children’s media veteran, David Kleeman is SVP of Global Trends for Dubit, a metaverse studio and research/strategy consultancy.

About The Author
Analyst/strategist/writer/speaker David Kleeman travels the world as SVP of Global Trends for kids research consultancy/digital studio @Dubit. Home is an aisle seat near the front. Follow: @davidkleeman.

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