Militarising the Metaverse

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The term “metaverse” is becoming ubiquitous with Facebook betting on the metaverse and being renamed to Meta. The metaverse is the convergence of two well-established constructs namely virtual reality and a digital online second life where virtual lives play as important a role as a physical existence – an extension of our lives enhanced by technology.

Currently, it exists as a series of distinct virtual worlds and experiences, but will expand into an interconnected and limitless world where our digital and physical lives fully converge[1]. It is an immersive digital world in which users can socialise, play games, attend meetings and do other activities together.

Whilst there is not any single, all-illuminating definition of the ‘metaverse’ a widely cited definition by the venture capitalist Matthew Ball argues that the Metaverse is “a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.”[2] It is the combination of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), gaming, cryptocurrencies, social media and much more.

The Metaverse is not yet a concrete reality but offers a broad vision of a future Internet that will further blur the lines between online life and real life, and between people and computers. Gartner expects that by 2026, 25% of people will spend at least one hour a day in the Metaverse for work, shopping, education, social media and/or entertainment. Video games having long given a glimpse of worlds that didn’t exist but felt real and there are social elements of the metaverse already found in video games.

A Metaverse for Defence?[3]

The key technologies needed for the metaverse—augmented and virtual reality, headmounted displays, 3D simulations and virtual environments built by artificial intelligence—are already found in the defense world. Metaverse-related ideas are already emerging with the helmets for the new F-35 fighter jet including an augmented reality display that shows telemetry data and target information on top of video footage from around the aircraft.

Synthetic training environments, in which simulated worlds interact with and augment live training, simulates the full complexity of the physical world, and is the primary training approach for the military. Simulation and virtual training provides the opportunity for people to train in a wide variety of scenarios and hazardous environments, without exposing them to the risk of those scenarios, reducing the level of wear and tear on equipment, and reducing the carbon footprint of training.

The military has long been employing virtual worlds for training, creating SIMNET[4] which used simulation technology to conduct training, analysis, and advanced concept exercises. SIMNET stands for SIMulator NETworking. Initiated in 1983, it was the first “shared virtual reality” distributed simulation system. In 2014 the military showcased Project BlueShark[5], a virtual reality project that demonstrated a virtual world that allowed sailors to drive a ship with 3D situational awareness, repair ships while collaborating with the ship designer from far away, and command and control forces.

Over the recent past disparate simulated training environments have become integrated allowing the military to experience the “fog and friction”[6] of combat within one synthetic space. The aspiration to seamlessly train in a realistic immersive world mirrors current conceptualizations of a metaverse and the leap from synthetic training to the metaverse is both natural and logical. Dublin-based VR simulation company VRAI has partnered with BAE Systems to harness the power of virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) to accelerate next generation training for the ‘military forces of tomorrow’[7] and create a “training metaverse”.

A defense metaverse could enable interconnection of the various virtual training worlds ensuring that lessons learned from training and education can be exploited. It could also potentially aggregate information that can lend insight into factors, like morale, which could inform force design or training.

Often military services agencies acquire their own tools and technologies, and a defense metaverse could also facilitate technology reusability, helping to drive down costs associated with acquisitions, at very least for virtual training solutions. A defense metaverse could provide an immersive education ecosystem that could take advantage of the mixed-reality advancements in education currently taking place, which have progressed rapidly since the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is a possibility that the metaverse will allow for people to forge new relationships and ideally enhance the social elements of their military lives. A defense metaverse could supplement physical interactions of service members by connecting distributed members in a digital environment.

Both China and the US are investing in building a metaverse for the military. According to the Military Cyber Professionals Association (MCPA) think tank, China is planning for a military Metaverse that will “affects the opponent’s thinking, cognition and action decision making”[8]. An article authored by the China’s Institute of Military Political Work, Academy of Military Sciences states that “The metaverse provides a parallel cognitive space that digitally twins real combat scenarios, where cognitive warfare can be advanced efficiently and enhanced at a fast pace.”

In the US many defense startups and contractors are increasingly taking note of a military Metaverse. The US military entered into a partnership with Microsoft in 2018 for the development of mixed-reality headsets based on Microsoft’s HoloLens technology – called Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) – which will allow soldiers to see through smoke and around corners, use holographic imagery for training and have 3D terrain maps projected onto their field of vision at the click of a button.

Current discussions around the metaverse often dismiss the Metaverse as hype especially in the context of non-fungible token for example – which Bill Gates has called the greater fool theory i.e. the financial concept that even overpriced assets can make money as long as you find a bigger idiot to sell them to. However, as Roy Amara the American scientist has noted “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”. It may also be prudent to note that countries that effectively deploy emerging technologies, platforms and eco-systems also have the potential to reimagine the distribution of power across economies and across societies.

Written by Dr Kiru Pillay, Research Associate, LINK Centre, Wits University.

References:

[1] Wunderman Thompson defining the metaverse, https://www.wundermanthompson.com/insight/new-trend-report-into-the-metaverse

[2] Framework for the Metaverse — MatthewBall.vc

[3] https://warontherocks.com/2022/02/the-full-potential-of-a-military-metaverse/

[4] /tardir/tiffs/A294786.tiff (dtic.mil)

[5] Gizmodo Visits ICT to Test Drive Blue Shark, our VR Vision of the Future – Institute for Creative Technologies (usc.edu)

[6] Modern Fog and Friction | Small Wars Journal

[7] Dublin VR company to develop training metaverse with defence contractor – TechCentral.ie

[8] MCPA – Baughman – Attacking the Metaverse (milcyber.org)