Localization in the Metaverse

How to make the metaverse experience more inclusive? And what does localization have to do with it?

Metaverse aims to create an embodied, immersive version of the internet, offering experiences that are rarely possible in the real world.

It goes beyond (“meta”) the universe, building multiple duplicates of the universe that reflect in one another. There is no one “universal” metaverse where we could all tap into and begin experiencing the extraordinary. Many different metaverse platforms were bound to evolve — and evolve they did. From Decentraland, Metafluence, Axie Infinity, to The Sandbox, Enjin or CryptoTanks — numerous metaverse projects are developing at lightning speed.

Leading tech companies perceive the metaverse as an important future trend. In the online world, blockchain and tech experts suggest creating a common interface between all metaverse platforms. The aim is to simplify the user experience so we could easily move from one metaverse to another, without plugging in and out as it happens in gaming, for example. To switch from one game to another you need to exit your current gameplay, go back to the desktop, then enter the next game. These steps are too cumbersome for the metaverse enthusiasts, hence setting up a framework that would offer an opportunity to teleport directly between different multiverses would greatly simplify the user experience.

As promising as these ideas sound, there’s one more ingredient that can’t be overlooked in the attempt to build a more user-friendly metaverse: localization.

Yes, the metaverse is all about experiences, such as travelling in the space, jumping from the parachute, visiting conferences, exhibitions, festivals or even working in a metaverse office. However, we rarely explore these opportunities alone, rather with others or in connection with others. That’s why it’s crucial to provide barrier-free communication for all users across the world.

We could assume that the native language of metaverse(s) is English. We could even argue that all metaverse users speak and understand English to some degree. However, if the goal is to make web3 truly inclusive, we need to cater to the needs of users whose English command is far from fluent.

The strive for the common language

When Facebook became Meta in October 2021, Mark Zuckerberg quickly realized that without a “universal speech translator” socializing in the metaverse will be hardly possible. Although his company is building an AI-powered solution that would interpret user’s conversations in real-time, the data scarcity for the under-represented languages is a major stumbling block that could delay the project. It seems there’s a long time before we see the “universal AI translator” in action offering “the ability to communicate with anyone in any language”, even if Zuckerberg claims we will experience this solution in our lifetimes.

Communication is strongly related to the culture, thus the current and future AI models can’t ignore variables such as cultural nuances. In the strive for the common AI-powered universal translator it is perhaps reasonable to involve specialized localizers or translators who would check whether cultural nuances are properly rendered between languages. This step would enable to effectively train the machine learning algorithms and avoid culturally related mistakes in the future.

Beyond the language

Creating a common language is only one side of the coin. For a truly immersive experience, localization and culturalization have to be applied to other elements of the metaverse as well. Images, colors, sounds, symbols, or navigation patterns are deeply rooted in our cultural backgrounds, so all these items need to be properly adapted. This is a vital step in ensuring smooth experience for all users around the world.

We could argue that metaverse already includes universal symbols, architecture, or images. However, if we take a closer look, we will quickly notice multiple gaps that still have to be filled. After all, people who create metaverse take their inspiration from the world around them, and — knowingly or not — transfer surrounding cultural elements into the metaverse as well.

Take avatars, for example. There aren’t many avatar providers in the market that offer full customization: from gender choice (the default selection being a male or female, whereby other possibilities such as LGBTQ+, or anything on the scale from ultra-male to alpha-female is usually ignored), through skin, eye, and hair color, to body shape (hypersexualized female avatars tend to prevail for some reason), and the type of clothing. The way users select these items when creating an avatar isn’t necessarily defined by their personal choice. Their decisions might be influenced by their culture and society, thus having features such as culturally specific clothing (e.g. hijab, kippah, sari, kilt) or body adornments (e.g. bindi, henna decorations) could help users express their cultural identities in a more accurate manner. Of course, avatars are used not only to reflect the user’s appearance in the real life, but also (and maybe above all) to embody the characters they would never be able to become in the physical world. Still, including as many choices as possible in terms of genders, species (humans, zombies, mermaids, centaurs etc.), body features or expressions of cultural identity ensures a more inclusive experience with nearly limitless possibilities.

Towards cultural immersion

Another way in which localization could help ensure better immersion into the metaverse is by adapting experiences to the local user. Not all activities, scenes or locations are equally appropriate for all users around the world. Catering to the local needs plays a crucial role also in the metaverse. Small organizations seem to be more flexible in this aspect than the market giants and quickly build virtual worlds with the cultural awareness in mind. One good example is Muxlim Pal, a Muslim-oriented virtual world that prohibits sexual and drug-related activities, offers religious experiences, and allows users to explore the Muslim lifestyle.

Other cultural aspects that are worth transferring into the metaverse include travelling through the (local) history, landmarks, or landscapes. Metaverse lends itself also to education, training, or business operations, all of which require not only a common language, but at least basic understanding of the cultural differences. For instance, virtual training is more efficient if the content includes locally relevant examples or applies learning methods adapted to the local users.

Localization can survive without metaverse, but it’s hard to imagine metaverse without communication, language, or culture. Moving forward, localization will play a key role in the strive to ensure better user experience in the metaverse. I believe these two worlds will continue to merge and intertwine, reflecting one into another.

Please bear in mind that republishing this article without the author’s permission is illegal and constitutes plagiarism.

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Dorota Pawlak

Dorota Pawlak

Dorota is an independent localization consultant, translator, and co-founder of an NFT project. She writes about web3, localization, and freelancing.