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The Metaverse: Science Fiction or Reality?

We tend to overestimate a technology’s abilities in the near term, and massively underestimate what it can do in the long term.

· 9 min read
The Metaverse: Science Fiction or Reality?
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We are all finally beginning to grasp the concept of blockchain. Now we are struggling with the newest buzzword in technology: “metaverse.” If “metaverse” sounds like something from a science fiction novel, that is because it is. In Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, he envisaged the metaverse (meta + universe) as a 3D virtual world that existed parallel to the real world, similar to a simulation where people can use avatars or virtual humans to interact with each other.

Periodically, the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center conduct surveys using a wide range of technology experts to assess the future of the digital landscape to forecast if we will be better off as a result of that predicted future. In the most recent survey, we were asked to comment (based on our expertise) on a series of questions on this topic:

· “How might it change human society and our daily lives?”

· “What is the time frame for the infrastructure and the role of blockchain?”

· “What positives and negatives might emerge as a result?”

· Perhaps the most thought-provoking question was “How might it change the way we think about our world and ourselves?”

Like the other experts, I submitted my answers for their report, but I also decided to take a deeper dive into this topic. My focus as a technology analyst is on trends advancing mainstream adoption by the public, such as the development of the enabling technologies, the metaverse’s impact on the digital economy, and trends holding its development back, such as social issues. Then I provide a meta-analysis of these trends based on the current work of engineers, entrepreneurs, and social activists.

The Metaverse Hype Cycle

Historically, emerging technologies have followed a pattern of development that Gartner has represented in graphical form using the S-curve. To reach a goal, there is a series of steps you need to take, and you can follow the progress of each step to develop a technology forecast. The process begins with a proof of concept. Then there are a series of successes and failures. Pilots and astronauts have been training using simulations for decades and the gaming industry is thriving, but 3D television never took off.

Currently, the metaverse is in a crucial stage of development in the hype cycle. The surviving entrepreneurs will continue to improve their products. At some point in the process, the emerging technology usually either fails or achieves mainstream adoption by the public. With positive publicity, funding usually follows, and this is the path to success.

Another predictable pattern, observed by Roy Amara, known as Amara’s Law, is that we tend to overestimate a technology’s abilities in the near term, and massively underestimate what it can do in the long term. This is because we commonly overlook large-scale societal, economic, and technological trends that emerge gradually and continuously over time.

So, you need to separate the hype from reality—the true state of engineering. Typically, tech PR departments don’t tell us that their products are terrible and how much money they have spent on failed products. However, because of lessons learned from the development of AI, entrepreneurs are now hesitant to hype their products.

The building blocks

Similar to AI, the metaverse infrastructure is a convergence of technologies; therefore, it has multiple hype cycles. Accompanying these building blocks is an assortment of tech terminology that you need to become familiar with.

Metaverse lingo

5G, 6G networks: updated digital networks and edge computing are necessary to meet the low latency standards required to make immersive experiences possible, especially for mobile connectivity
Augmented reality (AR): overlays digital information on real-world elements
Avatar: a virtual human being
Edge computing: moving processing and data storage closer to the location where it is needed to improve response times
Haptics: relating to the sense of touch
Immersion: experience in the virtual world
Mixed reality (MR): interacting and manipulating in both physical and virtual environments
NFTs: non-fungible tokens
Semantic web: machine-readable internet data
Virtual reality (VR): a computer-generated world of imagery and sounds
Web1: Internet using web pages
Web2: Internet with user-generated content, e.g., social media
Web3: the World Wide Web based on blockchain technology and the semantic web; this stage is currently a work in progress and may include concepts such as the metaverse

After logging on to the Internet through a computer or mobile device, you need a display to achieve the immersive, 3D experience of the metaverse. This is achieved through virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) headsets. In 2014, Facebook (which became Meta in 2021) invested $2 billion in purchasing Oculus VR, which makes VR and AR headsets. Currently, these devices are primarily used by a particular group: gamers. However, according to figures from the Entertainment Software Association, just 29 percent of the 169 million gamers in the United States say they own one.

The application will also determine which type of alternative reality is necessary. VR hacks the brain to make the user think that they are actually in a virtual space. Using cameras and Internet access, the user can superimpose the metaverse onto the physical world—the essence of AR. For example, a customer can use the IKEA app to select furniture items and visualize what they would look like in their home. Mixed reality is created when a user can interact directly with the metaverse in a physical setting.

While researchers have made advances in VR, it is still a long way off from mainstream adoption. On the low end, the devices are bulky, some need wiring, and the higher-end products are expensive. A high-end VR computer costs roughly $1,000, and NVIDIA estimates that 99 percent of computers on the market can't handle the specs required for a true virtual reality experience. Currently, high-end VR headsets cost up to $1,600. Also, Meta is researching high-tech haptic gloves to enable users to touch and feel the virtual world, which will further drive up costs.

Unlike the regular tokens used for blockchain transactions for virtual accessories, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are digital certificates of authenticity that are unable to be replicated and digitally represent assets such as virtual real estate, images, music, videos, and artwork. Without buyer protection in place in case a fraudulent transaction occurs, investing large amounts of money in the virtual world is risky.

More powerful and faster networks are necessary to handle the amount of data required for all of the 3D imaging. Other important components of the infrastructure are 5G and 6G networks and edge computing, which are necessary to meet the low latency standards required to make immersive experiences possible, especially for mobile connectivity. However, we are now entering the age of 4G digital networks and mobile devices are just now becoming 4G-compatible.

To develop the infrastructure, it is necessary to develop standards or protocols to make sure all the building blocks, which are diverse technologies, can work with each other. So, the interested parties (including Meta) are joining the Metaverse Standards Forum to ensure interoperability.

Stimulating the digital economy

Most technologies have drivers that result in their development. For example, efficiency and solving hard problems are the driving forces behind the development of artificial intelligence. In contrast, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has invested billions of dollars to help build the metaverse’s infrastructure, and he and other entrepreneurs are finding ways to use it. Zuckerberg envisages that the metaverse could comprise a considerable part of the social network operator’s business in the second half of the decade. For Meta, his business model is to have around a billion people in the metaverse with each spending hundreds of dollars on virtual products and services.

Virtual real estate is an investment. You can purchase a virtual private island through websites such as The Sandbox. Among those that have already invested in virtual real estate are rapper Snoop Dog and socialite Paris Hilton. Avatars need virtual accessories and virtual homes and conference rooms need virtual decorations. The major fashion brands are also looking into virtual fashion as a way to market themselves and increase revenues. Nike purchased virtual sneaker company RTFKT, and partnered with Roblox to build “Nikeland,” where customers can buy Nike outfits for their avatars. Also, Balenciaga sells virtual fashion brands in Fortnite, and a digital Gucci bag sold for over $4,000 on Roblox.

McDonald’s recently announced that, in the future, customers will have an option for ordering food from their virtual McCafé using VR headsets, have it delivered, and pay using a digital wallet. This will help eliminate paper money and coins, but does ordering a hamburger or fish and chips from a rather expensive VR headset really have a significant advantage over a credit card order?

JP Morgan estimates that the metaverse has a market opportunity of $1 trillion in annual revenue, so it has set up a virtual office to work in conjunction with its blockchain division. Bill Gates predicts that in several years, most business meetings will be held in the metaverse. Other proposed applications include improving interactive learning environments and music concerts.

A dystopian scenario

Sci-fi doesn’t sell very well if everyone becomes rich and happy, so in Snow Crash Stephenson had a pizza-delivery-person-by-day-and-hacker-by-night wreak havoc in the virtual world. This is typical in the cyberpunk category of science fiction, where technology leads to societal decay or collapse. While the origin of the concept originated from a dystopian future scenario, today, most people are not concerned about an apocalypse. Rather, they are focused on proactive steps to prevent negative side effects.

Technologists and futurists failed to predict addiction and the privacy, safety, cybersecurity, and income inequality issues that have accompanied Web2 and social media. Most of these issues did not emerge until some time had passed and the momentum was so great that, as behavioral scientist Preeti Kotamarthi pointed out, we could not “put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

There is also interest in better understanding the unique effects of spending lots of time living in a simulation. Some of the psychological effects are positive. In the metaverse, people with anxiety disorders can have greater control of their environments, and people can create new and better identities through avatars.

For the negative side effects, in an interview on the Lex Fridman podcast, Zuckerberg said there will be a point where virtual worlds are so immersive that we won't want to leave them. For gamers, the benefit is recreational and will, perhaps, fuel an addiction to the VR experience. With the metaverse, gamers will move from just playing to experiencing a more fully immersive experience.

Also, because of the online disinhibition effect, people say and do things that they would not do in real life, such as trolling and abusive behavior, because they can hide their true identities, according to Kotamarthi. So, policymakers will need to determine if virtual acts such as spitting on, hurting, abusing, or killing an avatar are acceptable.

Mainstream adoption

While a virtual world has many possibilities, its adoption by the mainstream will depend on several factors. These include building the infrastructure and a sustainable business model with products and services that provide value and that outweigh any negative side effects.

Forecasting the metaverse is difficult for several reasons. Since the metaverse infrastructure is a convergence of technologies and has multiple hype cycles, whether or not the infrastructure is built will depend on whether the application is for gaming, personal, retail, or corporate use.

Also, people are not saying “if we had a metaverse, we could do this and do it better.” Rather, engineers are creating the building blocks and entrepreneurs will have to figure out what to do with them. Since there is no specific goal to work towards, just a sustainable business model, this also makes forecasting difficult. However, the culture in Silicon Valley is one of trial and error, according to Sylvia Gallusser, founder and CEO of Silicon Humanism and a futurist specializing in the metaverse. Entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs were successful because they did not have creative limitations.

So, should venture capitalists invest in the metaverse? Currently, there are not many major benefits, but there is a myriad of known potential negative side effects. In the real world, the metaverse will have to compete with other internet technologies for market share. According to a study by Productsup, 60 percent of shoppers have zero interest in buying virtual goods. For adoption by the mainstream, entrepreneurs will have to integrate products and services that can provide monetary benefits and outperform other digital technologies.

According to the Pew study, technology experts are divided on how the metaverse concept will play out in the future. I interpret this to mean that we do not actually know and there are multiple possible future outcomes. I have demonstrated the complexity of technology forecasting, and working as a technology analyst for the past decade, I have learned to forecast different scenarios rather than predict them.

Technology forecasters classify scenarios as possible, probable, and preferred. However, it is really too early to tell with any certainty which metaverse scenarios are the most probable. Based on my technology background I concur with Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist who closely follows the metaverse phenomenon. Ball forecasts that rather than being a radical shift in the digital revolution, the metaverse is just a continuation of the mobile internet and Web2 to Web3 using blockchain technology in the virtual 3D world. It will slowly emerge over time as different products, services, and capabilities integrate.

A preferred scenario is that a version of Web3 incorporating the metaverse will become a paradigm shift in the digital economy by not only stimulating the economy, but by resolving the social problems associated with Web2 and social media. However, that scenario has multiple possibilities. If the concept succeeds, will we have one metaverse, or Google, Meta, Microsoft, Apple, and the equivalent Chinese metaverses? In contrast, a possible or even probable scenario is that the whole metaverse concept fades away and consumers adopt a different version of Web3.

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