Is The Metaverse an Idea Whose Time Has Come?
by Kashyap Kompella
The metaverse is a curious beast. It is already here, but it is also the future. It is tough to define, and everyone has their own definition. Its proponents include Big Tech, but it’s also embraced by opponents of Big Tech. The metaverse contains multitudes—let’s dive in.
The term “metaverse” comes from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction book Snow Crash, in which the metaverse is a virtual world projected onto goggles worn by users who are free to choose their avatars or virtual identities. Today, a working definition of the metaverse includes several elements of that conceptualization: a blending of the physical and digital realms that is shared, persistent, and immersive. To put it another way, the metaverse combines AR and VR, video games, social networks, and even blockchains and cryptocurrencies. The central idea of the metaverse is to provide rich, multisensory, and multidimensional digital experiences. However, the metaverse is not just about technology; it is also about culture and economics.
A gamified, online world with digital avatars and virtual goods is not exactly new. One of the most popular virtual worlds, Second Life, launched in 2003 and still exists today. There was tremendous hype and excitement about the potential applications of interacting in Second Life. Companies bought virtual real estate, musicians held concerts, countries opened embassies, brands opened retail outlets, colleges taught courses, and on and on during the early days of the game. Despite the hype, it did not attain mainstream adoption.
THREE REASONS THE METAVERSE IS GAINING POPULARITY
What’s different now? First, the required technology for the metaverse doesn’t exist fully, but there have been strides and progress. For example, VR headsets are more functional and easier to use, and their prices are coming down. High-speed broadband internet is more widely available, and telecom companies are rolling out 5G mobile networks. High-end mobile devices and computers can easily render 3D worlds on the consumer end.
Second, unlike before, the metaverse is being championed by large tech companies with deep pockets. For example, Meta (formerly Facebook) plans to spend $10 billion on VR and AR hardware and apps in 2022 alone. Arguably, with nearly 2 billion users of its social networks, it’s relatively easy for Meta to get users to engage with metaverse apps. Similarly, Microsoft is investing heavily in the metaverse. It is set to acquire games publisher Activision Blizzard in 2023 for nearly $69 billion. Also, on the enterprise side, Microsoft is adding “extended reality” features to its collaboration platform. Apple is said to be working on its own AR/VR headset. NVIDIA has announced a platform for 3D simulation and design collaboration.
Third, there are a lot of cultural and societal factors in play. Video games have moved from niche to mainstream; the number of gamers is estimated to be in the billions (including two-thirds of all Americans), and a significant amount of them are women. According to MarketWatch, as an industry, video games rake in more money than the movie and music industries put together. Clearly, they are a big part of culture. Also, the pandemic caused many people to turn to new ways to digitally connect, and video games were a big part of that.
CRYPTOCURRENCIES AND THE METAVERSE
The metaverse intersects with the world of cryptocurrencies, where it is sometimes referred to as Web3 (i.e., the blockchain-based web). Gaming platforms such as Roblox and games such as Fortnite are examples of traditional virtual worlds, while the Decentraland platform and The Sandbox game are examples of fully decentralized virtual worlds. There are two main ideas in this area: blockchain-based digital property rights and users getting a share of the profits because of their contributions. Decentralized virtual worlds don’t need a VR device, while the mainstream metaverse requires an AR or VR headset.
Large economies exist around gaming platforms, and users pay real money to buy in-game items. Any such virtual goods are meant for use in a specific game or on a particular platform. By using the blockchain to record ownership and to manage the property rights associated with digital items (and by making them portable across platforms), digital goods can be traded among enthusiasts, and their value may increase over time. Digital goods in the metaverse are envisioned as non-fungible tokens (NFTs)—i.e., unique digital items. Web3 advocates contend that highly centralized tech platforms (e.g., social media networks) garner all of the gains of user contributions (i.e., user-generated content). Decentralized platforms have their own cryptocurrency tokens, which can be distributed to the community of users to reward them for their contributions and can be sold to others.
THE NEXT-GEN INTERNET
For both businesses and consumers, the metaverse holds promise and appeal. It’s not surprising, then, that it’s viewed as the next-gen internet. But there’s also the risk that we’ll end up with a metaverse that inherits the worst parts of today’s online platforms. For a detailed list of my concerns, see my AI Ethicist column from the April 2022 issue, “The Metaverse: Real Concerns About Virtual Worlds.” Here are a few of them to keep in mind:
- Games can be very addictive. Many of them are designed to exploit our behavioral patterns and keep us hooked.
- Online spaces and conversations can be toxic. Existing guardrails (such as content moderation tools) are struggling to cope and will be overwhelmed with new interaction modes in virtual worlds.
- AI technologies power many of the metaverse’s building blocks. Several AI limitations (such as reduced accuracy for certain demographic groups) will carry over to the metaverse.
- Spending more time in VR can lead users to disconnect with their immediate physical world. As users—particularly impressionable children—immerse themselves in virtual experiences more and more, they disengage from real-world interactions. What is the consequence of this?
- Rich, immersive experiences of the type contemplated require powerful computing devices (high-end smartphones, desktops, headsets, etc.) and network bandwidth. Will the metaverse paradoxically increase digital exclusion?