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Jan 05, 2022
Mark Zuckerberg announced earlier in 2020 that the future of Facebook lies in the metaverse. It leaves everyone wondering what metaverse exactly is. Metaverse fever gripped the tech industry when Facebook rebranded as Meta in October. The metaverse industry has suddenly swept every company, from Microsoft to Nvidia. Thousands of people have become metaverse experts overnight.
But what exactly is metaverse? What benefit does it bring, and who should be concerned about it? Zuckerberg described the metaverse as "the next chapter for the internet," so it's important to understand and define it so that we don't get taken by surprise when (or, if) it begins to catch on.
Metaverse, what is it?
It is an embodied internet: a world where people will be able to meet using avatars to register greater present than a video call. Due to its synchronicity, it feels more like real life than today's feed-based social media. Rather than reading what others have accomplished, people will meet with them in real-time.
Like the world around us, it will also endure. People will not have to start from scratch when they revisit a metaverse space. Just like in real life, they'll be able to do all sorts of things with other people: attend concerts and other events, play games, hang out, date, and, yes, work and shop. The need for physical presence will diminish; distances won’t matter.
The digital twin of Metaverse
Avatar: In a virtual world, an avatar represents the persona. This digital version of people may resemble them, resemble a cartoon (such as Bitmoji and Memoji popularized by Snapchat and Apple), or resemble a fantasy character (such as Fortnite Skins).
Skeumorphics: This wonky term basically means making virtual objects look like real-life objects. Metaverses may resemble the physical world in the sense that they are closely related to physics and designs, but they wouldn’t have to be identical.
Virtual twin: A digital twin is a virtual representation of a real-life object or structure. In 2010, NASA used digital twin technology to run simulations of space capsules using the term first introduced in the 1991 book Mirror Worlds by David Gelernter. Microsoft has emphasized the importance of digital twin technology in developing the metaverse.
Mirror World: Mirror worlds are digital renditions of the real world where people, places, and things from the real world appear in their virtual counterparts. Often in sci-fi, mirror worlds are present, such as in Netflix's Stranger Things, The Matrix films, the novel, and the film Ready Player One. It may be a mirror world that reflects our own world accurately, or it may be an entirely invented world found in video games.
In any case, the metaverse does not exist - yet. Instead, there are some predecessors:
Roblox and Fortnite: As far as metaverses go, Roblox and Fortnite are both strong contenders. They both have avatars and in-world economies, and massive live events have shown that they are more than just games. However, they are both independent properties. It is impossible to bring the Fortnite avatar to Microsoft Teams meetings, and good luck finding a business that accepts Robux outside of Roblox.
Virtual reality: VR and metaverse often get confused, which is understandable. Wearing a headset makes an embodied presence seem more real than controlling an avatar with a keyboard or gamepad. In addition to VR, AR, and other forms of spatial computing, it is also important that the metaverse can function across multiple device categories. A virtual reality headset isn't something people dip in and out of for 30 minutes at a time; it's something that they use throughout the day. They can use it on their phone, VR headset, and eventually on consumer AR glasses.
Metaverse: Why it matters
Zuckerberg didn't start the rush to the metaverse merely by falling in love with virtual reality. There were many factors at play. Avatar-based social gaming platforms are becoming increasingly popular. In response to the pandemic, many people are seeking new ways to interact in real-time. Google, Amazon, Apple, and Meta have taken the lead in trying to find the next big thing after the smartphone. Although real-time trends are evident, a few very important questions remain unanswered.
What about privacy, security, and mental health?
Facebook, YouTube, and other social networks have rightfully come under scrutiny for bungling misinformation and privacy issues, as well as the effect they are having on their users' mental health. There is no disappearance of these issues in the metaverse, but their resolution may differ greatly. The idea of hiring tens of thousands of moderators to prevent hate and harassment may not be ideal. In addition, the spatial data collected by headsets mounted in people's homes raises all sorts of privacy concerns. It is crucial that both industry insiders and regulators pay attention to these issues from the beginning.
What is the new gatekeeper's role?
Virtual reality and augmented reality headset manufacturers will have an important role to play in defining the metaverse's rules and capturing the metaverse's financial rewards. As Zuckerberg has admitted, Meta is so interested in the metaverse because the company missed out on mobile hardware, which means it has to follow Google's and Apple's rules.
Who will pay for it, and how?
Currently, the consumer internet relies heavily on advertising, topped by subscription revenues. The metaverse may employ some of the same business models. It is also possible that business models based on transactional finance will return. In addition to having a major impact on the companies competing for the metaverse, the business models of these new services could also determine who gets access to these new worlds.
The Players in the Metaverse World
Many companies are trying to build the metaverse. Some notable players include: