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Metaverse Madness: Gearing towards a revolutionary future? Or a marketing gimmick of the present

The latest internet buzzword, Metaverse, has taken the world by storm, yet the more you hear, the less you know. Pallavi Biju digs a little deeper into this new virtual universe and the future it offers

On 28 October 2021, the internet went haywire. Overnight, Facebook rebranded itself as Meta, completely restructuring social media as we knew it. Although this is not the first time we had heard of the “metaverse”, it was the first time we were experiencing it.

The world is gearing up for the Metaverse. NFTs, cryptocurrencies, and augmented reality platforms are speeding up the transition from the existing universe to the Metaverse, with gamers and the art world already having hopped onto this trend. And just like any other lingo created by folks on the inter-web, Metaverse’s definition remains nebulous yet hotly debated, with explanations crowding each other out. However, one thing is certain – this trend will wait for no tardy ones, for the Meta-beast is crouched and ready to take over the internet, one Silicon Valley business at a time.

A Whole New Word

Imagine the metaverse as a collection of simulated worlds which exist in virtual and augmented reality, accessed through compatible gadgets. It operates as a convergence of the physical, real-world, and the digital online world. Broadly, the metaverse is a graphically rich virtual universe, where people live and perform as they do in real life – work, play, shop, socialize, and more – on the internet. Picture all the video games that we have all played or perhaps still do – SIMS, Poptropica, The Sandbox, and even Roblox – where we created avatars that resembled us (or didn’t) and interacted with one another, went on quests and won points. Essentially, it is not a new idea, but the intention of its creators is for the world to adopt the Metaverse.

The concept was first introduced 30 years ago, in the 1992 novel Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson, which described a virtual reality in a 21st-century dystopian world. In the novel, the metaverse is a virtual “real estate” where properties can be bought and built upon. Depicted as a planet-encircling market, the metaverse serves as an escape to users from the real-life dystopia, with characters more invested in their 3D avatars.

The metaverse is a decentralized platform, i.e., it is not owned by a single corporation but by all of its users. This is what makes blockchain technology a huge and integral part of the metaverse

Despite the literature’s decidedly negative and chilling connotations, several media and gaming companies soon jumped on the bandwagon, most notably the 2003-released multimedia platform, Second Life, which allowed users to create a 3D version of themselves to live a ‘second life’ in the online virtual world. In addition, the 2011 science-fiction novel Ready Player One by author Ernest Cline also gave a sneak-peak inside the virtual world known as ‘The OASIS’, which players access via visors and haptic gloves. This novel later turned into a movie of the same name, presented the virtual universe as an escape from a world gripped by energy crises and global warming.

Peek Into The Unknown

At the outset, one of the Metaverse’s most prominent features is Virtual Reality. You can explore the metaverse using a gaming console, smartphone, computers, wearable technology, or any other smart device, which will allow you to be completely immersed in the graphics and sound. This is how you become ‘present’ in the virtual world.

Another key characteristic of the metaverse is the interaction with other people. The metaverse is designed for social interaction and thus has other people represented by 3D avatars. Of course, not all avatars may be real people; they can be bots, virtual agents, or even manifestations of artificial intelligence. However, given Facebook’s history as a social network, the social aspect is expected to be central to Meta. Metaverse supporters believe this could be the next step to virtual communication, adding a new dimension to communicating “face-to-face”.

As a virtual space, the Metaverse is boundless – it withers away every imagined barrier, physical or otherwise. There are no limits on how many people can use it at a time, what industries can be in it or what kind of activities it supports. The virtual space is also available whenever you want to visit it; one person cannot reset, reboot or
unplug it. Hence, whenever you decide to avail of the metaverse, you simply plug in and pick up where you left off. Based on its users’ shared experiences and contributions, the universe evolves constantly.

The metaverse is also a decentralized platform, i.e., it is not owned by a single corporation but by all of its users. This is what makes blockchain technology a huge and integral part of the metaverse. The core of the metaverse boils down to its users; through user-generated content from virtual creations to personal stories and interactions with AI-driven avatars, every participant in a virtual world participates in co-experiences, thus co-creating the metaverse’s future.

Calling All Businesses

Meta’s first foray into the metaverse did not commence with the 2021 rebranding; it started in 2019 with the launch of Horizon Worlds, formerly known as Facebook Horizon. The social platform, created for the Oculus Rift S and Oculus Quest 2, allowed access to people aged 18 or older in the United States and Canada after a successful beta run. Just two months after its public unveiling, Meta reported that the combined monthly user base of Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues had grown to 300,000 people and 10,000 custom worlds being built by them.

With such stupendous demand, fellow Silicon Valley business Microsoft also jumped on the bandwagon. In January 2022, the multinational tech corporation acquired gaming giant Activision Blizzard – makers of games like Call of Duty, Candy Crush, and Overwatch – for $68.7 million, making it Microsoft’s most expensive game studio acquisition by far. The acquisition was explicitly made to accelerate Microsoft’s growth in the gaming business and a stepping stone into the metaverse.

Virtual reality does not erase the crimes and misdemeanors of the real world; these evils carry through to every dimension where humans go

Several new trademarks filed by Walmart appear to indicate the retailer plans to launch its own cryptocurrency and a set of NFTs. McDonald’s recent trademark applications include one for a virtual restaurant that would deliver food directly to a customer’s home. Through the creation of a metaverse environment, Deloitte hopes to enhance customers’ and businesses’ retail experiences, especially in the Middle East. Digital asset exchange KuCoin has launched a Bloktopia Digital Space-based office.

In India, TATA Tea took a very innovative and on-trend approach for Holi this year by holding a Holi party in the metaverse hosted by YUG Metaverse. Customers could choose their avatars and enjoy the festival of colours by engaging in a plethora of Holi games for their metaverse debut. In addition, the brand delved into fantastic digital storytelling and personalization to give customers an unmatched, unforeseen experience.

Savvy celebrities too are diving headfirst into this new paradigm. American rapper and songwriter Snoop Dogg teased the launch of “Snoopverse” on The Sandbox and one of his fans brought a property in this customized virtual world for a whopping $500,000! Paris Hilton, businesswoman and media personality, has also created her virtual island on Roblox known as Paris World and allows users to raid her iconic wardrobe and purchase outfits.

American rapper and songwriter Snoop Dogg teased the launch of “Snoopverse” on The Sandbox and one of his fans brought a property in this customized virtual world for a whopping $500,000

Other Side of The Coin

In a world that has vastly benefited from the internet but is also reeling from its maddening effects, the talk around Metaverse has made many wary of its enigma to remove us from reality altogether.

Metaverse users and non-users have raised questions about the accessibility and exclusivity of the virtual world. Virtual reality platforms require access to high-end technology such as VR headsets, blockchain, cryptocurrency, haptic gloves, etc., for users to gain a fully immersive experience. These are neither accessible nor affordable for most people around the world.

Being badgered or socially pressured into immersive experiences bring the risk of losing connection with the real world. The more present you are in the meta-world, the less present you become in the physical world. Although that seems to be the ultimate goal of the Metaverse, it raises the question of how the metaverse may affect ‘human’ relationships and real-world social environments.

The most concerning issues about the metaverse are privacy and security concerns, not to mention those of body autonomy. Just a week before the public release of Horizon Worlds, a beta user reported being groped by a stranger on the platform. Virtual reality does not erase the crimes and misdemeanors of the real world; these evils carry through to every dimension where humans go. While Meta has activated features to curb such inappropriate uses of the platform, concerns loom. With features like screen-recording during Metaverse collaborations being in-demand, users are perplexed by what this could mean for privacy in the simulated world.

The Metaverse may meld cultures together or erase cultures and customs that don’t fit the sterile Meta universe. Anything that does not cater to a hyper-capitalist digital aesthetic will become socially extinct. This fusion and elimination of our tangible cultural diversity will lead to a monotonous uniformity, as many traditions that have existed since mankind’s beginning will simply find no place in the digital realm.

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