Imagine you are confined to your home and bored out of your wits. This shouldn’t be too difficult to imagine given the immobilising ennui that we’ve experienced over the past two years. The scorching heat of Arabian summertime is not making matters better. You would like nothing more than to hang out with your best friends and no, zoom calls are not quite cutting it anymore.
What if you could physically spend time with your crew in a virtual space in a real, 3-dimensional, embodied fashion! Exciting, no? With the metaverse, you can accomplish all of this and much more. If it sounds suspiciously similar to the multiverse—what physicists have propounded as alternate dimensions—you are not wrong. The metaverse is precisely like a parallel reality, a planet of sorts, if you will, created by you, for you. Yes, it is the internet of the future! But what is the metaverse when we cut through all the marketing hype and buzz? Let’s find out.
What is the metaverse?
Quite the rage these days, the metaverse is a network of 3D virtual worlds that focuses on social connection. It is a simulated digital environment that uses augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and blockchain. Neal Stephenson coined the term in 1992. He used it for the first time in his novel Snow Crash which depicted a dystopian future set in the 2000s.
In the metaverse, people would be able to create their own avatars. These avatars would interact with each other using a multitude of tools. Though the exact manifestation has not yet been developed, the metaverse is already used in some inchoate forms, especially in gaming. For example, in the online shooter game Fortnite, users have personalised avatars as well as a chance to earn virtual currency. The game Second Life provides users with a virtual place to carry on their daily lives as they would in the physical world. Users can also create avatar pets, host parties, go shopping, get married, and even float in space. Various platforms such as Decrentraland, Axie Infinity, Horizon, Sandbox, and Roblox also offer intriguing options for those seeking sensory stimulation in a 3D environment.
While naysayers dismiss it as nothing more than the latest fad, supporters of the metaverse widely believe that it is here to stay. Though it is not a new technology per se, the metaverse marries existing cutting-edge technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality. The result is an immersive, experiential space for netizens not just to work and play, but also to make money—more on ‘how’ in a bit.
AR, VR, future, or more?
The metaverse’s value lies in the fact that it appears to be the natural evolution of the Internet of Things. Already the juggernauts of tech like Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook (now Meta) are scrambling to invest in the metaverse. Microsoft and Meta spent $70 billion and $10 billion, respectively, acquiring and developing technology related to AR and VR. Furthermore, many believe Facebook’s decision to change its name to Meta is a sign of things to come. Pegged to become an $800 billion market by 2024, the metaverse may take the world by storm—in more ways than we know.
VR headsets, massive cyborg-like goggles, and other rather clunky tools (that appear dorky or snazzy) are generally necessary for accessing the metaverse. However, according to matter expert Matthew Ball, people can also use smartphones and tablets to enter the metaverse. In its present state, these people can only be passive observers and not active, experiencing individuals.
Monetising the metaverse
While this is all good and dandy, you may be wondering what else you can do. It is now well known that blockchain technology was in existence long before cryptocurrency came to the fore. With the boom of cryptocurrencies like BitCoin and Ethereum a few years ago, blockchain also earned its place as the current rage. Similarly, thanks to non-fungible token (NFT) monetisation, the metaverse has also ‘arrived’. In the metaverse, one can buy a piece of land in the virtual world, which would act as an NFT. The owner can then sell this, much like in the real world. It is also possible to buy other objects and re-sell them. Platforms like Decentraland and Sandbox have their own native digital currency, MANA and SAND, respectively, built on the Ethereum blockchain. As the metaverse grows in popularity, more people are venturing into this metaverse crypto market that is still relatively young. Thus, the metaverse is all set to replicate real life—be it with financial, emotional, or social matters.
Could the metaverse be dangerous?
That said, we must not ignore the inevitability of misuse and abuse that follows the arrival of new technology. Already, the world is tackling the ills of social networks, data stealing, privacy-violating algorithms, and misinformation campaigns exacerbated by deepfakes. Unfortunately, hate speech, harassment, cyberstalking, and post-truth-ism are all inseparable parts of the advance in the Internet of Things. Though the metaverse is still emerging, it is only bound to aggravate human dependence on social media and virtual lives.
A great deal of research shows that people are increasingly hiding behind anonymity and withdrawing from real-life interactions. There were already moral issues in play when Nina Jane Patel’s story of being sexually assaulted by avatars made headlines. Additionally, there were reports that Meta was aware that virtual reality could be a “toxic environment”, especially for women and minorities. The work of trying to combat harassment in cyberspace is already underway. Innovative solutions to cope with trauma caused by the metaverse can only evolve with the technology itself.
Where do you start?
For those convinced that the metaverse is the place to be, despite certain evils it will leave in its wake, here’s how to enter this hyperreality. While no single conduit exists, you can experience virtual reality, augmented reality, and extended reality via multiple platforms and applications. Depending on one’s budget, one can use various tools to access the metaverse, such as the Oculus Quest headset, Google Cardboard, Valve Index VR, etc. Additionally, Facebook, Apple, and Snapchat will soon launch devices like headsets and spectacles to initiate their patrons onto the metaverse journey.
Being cautiously optimistic about the metaverse
While it is essential to acknowledge all the brilliant and exciting new ventures that the metaverse can make possible, many of them might take years to manifest. It might also be wise for humankind to maintain a healthy scepticism about this shiny, new thing that is suddenly a part of our reality—virtual and otherwise.