A fierce global discussion erupted in 2021 over the meaning of the term ‘metaverse,’ whether it exists, and who will possess it. But in 2022, we still lack a consensus on what it is. The Verge satirized this: “maybe you’ve read that the metaverse will replace the internet.” Maybe we should all live there. Maybe Facebook (or Epic, or Roblox, or dozens of smaller corporations) wants it. Maybe it’s about NFTs?”
- The term “metaverse” is now widely used, yet it is still conceptualized and defined differently.
- The metaverse will be altered by the technologies we use to access it, such as VR, AR, and brain-computer interfaces (BCI).
- Some of the biggest names in technology are working on the metaverse’s future.
To investigate the metaverse’s ramifications, we first need to define it. Attempts at definition fall into three categories
A product or service based on the metaverse
In January 2020, author and investor Matthew Ball published the most frequently cited definition of the metaverse: “an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations that can be experienced concurrently by an effectively infinite number of users, each with their sense of presence.”
According to him, the metaverse is a product or service that possesses seven fundamental characteristics, including persistence, synchrony, and interoperability. However, according to technology consultant Ben Thompson, this description is not dissimilar to what the internet already is and does, albeit “with a 3D overlay on top.”
The metaverse as a physical location
Additionally, the metaverse has been described as a space in which individuals can connect, engage, and transfer themselves and their belongings between numerous digital locales. Examples include gaming and creative platforms such as Roblox, Epic Games’ Fortnite, or Manticore Games’ Core, which enable gamers and their avatars to migrate smoothly between virtual worlds.
The metaverse is a singularity
Shaan Puri, a startup entrepreneur, recently proposed another description, referring to the metaverse as a place in time. The metaverse, more precisely, is the point at which our digital lives — our online identities, experiences, relationships, and possessions – become more meaningful than our physical existence. This perspective places a premium on human experience, making the metaverse transition a societal rather than a technological one.
The metaverse of today: virtual reality as a “digital haven”
The metaverse is predicted to emerge predominantly through virtual reality in the next years — another, digital world that may be used for several personal and business objectives. Recent high-profile announcements by Meta Platforms (previously Facebook), Microsoft, and Sony all imply that consumer alternatives for navigating interactive and social 3D settings will be headsets like Meta Quest or Sony PSVR.
Virtual reality is centered on establishing a digital sensation of presence, which many experts agree is critical for generating an engaging experience and retaining consumers. Mark Zuckerberg asserts that the metaverse has already arrived in the form of popular video games. Numerous industry analysts anticipate that Meta will acquire a significant gaming franchise in 2022, following Microsoft’s $68.7 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard and Sony’s $3.6 billion acquisition of Bungie. The company’s Oculus app (soon to be rebranded Meta Quest) was the most downloaded this holiday season, during which Meta may have sold up to two million virtual reality headsets.
This concept preserves the distinction between our digital and physical identities. Virtual reality will never completely replace the human experience. According to critics, depending on a small number of VR devices and content producers to establish the metaverse will replicate, if not reinforce, the internet’s current ‘walled gardens’: discrete, closed ecosystems managed by the operator.
This is in stark contrast to the future envisioned by Web 3 enthusiasts, who believe the metaverse should serve as a check on the power wielded by giant technological companies. It should be a means of decentralizing the internet’s experience, control, and commercialization in favor of users (or citizens) and content creators.
Near-term metaverse: augmenting – not supplanting – the human experience
“These days, everyone talks about ‘the metaverse.’ After eighteen months of Zoom, Netflix, and Doordash, I am officially out of shape that the majority of people envision,” wrote John Hanke, CEO of technology startup Niantic, in a recent blog post. He stated that digital technology should not be allowed to compete with actual reality and that the majority of people do not like extended encounters in virtual worlds. Hanke believes that the metaverse should augment rather than replace human experiences.
He is not alone in making this argument: Philip Rosedale, who led Second Life, a 2003 online social network, reportedly asserted that the metaverse is “not for everyone.” However, Niantic’s vision is based on augmented reality (AR), which, in contrast to virtual reality (VR), does not cover and replace a user’s field of vision. Proponents of augmented reality assert that the future metaverse will be built on the fusion of the physical and digital worlds. Niantic’s most recent investment round valued the company at $9 billion, indicating that at least some investors concur.
Recent and upcoming augmented reality product launches by businesses such as North (Google), Snap, Neal, and Tilt Five highlight the potential of augmented reality, as well as the barriers that must be addressed before it can truly take off. However, with firms engaged in a digital talent competition and whispers of new gear from companies such as Apple, augmented reality’s ‘iPhone moment’ may not be far off.
Metaverse in the long term: brain-computer interactions as the ‘ultimate platform’
Perhaps the most far-reaching concept for the metaverse is one in which brain-computer interfacing is utilized (BCIs). Today, all types of XR rely on screens and conventional control techniques, while some devices have incorporated touch and scent. BCIs are designed to completely replace screens and physical hardware. Neuralink technology, for example, needs neurosurgery to implant devices in the brain, a thought that intrigues and discourages a large number of potential buyers. Additionally, researchers have employed brain interfaces to help people who have lost their capacity to talk and write regain it.
In the framework of the metaverse, Valve said last year that it would investigate BCIs in collaboration with OpenBCI, the developers of the non-invasive Galea headgear. Applications will span a variety of industries, from gaming to healthcare. OpenBCI recently obtained funds to develop an “operating system of the mind” in collaboration with MIT Media Lab and Tobii. Success would be a significant step toward a vision in which technology is completely integrated into the human experience.
The dangers of projecting technological advancements
There are numerous potential paths for the metaverse’s development, all of which are contingent on an ecosystem of research, innovation, investment, and legislation. Predicting the outcome is notoriously unreliable. If the metaverse manifests, it is likely to grow into experiences that we cannot foresee, and anyone who asserts with certainty that they know what will happen lacks the flexibility of inquiring optimism.
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