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Will you want to live there?

Facebook is investing significantly in creating metaverse, which, for long, was a term found only in dystopian science-fiction novels. When CEO Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, recently joined a conference call with analysts to discuss the company’s latest quarterly results, much of the focus was on something far removed from those issues: the metaverse. During the hour-long call, the word ‘metaverse’ was mentioned nearly two dozen times. During this earning call on July 28, Zuckerberg said that Facebook would transition from a social media company to a metaverse company, renewing the debate on this topic. He announced the creation of a new metaverse product group and a technology which, according to Zuckerberg, would be ‘the successor to the mobile internet’. “This is going to be a really big part of the next chapter for the technology industry,” Zuckerberg says.
What is a metaverse?
Metaverse is a portmanteau of meta, meaning transcendent, and verse, from universe.
For a long time, metaverse was just a term in the 1992 dystopian novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Inside Snow Crash’s metaverse, individuals appear in digital avatars in a virtual world complete with companies, houses and anything that resembles the real world. The main character Hiro Protagonist, a hacker and pizza delivery boy, escape to this metaverse.
Another book – later a movie directed by Steven Spielberg – that popularised this concept was Ready Player One. The 2011 book by Ernest Cline was set in 2045, where people escape to a virtual reality game as the real world is plunged into crisis. In the game, you interact with fellow players and team up with them.
The 2013 Japanese series Sword Art Online (SAO), based on a science-fiction light novel of the same name by Rei Kawahara, went a step forward. Set in 2022, in the game, technology is so advanced that if the players die in the virtual reality world, they would die in real life too, leading to government interference. Though the world created in the SAO is a little extreme, a metaverse is not limited to these definitions from science fiction. It could be a lot more, or less, as the ecosystem evolves.
Key aspects
There are three key aspects of the metaverse: presence, interoperability and standardization.
Presence is the feeling of actually being in a virtual space, with virtual others. Decades of research has shown that this sense of embodiment improves the quality of online interactions. This sense of presence is achieved through virtual reality technologies such as head-mounted displays.
Interoperability means being able to seamlessly travel between virtual spaces with the same virtual assets, such as avatars and digital items. ReadyPlayerMe allows people to create an avatar that they can use in hundreds of different virtual worlds, including in Zoom meetings through apps like Animaze. Meanwhile, blockchain technologies such as cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens facilitate the transfer of digital goods across virtual borders.
Standardization is what enables interoperability of platforms and services across the metaverse. As with all mass-media technologies – from the printing press to texting – common technological standards are essential for widespread adoption. International organizations such as the Open metaverse Interoperability Group define these standards.
How will it look like?
It is not clear yet how exactly it will look. According to Zuckerberg, “Creation, avatars and digital objects will be central to how we express ourselves, and this is going to lead to entirely new experiences and economic opportunities.”
So, it could be that you could be watching a movie with your friends in a virtual theatre, transacting using cryptocurrency, or doing an interview in your digital avatar, sitting across the interviewers, in a space that resembles an office with lifts, cafeteria and workers milling about. It might be a totally different world.
But to enable a digital universe, companies will have to work on a combination of technologies such as augmented and virtual reality, to start with, that will be a lot more complex given the massive amount of computing bandwidth required to enable millions of users to access the metaverse. “There will need to be new protocols and standards, new devices, new chips, new software — from rendering engines to payment systems and everything in between,” Zuckerberg said.
How will it work?
As explained by Zuckerberg, “It’s a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. You can kind of think about this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at. We believe that this is going to be the successor to the mobile internet.”
As with many tech buzzwords, the definition of the metaverse depends on whom you ask. But broadly, it involves blending the physical world with the digital one. Games in which players enter immersive digital worlds offer a glimpse into what the metaverse could eventually look like, blurring virtual entertainment with the real-world economy. With the help of augmented reality glasses, metaverse, might allow you to see information whizz before your eyes as you walk around a city, from traffic and pollution updates to local history.
However, metaverse enthusiasts are dreaming of a future in which the idea could be extended much further, allowing us to be transported to digital settings that feel real, such as a nightclub or a mountaintop. As workers have grown weary of video-conferences during the pandemic, Zuckerberg is particularly excited about the idea that co-workers could be brought together in a virtual room that feels like they are face-to-face.
How far are we from metaverse?
Despite the current hype cycle, the idea is still amorphous, and a fully functioning metaverse is probably years and billions of dollars away — if it happens at all. Big companies joining the discussion now may simply want to reassure investors that they won’t miss out on what could be the next big thing, or that their investments in VR, which has yet to gain broad commercial appeal, will eventually pay off. And, especially in Facebook’s case, playing up the long-term potential for the metaverse could be a useful way of distracting from growing scrutiny in the here and now

The writer is a member of staff.

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