Is the Metaverse a future we want or a construct of commercial interest?


(Picture source: Beacon Venture Capital)

Quo Vadis, Metaverse?

If you read popular Science Fiction, then you probably already have an idea of what the Metaverse is or at least how it is portrayed. Basically, we would be immersed in a virtual reality world with the idea of meeting, playing and working together in a fantastic setting while remaining physically separated.
If you look at the difference in vision between Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg (who thinks we could all have meetings virtually or at least augmented) and Epic’s Tim Sweeny (Who believes the Metaverse should be a world for games and interaction), then you will see these visions are somewhat different.

My ideal Metaverse is a global, immersive, digitally created computer environment that is accessible via the Internet, is open to everyone (and is governed by both commercial and non-commercial interests), may require devices that can translate between the virtual world and human senses, and allows for interoperability with other generated digital worlds. 
But regardless of the vision and what will actually come to fruition, why would we need the Metaverse? To answer that, let’s look at potential use cases. 

Potential use cases of the Metaverse

It is highly unlikely that humanity would willingly immerse themselves into a digital world just for the sake of it. However, there are clear use cases where such a world makes sense. 

Entertainment & social interaction - currently Metaverse’s biggest advocates are video game producers with gaming also being, in many ways, the primary driver for Metaverse development. This is closely followed by social interactions through online games. It’s the social aspect that the Meta company is trying to develop. 

Education - To experience something different can be a learning experience in itself. In that sense, we can probably assume that the Metaverse has all sorts of applications not only for higher education but also in schools and vocational settings. For example, simulating an environment with a complex set of tasks. 

Professional work - It is certainly true that a lot of work activity has entirely moved online. However, it is not clear where, in today’s world, the need for the Metaverse would arrive, or rather, it’s not clear if the Metaverse can in fact create an environment that would increase productivity or better the working experience in some other meaningful way. There are certainly some potential applications, for example, everything design related where you could see the object clearly upfront and model it with tools that are entirely virtual, or remote health management which could be anything from a surgeon doing remote operations to having access to a specialist that can (with local help) ensure the correct diagnosis. But also similar to how we train, augmented reality would certainly provide the opportunity to display relevant information when it’s needed. Artificial intelligence can help provide this.
Of course, beyond these, there are potentially an endless number of use cases for professional and leisure situations. What I’ve listed are simply some of the more obvious ones. 

Complications

If the Metaverse existed today, the only way to access it would be to force its users to wear heavy and bulky VR headsets. Also, that’s just two senses (hearing and sight) and so far, there is no real or practical solution to address the other senses: smell, touch and taste. But there are still other aspects that can’t be addressed with current technology, namely the ability to move around freely (without bumping into a wall), or to experience physical sensation, for example weight from lifting objects. 
Arguably, what makes living in our world so great is that no extra devices are required to experience all five senses. Of course, there are exceptions to this, for example people with certain disabilities.
In addition, there is another side to this story. Today, it’s fairly difficult to “enter” the “Metaverse”, or rather it’s difficult to enter any of the “Metaverses” due to software complexities. When one puts on a headset, the person enters what we could call a simple pre-Metaverse environment. Steam has its own, so does Oculus (owned by Meta). On top of that we have several applications that take the user away from their original spawning location and put them into an entirely new environment where he or she might not even be represented as a human or not have any of their previous characteristics taken with them. In other words, there is no linkage between any of these software stacks which makes leaves experience wanting. 
Outlook and vision for the future
Certain augmented reality use cases could be covered by glasses that people can wear, but for a true immersive experience, we need a lot more. Thus, I would argue that to experience a vision like the Metaverse, we need something entirely different than VR headsets. We need the ability to create a virtual world that stimulates all senses without wearing any special gear. And to be clear, I’m not saying that VR headsets will go away, I suspect they will have a place, but for people to really interact naturally in such a world, they need to be at their most natural. What comes to mind is the “Holodeck” of Star Trek, where the crew goes to experience new environments and to entertain themselves. 
However, this would still not address the vision of a single, interconnected and fully interoperable Metaverse (such as is portrayed in the books “Ready Player One” and “Snow Crash''). Today’s Metaverse landscape is a bit like the Internet before we had an accessible standard in the form of the World Wide Web. What we need for the Metaverse to become is a construct that follows in many ways the World Wide Web by having open standards that are entirely interoperable and are guided by an independent body (which is the W3C). Corporate interest has not provided this foundation, neither for the Internet nor for the World Wide Web as both were born out of research. However, corporations play very much a role in the W3C where they shape new standards. Thus, this is a model that could also work for the Metaverse. 

Conclusions

As it stands today, neither Microsoft (Hololens & Minecraft) nor Meta (Oculus) nor Epic games (Fortnite), Steam or Roblox seem to think in terms of interoperability, in fact they all compete fiercely. Tim Sweeney suggests that it’s a race to 1 billion users. Were that true, we may very well see a Metaverse that is controlled and managed by a single entity and where governments have long ceded control to commercial interests, just like in the books that I mentioned earlier “Ready Player One” and “Snow Crash”.
With that said, I do not believe that humanity would let such a dystopian future take hold and these scenarios belong where they were born: in fictional stories which is where the term Metaverse was first conceived. 
But the question remains: can the Metaverse make the transition from Science Fiction to Science Reality in the way popular Science Fiction portrays it? 
If you follow how consumer electronics and standards have evolved over the years, then it is my opinion that it is always a question of who or what can get “the thing” into users’ hands first. I do believe that this may not in fact be different in this case and first mover advantage matters (in absence of the research channels that brought us the Internet and the World Wide Web). Hence, the companies best positioned today are the companies that already have good hardware and software in the hands of consumers, whereas others are either too expensive or too niche or do not have all the components in place. 
As to the Metaverse's viability, I very much doubt that it will ever become anything like its Sci-Fi counterpart and instead it will all begin with a killer app. Today, the Metaverse is represented by a handful of really great video game experiences, thus we should ask the question: can a killer-app emerge from this? 
One similarity to draw upon is the computing revolution of the 1980s – the consumer side also started with video games. There’s hope at least that we’ll all have a lot of fun!


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