Much like the Big Bang set off the birth of the universe as we know it today with an explosive expansion 13.7 billion years ago, a big bang of cataclysmic proportions was set off in the technological and digital space on 28 October 2021 when Co-Founder and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company was to shift gear with the changing of its name to ‘Meta’, to drive home its vision of helping to ‘bring the metaverse to life’ (Meta, 2021).
Did Zuckerberg’s announcement mark the birth of the metaverse? Not by a long shot. Contrary to popular belief, the existence of the metaverse as a concept predates the tech mogul’s announcement which only served to launch it into the mainstream, igniting a wave of conversations and dialog between people curious to know, ‘What really is the metaverse, anyway?’, ‘How will the metaverse change the way we interact online?’, ‘How do you access the metaverse?’, among a whole host of other questions.
Well, fear not. We’re here to answer all these questions and more as we help navigate through the murky waters of this new digital frontier.
What is the Metaverse?
A concept given literary life by Neal Stephenson’s 1992 dystopian sci-fi novel titled Snow Crash (Stephenson, 1992), the metaverse has been hailed as the arrival of the internet in its evolutionary form, Web 3.0. The metaverse, although not fully formed or even conceptualized, marks a new age of the internet which tech giants and proponents of today say will change the way in which we work, what we buy, how we make the purchase, how we socialize and interact, and more.
Matthew Ball, former global Head of Strategy for Amazon Studios and an expert on the emergence of the metaverse, offers a comprehensive and technical description of what the metaverse is and how it will take shape: ‘The metaverse is a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments’ (Ball, Framework for the Metaverse, 2021).
Essentially, the metaverse - now in its teething stages - is described as a virtual world which runs parallel to the physical world, allowing 3D virtual human interactions which transcend space and time, and is accessible through Virtual Reality (VR) or Augmented Reality (AR) devices (Burrows, 2022).
Why do we Need the Metaverse?
Having witnessed just how technology was able to swoop in and fill up the gaping chasms of social interactions left by the meteoric rise of the COVID pandemic, the answer to the question, ‘Why do we need the metaverse?’, is an obvious, ‘Why not?’.
Mark Zuckerberg, addressing the world in the 2021 keynote speech, maps out 8 defining concepts that Meta’s metaverse based social media platform, Horizon seeks to deliver in the next 5 – 10 years. They are:
- Home Space
- Privacy and Safety
- Virtual Goods
- Natural Interfaces (Meta, 2021)
In explaining the rise and relevance of this new iteration of the internet, Zuckerberg focuses on how the metaverse will be able to provide users with a sense of presence that transcends space and time.
Zuckerberg says, ‘The feeling of presence: This is the defining quality of the metaverse. You’re going to really feel like you’re there with other people. You’ll see their facial expressions, you’ll see their body language, maybe figure out if they’re actually holding a winning hand. All the subtle ways we communicate that today’s technology can’t quite deliver’ (Meta, 2021).
So, in essence, the metaverse is more than just about technological evolution, it’s about making people feel closer to their friends and family, who may be oceans apart, living in different cities, or just not able to be there in person. In the metaverse, users would be able to represent themselves through avatars. Users could choose from a range of avatars that either take the form of their favorite superhero, a quirky creation from their own imagination or, for work related interactions, an avatar that’s a true to life depiction of themselves.
The use of avatars and the concept of teleportation would have a cosmic impact on the feeling of presence that the metaverse seeks to induce, and with the anticipated exponential development of VR and AR devices that could potentially provide a more immersive and realistic visual, auditory, and even sensory experience, the horizon of possibilities in the metaverse is endless.
What’s the Difference Between VR, AR, and the Metaverse?
Often times conflated with the metaverse, VR and AR are creatures of their own making, design, and purpose. VR and AR are essentially the keys that grant access through the pearly gates of the metaverse. They are devices that facilitate the experience and are not to be mistaken with the experience itself. To do so would be equivalent to saying that the computer is the same as the internet, a massive blunder which would cost you a few laughs hurled at your expense.
The question then is, what’s the difference between VR and AR?
What is Virtual Reality (VR)?
‘Virtual Reality (VR) is the use of computer modeling and simulation that enables a person to interact with an artificial three-dimensional (3D) visual or other sensory environment. VR applications immerse the user in a computer-generated environment that simulates reality through the use of interactive devices, which send and receive information and are worn as goggles, headsets, gloves, or body suits.’ (Lowood, 2021)
What is Augmented Reality (AR)?
‘Augmented Reality, in computer programming, is a process of combining or “augmenting” video or photographic displays by overlaying the images with useful computer-generated data.’ (Hosch, 2021)
So, with VR, a user experiences a completely computer-generated virtual world which requires a headset and can only enhance a fictional reality. Whereas with AR, users are afforded ‘an enhanced human capacity vision of the real world’ which can be accessed with a smartphone and is capable of enhancing both the virtual and real world.
It may come as a shocking revelation that VR’s history stretches as far back as the 1960s, (Lowood, 2021) which means that great strides have been made since in the world of VR development, allowing the proliferation of low cost VR technologies like the Meta owned Oculus Rift, Ray-Ban Stories smart glasses, the HTC Vive, the Sony PlayStation VR, including Mixed Reality Interfaces (MRITF) like Microsoft’s HoloLens (Pietro, Chicchi, Alcañiz, & Giuseppe, 2018). Whereas AR technologies are in their infancy compared to their VR counterparts.
Proponents of the metaverse dictate that expanding access to and increasing the affordability of VR and AR devices as well as ensuring that the design of these devices offer high functionality and merge seamlessly into users’ lives is imperative in ensuring the emergence and success of the metaverse.
How Will the Metaverse Facilitate Commerce?
According to the grand design propounded by tech pundits observing the expansion of the metaverse and hypothesizing the development of the metaverse economy, speculation is rife that commerce within the metaverse will mimic the capitalist free market models of the real world, with a focus on virtually consumed content, virtually delivered or powered services, and virtually bought and sold assets (Ball, Content, Services, and Asset Businesses in the Metaverse, 2021)
According to Matthew Ball, ‘Content, Services, and Asset Businesses are defined as ‘The design/creation, sale, re-sale, storage, secure protection and financial management of digital assets, such as virtual goods and currencies, as connected to user data and identity. This contains all business and services “built on top of” and/or which “service” the Metaverse, and which are not vertically integrated into a virtual platform by the platform owner, including content, which is built specifically for the Metaverse, independent of virtual platforms.’’ (Ball, Content, Services, and Assest Businesses in the Metaverse, 2021)
In the months and years leading up to the arrival of the metaverse and thereafter, businesses in the entertainment industry, health and fitness industry, to any industry you can name will benefit from leveraging the metaverse and innovating more immersive ways to reach consumers.
According to Ball, businesses, especially those already on the map, will have to pour millions into producing virtual assets that form part of the metaverse eco-system. This would lead to the ‘creator economy’ as businesses will have to seek out independent creators and developers to build on the proposed architectural design of the virtual world and virtual assets. Ball elaborates that, ‘New marketplaces will emerge to commission and sell independently created virtual goods… and to hire architects and artists for your digital spaces’. (Ball, Content, Services, and Assest Businesses in the Metaverse, 2021).
Although the metaverse economy holds striking similarities with the real world, with the passage of time these concepts are susceptible to change, and may even improve upon real world infrastructure and systems.
How will the Metaverse Ensure Privacy and Data Protection?
Meta, which now appears to be leading the charge in the development of the metaverse and the privacy and data protection laws therein, states that, as building the metaverse from the ground up requires a cohesive effort by more than just one company, it seeks to ‘collaborate with policymakers, experts, and industry partners to bring it to life’ and has also announced that it’ll be making ‘a US $50 million investment in global research and program partners to ensure that the products are developed responsibly’ (Bosworth, 2021).
But what exactly will the privacy and data protection laws governing the metaverse look like?
In the 2021 Meta keynote speech, Zuckerberg paints a pretty picture of privacy within the metaverse, stating, ‘Privacy and safety need to be built into the metaverse from day one. You’ll get to decide when you want to meet with other people, when you want to block someone from appearing in your space or when you want to take a break and teleport to a private bubble to be alone’ (Meta, 2021).
Although this is an oversimplification of the nuanced legislative process required in developing privacy and data protection laws for users within the metaverse, it gives you a faint idea of the values being prioritized, and at first glance it appears to prioritize user privacy over company profit. But only time will tell how these laws will in fact take shape, and how close or far they may veer from Zuckerberg’s initial framework which appears to lack a compelling case for user data protection.
Just like the electrical power era and the mobile internet era saw the overhaul of entire systems, changing the way we work, live, travel, interact, and learn; and requiring the purchase of new devices like computers and smartphones, the emergence of the metaverse signals a change of cosmic proportions that will require communities, organizations, businesses, and countries to adapt and evolve in time for the already expanding metaverse. Brought on by the big bang in digital space, this expansion is expected to progress at glacial speed and may look completely different from what the tech visionaries of today imagined to be within the realm of possibilities as the advances in technology keep shifting the goal post further in this new digital frontier.
Follow us as we keep track of the emergence of the metaverse!
- Ball, M. (2021, June 28). Content, Services, and Assest Businesses in the Metaverse. Retrieved from matthewball.vc: https://www.matthewball.vc/all/csametaverse
- Ball, M. (2021, June 29). Framework for the Metaverse. MatthewBall.vc.
- Burrows, G. (2022). Your Life in the Metaverse: Everything you Need to Know About the Virtual Internet of Tomorrow. ngo.media.
- Hosch, W. L. (2021, December 20). Augmented Reality. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/technology/augmented-reality
- Lowood, H. E. (2021, May 13). Virtual Reality. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/technology/virtual-reality#ref253103
- Meta. (2021, October 29). about.facebook.com/meta/. Retrieved from about.facebook.com/meta/: https://about.facebook.com/meta/
- Pietro, C., Chicchi, G. I., Alcañiz, R. M., & Giuseppe, R. (2018). The Past, Present, and Future of Virtual and Augmented Reality Research: A Network and Cluster Analysis of the Literature. Frontiers in Psychology.Stephenson, N. (1992). Snow Crash. Bantam Books.