One word keeps popping up in recent tech-related discussions, whether it is about the future of the Internet, Facebook’s name change or the next phase of XR development. Metaverse is coming, but what is it and how should we feel about it?
Like all respectable technology terms, the name metaverse comes from science fiction. Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi novel Snow Crash, published in 1992, used metaverse to describe a collective virtual space, which was created by converging physical reality with augmented and virtual reality. In Stephenson’s novel users accessed the metaverse through virtual reality goggles and communicated via virtual avatars. Interestingly, the novel included a sub-culture of people called gargoyles, who were addicted to the metaverse and remained permanently attached to the virtual world. This is one of the more dystopian visions of the metaverse, where people will lose track of reality.
What is the metaverse?
The word ‘meta’ means ‘beyond’, so the literal translation is ‘beyond universe’. The metaverse is the next rendition of the internet, where two-dimensional text-based pages are replaced by a flow of virtual 3D spaces and experiences. Already today, different XR technologies enable us to experience virtual worlds, but the metaverse unites them into a seamless virtual universe.
In academic writing, metaverse has been discussed for over ten years. Some of the first were Julian and Marilyn Lombardi (2010), who saw the metaverse as being open and nonproprietary, including an open source browser for viewing and interacting with virtual worlds and providing 3D hyperlink capability for traversing virtual contexts. Jon Radoff (2021) has identified the megatrends that will shape the metaverse as virtual mainstreaming, machine intelligence, simulating reality, open platforms, rise of cybernetics, distributed networks, walled garden ecosystems, low code platforms and blockchain adaptation.
There are also major problems to overcome. In a recent Forbes article, Jon Koetsier (2021) outlined the key enablers of the metaverse as privacy, parsimony, interoperability and immersion. These are also the biggest obstacles, as most of the current online business models are built on targeted advertising, harvesting personal data and protecting corporate IPRs in closed ecosystems.
There are plenty of those who bypass the metaverse as just another hype word. Many features of the metaverse can be found from Gartner’s (2021) hype cycle of emerging technologies as innovation triggers soon to reach the peak of inflated expectations. But when so many tech giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple share a common vision for the future of the Internet, it is time to pay attention.
Most metaverse visions include familiar sci-fi favorites such as teleportation. In June 2021, the Finnish industrial-grade VR/XR developer Varjo (2021) published their Reality Cloud Platform, which enables virtual teleportation ‘by allowing anybody to 3D scan their surroundings using a Varjo XR-3 headset and transport another person to that same exact physical reality, completely bridging the real and the virtual in true-to-life visual fidelity’.
RealTime Conference: the rise of the metaverse
My personal deep-dive into all matters of metaverse took place in April 2021, when I attended the three-day virtual event RealTime Conference 2021. The event mapped out the metaverse in many different ways from architecture and retail to fashion and sports, not forgetting the tools and standards needed to make the metaverse a reality.
Among many memorable presentations, which can still be accessed on the event website, I was most enthralled by Epic Games’ MetaHuman Creator, a tool for creating believable digital humans, and Virtual Agents, real-time digital humans with 4D faces and bodies. A company called Ziva Dynamics is already bringing human bodies into real-time environments by using machine learning, 4D capture and extensive simulation data. The result is uncannily realistic.
Creating digital humans is regarded as one of the remaining true challenges for 3D computer graphics. A realistic digital human clone is closer than ever, and this will mean big business for the gaming and entertainment industries. Realism is a sought-after feature in both Hollywood blockbusters and triple A video games.
Even though the spirit of the RealTime Conference was excited, bordering on ecstatic, there were also more sobering voices calling for tight regulation and caution for the development ahead. It will be interesting to see how the field has evolved in just over six months, as the second RealTime Conference of 2021 takes place in December. The title is ‘Populating the Metaverse’, so we can expect to see more detailed plans to make the metaverse a real accessible virtual space.
Meta, formerly known as Facebook
Facebook has been dropping hints about its change into a metaverse company for some time now. In July 2021, Facebook Reality Lab established a new metaverse product group to drive Facebook’s metaverse implementation. At the same time, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave the Verge reporter Casey Newton (2021) an in-depth interview about the transformation. He described the metaverse as ‘an embodied Internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it’. Zuckerberg also gave a timeline stating that in the next five years, Facebook will transform into a metaverse company.
This development took another leap forward on 28th October 2021, when Facebook announced its name change to Meta. This will impact the parent company, not the social media app still known as Facebook. In his announcement, Zuckerberg (2021) outlined the new strategy as ‘from now on, we will be metaverse-first, not Facebook-first’. It is no small endeavor as the BBC (2021) reported that the company will be hiring 10 000 people inside EU alone to work on the transformation.
To wrap up, let’s revisit Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash: “See, the world is full of things more powerful than us. But if you know how to catch a ride, you can go places.” With new technology, it’s all about the journey, not the destination.
About the HomeOpera project
The article is part of the HomeOpera – Digital Social Cultural Experiences project, which aims to develop a concept for a social XR service that improves elderly peoples’ opportunities for a high-quality life at home. The project is conducted between 09/2021-08/2023 and funded by the European Regional Development Fund as part of the EU’s COVID-19 recovery funding (REACT-EU).
The project is conducted by Haaga-Helia’s Service Experience Laboratory LAB8
- BBC. 2021. Facebook to hire 10,000 in EU to work on metaverse. Accessed: 28 October 2021.
- Gartner. 2021. 3 Themes Surface in the 2021 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies. Accessed: 3 November 2021.
- Koetsier John. 2021. The Metaverse Is The Internet. Forbes. Accessed: 29 October 2021.
- Lombardi Julian and Lombardi Marilyn. 2010. Opening the Metaverse. In: Bainbridge W. (eds) Online Worlds: Convergence of the Real and the Virtual. Human-Computer Interaction Series. Springer, London.
- Newton Casey. 2021. Mark in the Metaverse. The Verge. Accessed: 29 October 2021.
- Radoff Jon. 2021. 9 Megatrends Shaping the Metaverse. Accessed: 29 October 2021.
- RealTime Conference 2021. The Rise of the Metaverse. Accessed: 28 October 2021.
- Stephenson Neal. 1992. Snow Crash. Penguin UK.
- Varjo. 2021. Varjo Unveils Reality Cloud Platform for Capturing and Sharing Our Reality For a True-to-Life Metaverse. Accessed: 28 October 2021.
- Mark Zuckerberg. 2021. Founder’s Letter, 2021. Accessed: 29 October 2021