A Powerful Tool for Better Science

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    For Diego Gómez Zara, assistant professor of computer science engineering at the University of Notre Dame, the Metaverse is something else, a tool for making science better.Credit: Diego Gómez-Zará / University of Notre Dame

    Researchers at Notre Dame advise we should get over the excitement and consider how virtual reality can make scientists more efficient. However, exploiting these advantages requires researchers to strategize carefully and avoid possible drawbacks.

    In 2021, Facebook pushed the term “metaverse” to the forefront of Internet discourse by announcing plans to change its name to Meta and build “a series of interconnected digital spaces that make possible things that cannot be done in the physical world.” Since then, the Metaverse has gone by many names. Some see this as “the future of the Internet,” while others dismiss it as “an amorphous concept that no one wants.”

    For Diego Gómez Zara, assistant professor of computer science engineering at the University of Notre Dame, the Metaverse is something else, a tool for making science better.

    In a recently published paper, natural human behavior, Gomez Zara argues that scientists should use the Metaverse in their research while avoiding the potential dangers of working in virtual reality.

    Virtual Environments, Real Benefits

    With co-author Peter Schiffer (Department of Applied Physics and Physics), Yale University) and Dashun Wang (McCormick School of Engineering, Northwestern University), Gomez Zara defines the Metaverse as a virtual space where users can interact in a three-dimensional environment and perform actions that affect the outside world.

    Researchers say the metaverse will benefit science in four main ways.

    First, barriers may be removed, making science more accessible. You don’t have to speculate far into the future to understand these opportunities, says Gomez Zala. Instead, we can point to how researchers are already starting to use virtual environments in their work.

    For example, the University College London School of Pharmacy has created a digital replica of its laboratory that scientists can visit in virtual reality. This digital replica allows scientists in different parts of the world to come together, collaborate, and make joint decisions about how to proceed with their research projects.

    Similarly, virtual laboratory training developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention teaches young scientists in different locations how to identify parts of a laboratory and even perform emergency procedures.

    This example demonstrates the second benefit: improved teaching and learning.

    Gomez Zara explains: “For someone who is training to be a surgeon, getting the first surgery right is very difficult. Mistakes can be very detrimental when you are working with real patients.

    Gomez Zara is also working with a team at the University of Notre Dame’s Virtual Reality Lab to understand a third potential benefit related to the social side of science. A research team studies the impact of the online environment on team work processes. They found that virtual environments help teams collaborate more effectively than video conferencing.

    “Since the pandemic, we have all become comfortable video conferencing,” says Gomez Zara. “But that doesn’t mean video calling is the most effective tool for every task. Especially for intense social activities like team building and innovation, virtual reality is a very close replica of what we do offline and could prove more effective.”

    Gomez Zara says the Metaverse can also be used to create entirely new experimental environments.

    “If you can get data or an image from somewhere, you can create a virtual replica of that place in virtual reality,” explains Gomez Zara. For example, he says, we have an image of: Mars Captured by satellites and robots. “These can be used to create virtual reality versions of environments that allow scientists to experience what it’s like there. Eventually, they will even be able to interact with environments that are far away.”

    potential pitfalls

    Gomez Zara stresses that to realize the full benefits of the metaverse, several pitfalls associated with it must be avoided.

    Barriers still exist to the use of virtual reality. Virtual reality goggles and related equipment have become more affordable, but still require significant investments.

    This question is related to the larger question of who owns the metaverse? Several technology companies currently manage the metaverse, Gomez Zala said, calling on research-backing institutions and other companies to invest in building an open, public metaverse. In the meantime, he says it’s important for researchers to think twice about ownership and privacy issues whenever they work in the metaverse.

    But his whole message is hopeful. “We still tend to associate the metaverse with entertainment and casual socializing, which makes it very easy to get fired,” he says. “But look at how quickly we’ve all adapted to technology that we barely used before the pandemic. Something similar could happen in the Metaverse. We need a research community to explore it. That’s the best way to plan for risks while recognizing all the possibilities.”

    Reference: “The Promises and Pitfalls of the Metaverse for Science,” by Diego Gomez Zala, Peter Schiffer, and Dashun Wang, 18 May 2023, Available here. nature human behavior.
    DOI: 10.1038/s41562-023-01599-5


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