Virtual worlds: Q&A session with Tünde Levy, European Commission

To get the lowdown on the policy perspectives of virtual worlds, we spoke to Tünde Levy from the European Commission (DG CONNECT Unit G2 - Interactive Technologies, Digital for Culture and Education).

Date 2024-06-26 Author BIK Team Section awareness, industry, policy Topic media literacy/education Audience media specialist, organisations and industry, research, policy and decision makers
A group of three young people using VR headsets

What does Unit G2 do?

The Unit looks after three portfolios. The first is to support the digital transformation of cultural institutions. The second is modernising education and training systems in an age of rapid technological changes. Last but not least, the unit is in charge of the Web 4.0 and Virtual Worlds EU strategy.

The Unit’s activities typically fall into three main categories: policy work, coordination and cooperation work, and monitoring research and innovation projects across our different funding programmes.

The Unit is also responsible for several European Data Spaces, including cultural heritage, media, and skills. Common Data Spaces are currently being developed across 14 sectors/domains with the aim of benefiting European businesses and citizens by making more data available for access and reuse in a trustworthy and secure environment.

What is the EC’s policy perspective on virtual worlds?

In July 2023, the European Commission published a communication on Web 4.0 and virtual worlds. The communication sets out the strategy to steer the next technological transition and ensure an open, secure, trustworthy, fair, and inclusive digital environment for EU citizens, businesses, and public administrations.

What exactly are virtual worlds?

A comprehensive definition is given in the communication itself.

By virtual worlds, we mean persistent 3D real-time immersive environments that blur the line between real and virtual for the purposes of socialising, working, learning, making transactions, playing, and creating.

When we talk about virtual worlds, we also talk about Web 4.0, which is the next anticipated step in digital transformation. In short, it’s a wider, long-term technological transition in which physical and digital worlds will seamlessly blend and smart devices will communicate with each other to perform complex tasks.

Are virtual worlds new?

The concept of virtual words has actually been around for a couple of decades, but it’s gained more attention in recent times. Rapid technological advances, including improved connectivity and infrastructure, have meant that virtual worlds are now more technically and economically feasible in mainstream applications. This, in turn, opens up a wide range of opportunities in many different areas across both the public sector and industry. Besides obvious applications in entertainment, leisure, video games, education, and cultural heritage, virtual worlds are increasingly used in maintenance, design, the construction sector, health, and training. And, of course, the number of sectors it can support is growing daily.

What is the vision behind the communication?

There are several aspects to the vision behind Web 4.0 and virtual worlds, as follows:

  • Developments in this area need to reflect EU values, principles, and fundamental rights.
  • People need to feel safe, confident, and empowered, and have their rights respected regardless of whether they are users, consumers, workers, or creators.
  • European businesses need to be supported to develop world-leading applications which can grow and be scaled.
  • Virtual Worlds need to be open and interoperable, giving freedom of choice for users.
  • Sustainability needs to be at the core of all technological developments.

How will this be achieved?

There are four pillars behind the strategy:

  • Pillar 1: People and skills
  • Pillar 2: Business and industrial ecosystem
  • Pillar 3: Government
  • Pillar 4: Governance

A further important component is infrastructure and connectivity, which the European Commission addresses through a broader policy initiative, the digital connectivity package.

How do virtual worlds relate to the Better Internet for Kids (BIK+) strategy?

Under Pillar 1, in alignment with the key objectives of the BIK+ strategy, we want to ensure that children and young people are both protected and empowered in virtual worlds. We hope to create various educational resources to support this aim going forward.

What sort of preparation and consultation went into the communication?

As I am sure you can imagine, much consultation and stakeholder involvement took place before the communication was adopted. The European Citizens’ Panel on Virtual Worlds was one of the most important consultation exercises.

For this, 142 randomly selected citizens from all over Europe were invited to form a panel. Throughout three weekend consultations (two in Brussels and one online), they deliberated on their visions and guiding principles, and suggested actions from their own perspectives about virtual worlds. As a result, 23 recommendations were made by the Citizens’ Panel covering eight values and principles and multiple topics, including learning, education, digital identity, work and job markets, and the impact of these technologies on health, among others. Some of the recommendations are especially pertinent in the context of Better Internet for Kids, for example:

  • Recommendation 16 calls for awareness raising, including creating guidelines and rules on how to be a digital citizen and behave in virtual worlds. Additionally, such guidance needs to be embedded within educational systems.
  • Recommendation 20 relates to accessibility for all, ensuring that no one is left behind.
  • Under Recommendation 21, citizens suggested legal frameworks for transparency and protection of everyone in the metaverse, prioritising vulnerable groups such as children, older people and other underprivileged people.

The key to much of this is building a talent pool. A focus should be placed on skills development in virtual worlds, including technologies under the Digital Europe Programme and digital content under the Creative Europe Programme.

What’s on the horizon?

Linked to Pillar 1 of the strategy, one of our priorities is to have a clear picture of the impact that virtual words can have on health, and we’ve just launched a new study. Titled Virtual worlds: How do they affect our health and well-being?, the study started on 12 June 2024 and will run for 12 months.

The study's main aim is to describe the state-of-the-art of the impact of virtual words on people's health and well-being, including children and workers, and provide an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses identified in existing research results. It will also investigate how virtual words can help to improve the mental and physical health of vulnerable groups, including children and young people, elderly people, and people with disabilities.

At the end of the 12 months, the study will provide some clear recommendations regarding policy intervention and potential research and innovation at the EU level, aiming to identify and address possible health concerns affecting children, among other things.

How can we find out more?

There are lots of resources available to help you learn more about this work, including:

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