Should you fear the metaverse?
Privacy, law and order, access are just some of the tangles that lie in wait as companies get set to create virtual worlds that mirror our own — worlds where one can buy, play, meet, work, all in the same simulation. Also vital, what will metaverses do to the nature of reality?
If the definition of sanity is the ability to tell the real from the unreal, we’ll soon need a new definition, American writer Alvin Toffler said, about half a century ago. As the world gets set to enter the age of the metaverse, we can consider ourselves smack bang in the middle of that “soon”.
Facebook Inc, now Meta Platforms Inc, is not the only company pushing the idea of a metaverse. Others with similar plans include Microsoft, children’s gaming platform Roblox, game developing giant Epic (developers of Fortnite), and chip makers Nvidia (creators of Omniverse, a platform designed to enable simulation).
What is the metaverse? Think of our reality as a spectrum. On one end is the offline world we inhabit, where we shop, argue, go to work, socialise and raise our children. On the other end are the virtual realities we dip in and out of (immersive games, virtual reality or VR experiences, make-believe islands where one can grow magic beans and befriend people from around the world).
The metaverse sits at a midpoint between the two. In the metaverse, a person could slip on a VR headset and have their virtual avatar walk down a virtual strip, gamble at virtual slots and lose money in the real world. They could walk into a simulated Amazon mall and order items that would arrive at their doorstep. They could buy a lamp for their virtual home and have an identical one delivered to their real home too.
Users could also potentially log in to a virtual meeting and sit beside avatars of colleagues based in their own city as well as around the world. They could create a 3D blueprint of a car, a building, a Lego Death Star, and invite friends in to tinker with it. Or even have a 3D printer somewhere spit out a version of it.
Children could learn in virtual classrooms, play virtual games or go virtual horseback-riding. Organisers could sell tickets to e-concerts, e-lotteries, e-Formula 1 Grand Prix races.
There are no standard definitions, and it will be about 10 years before a metaverse is up and running, but what the tech companies do agree on is that a metaverse would be immersive, mirror the real world, and offer significant augmentations that would make it feel like a real world on steroids. Picture brighter colours, futuristic cityscapes, maybe even flying cars, all accessible from wherever the user sits.
“If done well, it would be the beginning of a revolution as big as the internet was back in the ’90s,” says Sai Krishna VK, founder of Scapic, an augmented reality company now owned by Flipkart.
The term metaverse is credited to Neal Stephenson, who first used it in the 1992 dystopian novel Snow Crash. The novel references an immersive digital environment where people interact as avatars.
An early real-world example was the game Second Life. Launched in 2003, it let players create a virtual avatar, buy land or a home, go shopping, attend concerts. Science-fiction has since built on the idea of the metaverse.
The 2011 novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, turned into a film directed by Steven Spielberg in 2018, took readers into a dystopian 2045 in which the real world is a barren shell, and so the lucky few escape into a VR simulation called Oasis where they can do anything they want, free of the restrictions and scarcities of real life.
It was a world that became increasingly exclusionary. One needed a lot of money to experience it fully. As this market became more lucrative, the virtual world became covered in advertisements. In the movie and book, the players overthrew the evil mega-corporation trying to turn the playground into a marketplace. In the real world, the megacorp rules the metaverse.
Access to the metaverses-in-the-making is already looking restricted, for users and in-app vendors, primarily because of the hardware required to experience immersive content. Users will not be able to swipe on a phone or turn on a PC to enter these virtual worlds; that’s not how the metaverse will render. They will need a headset and possibly other smart wearables.
Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2 VR system costs upwards of ₹34,000, and it’s at the lower end of the price scale. Headsets and controllers by HTC and Microsoft cost three to ten times as much.
For now, these headsets work across VR platforms. But avoiding walled gardens will be crucial in the metaverse. Who will be allowed to enter the virtual world and peddle their wares, and what it will cost them to set up shop are potential tangles. In our present version of the internet, for instance, app developers must pay up to 30% of earnings to app stores that host their software.
Roblox, launched in 2006, has 202 million monthly active users spending time and money in a virtual world, making in-game purchases across other apps too. The platform AltspaceVR, launched in 2015 and since acquired by Microsoft, has been hosting community experiences ranging from open mic and improv comedy nights to VR church.
The real tangle will be privacy and data control.
Every interaction in the metaverse will constitute market research. If today’s privacy agreements are hard to read, expect the details of how much data is collected in the metaverse, by whom and for what purposes to be all but unintelligible.
There has been no movement to frame regulations for these worlds yet. How will the law tackle harassment, trolling and stalking in a virtual world? Will it be possible to “block” another user if you do not wish to see them? Where will the law stand on virtual ownership, violence or theft? There are no answers yet.
In this year’s Ryan Reynolds-starrer Free Guy, a simulated world called Free City becomes a place for players to be their worst selves. There are points for killing, robbing banks, beating up strangers. A background character with AI coded into his programming gains some degree of consciousness and upends this world by being a complete anomaly: a good guy.
Already, the internet’s evolution into a virtual society via social media has changed our world in ways we couldn’t have predicted, and are hard-pressed to harness or control. What would a virtual free-for-all do? It’s hard to imagine.