Historically, humans have always treated massive technological shifts with a level of apprehension. In the early days of electricity, entire villages refused to accept the new technology out of fear that they’d be electrocuted in their sleep. The rise of the personal home computer in the 1980s also sparked anxiety in everyday people, who knew little about the strange box and how much power it might wield over its users. And since the burst of the dot-com bubble back in the early 2000s, technology has subjected our daily lives to radical (and previously unthinkable) change.
The term “metaverse” first appeared in Neal Stephenson’s best-selling 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash” — a story wherein humans interact with each other as avatars in an entirely virtual playground. However, the idea of things like AR glasses, virtual worlds, and digital avatars are no longer just tokens of science fiction lore — they’re finally within our reach, and the future is now.
The next year is set to bring us much closer to the metaverse — with sights of new opportunities for commerce, virtual coworking, social interactivity, medical innovation, brand developments, more immersive gaming experiences, and so on. As we ring in 2022, let’s address some of the most common fears we hear about the metaverse and why we shouldn’t be afraid of what’s next.
“The metaverse will cause people to become detached from reality.”
“Snow Crash”, set in the early 21st century, envisions an XR-based successor to the internet. In this storyline, characters use their digital avatars as a means of escaping their dystopian reality. The novel’s main character, Hiro Protagonist — who serves as a part-time computer hacker and part-time pizza delivery driver — spends much of his spare time in the fictional metaverse.
Of course, many believe that we are on our way to seeing this become a reality — especially in light of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announcing his plans to build an “embodied internet”. The idea that the metaverse could one day have the power to detach individuals from the real world has been a commonly touted fear — especially in the wake of COVID-19, where more cases of depression, anxiety, and suicide have been recorded as people have become more physically isolated from one another.
Moreover, Zuckerberg plans to invest billions of dollars into scaling his vision of the metaverse — with goals to fund virtual reality headsets that will be both affordable and highly immersive for everyday users. He’s even promised devices with “high-res touch sensors” to replicate the sensation of physical touch — a development that has caused many to fear that the metaverse would one day become too addicting.
On the flip side, the metaverse also has the potential to be a viable alternative to real-world experiences that are communal, educational, and enriching. For example, what if the metaverse one day allows us to experience areas of our world that we aren’t physically capable of accessing? Or what if it allows us to digitally attend events and spaces with those we aren’t able to share spaces with in person?
The rise of medtech has also shown us a wealth of potential within a wide range of health-related fields — including robotic surgery, routine eye or dental examinations, and mental health. Giuseppe Riva, Director of the Applied Technology for Neuro-Psychology Laboratory at the Italian Istituto Auxologico, has spent the last 20 years observing the benefits that virtual reality may pose on mental health. Research has also suggested that VR has the potential to strengthen areas of the brain and improve memory retention. This means that we are steadily discovering more reasons why the metaverse will positively impact our mental and physical health, as opposed to only causing detrimental effects.
In all, the metaverse will enable all of us, from any place and at any time, to do so many of the things we love to do in the physical world. It will allow us to access things, events, sensations, abilities, concepts, and multiple universes, all without the barriers of physical or medical limitations. Rather than thinking of the metaverse as a terrifying replacement of our physical world, we should see it as a parallel to our real-life world — or even as a bridging gap between our online and offline realms.
“We don’t have the right infrastructure to support the metaverse.”
The metaverse won’t simply just be an application that we open and engage with at will. When we think about the metaverse, we envision a persistent, synchronous, and capless universe, with limitless terrain and a fully functioning economy. It’s set to be the next phase of the internet as we know it, which means that the entire backbone of the metaverse will need to be upheld by entirely new and improved infrastructure (at least 1000 times more than what we have right now, according to Intel).
The issue? Like all periods of modern-day networking history, we don’t yet have the available infrastructure to accommodate the expansiveness of an ideal metaverse. The idea that we will need to rethink the entire infrastructure of the internet sounds like quite a daunting prospect. However, this very task is also at the heart of just about every innovator, platform, or research group’s plans to bring the metaverse to life.
According to Jerry Heinz, co-founder of Ball Metaverse Research Partners, we will need the right infrastructure to support “highly concurrent, highly persistent experiences that are on a scale and magnitude that we haven’t really yet seen before” — namely proper “latency, bandwidth, and reliability.” For instance, a virtual interaction in the metaverse will need to seamlessly and laglessly capture an avatar’s every gesture or facial expression in order for it to feel comparable to a real-life encounter. This will require a super low latency experience — one that will need the support of new networking infrastructure, new standards, and new protocols.
Given its support of advanced technologies (such as cloud gaming and XR technology), the gaming industry has been placed at the forefront of the metaverse discourse. This is because the gaming world has embraced technologies that best resemble our general conception of the metaverse — such as VR, AR, better network architecture, and cloud gaming (which is much less dependent on powerful hardware to function).
Currently, more centralized architectures, which are powered by hyper-scale cloud service providers, are in place. However, many brands and innovators have now recognized the benefits of combining decentralized network architectures with blockchain technology. This will allow the distribution of computational power across a vast global network, which will lower network latency and allow information to be stored in a more secure, transparent, and distributed way.
Many leading brands and tech giants are already focused on building better tech infrastructure to fuel the metaverse — including Unity, Unreal Engine, NVIDIA, InfiniteWorld — and of course, Meta. So far, it looks like things are in good hands.
“Interoperability will be difficult to achieve in the metaverse.”
The issue of interoperability is a commonly cited fear about the metaverse for many. In the real world, our bodies and our items move seamlessly and unchangeably between locations. But without the ability to carry digital goods or assets from one interface to another, the metaverse will only consist of self-contained ecosystems and be a difficult place for users to navigate. This would arguably defeat the entire purpose of a metaverse altogether.
As of right now, interoperability is still a new concept that isn’t found in many of the biggest metaverse platforms. For example, users still can’t don their favorite Fortnite gear when entering Facebook’s Horizon Worlds. The task of making the metaverse fully interoperable will likely be one of the most difficult parts of building it effectively.
However, we are progressively heading towards new forms of digital ownership — with an economy and greater digital space based on blockchain technology. Before the metaverse becomes more ubiquitous, there have been several questions about how much interoperability will be required to make the online experience as seamless as possible.
Currently, we rely heavily on a small number of highly centralized online applications (for example, we are provided with identity systems via large platforms, such as Facebook and Google). However, a more decentralized internet would allow communities to build their own tech stacks, untethering transactions from real-world currencies and larger regulating bodies. This would also shift this power back to individual users and developers, allowing more people to require permission or extract rents. Should this come to fruition, it would allow for a massive expansion of different applications, virtual worlds, creative endeavors, algorithms, and much more.
NFTs, which form the backbone of many blockchain games’ digital economies, come with a type of verifiable ownership that allows them to be taken from one interface to another. Each NFT has unique and unalterable metadata, which lives on a DLT (Digital Ledger Technology) controlled by its original creator. And because multiple frameworks exist for the creation and issuance of NFTs, they can be exchanged or traded across different DLTs and offer the type of interoperability that may be key to scaling the metaverse.
The fear and skepticism towards interoperability may be hard to fight (only 19% of respondents in a recent survey claimed to support the growth of blockchain technology). However, many brands have started bucking an opposite trend, with major companies such as the NBA, Pepsi, Gucci, Disney, and Tencent racking in millions of dollars in NFT revenue in just 2021 alone.
“Big Tech will take control of the metaverse.”
2021 provided the grand entrance for Meta — a name chosen by Mark Zuckerberg as part of his mission to upend his company’s brand and shift his focus towards building a metaverse platform. Zuckerberg plans to transform Meta into a place where users can “hang out with friends, work, play, learn, shop, create, and more” — an ambitious prospect which involves consolidating all online interactions into one singular, all-encompassing virtual space.
However, Facebook has long-since been criticized for reaping the benefits of its massive online presence. Within the last decade, the size, user base, and sheer influence of Facebook has caused many people to fear the ways of the social media giant — with some outlets even going as far as to compare it to a nation-state. Over the years, Facebook has also been under fire for a wave of scandals involving privacy, censorship, online addiction, and even political upheaval.
Zuckerberg also serves as chief of four of the most downloaded apps (including Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp). It should come as no surprise that there has been mounting fear about whether Facebook (or Meta) will use the metaverse to continue its online takeover and profit from acquiring more user data. Also, as shown by Facebook’s propensity to regulate its products (such as when Oculus users were required to set up a Facebook account to use their headsets), there is good reason to believe that Meta will enforce strict regulation on how their version of the metaverse is offered.
With that being said, however, it’s important to remember that the metaverse has been treated as an inevitability for many years now. From this, we can assume that someone was going to build the technology, regardless of whether or not Facebook would decide to intervene within the field. With massive communities currently also at large within the gaming world, younger generations have progressively lost interest in Facebook and gravitated towards friendlier, more progressive online communities. So while Meta may be looking to win the metaverse category, this is not a guarantee.
A long list of crypto-native social media platforms are also currently in production — with many analysts believing that these companies have will have a technical advantage over large corporate projects. Truly decentralized platforms are much more democratic and permissionless, with more user-controlled economies. Platforms such as Decentraland, Somnium Space, and Bloktopia are already providing users with a view of a more open-ended metaverse. Those who miss the earlier days of the freer, more creative days of the web are sure to welcome this system with open arms.
“Brands who don’t jump into the metaverse risk missing out.”
Amid predictions that the metaverse will become the successor of today’s internet, many brands have started fearing the consequences of failing to capitalize on the next stage of the web. Luxury brands, ranging from Dolce and Gabbana and Balenciaga to Nike and Adidas, have begun selling NFTs and building audiences that will help them drive sales via digital goods.
In recent days, Epic Games has led the charge with digital brand partnerships. Last year, the gaming supergiant saw billions of dollars in revenue generated from selling limited-edition digital goods from brands such as Star Wars, NFL, and Nike. Even popular music artists have gotten in on the action, with artists such as deadmau5 and Ariana Grande using the platform to stage online concerts or experiment on musical projects in a digital space.
While the metaverse has undoubtedly changed up how brands will deliver their products, it’s also starting to offer far more ways for companies to extend their reach beyond just traditional customer bases. Leading brands are now seeing massive success in selling digital goods to gaming communities — an audience not previously quite as targetable. And with meteoric platforms such as Roblox and Fortnite targeting core demographics of younger, more tech-savvy consumers, brands now have access to bigger, more engaged audiences.
This means that brands should be mindful of missing out on the marketing potential in the metaverse. However, because marketing and advertising in the metaverse is still a nascent concept, it’s never been a better time to get in the game and run a campaign. And with the possibility that more non-gaming concepts will soon exist within the metaverse, the sky’s the limit.
With respect to our natural fear of change, the past two years have instilled fear in all of us. Not only has the COVID-19 pandemic forever changed so many aspects of our lives — it’s also rapidly accelerated our path towards a more virtual future. And while we now have a roadmap of an exciting, boundless digital world that will defy all physical hindrances, our journey into the metaverse will also be long, complex, and not without its fair share of bumps.
In the next year, we will see the metaverse truly start to change the marketplace of gaming, advertising, VR, and much more. Be sure to join us as we prepare for an eventful, exciting, and even better year!