WHAT IS THE METAVERSE
…and how will it alter the real world?
Covid has accelerated virtual connectivity forward by five years. In the depths of lockdown, we strived for human connection, utilising Zoom, Skype, watch alongs, shared playlists, streamed concerts and online events. The pandemic moved virtual interaction forward rapidly, breeding a fascination with digital landscapes – especially, the metaverse.
But what exactly is the metaverse? What can we expect from it, when, and how will it affect our daily lives?
The term was first coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel, Snow Crash. Sci-fi fans and tech people have used the phrase for decades. Stephenson’s metaverse is an ominous one. An urban environment along a hundred-metre-wide road, on a featureless, black, spherical planet.
Modern use of the phrase is not so intimidating. In 2021, metaverse went wild via a series of tech announcements, not least Facebook’s parent company rebrand to Meta Platforms, firmly propelling the phrase to buzzword bingo top three.
You’ll find many different definitions of metaverse. Mostly, they’re all correct. Put simply, it’s a successor state to today’s internet – a new medium for work, leisure and innovation. A virtual world containing other virtual worlds all interconnected with an efficiency that has the potential to exceed the real life economy.
Given today’s technological and communication limitations, we’re a long way from the fully embodied future. Seeds of the metaverse were sown 25 years ago thanks to games companies, AOL’s Virtual Places, MySpace and Second Life, which thrives today with 65 million users. The pace has picked up as companies like Meta, Epic Games, Sandbox, UBISOFT and Unity Technologies drive platform evolution; Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Extended Reality (XR) developers provide nascent interfaces, and creators fuel the engagement economy.
Still confused? Think of it as virtual islands owned by companies, walled gardens with no interoperability. Fast forward 10 or 15 years and the islands are bridged: a giant artificial universe where you can go anywhere with a regulated digital ID in the form of a photo realistic avatar – the connective tissue between virtual lands, experiences, and emotions.
A well of Utopia… or hellish dystopia?
Whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, we can’t yet fully know how the metaverse will affect our lives. Will it be education, entertainment, self-care, work or social connectivity? Right now the form the metaverse will take, and how you’ll enter it, is yet to be determined, as back-end infrastructure and telecommunications continue to evolve. Depending on which futurologist you listen to – Amy Webb, Mark Zuckerberg or writer Neal Stephenson – it’s either an untapped well of utopian ideation, a waterfall of positivity, or a polarised dystopian hell.
If we take the metaverse as an umbrella term for technologies that bridge the divide between the physical and digital, it’s fascinating to see how we will immerse ourselves in the countless experiences it offers. VR and AR headsets will become an extension of ourselves, more like spectacles or sunglasses.
The metaverse will integrate seamlessly with real life, a new reality available whenever and wherever we desire it; to create, communicate, explore, play, socialise or work from home.
What’s the metaverse business model?
Please, not advertising. Branded content, almost certainly. If you already enjoy a metaverse experience – The Sandbox, Fortnite, Decentraland, Second Life – ask yourself, how is that platform making money? Which content do you engage with the most?
Long term advertising clicks and eyeballs (like social media companies) are a disaster waiting to happen. Consider the impact algorithms have on our behaviour, politics, society and mental health. In a revolutionary digital landscape, dedicated to easier interactions, there’s no room for the old. We need to overhaul engagement.
Aside from content creators selling their digital assets as Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), virtual land can be bought and sold. Entertainment and sports companies can charge for an extension of real-world experiences, whilst brands pay to play and offer products and services.
User-generated content will be huge, interlacing and modifying brand supplied content. Virtual worlds will empower players to monetise time spent for their contribution.
The metaverse will spawn millions of new jobs, from digital architects and interior or fashion designers; to estate and travel agents, tour guides, hosts, educators and next generation ecommerce. New careers will emerge, such as NFT resellers, wedding planners, car and motorcycle salespeople, VFX and animators, metaverse police and lawyers. Ultimately, creativity and imagination will lead to opportunities, as the metaverse will be limited only by what users can envision.
Metaverse standards and governance
But none of this will be unified unless there is interoperability, standardardisation, common currency and governance. The pertinent question: who polices the metaverse?
We’ve seen how social media platforms struggle to moderate content, and the big question remains – how will inappropriate metaverse behaviour be dealt with? Who polices the police?
Likewise, current platforms each have their own separate currency. Will there be a single payment system? Owned and controlled by who, or what?
Common standards, like we have through HTML and URL for the internet today, are far from clear. For the metaverse to work seamlessly, interoperability is the key to jump from one world to the other. You’ll need to be able to take your digital self from one experience into another without delay. Perhaps we must define an ICANN for the metaverse?
When technology crosses into our everyday lives, we open up the idea of our differences, as much as we engage with empowerment. These days, you don’t even need facial recognition to pinpoint you are you. In a world where our breathing patterns and heartbeat are instantly recognisable, how are we going to manage a metaverse that banks on anonymity? Can or should we be anonymous?
What about the trolls? The ethics here get crispy pretty fast: how do you ensure that your brand is respected and conversations around it match your vision?
Ways the metaverse could reinvent your world
Get ready to party with Snoop Dogg in your pants. Simply slip on slimline glasses and become the photo-realistic avatar of who you want to be at the office, or elsewhere. At home you might finish work from your bedroom in your sweatpants, but in the metaverse you’ll vibe in your dream home, swaddled in the hottest new designer NFT clothes. Make a few calls to friends, then hop in a customised VR EV to pick up Snoop Dogg on the way to his latest gig in the Snoopverse. All without leaving the house.
Welcome to the motorverse: from storytelling to storyliving
The metaverse will push the limits on how you spend time. Imagine in the real world, an autonomous EV is taking you on a two-hour trip to visit relatives. Now an extension of your office, living or bedroom, or make your transit time count, slip on your Holoride glasses and host a meeting. When you’re done, chill out with an immersive, mindful experience that flows with your vehicle’s motion. Next, enter a “drive in” cinema, where storytelling is shaped by your ever-changing location, mood, and previous content interaction.
All in all, the metaverse, if operating inside globally adopted and respected ethics, has the capacity to expand our consciousness. If we engage with this new landscape constructively, it stands to be a glorious Utopia, where we can be whoever and whatever we please. Its ability to shake up our ideas of creativity and provide us with essential emotive experiences like never before is exciting, as is the potential to smash the current boundaries of content engagement right out of the park. What, and who, do you want to be? Let’s make it happen.
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