Metaverse

metaverse is a network of 3D virtual worlds focused on social connection. In futurism and science fiction, the term is often described as a hypothetical iteration of the Internet as a single, universal virtual world that is facilitated by the use of virtual and augmented reality headsets.

The term “metaverse” has its origins in the 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash as a portmanteau of “meta” and “universe.” Various metaverses have been developed for popular use such as virtual world platforms like Second Life. Some metaverse iterations involve integration between virtual and physical spaces and virtual economies, often including a significant interest in advancing virtual reality technology.

The term has seen considerable use as a buzzwordfor public relations purposes to exaggerate development progress for various related technologies and projects. Information privacy and user addiction are concerns within metaverses, stemming from challenges facing the social media and video game industries as a whole. 

Video games

Several components of metaverse technologies have already been developed within modern internet-enabled video games.The 2003 virtual world platform Second Life is often described as the first metaverse, as it incorporated many aspects of social media into a persistent three-dimensional world with the user represented as an avatar. Social functions are often an integral feature in many massively multiplayer online games. Technology journalist Clive Thompson has argued that the emergent, social-based gameplay of Minecraft represents an advanced analog of a metaverse. Similar statements were made for the game Roblox, which has since employed significant usage of the term in marketing. Other claims of developing a metaverse include the games Active Worlds, The Palace, and Fortnite.

Virtual reality

In 2019, the social network company Facebook launched a social VR world called Facebook Horizon. In 2021 Facebook was renamed “Meta Platforms” and its chairman Mark Zuckerberg declared a company commitment to developing a metaverse. Many of the virtual reality technologies advertised by Meta Platforms remains to be developed. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen criticised the move, adding that Meta Platforms’ continued focus on growth-oriented projects is largely done to the detriment of ensuring safety on their platforms. Meta Platforms has also faced user safety criticism regarding Horizon Worlds due to the occurrence of sexual harassment on the platform.

Microsoft acquired the VR company AltspaceVR in 2017,and has since implemented metaverse features such as virtual avatars and meetings held in virtual reality into Microsoft Teams.

Proposed applications for metaverse technology include improving work productivity, interactive learning environments, e-commerce and real estate.

Technology Hardware

Access points for metaverses include general-purpose computers and smartphones, in addition to augmented reality (AR), mixed realityvirtual reality (VR), and virtual world technologies.

Dependence on VR technology has limited metaverse development and wide-scale adoption.Limitations of portable hardware and the need to balance cost and design has caused a lack of high-quality graphics and mobility. Lightweight wireless headsets have struggled to achieve retina display pixel density needed for visual immersion, while higher-performance models are wired and often bulky. Another issue for wide-scale adoption of the technology is cost, with consumer VR headsets ranging in price from $299 to $1099 as of 2021.

Current hardware development is focused on overcoming limitations of VR headsets, sensors, and increasing immersion with haptic technology.

Software

There has been no wide-scale adoption of a standardised technical specification for metaverse implementations, and existing implementations rely primarily on proprietary technology. Interoperability is a major concern in metaverse development, stemming from concerns about transparency and privacy. There have been several virtual environment standardisation projects.

Universal Scene Description is a specification for 3D computer graphics interchange created by Pixar and supported by BlenderApple‘s Scenekit and Autodesk 3ds Max. The technology company NVIDIA announced in 2021 they would adopt USD for their metaverse development tools.

OpenXR is an open standard for access to virtual and augmented reality devices and experiences. It has been adopted by Microsoft for HoloLens 2Meta Platforms for the Oculus Quest,and Valve for SteamVR.

Criticism and concerns

Information privacy is an area of concern for metaverses because related companies will likely collect users’ personal information through interactions and biometric data from wearable virtual reality devices. Meta Platforms (previously Facebook) is planning on employing targeted advertising within their metaverse, raising further worries related to the spread of misinformation and loss of personal privacy. In 2021 David Reid of Liverpool Hope University argued the amount of data collection in the metaverse would be greater then that on the internet stating “If you think about the amount of data a company could collect on the World Wide Web right now, compared to what it could collect with the metaverse, there is just no comparison.”

User addiction and problematic social media use is another concern. Internet addiction disorder, social media, and video game addiction can have mental and physical repercussions over a prolonged period of time, such as depression, anxiety, and various other harms related to having a sedentary lifestyle such as an increased risk for obesity and cardiovascular disease. Experts are also concerned that metaverses could be used as an ‘escape’ from reality in a similar fashion to existing internet technologies.

Metaverses may magnify the social impacts of online echo chambers and digitally alienating spaces or abuse common social media engagement strategies to manipulate users with biased content.

Virtual crime such as fraud and sexual abuse can be a regular issue in a potential metaverse which can be hard to police while also generating debates on the trade-offs between the protection of user safety and human rights in a metaverse, which could bring political scrutiny and government regulation to the space.

Fiction

Snow Crash, 1992

The term metaverse coined in Neal Stephenson‘s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, where humans, as programmable avatars, interact with each other and software agents, in a three-dimensional virtual space that uses the metaphor of the real world. Stephenson used the term to describe a virtual reality-based successor to the internet.

Neal Stephenson’s metaverse appears to its users as an urban environment developed along a 100-meter-wide road, called the Street, which spans the entire 65536 km (216 km) circumference of a featureless, black, perfectly spherical planet. The virtual real estate is owned by the Global Multimedia Protocol Group, a fictional part of the real Association for Computing Machinery, and is available to be bought and buildings developed thereupon.

Users of the metaverse access it through personal terminals that project a high-quality virtual reality display onto goggles worn by the user, or from grainy black and white public terminals in booths. The users experience it from a first-person perspective. Stephenson describes a sub-culture of people choosing to remain continuously connected to the metaverse; they are given the sobriquet “gargoyles” due to their grotesque appearance.

Within the metaverse, individual users appear as avatars of any form, with the sole restriction of height, “to prevent people from walking around a mile high”. Transport within the metaverse is limited to analogs of reality by foot or vehicle, such as the monorail that runs the entire length of the Street, stopping at 256 Express Ports, located evenly at 256 km intervals, and Local Ports, one kilometer apart

Ready Player One, 2011

Ready Player One is a dystopian science fiction franchise created by Ernest Cline which depicts a shared VR landscape called “The OASIS”. The first novel was released in 2011, with a 2018 film adaptation, and second novel in 2020. The franchise depicts the year 2045 as being gripped by an energy crisis and global warming, causing widespread social problems and economic stagnation. The primary escape for people is a shared VR landscape called “the OASIS” which is accessed with a VR headset and wired gloves. The OASIS functions both as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game and as a virtual society.