Facing the future: Police learning in the metaverse

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There’s always a lot of hype surrounding new technology, how it will work and evolve and often accompanied by claims as to how it will improve our lives. But one vision of our digital future has received increasing exposure in the popular press in recent times that doesn’t yet appear to be fading away: the metaverse.

I’m intrigued by the metaverse. I’ve long since had an interest with virtual reality (VR) and its application to learning in work-based settings, not least operational policing. Indeed, The Open University has made great strides into teaching with VR through the Open Justice court room application, in which learners can explore a court building and learn about how it functions. But the metaverse takes VR several steps further, potentially opening up new avenues for immersive police education and training.

Whilst many people may be new to the term, the metaverse is not a new concept. The idea was first introduced by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 sci-fi novel called Snow Crash. Stephenson envisaged a digital 3D world called the Metaverse that runs parallel to our own and where its real-life users have avatars that carry out their day-to-day lives in virtual reality. More recently, Ernest Cline’s novel (and subsequent Steven Spielberg movie) Ready Player One depicted a type of metaverse in which society worked, studied and played. The term then gained publicity in 2021 when Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg revealed that the company was being renamed Meta and would focus upon building ‘3D spaces in the metaverse will let you socialize, learn, collaborate and play’ (Meta, no date).

Academic discussion around the implications for using the metaverse in education is not a new concept (Tlili et al., 2022) and there have been many attempts to define what the metaverse is. Mystakidis (2022, pp. 486) defines it as ‘the post-reality universe, a perpetual and persistent multiuser environment merging physical reality with digital virtuality. It is based on the convergence of technologies that enable multisensory interactions with virtual environments, digital objects and people such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR)’.

This is quite a mouthful, but many people will be drawn to the idea of existing in a shared virtual world where they can live and work together, building communities that thrive and challenge us just as any other does.

As Mystakidis suggests, the metaverse isn’t really one technology. In 2006, a research body called the Acceleration Studies Foundation (ASF), set out a roadmap in which 4 types of metaverse were conceived, combining real life and virtual reality.

• Augmented Reality can be seen in games such as Pokemon Go and head-up displays (HUD) found in some cars

• Lifelogging, where people capture and share aspects of their daily life through technology is ubiquitous via applications such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and also through wearable technology like the Apple Watch

• Mirror Worlds such as Google Maps and Google Earth reflect the real world but add in additional layers of information

• Virtual Reality can be seen in cases including Roblox and Minecraft (Kye et al, 2021).

Howell (2022) links these four concepts to how the metaverse could be used in education, picking out VR as being a crucial aspect in the application of the metaverse in educational settings and it’s VR that many people picture when they think of the metaverse.

It’s also with VR that my own intrigue around how the metaverse could be utilised in police learning is tweaked. VR already allows people to train in unfamiliar environments, becoming proficient in using tools and dealing with situations that may be dangerous, complicated or costly in real-life (think surgeons performing a life-saving operation or firefighters searching a blazing building). The metaverse takes this concept and allows multiple users to exist and collaborate in the same VR world.

I wonder, could this approach be applied to policing?

Communication is a key aspect of policing, not least amongst internal staff. By training together in the metaverse, greater understanding could be achieved and collaborative methods explored, accelerating learning opportunities and providing rich educational environments. For example, rather than training individuals to secure and investigate a crime scene, real-world mimicking simulations could be created in which response officers attend, talk to victims and witnesses, integrate and work with colleagues from specialist units and brief supervisors of their actions. They can also build knowledge as well as skills, learning about the forensic qualities of different materials and objects as they encounter them. Team de-briefings can be held and the scenario could be carried through the full investigation cycle, ending up presenting evidence in court.

Other potential uses could include where police officers and staff  practice conversations that they may undertake in the workplace that are relatively infrequent but that have very high-stakes when they do, such as delivering a death message, talking to a victim of domestic abuse or conducting a disclosure briefing to a  defence solicitor in a custody suite. Learners could learn about psychology and criminology as they walk through crime case studies. Metaverse technology will give a safe space to acquire knowledge, practice skills and discuss the outcomes with colleagues, delivered efficiently without the need for lengthy abstractions from duties.

Of course, there are significant challenges attached to the development of the metaverse and its application to education. Data security, regulation (who will police the metaverse? That’s another question), inequality in access to educational opportunities, and costs (headsets and software development are expensive) (Davis, 2022) are all relevant and could lead to a less than enthusiastic take-up by the public services.

The effect on learners’ mental health through being detached from the real world should not be overlooked. In the metaverse, people can present themselves as they wish to be seen, rather than how they actually are, and lines between the virtual and real worlds may become blurred (Kye et al, 2021). Protecting the welfare of learners will therefore become increasingly valid as opportunities to exist in the metaverse increase.

So, is the metaverse a fad or is it really the next big thing in online technology? Meta are by no means the only company to be investing in this brave new world. Gaming company Roblox already has a significant foothold in the metaverse and Microsoft and Fortnite, amongst others, are developing the technology. The metaverse has the potential to impact upon all of our lives; whether it does so in police learning, virtually or in reality, remains to be seen.

Refs

Davis, L (2022). How the Metaverse Is Shaping the Future of Education. Available at: https://metapress.com/how-the-metaverse-is-shaping-the-future-of-education/. (Accessed: 6 May 2022).

Howell, J. (2022) Metaverse For Education – How Will The Metaverse Change Education?. Available at: https://101blockchains.com/metaverse-for-education/ (Accessed: 6 May 2022).

Bokyung, K., Nara, H., Eunji, E., Yeonjeong, P. and Soyoung, J. (2021). ‘Educational applications of metaverse: possibilities and limitations’, Journal of Educational Evaluation for Health Professions. 18(32). Available at: doi:10.3352/jeehp.2021.18.32 (Accessed: 8 July 2022).

Meta (no date) Connection is evolving and so are we. Available at: https://about.facebook.com/meta/ (Accessed: 6 May 2022).

Mystakidis, S. (2022). ‘Metaverse’ Encyclopedia 2(1), pp. 486-497. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3390/encyclopedia2010031 (Accessed: 8 July 2022).

Tlili, A., Huang, R., Boulus, S., Liu, D., Zhao, J, Hosny Saleh Metwally, A., Wang, H., Denden, M., Bozkurt, A., Lee, L-H.,  Beyoglu, D., Altinay, F., Sharma, R.C., Altinay, Z., Li, Z., Liu, J., Ahmad, F., Hu, Y., Salha, S., Abed, M., & Burgos, D. (2022). ‘Is Metaverse in education a blessing or a curse: a combined content and bibliometric analysis’, Smart Learning Environments 9 (24). Available at: Is Metaverse in education a blessing or a curse: a combined content and bibliometric analysis | Smart Learning Environments | Full Text (springeropen.com) (Accessed 25 July 2022).