Tech watchers have been talking about a “metaverse” for some time now. The online and offline worlds have begun to converge in many ways, and education, services and social life are now available online. Metaverse takes this to the next level, using radical new technology to create livable virtual worlds. But what is Metaverse actually? What does this mean for the future of technology and the internet? How will it affect the younger generation who may eventually see it as commonplace?
What is the Metaverse?
The name “metaverse” isn’t actually new: it first appeared in science fiction author Neil Stephenson’s 1992 dystopian novel “Avalanche.” It’s a term for virtual reality combined with other technologies to give us a deeper experience of the online world. The Metaverse is a 3D environment where we can interact rather than simply seeing the internet on a screen. Using virtual reality headsets or augmented reality glasses—at least initially—virtual worlds promise to be able to live in imaginary worlds as much as we live in the real world. We’ll be able to virtually travel to beautiful beaches, see our favorite bands play wherever they are, try on clothes, create avatars with their own independent lives and love—you name it. You may have seen this concept in Steven Speilberg’s 2018 film Ready Player One. The rapid popularity of cryptocurrencies and NFTs (non-fungible tokens or unique digital objects) is also part of the metaverse phenomenon. For someone not involved in this culture, it can be difficult to understand how values can exist in things that don’t matter. But for fans of virtual worlds, the virtual experience and perception has real value.
Why is the metaverse important?
The metaverse can bring the online and offline worlds closer together. This can be great; for example, you can virtually try on clothes or test drive a vehicle and then buy in real life. It can also provide pure escapism and entertainment. t’s hard to predict exactly what it will be used for, because despite much discussion, the metaverse remains largely a dream — even within tech companies.
Which tech companies are exploring the metaverse?
Most notably, Facebook has rebranded its holding company Meta — outlining their vision for the Metaverse in a promotional video featuring numerous virtual environments. But they are not alone. Microsoft has also begun exploring the metaverse, in part to make remote work easier in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. They created a new service called Mesh that uses mixed reality technology to allow people to work together virtually. But maybe the gaming industry is way ahead in embracing the metaverse — at least in a business sense. Gaming platform Roblox, for example, has connected users in the online space, giving them the tools to create and share their own gamefi, or, as the company sometimes calls them, “experiences.” Instead of being tied to a pre-existing character, users can assemble their own avatars. Earlier this year, a virtual Gucci bag sold for over $4,000 on Roblox. This bag cannot be transferred from Roblox, which shows how many people may be ready to invest in their perception in the virtual world.
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What do we need to pay attention to?
impact on children
Many companies hope that Metaverse will attract a younger audience, and companies like Meta have been dwindling. Many young people believe in accessibility and community for all, which the Metaverse promises. But unfortunately, we can’t tell if this will be the actual representation of the virtual world. At the same time, there are some risks specific to children that are worth considering. Virtual reality technology is still very new, and there hasn’t been a ton of research looking at what impact it might have at such a young age. Despite their many benefits, social media sites have been shown to be harmful to some children in terms of functionality, privacy and moderation. But entering a virtual world can make bullying or insecurities more immediate and disturbing. Tech companies may also realize the appeal of virtual worlds to children and design services that can manipulate them into spending large sums of money with little success.
The power of detachments and tech companies
A dystopian vision is that people deviate from real-world problems and are therefore more susceptible to manipulation. As the planet heats up and politicians and tech billionaires amass more and more power and money, people will be coaxed and passively coaxed into virtual worlds by virtual rewards.
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The more immediate concern is that tech companies will use this more intrusive technology to collect more data from users — not just about our behavior, but about our hopes, dreams and imaginations. Tech companies have been accused of changing our behavior: what can they do with this deeper knowledge?
Companies that use the metaverse model will have more power than companies that don’t, simply because they include more services. In some ways, this guarantees convenience. But it also raises the question of how much power we are comfortable with tech companies. A metaverse model can guide companies further into a digital state. We discussed this with Tracey Follows on the Tech Shock podcast. Allowing one company, or even a few companies to dominate, will ultimately limit consumer choice and prevent new ideas and businesses from entering the market.
What happens next?
More and more businesses are interested in the metaverse. For all the talk, we still need to think carefully about how the metaverse will affect our outer lives. The Metaverse will enhance every aspect of life and make “more” of everything we currently have. While this is great for our positive experiences, it can also make bad experiences worse. It seems certain that there will be more discussion — and more controversy — about the metaverse before we fully understand what it is.