The Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) is more important than the majority of organisations currently spouting off about the potential of the metaverse. In fact, when you see bodies like the DPPA (a department of the United Nations) take part in the metaverse speculation, you know it’s more than just the latest tech buzzword.
The department plays a central role in the United Nations’ efforts to prevent deadly conflict and build sustainable peace around the world. As founder of the Innovation Cell of the Department, Daanish Masood Alavi, defines it, “the DPPA monitors and assesses global political developments with an eye to detecting potential crises and devising effective responses.” The DPPA provides support to the secretary-general and his envoys in their peace initiatives, as well as to UN political missions around the world.
So why are they thinking about the metaverse? “In order to respond to insecurity in agile and effective ways, the DPPA needs to be able to deploy every new tool, method and technology that can help,” says Daanish. “The Innovation Cell exists to explore and apply these new tools and methods in a way that is deeply responsive to and collaborative with our on-the-ground colleagues in conflict contexts. Put differently, the Innovation Cell works to re-purpose emerging technologies, tools and research in the service of making peace around the world.”
With this broad aim in mind, the Innovation Cell’s priorities aren’t to jump on trends without cause, but are driven entirely by the needs of UN colleagues working in conflict contexts, in addition to the strategic direction set by the UN’s leadership on international peace and security.
In that vein, the Cell is currently working to innovate in a range of critical areas, according to Daanish. These include investigating the realities of global climate and security through the use of “space-based environmental sensors on satellites and data analytics”.
Another preoccupation is solving the language problems inherent in natural language processing (NLP) technologies – which are used by the DPPA to conduct mass public dialogues in local languages within conflict contexts using AI dialogue tools – the aim of this being to increase inclusivity in political processes.
But crucially, his team has recently been investigating spatial computing and immersive technologies to build environments to train peace mediators. The aim being to run future peace negotiations between conflict actors more successfully.
SUPERBRIGHT founder and executive creative director Igal Nassima has been collaborating with the DPPA on this work. Which, he says involves “both helping to build storytelling initiatives for policy and education as well as expanding immersive adoption into diplomacy.” As part of this work, his company acts as a bridge by developing new technologies such as cloud rendering for environments or proprietary avatar systems to enhance immersive experiences, or by working with creative and academic partners to bring their ideas and research to a new audience.
This has been intriguing to Daanish and his team because, as the DPPA innovation lead says, “the metaverse is fascinating as questions of how it gets built lie partially at the intersection of intergroup neuroscience, behavioural psychology, engineering, and design.”
It’s not just intellectually stimulating of course, but could be a practical help for conflict negotiation. One obvious way it can help is by overcoming connection barriers due to travel restrictions, cost, and safety. This could include the use of metaverse spaces for the purposes of briefing senior decision makers. “Giving them an objective sense of a conflict context through a simulated immersive environment, when they are unable to travel,” says Daanish.
These tools are also creating opportunities for experimentation on “intergroup dynamics and gamification,” which excite Daanish. Whether the objective is to reinforce best practices to prepare negotiators for high-stakes negotiations – or to help both conflict actors and peacemakers confront implicit bias through ‘simulated embodiment’ – the potential is intriguing. For example, by practising training in real-world negotiation spaces replicated within the metaverse, negotiators may be able to better prepare for a wider range of scenarios, he suggests. These kinds of immersive environments are also useful when conflict parties are unwilling or unable to meet each other in person due to ‘polarisation’, logistics or security.
“More than this, the reality is that the metaverse will be – if current predictions hold even somewhat true – a major space in which human interaction will occur,” says Daanish. “Sure, concerns about illicit activity, harassment and intimidation must be addressed. But the metaverse can also be a space for positive engagement in ways still unknown to us. It can be a space for economic exchange that enhances relations across states, and a space for dialogue for parties in conflict.”
There are a lot of details to be ironed out before all conflict negotiations involve a virtual element though. There are questions of compatibility – on a raw technological level – in the metaverse that still need to be resolved. Daanish concedes that the solutions that will be offered will likely not be designed for those living in emerging economies, for areas with low internet penetration and other contexts. But he wants to make sure the UN is involved in answering these questions as technology develops. “The role of the UN is also to advocate and create space for them in how the metaverse is designed to make sure they are not left behind,” he says. “So being present as a voice in its early stages of development, albeit a minor one, is important for the UN.”
The topics of language and mass adoption are both going to be “significant challenges that will need to be addressed,” says Igal. SUPERBRIGHT’s team are exploring how they can utilise AI to provide a seamless translation service between multiple avatars in these spaces. “The core systems already exist but implementing them so they feel second nature and enhance rather than complicate communication will be key.”
Secondly, Igal is certain to make sure that as we advance we are cognisant of the technology that already exists, is key. For example, India is only just about to launch 4G mobile, he notes, “so making tools and platforms that are too specific to new headsets and platforms will have a negative impact and reduce uptake, which goes against everything that web3 (and metaverse) is hoping to achieve.”
Another partner in this experimentation is the Fashion Innovation Agency of the London College of Fashion. Matthew Drinkwater, head of the agency, is intrigued by these developments. In particular, he’s fascinated by “the ability to represent yourself in ways that you wouldn’t be able to physically – effectively creating a new form of communication through digital fashion.”
Designs by the Fashion Innovation Agency of the London College of Fashion
Matthew imagines a metaverse or extended reality (XR) negotiations room and how such a space, “can facilitate a better outcome than current communications technology in the way full immersion in 3D environments changes how users express themselves. Inhabiting an avatar invites a natural, human way to communicate through the representation of physical gestures,” he says. “The bigger impact of body language, posture and personal space being used in digital environments will create a collaborative workspace and feel like a more engaging way to have a discussion than a Zoom call.”
For Daanish, it’s the creative blank canvas of metaverse spaces that poses the potential. “It allows for experimentation and evaluation,” he says. “Built environments within the metaverse can be shaped to participants and their unique needs, whether it be for training, dialogue, or empathy-building. Everything from architectural design to sensory details like colour and sound can be fine-tuned to create optimal atmospheres for delicate interactions to take place. Multisensory and biophysical responses can be quantitatively measured to monitor trust, emotion, and power dynamics in group settings. The Innovation Cell is working alongside global experts to study how the manipulation of virtual environments can ease hostilities or generate certain positive behavioural responses. Calibrating virtual spaces based on real-time behavioural feedback would be an unprecedented leap for the practice of diplomacy.”
SUPERBRIGHT divides its focus into three key areas that Igal says “represent the basic pillars of a social virtual experience.”
The first is ‘environment’, everything from architecture, textures and scale to the lighting of objects and geometry within the space, “all of which are pivotal in setting the stage for an engaging virtual world,” he says.
The second pillar is the ‘avatar’ system – making sure people are accurately depicted both ‘physically’ and ‘visually’ with a focus on how delegates from different countries are represented, whilst paying close attention to their inherent cultures and backgrounds.
The third pillar is ‘movement’, which includes both how you navigate a space and how you embody your avatar. “In an effort to bring a more natural human experience, we are researching a machine learning IK (Inverse Kinematics) system that we predict will result in a more adaptive and reactive skeletal system without the need for expensive mo-cap suits or complex software.”
It is by combining all these that SUPERBRIGHT is able to create what Igal calls a “future focussed multiplatform space that feels natural, comfortable and encourages people to communicate from a safe place” – a space that provides a personal experience in an environment that can often feel very impersonal and disconnected from the real world.
As well as creating the spaces using the most cutting-edge tech available, Daanish stresses the need to build an evidence base that conclusively proves that immersive environments offer unique benefits over in-person meetings – or that can offer a useful alternative when in-person meetings are not possible. “This involves running actual experiments and pilots with researchers and practitioners in low-stakes environments,” he says.
For that, the UN needs to change way beyond Daanish’s Innovation Cell. He wants to increase the adoption of innovative practices across UN agencies and programmes, promote open mindedness to change, disrupt the status quo and expand technical capabilities – from hardware like Oculus headsets to smartly designed spaces/interventions within VR.
This past January the UN Security Council tried VR in the Security Council Chamber for the first time to experience a 360-degree immersive video. “If we are indeed able to conclusively demonstrate a unique value add, then our goal would be to eventually hardwire it into the functions and day to day operations across the UN system,” says Daanish. “The UN wants to keep pace with the rapidly evolving technological revolution. Waves of new technology are affording new opportunities to monitor, predict, and mitigate insecurity like never before.”
Ultimately, before negotiations begin to happen routinely in the metaverse, everyone involved needs to feel comfortable interacting in these digital reality spaces. “All involved parties will need a minimum bar of entry to ensure that no one will be at a disadvantage from a technological standpoint,” says Matthew from the Fashion Innovation Agency. “Technological challenges in graphic quality, real-time rendering and incorporating multiplayer could unintentionally cause disparity or ‘othering.’” So rushing into conflict mediation using metaverse technology could be disastrous.
Negotiations take place between humans. And competing with the real-world interactions that all humans are familiar with will take work, says Igal. “At its core, it's going to be pivotal that any multi-person communication in this space feels seamless. Too many times we see wonderful ideas such as this, get bogged down by complicated UX/UI and unnecessary features,” he says. “Onboarding delegates easily and making them feel comfortable straight away is going to be so important and not least being able to support them when it comes to the language barrier (which we know is handled by a personal translator IRL).
“As part of our avatar RnD, we are exploring how we can use AI to live-translate a person's conversation in real-time, removing the existing delay of a human translator in the hope that this will further encourage a more relaxed approach to conversation. It’s about leveraging the available technology in the best way possible whilst making sure we don’t ignore what works in the real world. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel just because we can.”