Given the pressure Mark Zuckerberg is under from governments, courts, privacy advocates and users of his world-dominating social networks, it is no wonder that he would like to escape to a parallel world—less messy, cleaner and better ordered. The world he has chosen to create is becoming the next most hyped word in technology: the metaverse. In the firm’s last earnings call, Zuckerberg gushed over it: “It’s a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. You can kind of think about this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at. We believe that this is going to be the successor to the mobile internet.” He then declared Facebook not to be a social network, but “a metaverse company”.
Zuckerberg is not alone. Microsoft chief Satya Nadella used the company’s earnings call to talk up his own business version of this alternate reality: “As the digital and physical worlds converge, we are leading in a new layer of the infrastructure stack, the enterprise meta- verse.” Graphics-chip maker Nvidia has large investments lined up in this space. Epic Games took time off from battling Apple to announce a $1 billion investment in its own gaming-led metaverse.
So, what is this metaverse thing? It was Isaac Asimov who famously said that “Today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s science fact.” Laser guns, robots, even the internet, were arguably predicted by sci-fi writers. So, it is not a surprise that the term ‘metaverse’ was born in Neal Stephenson’s dystopian novel Snow Crash, where people appear in digital avatars in a virtual world complete with companies, homes and factories. The 2013 Japanese series Sword Art Online, based on a sci-fi novel by Rei Kawahara, took it to another level. Set in 2022, in the game, technology is so advanced that if the players died in the virtual reality world they would die in real life too!
Is the metaverse just a fantasy, a future made up by wealthy tech titans, or will it have some practical uses too? Sceptics argue that it is just a new name for existing technologies like virtual and augmented reality, massive multi-player video games and digital twins, all rolled into one. Even the concept, as defined, is not something new: Linden Lab’s Second Life in 2003, which created a virtual world you could buy land and live in, did capture people’s imagination for some time. The current version, however, envisages multiple-use cases, some of which the pandemic has made more real. People can meet as their avatars online to simultaneously watch a movie, play a game or indulge in user-generated content. The education metaverse would involve learning science with chemistry or biology simulators sitting in virtual immersive classrooms on a life-like university campus. Company headquarters could be re-created, and workers could meet there while actually working remotely as work-from-anywhere turns permanent. It could bring ‘live’ events back in safer virtual environments, with thousands watching a concert together. You could not only work or watch together in the metaverse, but create together, whether it’s fashion, architecture or anything else.
Even Zuckerberg admits there is a lot of work to do before all of this becomes reality. Virtual reality headsets need to become lighter and better; the current experience usually involves a swimming head and occasional retching. New tech infrastructure needs to be created and protocols written. Today’s internet as a file-sharing protocol will need to be re-imagined for the metaverse. In fact, the metaverse might be the Internet 2.0. Even as tech behemoths design their own versions of it—Microsoft with its enterprise metaverse and Facebook with its all-encompassing social version of it—a big danger may lurk in what form it eventually takes. As Richard Water writes in the Financial Times, “The final product could be an ultimate ‘walled garden’, a place where a single company benefits from the total immersion of users. If Facebook and other big internet companies build their own—and particularly if they each sell their own proprietary hardware to access these zones—then the result could be a collection of isolated worlds, forcing digital citizens to pick where they spend the bulk of their time. On the other hand, the metaverse could comprise a set of more closely interconnected worlds, some of them controlled entirely by their users. This would be a place where people could take their personal data, digital goods and favourite services with them as they move from place to place.”
The latter version does not seem bad, although the alternate embodied world that Zuckerberg is gushing over is clearly the former.
Jaspreet Bindra is the author of ‘The Tech Whisperer’, and founder of Digital Matters
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