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Virtual worlds in 2035: foresight event takeaways

10 Jan 2024

Virtual worlds in 2035: foresight event takeaways

On 12 December PPMI, in collaboration with TNO and the European Commission, hosted the foresight event ‘NextGen Online Platforms: Foresight Session on Virtual Worlds’ in Brussels, Belgium. The event brought together policy makers, leading experts and practitioners to explore the challenges and opportunities affecting the development of virtual worlds, augmented reality and the future of social media until 2035.

What are virtual worlds?

Virtual worlds, sometimes interchangeably referred to as metaverses, are online environments that allow users to interact with each other and with digital objects in a simulated environment. Today’s social media and video games can be seen as an early iteration of a virtual worlds. Over time, however, virtual worlds will offer more seamless and immersive experiences. The application of these technologies has the potential to transform many aspects of our lives, from the way we work and socialise to the way we learn and consume.

Today virtual worlds primarily operate in a 2D space and are accessed through devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops. The coming evolutions of virtual worlds will be characterised by greater seamlessness, integration, and immersion. Below, is a simplified description of the potential phases in virtual worlds’ evolution.

Why is the future of virtual worlds important?

The market for virtual worlds is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. Private spending, equity, and venture capital flowing into the development of virtual worlds today is comparable to the levels invested in the early stages of artificial intelligence (AI) development.

Sources: European Commission, Telefonica, Gartner, Statista

Foresight session approach

During the 12 December foresight session, participants were asked to identify the key risks and opportunities associated with virtual worlds in 2035. To do so, experts were invited to use ‘futures’, a narrative foresight tool describing possible worlds in 2035. The four virtual worlds futures used during the session were:

  • Sandbox: a world with high government intervention and low advancement of virtual world technologies
  • EuroVerse: a world with high government intervention and high virtual world technology advancement
  • Niche Market: a world with low government intervention and low virtual world technology advancement
  • Open Playground: a world with high government intervention and high virtual world technology advancement

Participants worked in groups to identify and prioritise the key challenges and opportunities in each future, using macro and micro perspectives.

When analysing the macro perspective, each group mapped the challenges and opportunities from the perspective of policy makers.

The identified challenges and opportunities were then validated by exploring the perspectives of personas.

Personas are illustrative descriptions of imaginary people and organisations, commonly used in design thinking and foresight. Personas allow exploring from many different perspectives, looking for similarities and differences between stakeholders. The result of the micro-analysis was then used to validate and refine the results of the previous macro-analysis.

Foresight session results

The outcome of the foresight session was a set of challenges and opportunities associated with each of the futures explored. Some cross-cutting themes included:

  • The impact virtual worlds could have on societal progress in terms of scientific breakthroughs, government decision-making and service delivery
  • The transformative impact virtual worlds could have on how we interact with our own identities and with each other, and how they could bridge or exacerbate existing social, political and economic divides
  • Economic implications for a wide range of industries and European competitiveness as a whole
  • Various regulatory and policy implications with regard to consumer protection, privacy, harmful content and behaviour, ensuring interoperability and other issues

The highest priority risks and challenges identified in each future are summarised below.

Notes: rocket emoji – opportunities; warning sign emoji - challenges.

Learn more about the study

The event was carried out by PPMI and TNO as part of a study implemented for the European Commission, which examines the development of online platforms and their impact on European society and economy. You can find out more about the study here.

Throughout the study, we are engaging a wide range of stakeholders in co-creation and co-assessment exercises to uncover different future scenarios and their implications. This event is part of a series of participatory sessions with different stakeholders, including policy makers, industry, academia and youth.

The results of this foresight session will feed into a paper on the future of virtual worlds, augmented reality and the future of social media. It will be one of ten foresight papers developed during the study.

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