What is The Metaverse? For Dummies (And Basically Everyone Else)
- What is the Metaverse?
- The Metaverse is Many Things, But It Isn’t a “Virtual World”
- Creating the Metaverse – Who’s Doing It and Who’s Going To Own It
- Who’s Building the Metaverse?
- Who Will Run or Own the Metaverse?
- Potential Negative Implications of the Metaverse
- Don’t Worry, The Metaverse Has Positive Implications Too
- Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Metaverse?
Let’s jump right in! If you’ve heard the term metaverse being thrown around a little more casually lately, it’s because this once hypothetical version of the internet isn’t just for techies and silicon valley anymore, it’s becoming a very real possibility for the future of the internet.
But what is the metaverse, actually? Simply put, the metaverse is a continuation of the internet as we know it today, into a fully immersive and interactive experience. If you ever played the game The Sims as a kid – think of the metaverse as its cousin…on steroids. In the metaverse, you aren’t just controlling a digital avatar, you’re able to fully immerse yourself in all the internet has to offer as the digital avatar that you’ve created. Imagine being able to watch your favourite football team play from any angle in virtual reality, or feel like you’re in front row at a concert without having to leave your living room. With a little help from virtual reality (VR) headsets, the metaverse is a whole new level of interactivity with the digital world. Let’s just say, we’re lightyears from the red and blue 3D glasses phase.
The Metaverse is Many Things, But It Isn’t a “Virtual World”
The Metaverse is a grand concept even to those who have been involved in its development from the beginning. Where many people get confused is that the Metaverse is often seen as a separate virtual world (as you would see in gaming). We use the term “virtual world” for a simple lack of a better descriptor. Instead, think of it as a continuation of this world – the next step of our existence in digital format. It won’t be a game that we can simply turn off at the end of the day. It would be a breathing, ever-growing continuation of our current experience.
Creating the Metaverse – Who’s Doing It and Who’s Going To Own It
Developing the Metaverse can be described as one thing – a truly Herculean task. This type of technology will be so broadly applicable that many companies will spend countless time and money in creating platforms, services, content and an incomprehensible number of innovations to see this dream come to life. Is it impossible? Absolutely not.
This may seem all too sci-fi inspired, but the fact is that there are already platforms acting as proof of concept for the future Metaverse. Fortnite – the free-to-play battle royal game – is a prime example.
In Fortnite’s gaming world, there have been a host of completely virtual concerts with headliners like Ariana Grande and Marshmello. Brands like Gucci have even hosted virtual exhibitions on the Roblox platform, wherein visitors’ mannequins (avatars) took on pieces of their environment as they explored the digital realm, emerging as totally unique pieces of art. While these experiences are limited in comparison to the potential of the Metaverse, they act as pretty solid indicators of what could come.
Now, with blockchain technology, the possibilities can be taken even further with the capability of purchasing verifiable digital assets called non-fungible tokens (NFTs). What does this mean for you, the user? It’s not unlikely that people will be able to participate in a 100% virtual realm where the purchase of digital land and other creature comforts will be totally possible. Gucci – one of the first luxury brands to identify the Metaverse’s potential – has even released the very first virtual sneaker, which of course, can only be worn digitally.
Who’s Building the Metaverse?
While some have questioned the viability and infrastructure required to manufacture a Metaverse, it’s looking like this is quickly becoming the next step in internet history, especially since Mark Zuckerberg has bet his company on it. You might have already seen the news (or a few thousand memes), but in case you missed it – Facebook has transformed into Meta “the next evolution of social connection”. Zuckerberg’s vision for the future of this platform is a world wherein people can not only socialize, but learn, exercise, work, and play in an immersive virtual environment.
Seemingly, it’ll be as easy as popping on your VR goggles to join your coworkers around a virtual table for your next meeting. But, is the Metaverse really a world of potential and wonder? Or is it simply a distraction from the fraud, manipulations, catfishing, and cyber-bullying currently taking place on social platforms? Only time will tell.
Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the only one with skin in the game, however. The Metaverse has been a conversational strong point among the world’s leading techies for some time now. Other players include companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Epic Games, Tencent and Unity to name a few.
Who Will Run or Own the Metaverse?
While Facebook’s recent transition to Meta has held the media’s attention as of late, the actual success of the Metaverse relies heavily on the ability to stay decentralized. Meaning, that there should be no single owner, but instead a series of contributors that develop and shape how the Metaverse is used, i.e. what Google is for the internet we know today.
Potential Negative Implications of the Metaverse
Any technology with unfathomable capabilities like the Metaverse would provide does come with risks (not surprisingly). Speculations have already begun to fly, and there’s no telling what the actual impact of the Metaverse could be for our future. From human health to massive invasions of privacy, there’s no telling where the new line will be drawn for the new age of the internet, so here are a few things to consider:
- Human Health – Will spending more time online really be the best thing for the human species as a whole? How will this impact our physical fitness, mental health, and ability to interact with others?
- Privacy – With so many issues coming into question regarding the privacy of personal information, more time online poses a real threat in multiple fields including healthcare, economics, and politics.
- Human Behaviour – It has already been shown that online interactions can impact human behavior and decision making. Being that the Metaverse involves interacting with a digital world through an avatar of your own making, could this play a reverse role in behaviours outside of the digital realm?
With any tech this revolutionary, it’s good to be a little skeptical. We’re talking about a world where people can live, work, shop, and learn all without having to leave their bedrooms…and is that really a good thing? If the Metaverse does end up taking off with the ferocity that big players like Zuckerberg are praying for, as a population we need to understand the possible implications. Namely, that we could very well become real-life versions of the lazy, blob-like people of Wall-E…So out of shape that we’re physically incapable of existing outside of technology because, why move if the world’s at your fingertips, right?
Of course, this is extreme, but the not-so-zenith truth is that people will inevitably begin neglecting real-world needs in favour of a digital escape. Those who fail to thrive in real-world scenarios and working environments will likely favour the digital universe they’ve been able to create for themselves, but to what end? We don’t exactly know. We’ve already seen the impact of the digital revolution on people’s mental health including jealousy, increased anxiety and depression, lesser well-being, and full-on delusion, so how in the world could we expect anything different from a fully immersive version of it?
If you think otherwise, now is the perfect time to refer to any one of the many infamous TikTok challenges that have resulted in serious injury. Like when people were pouring boiling water onto others, lighting themselves on fire, purposely overdosing on Benadryl, filing their teeth…unfortunately, the list goes on. And for what? A little online clout. Now, if people are willing to do these kinds of things for a viral video, imagine the amount of carelessness to come in an ever-so-volatile virtual world where consequences are unimportant in comparison to how many followers you’ll gain.
Aside from human health and wellbeing, privacy is another major area of concern. Think about the amount of information being collected online while users spend an hour or two a day scrolling through online media and switching between apps. Now, picture the incomprehensible amount of information that could be collected as the world begins to move in an even more virtual direction.
A few hours of data per day becomes a lifetime of information (with a sky-high price tag to boot). Companies like Facebook have already landed themselves in hot water when it comes to the use of personal information. With the potential that the Metaverse holds for providing a never-ending pit of data, we can expect to see our daily routines packaged, repurposed and sold to the highest bidder for who knows what kind of manipulation. From total market control to public policy, the red flags are flying people!
Behaviour & Human Interaction
It’s to be expected that our online consumer behaviours will be monitored and exploited (because they already are), but what we haven’t quite gained a full understanding of is the reverse – how our online activity will affect our behaviours back. Researchers at Stanford University have already touched on this, and their study is seemingly more relevant now than ever before. It’s called the Proteus effect, and this theory describes that virtual environments wherein we have increased control over our online appearance (our avatar) can actually affect our real-world behaviour. Because an online avatar is the sole depiction of you, as a person online, it is suspected that “users in online environments may conform to the expectations and stereotypes of the identity of their avatars. Or more precisely, in line with self-perception theory, they conform to the behaviour that they believe others would expect them to have”. Without getting too philosophical, basically, the research has shown that people tend to follow through with actions that they believe are in line with the virtual representation of themselves, even if it conflicts with their true personality.
The perfect example of this is catfishing – where a person assumes an online persona in a deceptive way for social or financial gain. A lonely woman lacking self-confidence may never approach an attractive man at a bar. But, when she creates a profile online with images of another woman that exudes beauty and confidence, she may have no problem jumping into an online chat with all the flirtation and forwardness she wishes she had in real life. Now, if at some point we are in fact exposed to the Metaverse to the extent of some current predictions, the potential of major issues in the self-identification department is extremely likely.
Don’t Worry, The Metaverse Has Positive Implications Too
Of course, the implications of the Metaverse aren’t all bad. The truth is, with technology like this on the immediate horizon we have no idea of the potential positive impacts it may have in the long run. Some areas that would likely be affected are:
- Human Health – Could digital interactivity be the answer for those who find in-person interactions overwhelming? The Metaverse could be a means of creating a better quality of life for certain individuals.
- Business – The Metaverse means providing an entirely new dimension for engagement, marketing, and how to conduct business.
- Education – Is the Metaverse a potential solution for holding attention and providing a more interactive learning environment?
- Medicine – From medical training to surgical planning, the Metaverse could become an entirely new wave of medical practice.
Frankly, it’s easier to see the negative effects on human health due to the Metaverse because they’re in our headlines every day. Mental health, dissociation, and isolation have been hot issues for a while now, but for some the virtual possibilities could make everyday life much more enjoyable. Imagine the elderly or an extremely ill person who would be otherwise segregated from society being able to visit their friends and family, go shopping, or visit another “part of the world” without having to be physically capable of travelling, driving, or even leaving their bed.
While non-movement is a considerable concern, there is also a vast number of people who would never step foot into a gym or athletic centre because of a general lack of confidence and/or fear of judgement. In the Metaverse, they could participate in real physical activity without having to view themselves, or anyone else through virtual fitness programs (not unlike those that Wii has previously released). Now, this does absolutely nothing to resolve society’s troubling issues with body image, but it could be the opportunity that some people need to give fitness a go.
For the easily overwhelmed, self-proclaimed introverts, and socially anxious alike, a virtual world may provide a unique way of coping with an otherwise unbearable world. Those with more severe cases of anxiety could potentially find a happy middle ground where they could participate in meetings, online learning, and other social activities without having to deal with face-to-face interaction. Again, this doesn’t resolve the underlying issue but does provide a creative partial resolution.
One of the largest impacts by far of the Metaverse will be in the business sector. Despite the very alarming potential of market manipulation, the Metaverse will become a place wherein virtual storefronts are the norm and new types of engagement opportunities are endless. Even from a customer service perspective, the future of this online world may have you sitting “face-to-face” with virtual representatives that would otherwise just become a voice on the other end of a phone or a chatbox on your screen. In the long run, it could humanize the rather disconnected world of online inquiries and support while providing customer service at an entirely new level.
As many businesses have seen over the past couple of years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, work-from-home situations suit a significant portion of the population. In the coming years, businesses will likely be faced with challenges in maintaining hybrid workspaces, and the Metaverse could provide an incredible opportunity here too. Being able to “sit-in” on a virtual meeting that looks and sounds as though you’re in live attendance could be the ticket to keeping workers engaged. Combine this with the creative capabilities of 3-dimensional presentations and you’ve got a whole show that’s sure to catch some eyes! After all, there’s only so much you can do to hold the attention of others from a tiny box on a shared screen.
Attention-grabbing and immersive presentations aren’t only applicable to the workforce either. There are obvious possibilities in the world of online learning (and education in general). Nobody knows more than a 2020 parent just how difficult it is to get a 10-year-old to listen to a Zoom call all day. In this case, the Metaverse could provide fully interactive lessons where students could paint, build, create, and even sit in a virtual classroom in front of a virtual teacher. At some point, we may even see certain skills being developed totally virtually – for example, who’s to say we won’t see virtual frogs in biology class someday?
While the medical implications of Metaverse tech are far-reaching and difficult to comprehend at this point, there is one glaringly obvious application. While likely years down the road, it could be used to provide medical training and preparation in the virtual sense. Medical students could walk into a virtual emergency response scenario and have to treat “patients” with the same decisiveness and precision that they would encounter in real life. Surgeons could replicate complex surgical procedures to practice and plan, and physical rehabilitation could become a fun and engaging experience where patients feel like they’re playing a game instead of simply trying to lift their right hand above their heads. It’s difficult to determine just how far the Metaverse could go, but there’s no denying that there is an entire world’s worth of possibilities.
To some, the Metaverse seems like a world of wonder and limitless possibilities. A world where tech moguls, blue-collar workers, parents, and teens alike can build, explore, learn, and create. To others, the Metaverse seems like an all too real version of an episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror. If you’re still confused on what the heck the Metaverse is, take a page out of Shaan Puri’s book – his right-to-the-point Tweets hit the nail on the head.
It’s truly difficult to say what will happen to the world at large if the Metaverse comes to actualization, and what that means for business, health, socialization, politics…you name it. The one thing that everyone can agree on, however, is that the world will never be the same.