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What is the metaverse – and what do I need to know?

Tech observers have been talking for some time about the ‘metaverse’. The online and offline worlds have already begun to merge in many ways, with education, services and social life now available online. 

The metaverse takes this to the next level, using radical new technologies, to make livable, virtual worlds. 

But what actually is the metaverse? What does it mean for the future of tech and the internet? And how will it affect the younger generation who may experience it, eventually, as commonplace?  

What is the metaverse?

The name ‘metaverse’ isn’t actually that new: it first appeared in a dystopian 1992 novel, Snow Crash, by the sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson. 

It’s a term for a combination of virtual reality with other technologies that will allow us to have a deeper experience of the online world. The metaverse is a 3D environment in which we can interact, rather than seeing the internet simply on a screen. 

Using virtual reality headsets or augmented reality glasses – at least initially – the metaverse promises the ability to live in imagined worlds in the same way we live in the physical world. 

We’ll be able to travel virtually to beautiful beaches, see our favourite bands no matter where they’re playing, try on clothing, create avatars that have their own independent lives and love affairs – you name it. It’s a concept that you may have seen explored in the 2018 Steven Speilberg movie Ready Player One.

The soaring popularity in cryptocurrencies and NFTs – non-fungible tokens, or unique digital objects – are also a part of the metaverse phenomenon. For someone not involved in this culture, it might be hard to understand how value can lie in things that are immaterial. But for enthusiasts of the metaverse, there is real value in virtual experiences and perceptions.  

Why is the metaverse important?

The metaverse could bring the online and offline worlds closer together. This could be great; you might, for example, try on clothes or test drive a vehicle virtually and then buy them in reality. It could also offer pure escapism and entertainment. 

It’s difficult to predict exactly what it will be used for because, despite all the talk, the metaverse is still largely a dream – even within technology companies.  

Which tech companies are exploring the metaverse?

Facebook most notably rebranded their holding company Meta – outlining their vision of the metaverse in a promotional video featuring numerous virtual environments.  

Meta (i.e. Facebook) expects to spend billions of dollars and has announced its intention to hire 10,000 staff in Europe alone to work on its development. Meta is also developing new services to create a more coherent world, such as a cryptocurrency wallet called Novi and a communication tool called Workplace. 

But they are not alone. Microsoft has also begun exploring the metaverse, partly as a way of making remote work easier following the Covid-19 pandemic. They’ve created a new service called Mesh that uses mixed-reality technologies, allowing people to work together virtually. 

But perhaps the gaming industry is already well ahead of the game in embracing the metaverse – at least in a commercial sense. The gaming platform Roblox, for example, already connects users in online spaces, offering them tools to create and share their own games, or, as the company sometimes calls them, “experiences”. Users can assemble their own avatars rather than being tied to pre-existing characters. 

Earlier this year, a virtual Gucci bag sold on Roblox for more than $4,000. The bag can’t be transferred out of Roblox, which gives some indication of how much people might be prepared to invest in how they are perceived in the metaverse. 

What do we need to be aware of?

The effect on children

Many companies hope the metaverse will engage a younger audience which has been waning for companies like Meta. Lots of young people believe strongly in accessibility and community for all, something that the metaverse promises. 

But unfortunately, we can’t tell whether this will be how the metaverse actually plays out. In the meantime, there are some risks specific to children that are worth considering. Virtual reality technology is still new, and there hasn’t been a huge amount of research into what effects it might have at such an early age. 

Despite having lots of benefits, social media sites have already proven to be damaging for some children in terms of functionality, privacy and moderation. But the move into the metaverse could make bullying or insecurity feel even more immediate and upsetting. 

Tech companies may also realise the pull of the metaverse for children and design services that could manipulate them into spending large sums of money with little gain. 

Detachment and tech company power

One dystopian vision is that people will be deflected from real-world problems and, as a result, will be more vulnerable to being manipulated. While the planet heats up, and politicians and tech billionaires amass ever more power and money, people will be lulled into passivity by the virtual rewards of the metaverse.

The more immediate concern is that tech companies will use this more invasive technology to harvest even more data from users – not just about our behaviour, but about our hopes, dreams and imaginations. Tech companies are already being accused of modifying our behaviour: what will they be able to do with this even more intimate knowledge?

Limiting choice

Companies that use a metaverse model will have more power than ones that don’t, simply because they incorporate more services. In some ways, this promises convenience. But it also raises the question of how much power we feel comfortable with tech companies having. The metaverse model could lead companies further towards being a kind of digital state. We discussed this on the Tech Shock podcast with Tracey Follows. 

If a single company, or even a few companies, are allowed to dominate, in the end that will limit consumer choice and prevent new ideas and enterprises entering the market. 

What happens next?

An increasing number of businesses are taking an interest in the metaverse. For all the talk, we still need to think carefully about how the metaverse will influence our external lives.

It’s going to be important to keep children in the loop and listen to their thoughts on what a full blown virtual reality and services might mean. Try to ask them how they feel about the metaverse as a concept – are they excited, worried, or just curious?

The metaverse will enhance all aspects of life, and make whatever we have at the moment ‘more’. Whilst that’s great for our positive experiences, it might also make bad experiences much worse. What seems certain is that there will be much more talk about the metaverse – and much more controversy – before we fully understand what it is. 

 

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