What is Metaverse? – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

The race between technology companies to build the ‘metaverse’ has officially started. On October 28, 2021, Facebook Inc. announced that it was restructuring and assuming the corporate name, Meta Platforms Inc.

Technology industry is envisioning Metaverse as the successor to today’s internet where people shall be able to do anything like go shopping, study, attend meetings etc.

Let’s take a look at various other aspects of this burning topic.

What is “Metaverse”?

It is a network of always-on virtual environments in which many people can interact with one another and digital objects through virtual representations of themselves.

The term may also refer to digital spaces which are made more lifelike by the use of virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR).

There is also a specific type of metaverse which uses blockchain technology. In these, users can buy virtual land and other digital assets using cryptocurrencies.

What are the key aspects of a Metaverse?

There are three key aspects of a metaverse:

– Presence is the feeling of actually being in a virtual space, with virtual others. This sense of presence is achieved through virtual reality (VR) technologies such as head-mounted displays. It improves the quality of online interactions.

– Interoperability means being able to seamlessly travel between virtual spaces with the same virtual assets. That is, one virtual representation created, can be used in different virtual worlds.

– Standardization- These are common technological standards that are essential for widespread adoption. This enables interoperability of platforms and services across the metaverse.

International organizations such as the “Open Metaverse Interoperability Group” define these standards.

Sci-fi novelist Neal Stephenson coined the term in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash” to describe the virtual world in which the protagonist, Hiro Protagonist, socializes, shops and vanquishes real-world enemies through his avatar. The concept predates “Snow Crash” and was popularized as “cyberspace” in William Gibson’s groundbreaking 1984 novel “Neuromancer.”
Why there’s an increased interest in Metaverse?

A decentralised Web: Web 3.0 is the name given to the next generation of Internet architecture. It will be free from the centralisation that is a part of today’s Web 2.0 Internet systems, which are largely controlled by tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. Web 3.0 will entail the use of technologies such as blockchains and tokens to create a decentralised Internet for online interaction and online payments.

A hypothetical metaverse run on these platforms could be a good example of what an ideal future digital environment could look like.

‘Creator economy’ will become a reality in the metaverse thanks to the popularity of NFTs (non-fungible tokens). NFTs will allow proof of ownership of digital assets, for example, virtual goods, paintings and memorabilia.

Multidimensional interactions: Moreover, at the moment, people interact with each other online by going to websites such as social media platforms or using messaging applications. The idea of the metaverse is that it will create new online spaces in which people’s interactions can be more multi-dimensional.

The pandemic effect: The accelerated interest in the metaverse can be seen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As more people have started working and going to school remotely, there has been increased demand for ways to make online interaction more lifelike.

Hence the push for an ‘Open Metaverse’ by some organisations.

What are some issues/concerns associated with Metaverse?

Psychological effects: Virtual economies might also develop around the customisation of metaverse ‘avatars’. Metaverse ‘avatars’ may become the new version of showing off glamorous social media profiles — hiding who the person really is behind-the-scenes and perpetuate narcissism, causing mental health issues and insecurities. Some experts believe that people might even begin to prefer virtual interactions while ignoring their real world needs.

Privacy and security concerns: Rampant health and biometric data collection are expected to continue in the metaverse, as real world identities will be more connected to the system than ever before. Data breaches and theft, thus, could prove even costlier. Cybercrimes could also take on new forms in these new virtual worlds.

Lack of self-moderation: Facebook’s role in promoting violent and hateful content to drive user engagement has been well documented. If left unregulated, something similar could happen on an even larger scale in immersive virtual worlds, through targeted advertising and propaganda. The corporation cannot be trusted to moderate its platforms properly if it goes against their economic incentives, as has been proven time and time again.

Emergence of virtual nation-states: Metaverses will bring up challenging questions of jurisdiction and governance. In the distant future, virtual worlds could someday grow into alternatives to the nation state itself. Big Tech firms already have revenues and valuations higher than GDPs of several small countries. If they all get to operate full virtual worlds of their own, it could require a large-scale rethinking of the very foundations of technology law.

Cost to the environment: The metaverse, as it is promised, will combine the technologies of cloud computing, big data, advanced AI systems, AR/VR, blockchains, NFTs and much more. Each of these technologies requires tremendous processing power and, consequently, would lead to a great cost in terms of the environment. The level of resource extraction required to run such a huge system smoothly is too gigantic to comprehend. And that is not even taking into account the exploitation of millions of underpaid workers upon which a lot of the critical infrastructure and supply chains of Big Tech depend.

Commodification of human interaction: Metaverse indicates the next level of commodification of human interaction, where every single action, down to the tiniest levels, is tracked and surveilled for profits, and designed in a way to maximise data collection.

Lack of awareness: At present, people do not know much about the concept of Metaverse. In this light, Facebook’s chosen name – Meta, can make millions of people believe that only one corporation is working towards the idea of a metaverse, which is not the case.

Emergence of oligopolies and monopolies: In response to Facebook’s latest move, competitors are likely to emerge with their own versions of the technology, leading to a number of ‘Closed’ metaverses, which would basically be the Web 2.0 system all over again. Oligopolies or monopolies in something as revolutionary as the metaverse space is a cause for concern.

What is the way forward?

Regulators need to step in right from the start when it comes to the metaverse, following a precautionary rather than a permissive approach. Problematic practices cannot be allowed to become a norm. This will make it difficult to deal with them later on.

Stringent data policies: Virtual Reality (VR) data is biometric, and all personal and behavioral characteristics of the people will be recorded and harvested, making them susceptible to cyber-crimes. Hence, there is need to place stringent data policies to keep their users safe.

Conclusion

Metaverses have great potential to revolutionise fields such as education and health care, but as long as they are run purely from a profit motive, the benefits would likely be lesser.

With the metaverse, possibilities are plenty. But so are the dangers.

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