Was the metaverse a thing before Facebook became Meta? What on earth is the metaverse – or is it something out of this earth? We’re here to break it down for you in simpler terms.
Unless you’re an avid gamer or in the FinTech sector, chances are you wouldn’t have heard of the term “metaverse” until it hit the headlines last year, with tech giant Facebook changing its name to Meta. Along with the global rise of cryptocurrency and virtual banks, there’s no better time for us to learn more about the virtual reality world. Does the metaverse appear far-fetched, or even dystopian to you? Read on to understand how this seemingly futuristic technology is already affecting our present lives, and how it’ll continue doing so for years to come.
Metaverse 101: Your guide to the metaverse
What is the metaverse?
The metaverse is a virtual space that enables users to carry out activities similar to their real daily lives, but without any geographical boundaries. “The metaverse is often described as the future of the internet,” says James Lindsay, Director of Business Development at Q9 Capital. “Using new technologies such as VR, AR, and blockchain, the metaverse is shaping people’s online social interactions, and its core value is to build values around users rather than platforms.”
And here’s a little history lesson: the term “metaverse” was first coined by Neal Stephenson in his dystopian novel, Snow Crash, where he described a virtual reality world with real-life elements, such as where real estate could be bought and sold. There would also be virtual reality goggles that produced a sense of actual presence for an individual within that environment.
The concept of metaverse has inspired films, games, and other works in our pop culture, such as The Matrix (1999), Second Life (2003), PlayStation Home (2008), Avatar (2009), Ready Player One (2018), among others. These examples depict an early metaverse which offers us an insight into what could potentially be our reality in the future – one where we’ll be able to experience our real lives, virtually.
Where can we find, or use, the metaverse?
The two best known Metaverses nowadays are Decentraland and Sandbox. The former allows users to purchase digital land and create a “home” for themselves with avatars “living” in cities; whereas the latter enables users to create and possess their own NFTs. Since people are always seeking ways to express themselves in the real world, many businesses are also looking to address that need in the metaverse. One such example is neuno’s recent collaboration with Diesel, in which avatars can use their digital wearable NFTs in the metaverse and, quite literally, wear the shoes in the virtual world. “We want people to express themselves through fashion and build their identity in the metaverse,” explains Ashwin Mahtani of neuno. “That’s why we are bringing the real-life world into the metaverse through luxury fashion brands.”
Currently, there are closer analogues to the metaverse than we think, as virtual reality experiences have already cemented their place in our world. For those who enjoy online gaming, Roblox, Fortnite, and Minecraft all mimic a virtual reality world, where users select their avatars, connect socially with others, and co-exist in the digital environment. Even big brands like Gucci, Ralph Lauren, Nike, and Vans have all opened virtual spaces on Roblox! In a similar vein, artists have begun to connect with their fans through VR concerts. This was seen in Travis Scott and Marshmello’s concert inside Fortnite and Justin Bieber’s meta-universe concert through Wave.
One of the other Big Five companies, Microsoft, has also created its own metaverse – Mesh. Using holoportation, users will be able to step into the virtual world through holographic projections of their custom avatars. While Mesh focuses more on virtual environments and workplace collaboration, Mesh for Teams has also been launched to allow companies to experience a virtual, 3-D working environment.
Facebook and the metaverse
On 28 October 2021, Facebook unveiled itself as Meta to “reflect its focus on building the metaverse.” In a 77-minute video, CEO Mark Zuckerberg offered us a glimpse of Metaverse, which will work towards breaking the barrier between our reality and devices, while emphasising on a “natural presence” no matter where you are. He also discussed how avatars would be used in all our daily activities as the 3-D representations of ourselves. As for moving between places or “teleporting” within Metaverse, there needs to be interoperability – the ability of systems or software to exchange and process data – and this can be done using physical goods, such as a VR headset and any wearable gadget.
In regard to Facebook’s rebranding, James observes that Meta is now pivoting its business model to claim market share. “Meta users may stick with what will likely be a closed ecosystem, or jump ship to other metaverse-native dApps [decentralised applications] that promises to create an open digital universe, involving cross-platform interoperability.” What would you choose?
The dark side of the metaverse
While the metaverse seems all very exciting, it brings about a cascade of challenges that need to be addressed, much like any piece of technology. Because the metaverse is not (yet) regulated, it may enable users to conduct criminal or abusive actions that would equate to breaking the law in the real world. For instance, should the law criminalise a simulated sexual act between the avatar of an adult and that of a child? Similarly, if one avatar assaults or rapes another, would there be legal repercussions? Is the metaverse at risk of becoming a platform that enables predators to carry out their dark fantasies online, without any consequences?
Another aspect that must be considered is our data and personal privacy. When creating avatars in the metaverse, our facial expressions and gestures will be used for processing. How will this information be used? For what purposes? And by whom? Our current data protection laws, The Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, need to be amended to govern the metaverse and prevent data breaches. Furthermore, intellectual property laws are relevant to the metaverse, too. Should digital assets qualify as “goods” under trademark laws? What happens if the identity of the infringer is unclear?
While these issues are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creating the metaverse, its development is certainly exciting, and it has already impacted human interaction and our connection to the real world. So, fasten your seatbelts as companies continue to innovate and explore the metaverse. See you on the other side!