The Metaverse: A Reality Check.

So, I had the opportunity to be part of AdWorld 2022, a global marketing conference involving over 25,000 marketers from 160 countries to learn about the latest marketing trends of 2022 and the years beyond. We’ve summarized the biggest takeaways from the event here if you wish to catch up with the industry’s latest developments. 

Today, we’ll be taking a closer look at the metaverse, a buzz word we’ve been hearing in the industry for several years now. Not surprisingly, it has been mentioned over and over again at AdWorld.  

Many in the tech industry claimed that the metaverse is the next phase of the internet. Companies like Meta are hailing it as a sort of utopia that will make our time spent online more interactive and immersive. Other tech giants like Microsoft and Google have also joined the rat race. 

I wanted to find out how much we have progressed in terms of the metaverse. 

What is a metaverse? 

I found the simplest and most concise answer from XRToday. According to them, a metaverse is “a tightly interconnected set of digital spaces that lets users escape into a virtual world and the rules of technology are the only limit.” In a metaverse, you may freely partake in social gatherings, attend events, go to work, visit the grocery store, and just about everything else you’d do in the physical world. 

The term “metaverse” was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash to describe a 21st-century dystopian virtual world, where virtual real estate can be bought and sold, and where VR goggle-wearing users exist as 3D avatars in an imaginary world. 

The three elements — a VR interface, digital ownership, and avatars — that often comes to mind in our conception of the metaverse, were in fact non-essential to the idea at all. In the broadest terms, the metaverse is understood as a graphically rich virtual space, with some degree of realism, where people can work, play, shop, and socialize, amongst other things humans enjoy doing together in real life. 

The metaverse today 

Just how near (or far) are we away from the promised land? Well, technically, the metaverse that has been envisioned do not exist yet, though we can get some first-hand experience of its early form through various prototypes.  

The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern attempts to find out how the metaverse today feels like by spending 24hours in virtual reality. The results were anything but surprising, to me at least, as someone who has spent years of my life in virtual worlds gaming with friends. Here’s what she found. 

Minutes into the experiment, Joanna is already speaking with acquaintances in the lobby, exchanging names and intros. The relationships and connections felt real as you speak with real people. There was even an awkward moment when someone tried to hit on her avatar. The metaverse can even transport her to the foot of Machu Pichu for breakfast, the mountaintops to do workouts, and an art gallery where she met up with her colleagues.  

Then, came the problems. While you can engage in a range of activities virtually, the visuals often looked unrealistic, clunky, and dated at best, as if you were living in the 90’s.  

Visuals look unrealistic, clunky, and dated. 

Jumping from meetings to meetings means you’ll need a different avatar for every app, killing the joy of customization and turning it into a chore. 

Too many avatars. 🙅🏻‍♀️

Most unwontedly, the avatars you embody have one common issue with their legs, or the lack thereof. It’s outright bizarre and whacky if you ask me.

Torso planted on a campfire. Really? 

Imagine legless torsos presenting financial results to shareholders. 

Peeping under the desk and your colleague’s legs aren’t there. 

According to developers, “legs” are work-in-progress and coming soon, as VR headsets today only detect movements in the head and both hands.  

With all seriousness, I believe the metaverse might offer some relief to reduce barriers in communication, and allow more interactions to occur without meeting a person face-to-face, or invading someone else’s personal space. In this regard, Deepak Mehta on Quora took human motivations apart to explain why people prefer online interactions over those in real life.  

First off, most online interactions are non-verbal, and a lot of us, me included, are on the introversion end of the spectrum. Hell, we have difficulty vocalizing our thoughts. Online chats are also more informative. Instead of wasting precious time on fillers and icebreakers like discussing weather, sports, movies etc., we can get straight to the point. 

The lack of any physical distractors can be another factor. We don’t need to look at the other person, or be distracted by their non-verbal cues, like where our eyes should focus or where to put our hands. We don’t need to be conscious of our body language or appearance; the conversation is purely focused on ideas and information. 

You can learn more about Deepak’s analysis through this Forbes article. 

The real problem with the metaverse 

1. Safety 

Creators have been selling virtual real estate – pieces of the metaverse, or virtual land. The record sale happened on Decentraland for a whopping $2.4 million worth of cryptocurrency. These virtual lands are touted to be worth millions, like real estate for their potential to capitalize and conduct business in a virtual world.  

With so much money pouring into the metaverse, experts are worried that real world problems like hacking and money laundering are finding their way into the mix. Kavya Pearlman, Founder of the non-profit XR Safety Initiative, who sets safety, privacy and ethical standards for immersive technologies highlights the lack of framework, legislation, safety, and security in such transactions. In the face of serious crime, like duplicating assets you own, there isn’t a place or anyone, as a matter of fact, whom you can turn to for help. They just don’t exist at this point. 

2. Privacy 

Then comes the privacy issues; each time we connect, create, or transact in the virtual world, data is being exchanged. Everyone in the supply chain, including headset manufacturers, people who run the servers and third-party developers are going to have access to these data, but we don’t have a clue where else these data are being transmitted and what they are being used for. 

3. Mental health 

Meta’s ex-employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen had also warned about the addictive nature of the metaverse, where users would find themselves unplugged from reality. This is especially so when users can fictionalize a version of themselves that differs from reality in exchange for likeness. This can seriously affect someone’s identity if left unchecked.  

According to Mitch Prinstein, Chief Science Officer, American Psychological Association, this has created far more body image concerns and exposure to dangerous content that is related to suicidality. The non-profit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found that minors were regularly exposed to graphic sexual content, racist and violent language, bullying and other forms of harassment on VRChat’s platform, which is typically accessed through Meta’s Oculus headsets. 

4. Technological challenge 

In a recent interview with Mark Zuckerberg, he described an immersive digital world where holographic displays of people we care about would magically appear on your couch. A time when we’ll enjoy hands-free control as you type away using neural signals, and eventually we’d replace our trusty workstation with a pair of glasses that fits in your pocket. Sounds fab right? 

You know, it’s easy to get lost in fantasy when everyone else is in full-ecstasy mode. Let’s look at how ambitious this sounds. For comparison, a 1440p resolution display that runs at 80Hz is often considered a luxury in gaming only sits as a baseline for VR. That means you’ll need a lot more processing power to run the same applications on a VR headset than on a standard desktop. Now try packing holographic display technologies, advanced AR/VR technologies, high resolution rendering, eye and face tracking and neuro interfaces (as Meta envisioned) into the size of a pair of glasses. If such a piece of tech marvel existed, it would’ve cost you tens of thousands of dollars. 

All too familiar 

Come to think of it, the metaverse we’ve been sold might’ve already existed – in the form of video games, specifically RPGs (role-playing games) like the Sims, Grand Theft Auto and Roblox, where we made friends, enjoyed time together, or even allow romance to blossom (Maplestory anyone?).  

Food-for-thought: Is the metaverse “revolutionary” as we’ve been told? Or have we just found a new way to commercialize gaming by slapping on a new term with the promise of a utopia? 

House party in The Sims 4. 

The future of metaverse 

The metaverse is science fiction at this stage. As you can probably tell, it might in fact be a long way ahead of us. Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely believe that the metaverse is inevitable. Like it or not, we’ll all be sucked into it one way or another.  

Meanwhile, I’ll be racking my brain thinking about how I’d keep users on the platform without the perks of physical entertainment and indulgence, as physical events make a comeback post Covid. So what if I can turn up at this fancy virtual party with my friends, when I can’t grab a pint for the occasion? 

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