Need to Know: The Metaverse - a virtual idea or a reality?
By SANJANA IYER
What is it - from the 90s to now:
The term “metaverse”, first coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 sci-fi novel “Snow Crash”, has recently become a household name following Facebook’s rebrand to “Meta” in late 2021. While conceptualised in fiction, the metaverse could become our reality, namely a virtual reality world in which we can secure real estate, enjoy entertainment, and conduct commerce. Everything we do in the real world - but better. With access via Augmented and Virtual Reality, like with the Meta Quest headset (formerly Oculus), the metaverse is described as a 3D internet that will overlie our physical world, posing endless possibilities we cannot currently realise; from surgeons collaborating across countries and testing machinery using ‘digital twins’, with none of the ethical implications on real people.
Real life or just fantasy?
The virtual worlds we find in Fortnite and Roblox that have their own currencies, avatars and interactions are a glimpse into what the future of the metaverse could be. The very recent ability we now have to ‘own’ virtual objects and land is at the crux of creating entire metaverse worlds on the basis of this new economy. Note the plural worlds, though. The metaverse worlds, including Sandbox and Decentraland, are looking like a multiverse and, just like in Spiderman, this idea of a single unified metaverse could indeed be too far from home - with interoperability standards between these platforms being potentially years off, or indeed impossible. Current VR technology is also nowhere near immersive enough, so it may not be until edition 142 that you are holding a holographic copy of Perspectives.
Private companies possess the power
The recent rise of the metaverse stems from tech giants like Microsoft and Meta investing in gaming giants (like Microsoft’s $75 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard - the largest in Big Tech history) who already have these (albeit rudimentary) virtual worlds, which will form the building blocks of the metaverse. While the internet is an open-source creation through the collaboration of governments, universities and technologists, the metaverse is largely being shaped by the for-profit sector. The power these companies will hold if they control the systems that will underlie our economies, our welfare and our private lives will be more insidious than Big Brother himself. A possible solution is the proliferation of blockchain, which is a digital decentralised financial mechanism that could take the ruling of trade operations away from a central set of firms.
When caught in a landslide, is there an escape from reality? The metaverse could be the answer to this question for nations like Tuvalu, where the imminent threat of rising sea levels means they plan to create a ‘Digital Nation’, in an effort to conserve their land and their culture on the cloud in cyberspace. Virtual worlds that pervade aspects of our lives like real estate and trade may be functional, once standards and regulations are implemented, but the legal and functional considerations of an entire nation in cyberspace are immense. With considerations of citizenship, pertaining to what physical area will digital citizens live in, alongside border controls and virtual consulates, it poses the question of how we are going to converge the governance of physical and virtual space. Only time will tell.
An economic explosion, at what cost?
The metaverse is set to generate up to $13 trillion in revenue per year by 2030, with an estimated $8 trillion of that in both China and the US. The promise of escaping the confines of the physical world are set to revolutionise every industry: from Microsoft’s “holoportation” technology (that transmits 3D models of people in real time) enhancing cross-country collaboration, to changing the face of education and what we can now experience and learn from. Yet, even with our entire lives uploaded onto the cloud, we cannot truly replace being down on Earth, from face-to-face teaching to human comfort and consolation. The most overlooked consideration is also who are we leaving behind as we race into this future, with developing nations already having limited access to the internet, let alone VR technology.
Image: Flickr/ Dan Farber