How real is the metaverse?

As virtual and augmented reality technology advances, people are beginning to see and explore the possibilities of the metaverse. However, the term “metaverse” may still be unclear to many, and unsure exactly what it is. We look to explore the metaverse, where it began, how it’s used today, and what the future looks like with us in it.

What is the metaverse, and where did it begin?

The term metaverse was first coined by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel, Snow Crash. It has also been depicted by Ernest Cline in his science fiction novel, Ready Player One, in 2011. Both refer to the metaverse as a futuristic internet-based virtual reality world where people can interact with each other and play games as computer-generated avatars in a lifelike environment. Virtual and augmented reality has been an evolving phenomena in our society for many years. Using its depiction from these science fiction novels, the metaverse aims to take this to an expanded level.

On the 28th of October, 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would change its name to ‘Meta’ and outlined his intentions to bring the metaverse to life. Since then, there has been little movement on its development, and speculation has circulated on what exactly the metaverse will look like, and how far it will go. The mysticism around it has led to many misconceptions. The metaverse, in its essence, aims to create an online virtual world which incorporates augmented reality, virtual reality, 3D holographic avatars, video and other means of communication. As the metaverse grows and its accessibility widens, it will offer a hyper-real alternative world for people to explore on their own, or to meet with others, virtually. This could be through concerts, conferences, or seeing places around the world.

How is the metaverse used today?

The metaverse from Meta is still in its infancy stage of development and details of its released format are still scarce. However, several technology companies are working on bringing their own metaverse, or certain aspects of it, to life. Companies such as Microsoft, Nvidia, Unity, Snap, and Roblox are creating infrastructure around virtual worlds and delivering “virtual assets” that will allow people to engage with each other whilst purchasing products and services. Microsoft, for instance, recently announced the acquisition of Activision Blizzard, the makers of multiplayer online games, including World of Warcraft, for a record-breaking $69 billion, indicating that its own version of the metaverse could be centred around gaming.

While the metaverse itself is still unreleased, there are virtual reality worlds that currently exist across different industries. Virtual Reality software from Oculus Quest (from Meta), Sony Playstation VR, HTC Vive allow people to play games, attend concerts, meet with coworkers, and even learn how to perform surgery. However, as immersing as these experiences are, the metaverse aims to create an all-encompassing platform, rather than the singular focus that current technologies provide.

What do critics say about the metaverse?

The Pros of the metaverse:

  • Innovation of communication

As far back as 30 years ago, if you wanted to talk to someone overseas or in another country, you were encountering long-distance bills or having to send a telegraph through a wiring service. Since then, communication has evolved with the advancement of phones, and the introduction of email, social media, and video games. The metaverse has the potential to bring people even closer together within a digital proximity. Platforms such as Zoom or FaceTime allow us to see each other face-to-face, but feeling as though you are physically standing next to someone could open up an entirely new world of digital relationships, co-working, and engagements.

  • New opportunities for business

With the development of the metaverse ongoing, it has opened up many job opportunities across different sectors. Meta has begun hiring for new engineers, developers, and designers to bring aspects of the metaverse to life, generating an exciting new stream of opportunities for people in the wake of covid.

If the metaverse truly creates a new world for people to spend time in, the platform will provide new business opportunities, jobs, and streams of revenue for people all over the world. Product placement, digital services plus goods, and new ways to provide customer service are all avenues that could be explored to create new business opportunities.

  • Overcoming obstacles

The metaverse will likely provide new opportunities for those with disabilities to engage in immersive and interactive experiences. Whilst there has been no official wording on this, Meta already has a great accessibility team in place, and the development of a captioning system for the deaf, and seamless audio description for the visually impaired can make the metaverse an experience for all.

The Cons of the metaverse:

  • Accessibility and Cost

Currently, to experience VR or AR in its more developed form, people need to have access to additional equipment such as goggles or headsets. These are expensive pieces of technology that also require the internet to use. For an Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset, the current price is £300. Any metaverse will likely also require hardware purchases and possibly even monthly or annual payments for the programming needs to be used in conjunction with the hardware. This raises issues of its accessibility to a wider audience and whether the experience is worth the cost, deterring potential users. 

  • Privacy and Security

As we have experienced with our social media platforms over the last few years, our data and information are in the hands of corporations and businesses that we perhaps didn’t know about. With the metaverse, we must be wary of what data is being used and shared unless regulations are put into place to protect our privacy and security. 

  • It could blur the lines of reality

If you ask anyone who has walked across a virtual reality high beam if they were scared for their lives, you will likely be met with a lot of nodding heads. As more devices and graphics are developed to make the metaverse feel even more real, the lines could begin to blur as to what is real and what is not. There may come a day when the virtual world and the real world are entirely discernible, leading to ethical dilemmas and existential crises. Anti-social behaviours in the metaverse that are ungoverned could also feed into the real world, such as violence on graphic video games.

What is the future of the metaverse?

The metaverse is a fascinating phenomenon with many unknowns as to what it will look like and what it will be capable of. The development of technology to create a whole ‘virtual world’ is an exciting concept opening up many possibilities for businesses and users. The opportunity to initiate new ways of connecting with people and creating exciting experiences opening up new possibilities for our work and social life certainly feels like the next step of communication innovation. However, its availability, particularly cost, raises questions as to how widespread it will become. As the platform develops, key issues around accessibility and morality must be addressed to make sure it is suitable for all, and doesn’t promote anti-social behaviours. The metaverse has an opportunity to achieve the next step of technological innovation, so long as it is harnessed correctly.