Metaverse

In 1992, Neal Stephenson wrote Snow Crash, and coined the term metaverse to describe a virtual world where the characters escape from their harsh reality. In particular, the main character of this book, Hiro Protagonist, a talented hacker that works as a pizza delivery driver, spends a lot of his time there:   

[So] Hiro’s not actually here at all. He’s in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse.

Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (1992)

What is metaverse?

While there is no common understanding or definition of the metaverse, some experts consider it a 3D version of the internet – the concept of metaverse is centred on how users will experience the internet. It is envisioned as a shared and decentralised, persistent, synchronous, and living virtual world accessible to everyone that complements the actual world. It will have unprecedented compatibility of data, digital items, assets, and content.

In a nutshell, the metaverse is a network of interconnected online realms in which physical, augmented, and virtual realities interact. A location where you and millions of other users live your (digital) lives through an avatar and interact, learn, do business, and have fun. The metaverse will alter our perception of reality with numerous impacts on personal identity, law, and overall societal organisation.

 

One or multiple metaverses – the challenge of interoperability and standards

There is widespread agreement that there should only be one, singular space. To achieve a singular metaverse, if one company builds a metaverse, others must follow the same standards to ensure interoperability. This would mean agreeing on the technologies and standards for multiple companies. (Already) over 35 tech companies, industry consortia, and standards developing organisations (SDOs) launched the Metaverse Standards Forum to ‘foster the development of open standards for the metaverse’.


While relying on some other development(s), we might be heading down a different road, one that will include various metaverses. A number of potential metaverses were already announced, including Microsoft Mesh, NetEase metaverse, Nvidia Omniverse, and Baidu’s metaapp, to name a few. These metaverses must be (made – developed) interoperable to enable users to seamlessly shift from space to space.

 

Leading companies’ vision of the metaverse

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called the metaverse ‘a persistent, synchronous environment where we can be together’. Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang described it as ‘a virtual world that is shared by a lot of people. It has real design. It has a real economy. You have a real avatar. That avatar belongs to you and is you. It could be a photoreal avatar of you, or a character.’ Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney characterised it as ‘a kind of online playground where users could join friends to play a multiplayer game like Epic’s Fortnite one moment, watch a movie via Netflix the next.’ For Roblox, the metaverse is ‘a platform for immersive co-experiences, where people can come together within millions of 3D experiences to learn, work, play, create, and socialise.’ For Microsoft, the metaverse is a convergence of physical and digital worlds. 

The building blocks of the metaverse

Let us explore and lift the bonnet of the metaverse and look at what is under. The metaverse belongs to a suite of technologies that build on alternative types of realities, aided by wearable devices. The most well-known technologies are augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR) – which is a blend of both. Extended reality (XR) is an umbrella term that encompasses all kinds of altered realities offered by technology. It is important to note that these different types of realities provide different levels of immersion or how users experience them (these types of realities).

 

Is the metaverse VR, AR or MR?

While VR, AR and MR are one of the most important elements of the metaverse, we might even say a cornerstone (of the metaverse), the simple answer is no, the metaverse is neither. These extended reality technologies will be just one of the ways to access and experience the metaverse. Although not the only way (to experience it), all it takes is a device with a screen, like a computer or a smartphone. The Metaverse is a much broader concept, and it is a combination of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), blockchain, Web3.0, artificial intelligence, social media, and much more.

Augmented reality (AR) allows users to view the real-world environment with augmented (seamlessly added) elements, generated by digital devices. We usually view the combined actual and digital content through a handheld device or smart glasses (still often in two dimensions). Mixed reality merges the real world with the virtual world to create new environments and visualisations where objects from the virtual world and real world coexist and interact in real-time. We may describe it as enhanced augmented reality with some aspects of virtual reality – thus a blend of both. Experts forecast that users, for their daily activities on the internet, will engage in the metaverse through augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) for the foreseeable future. In contrast, virtual reality (VR) is foreseen to be used mostly for entertainment, gaming, meetings, and virtual learning and training.

Virtual reality (VR) simulates 3D experiences using a computer-generated environment, allowing the user to completely be detached from the physical world and immersed into a digital one. Users experience Virtual reality using ocular technology (VR headsets or glasses) and, more recently, haptic technology, such as gloves and suits. Haptic technologies are rapidly being developed and adapted for the metaverse to be used in combination with AR or VR. This technology essentially stimulates users' sense of touch; it enhances what the user experiences by adding tactile response, so the user may 'feel’.

A boy in purple wearing VR glasses and watching the outer space.

Another emerging tech is a brain-computer interface (BCI) which is a part of neurotechnology. BCI is a computer-based system that takes brain impulses, examines them, and then converts them into instructions for devices that ultimately deliver the required result. Researchers predict it will be applied in the metaverse to enable people to operate devices, interact with one another, and control avatars through their thoughts alone. Eventually, further advances would allow the brain to reproduce the sense of taste, touch, and smell.

Sophisticated algorithms and computing power are predicted to be key factors (or enablers) in the further development of more immersive environments. Metaverse will certainly require 'supercomputers' with a high-performance level; this is where quantum computing development comes into play. Quantum computing should add computational power to the metaverse, VR and MR, resulting in more immersive and seamless experiences.

Virtual worlds and their infrastructure, landscape(s), and other assets will be created by AI in addition to humans as the primary content creators. As technology advances, AI is expected to take a primary role in content creation. Researchers at Stanford's Computational Imaging Lab believe that AI is crucial for improving 3D displays for virtual and augmented reality applications. At the same time, companies are already training AI to create entire virtual worlds. Soul Machines is working on Humans OS 2.0, an AI-driven digital 3D version of chatbots that will eventually inhabit the metaverse, which learns from interactions with real people. 

 

Governance and technology

When it comes to governance, perhaps the biggest concerns are about our condition as human beings. Whom do we trust to run and govern the metaverse – is it tech companies, or do we expect countries to have digital twins of their governance structures in the metaverse? Web 3.0, the metaverse building block, offers a different approach – decentralisation. It is important to note that Web 3.0 is still in the process of being imagined, designed, and built. Much of Web 3.0 remains hypothetical. 

Web 3.0 is a notion of who would own and govern the internet of the future, rather than a new technology per se, although it is based on emerging technologies like blockchain, non-fungible tokens, and AI. 

Decentralisation is an idea that ownership and governance should be divided among the internet's users and creators, as opposed to centralised corporations owning and managing it. 

In particular, this approach tries to get rid of the current model of a centralised network run by a single entity (like social networks or e-commerce websites), but rather to take a step back in internet history and build the network on free and open source standards of the internet backbone. In theory, this could enable access to metaverse on a utility level for everyone (as is the case with the internet). 

Blockchain is the backbone of what is titled Web 3.0. Ownership over digital assets is foreseen to boost new types of economic, social and financial relations. For communities involved in a build-up of Web 3.0 based on blockchain technologies, metaverse will in fact be based on Web 3.0, while XR will ‘only’ add the 3D and immersive component on top of it.

Blockchain is the basis for allowing ownership over digital(ised) assets – be it digital money, art, or other types of information. Some known examples of blockchain use are crypto-currencies like bitcoin or Ether, in-game items like avatars, digital and non-digital collectables, ect. Importantly, blockchain has enabled the emergence of non-fungible tokens (NFT) – digital tokens that represent non-fungible assets in the real or digital world (like art, music, real estate, or in-game items). Unique properties and ownership over those assets is stored in an NFT blockchain. Trading NFTs thus equals the trade of real or digital assets, while blockchain ensures a decentralised and secure track record of those transactions. NFTs can play a pivotal role in enabling the economic and trade potentials of the metaverse.

However, this concept comes with its set of challenges. For instance, platforms built on Web3.0 do not really rely on a single server. Instead, information is copied and spread over multiple servers via a peer-to-peer network. As a result, no institution, such as a hosting company, has the power to take down unlawful/harmful content. Another challenge is blockchain technology. Once information is on the blockchain, it is permanently stored and can only be removed through a consensus.

 

Geopolitics and trends

The global metaverse market was valued at US$40 billion in 2021 and is estimated to surpass around US$1,607.12 billion by 2030. Another report by McKinsey & Company (‘Value Creation in the Metaverse’) stated investment in the metaverse so far in 2022 (US$120 billion) has already more than doubled the total investment for 2021. The same reports estimate the value of the market by 2030 to surpass US$5 trillion. Furthermore, the report predicts the e-commerce industry is likely to benefit the most, with an estimated market impact of somewhere between US$2 trillion and US$2.6 trillion by 2030, followed by the academic virtual learning market (US$180 billion to US$270 billion), advertising (US$144 billion to US$206 billion) and gaming (US$108 billion to US$125 billion).

With such market predictions, geopolitical competition is inevitable. As the metaverse idea goes mainstream, more companies, from the gaming industry to luxury fashion brands, are entering the contest. However, the state of play is ultimately the same: Companies headquartered in the USA and China are at the forefront of the race.

Source: Fortune Business Insights

Companies are not the only ones interested in the metaverse – governments and their institutions are keeping a close eye on developments. 

China has signalled it is ready to embrace the metaverse, but has also issued some cautionary messages to stay rational ‘in understanding the current metaverse mania’. The new Chinese industry group, the Metaverse Industry Committee was established under the state-supervised China Mobile Communications Association (CMCA) and may signal that China is ready to embrace the metaverse. Meanwhile, the city of Shanghai has decided to encourage metaverse use in public services, business offices, and other areas.

Other countries are joining the ‘race’, with Barbados, South Korea, Dubai, and Spain making announcements of their own. Barbados is planning to launch the world’s first metaverse embassy in the Decentaland metaverse. Barbados government is also finalising agreements with other metaverse platforms to buy land, build virtual consulates and embassies, provide e-visas, and build a teleporter that will allow users to transport their avatars between various metaverses. Meanwhile, South Korea is investing around US$177.1 million, while its capital Seoul plans to become the ‘first major city’ to enter the metaverse. Its citizens will be able to access the cities’ economic, cultural, tourism, educational, and civic services by 2023.  Moreover, the emirate of Dubai announced the launch of the metaverse Strategy, which aims to turn Dubai into one of the world’s metaverse economies as well as a global hub for the metaverse community. The Spanish government promised grants to small and medium-sized firms (SMEs) and independent contractors with domicile in Spain or the European Union who are involved in research, development, and innovation projects integrating Web3 and metaverse technologies.

Margrethe Vestager, the bloc’s antitrust chief, stated that the EU is analysing the metaverse landscape, before deciding how to regulate it and its potential impacts. Accordingly, the European Parliament commissioned a study investigating the potential benefits and challenges of the metaverse, with aim to assist the Members and staff of the European Parliament as background in their parliamentary work.  

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has published her ‘2022 State of the Union Letter of Intent’, underpinning the metaverse as an important digital opportunity and trend while also setting out plans for potential regulations of the metaverse. However, the letter provides little specifics on EU actions. Another EU official, Thierry Breton, the Commissioner for Internal Market, wrote about the metaverse in a blog post. Breton explained that the metaverse was one of the European Commission’s most pressing challenges, and its plan to foster the virtual world will focus on people, technologies, and infrastructure.

Even though there is a broad debate about the metaverse in the US public, the government is keenly silent. The discussion of the metaverse is still in its early stage among politicians; a group of US representatives established the Congressional Caucus on Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality Technologies to educate lawmakers and their staff on this emerging tech.

The metaverse and the underlying technologies could aid developing nations in closing economic and digital divides, for they provide a fresh start for everyone – venture into the unknown.


According to a survey conducted by Ipsos for the World Economic Forum (WEF), enthusiasm for the metaverse and extended reality is highest in developing countries, while in developed (countries) not so much. Turkey was the country most familiar with the Metaverse at 86%, followed by India (80%), China (73%), and the higher-income country of South Korea (71%). At the same time, familiarity with (the metaverse) is lowest in Poland (27%), France (28%), Belgium (30%), and Germany (30%). 

 

What are the opportunities of the metaverse?

The metaverse has numerous potential opportunities and benefits ranging from education, socialisation, safety, health and well-being, to accessibility and inclusion. When discussing education, consider how COVID-19 changed remote learning; now, consider what the virtual world can be capable of. The metaverse may be used to expand learning options and provide students greater access than it might otherwise be possible in a physical environment, for example, by making the teaching material more vivid and visual. Within these 3D simulations, it is possible to participate in historical events, visualise geometrical elements, explore planets and much more. The US army has revealed building its metaverse since this technology may be used to train (employees) for job readiness, particularly in high-risk industries. In healthcare, the virtual reality system is already used to train residents, assist surgeons in planning upcoming operations, and educate patients. It also helps surgeons in the operating room, by guiding them in a three-dimensional space and by providing data. On 16 November 2021, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorised the first VR product to be marketed to treat chronic pain. The metaverse is envisioned as a meeting place for individuals worldwide; therefore, it has the potential for increased socialisation. 

On top of that, we can add socialisation during entertainment, such as rich immersive experiences with concerts and movies in VR mode, museum visits, or travel. The nature of the metaverse can make digital content more accessible to everyone. As neurotechnology continues to progress, we may expect that it will provide more accessibility to millions of people who struggle to interact with digital content daily due to disability and impairments. 

Some personal safety measures that would not work in the actual world could be available in the metaverse. For example, users of Meta's ‘Horizon Worlds’, (VR game), may immediately enter a ‘Safe Zone,’ a protective bubble they can activate when they feel endangered.

What are the challenges of the metaverse?