The metaverse: What is it, will it work, and does anyone want it?


 

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HIRO PROTAGONIST doesn’t see much promise for his future. Stuck in a dead-end job in a world where traditional money has been supplanted by encrypted alternatives and a few big companies shape things to their own ends, he struggles to make ends meet following a global economic collapse. To escape, he slips on virtual reality goggles to visit a place called the metaverse, where his digital avatar walks the streets of a more interesting, engaging, inclusive world.

This vision of a 21st-century reality comes from Snow Crash, a 1992 book by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson. But wind forward to 2022, and one large and powerful company is certainly betting all on Protagonist’s escape route. In October 2021, Facebook rebranded itself as Meta, and founder Mark Zuckerberg set a goal for a billion people worldwide to join its version of the metaverse by the end of the 2020s. It committed at least $10 billion last year alone to make that a reality.

Zuckerberg isn’t the only one latching on to a radical vision in which we go to work, seek entertainment and connect with each other not in a physical world, but in a virtual reality. The buzz surrounding the metaverse raises many questions. Chief among them are, what exactly is the metaverse, is it really just around the corner and, if so, do we actually want it?

For the company now known as Meta, you can see the attraction in the metaverse. The firm currently makes its money selling advertising based on our interactions with Facebook, its core app. But that only gives the firm visibility over the parts of our lives that we choose to put on Facebook. If our entire lives – or at least a far greater proportion of them – are conducted online, the opportunity to make big bucks selling advertising becomes that much greater.

Facebook’s metamorphosis certainly amped up the metaverse hype. Almost 160 companies mentioned the metaverse in their earnings statements in 2021, according to financial research firm Sentieo, 93 of them after the Facebook rebrand. “It’s a lot like when the ‘internet of things’ was first coming about, and the phrase started to be on everybody’s lips,” says Nick Kelly, who researches interaction design at Queensland University of Technology in Australia.

For Kelly, the metaverse is just the latest in a continuum of technological development that includes the gramophone bringing the sound of live music into people’s living rooms and televisions pumping out alternative audiovisual realities. “It’s about this trend we have of designing new experiences,” he says.

“If our entire lives are lived out online, there is more opportunity to sell us advertising”

The core vision in this case is to reimagine the internet and all the services as a physical, three-dimensional thing with a spatial reality that we – or rather our digital avatars – can navigate. “In this future, you will be able to teleport instantly as a hologram to be at the office without a commute, at a concert with friends, or in your parents’ living room to catch up,” wrote Zuckerberg when announcing Facebook’s rebranding. That virtual life could seamlessly blend with a “real” one: you might “walk” along to your favourite virtual ice-cream parlour, say, interact with a virtual assistant to pick your flavours – then see it arrive at your real door, couriered by a real person.

That detail might be novel, but there is nothing particularly new about the basic idea. Back in 2002, before Facebook even existed, games studio Linden Lab brought out Second Life, an immersive 3D world where you could hang out with friends, go to nightclubs, and buy and sell items. A large amount of ink was spilled on the dawn of a new world that would in time supplant our regular one. In time, it just… didn’t. At its peak in 2006, Second Life had a gross domestic product (GDP) of $64 million and a million users. But it quickly petered out, and is now inhabited only by a diehard few.

Reality plays catch-up

Why so? “The infrastructure just wasn’t there,” says Steve Benford, co-founder of the Mixed Reality Laboratory at the University of Nottingham, UK. “The vision was a long way ahead of what could be done.” In the UK in 2002, there were just over a million broadband connections, compared with 27 million now. The most powerful commercially available computer microchips had some 220 million transistors; the figure today is 40 billion. “Now the infrastructure is beginning to catch up – and perhaps parts of the metaverse can be delivered,” says Benford.

Perhaps. “There are many different technologies that enable this greater vision of the metaverse as a convergence of physical and digital – or our digital lifestyles catching up to our physical lives,” says Cathy Hackl at the Futures Intelligence Group consultancy. Some, such as virtual reality goggles and the blockchain, already exist. Others, such as haptic technologies to make virtual touch experiences feel “real”, are in development (see “Keystones of the metaverse“).

That doesn’t mean the technology to make a full-fat version of the metaverse is anywhere near ready, though. For a start, internet speeds, while vastly improved, still lag behind what is needed. “There’s a lot of data to ship around in the metaverse, and it has to get to a lot of people globally,” says Benford. “You’re going to need amazing levels of connectivity, 5G and beyond,” says Hackl. That will require equipment such as edge computing, which aims to distribute the computation done on cloud servers more widely and bring it closer to individual users, as well as machine-learning algorithms that are capable of responding in real time to direct data to users more quickly.

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Even with such advances, our ability to make truly immersive metaverse experiences is likely to be limited for the foreseeable future. Producing realistic graphical representations, particularly of other humans, is one persistent sticking point in this (see “Funny-looking things“).

Incorporating the full range of sensory experience, including taste and smell, is also yet to be addressed. Just as space-age cartoons like The Jetsons envisaged a world of flying cars and robot butlers in the year 2062 that seems unlikely to come to fruition, so the most outlandish visions of the metaverse still seem far away. “We’re seeing glimpses of the metaverse,” says Hackl. “It’s being built as we speak.”

What it is being built for is another open question. At Meta’s virtual rebranding press conference, reporters found themselves typing at digital facsimiles of laptop keyboards at a facsimile of a conference room desk, listening to Zuckerberg’s digital avatar opining on a facsimile of a desk chair. This world of work is what one of the few firms big enough to match Meta punch for punch, Microsoft, seems to be aiming at with its own metaverse efforts. Microsoft’s mixed reality system, called Mesh, has been integrated into its Teams collaboration and video conferencing app, with a view to offering 3D virtual avatars of meeting participants and computer-generated meeting rooms in the first half of 2022.

Physical disconnect

Many are sceptical about this vision, however: the most common complaint heard about the hybrid or fully remote working practices that many office workers have adopted during coronavirus lockdowns over the past two years is the lack of physical connection. This seems unlikely to be enhanced by a layer of cartoonish graphics on top of a video call.

Other avenues might be more fruitful. “The obvious wins for me are in entertainment and socialising – stuff you want to do where you hang out with people who are not nearby,” says Benford. “A number of us now realise you can do nice things with remote friends and families online.” Digital concerts are a case in point where the metaverse is already becoming reality. The video game Fortnite and the game development platform Roblox, which encourages its users to build their own worlds, have both hosted concerts by digital representations of real-life pop stars during the pandemic.

Some 47 million people use the Roblox platform every day, amounting to 11.2 billion “hours engaged” in the third quarter of 2021, according to the company. With their experience in building immersive worlds and their already enthusiastic user bases, the gaming companies could be a significant challenge to Meta’s vision of a metaverse built from scratch that it controls. Just as the “format wars” of the 1970s and 1980s saw VHS and Betamax video tapes battle for supremacy, with one eventually winning out, so there is a real possibility that, like Second Life, one or several of the many metaverses now being built will end up as ghost towns.

Hackl hopes for an open metaverse, with interoperability between different platforms allowing your digital avatar to leap to another world just as we can easily travel from one city to another. That is a model that the European Union is already pushing for with social messaging apps in its draft Digital Markets Act proposals, meaning that you don’t need to sign up to a certain app to talk to your friends just because they aren’t on the same services you are.

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Pop star Ariana Grande gave a concert in Fortnite’s virtual world in August 2021

Epic Games

All that swerves the real multibillion-dollar question, however: whether we will want to abandon our “meatverse”, where we press flesh, touch and feel and interact with fellow humans, for the metaverse where, the development of technologies such as haptics notwithstanding, we are gesturing at digital alternatives. Even with its change in name, Meta’s involvement may give some potential users pause for thought, mired as the company is in negative publicity ever since the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which users were targeted for political advertising.

The hype might serve to pose the question of what we might want from expanded digital worlds, and how that compares with the visions of the metaverse on offer. “There’s this idea that it’s openness; that it’s actually expanding the possibilities of your life by entering the metaverse,” says Kelly. “I would argue it’s doing the opposite. It appears to be open in the same way that the internet is open: that the actual practicalities of who is able to create that world is extremely unequal.”

“Some or many of the metaverses now being built may end up as ghost towns”

He sees the idea of the metaverse being coded by, and inevitably shaped in the image of, Meta’s workers – rich, predominantly white and based in Silicon Valley. It is a “very constraining idea that will narrow the scope of human lives when they spend time in this hypothesised metaverse”, says Kelly.

When Hiro Protagonist donned his virtual reality goggles in Snow Crash, he was doing so to escape the horrors of his life. He ended up finding the metaverse equally unpalatable, populated by gangsters and ne’er-do-wells. Social media platforms such as Facebook have shown us how virtual platforms can end up amplifying undesirable currents in the world outside – with knock-on effects in the real sphere. It is time to consider, perhaps, how we can ensure that whatever the metaverse ends up being, it ends up being what we want.

FUNNY-LOOKING THINGS

Computer-generated graphics are now able to digitally replicate long-dead actors in Hollywood movies, and deepfake video technology makes it possible to fool even the most sceptical viewer. Yet log on to the mooted iterations of the metaverse from the likes of Meta, Microsoft and Roblox (see main story), and the blocky, cartoonish graphics still look like they have been imported from an old generation of video game consoles. It raises the question: why does the metaverse look like it does, and when, if ever, will that change?

“Reproducing natural forms, and particularly natural forms we are very sensitive to, like other humans, is super-difficult,” says Steve Benford at the University of Nottingham, UK. The simplest explanation for the cartoonish rendering is the strain more realistic representations would place on processors and online connections. “My guess is that it would be related to technical limitations,” says Nick Kelly at Queensland University of Technology, Australia. “As mass multiplayer games have shown, it’s really difficult to have 500,000 people all interacting simultaneously without huge lag.”

Then there is the “uncanny valley”. This term, coined in the 1970s by robotics professor Masahiro Mori, describes how lifelike robots can provoke feelings of revulsion or horror if they aren’t quite right. It has since been extended to graphical renderings of humans in video games and movies. If and when metaverse technology becomes more widespread, the unease that such avatars generate will have to be confronted – and it could mean that the graphics of the metaverse always remain in the realms of the cartoonish.

KEYSTONES OF THE METAVERSE

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Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta is developing tech for us all to enter the metaverse

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Many of the technologies necessary to make an immersive virtual version of the physical world already exist to at least some extent.

AUGMENTED REALITY

This involves overlaying a virtual environment on top of real life, often using special glasses or a phone. Google Glass, an attempt by the search giant to do something similar, flopped in the early 2010s. Some primitive, but common, examples now include Snapchat’s Lenses that, for example, turn you into a dog when you open your mouth. Meta is developing a pair of augmented reality glasses called Nazaré that CEO Mark Zuckerberg hopes will become as ubiquitous as mobile phones are today.

VIRTUAL REALITY

Plugging yourself into virtual reality usually involves wearing a headset, often accompanied by handheld motion controllers, and seeing your entire field of vision and other elements of your senses overtaken by a digital world. Your movements map onto your digital avatar’s, allowing you to traverse a virtual universe. Entry into Meta’s version will probably require a pair of virtual reality goggles made by Oculus, a company Facebook bought in 2014.

HAPTICS

Touch is a big thing missing from many extended virtual reality experiences. Meta’s AI research department is one of many trying to make the metaverse more touch-responsive using haptic technology, which applies force or vibration to your skin to mimic real physical touch.

BLOCKCHAIN

A distributed, decentralised ledger of information that is held across multiple users, the blockchain could be the digital key to the metaverse. Its immutable records would allow users to have the confidence to transact their business online without worrying about being scammed.

MIXED REALITY

Combining elements of the real world and the virtual, mixed reality is a broad-brush term for things that often don’t fit into augmented or virtual reality.

EXTENDED REALITY

Extended reality is a catch-all term to cover the likes of augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality. Taken together, it is a key area of research for academia and industry alike.

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