Making the metaverse

Making the metaverse
Business news |
Tech giant Meta’s president of global affairs says the company is investing heavily in the metaverse because the technology will change the way consumers access the internet.
By Rich Pell

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The metaverse, says Clegg in a lengthy blog post, is a logical evolution of the internet – a more immersive, 3D experience. Its defining quality will be a feeling of presence, like users are right there with another person or in another place, and is ultimately about finding ever more ways for the benefits of the online world to be felt in users’ daily lives — enriching their experiences, not replacing them.

It’s also not just an idea that Meta “cooked up,” says Clegg, “There won’t be a Meta-run metaverse, just as there isn’t a ‘Microsoft internet’ or ‘Google internet’ today.”

A wide range of technology companies are already building experiences and products for the metaverse, such as the virtual worlds of games like Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite, and technologies like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) that have been in use for some time. However, says Clegg, the metaverse isn’t just about the detached worlds of VR.

“VR is one end of a spectrum,” says Clegg. “It stretches from using avatars or accessing metaverse spaces on your phone, through AR glasses that project computer-generated images onto the world around us, to mixed reality experiences that blend both physical and virtual environments.”

“Imagine, for example, how useful it could be to wear glasses that give you virtual directions in your line of sight, or immediate translations of street signs in foreign languages,” he says. “Or even make it possible for you to have a conversation with someone who is thousands of miles away as a three-dimensional hologram in your living room instead of a head and shoulders on a flat screen.”

Different technologies will enable different levels of immersion that suit the individual and their environment.

“They won’t be a replacement for our experiences in daily life any more than the internet is today,” says Clegg. “What they will be is a way to build on the interconnectedness the internet enables, so that we can do more and have even richer experiences. All this has the potential to unlock new opportunities and spark new ideas we haven’t yet imagined, and to have a huge positive impact both socially and economically.”

There are three key factors that will make interactions in the metaverse feel more like those we have in our daily lives, says Clegg:

  • Ephemerality: In the physical world, most of our daily communications are ephemeral: we speak, people hear us, and no long-term record of what we said exists. In contrast, emails, text messages, and written posts on social media are often persistent, creating a record that lasts over time and which can be inspected, reviewed, modified or deleted. The metaverse will constitute a shift towards live, speech-based communication that will often feel as transient as face-to-face conversations. Just as in the physical world, this kind of ephemeral communication will exist alongside persistent messages and communication, but is likely to be far more common. If I want to communicate with you in today’s internet, the first thing I’d do is write text — a post or message, for example. But to communicate with you in a shared metaverse space, I would speak.
  • Embodiment: In the metaverse we will be able to communicate not only through typing on a keyboard or looking at a screen, but through our physicality. Avatars will reflect our real bodily movements. This will allow us to communicate more expressively, to use our hands to create and manipulate digital objects, and to interact with our virtual 3D environment. This real-time, 3D synchronicity is a crucial difference with the way we interact in today’s internet.
  • Immersion: In the metaverse, we will communicate in ways that make us feel as if we are actually in a specific space with other people — shared environments where social interaction feels natural, like a conversation with friends in a coffee shop, restaurant, or at home. We often talk about getting immersed in a good book or losing ourselves in a song. But no other form of communication has so far been able to achieve the sort of audiovisual fidelity necessary to create the feeling of being in a shared space that is possible in the metaverse.

“Empirical evidence from countless social science research studies corroborates this notion that nonverbal/embodied forms of communication are crucial to the cultivation of social trust, and to the development of a shared sense of community with others,” says Clegg. “These attributes — ephemerality, embodiment and immersion — mean people will experience the metaverse in a way that is much closer to physical world interactions than to the experience of using a mobile app or website.”

It isn’t just about gaming and social experiences, says Clegg. The metaverse has the potential for revolutionizing education and training, healthcare, and the economy.

“For the last three decades we’ve been in the midst of a global digital transformation,” says Clegg. “As more and more people use the internet and connections have become faster and more accessible, businesses and institutions of all sorts have increasingly gone digital to reach them — a trend that accelerated dramatically during the pandemic. Today, the widespread use of digital tools by businesses of all shapes and sizes means the digital economy is absolutely central to the global economy.”

An industry this massive, says Clegg, “would also be a job creation engine – and those jobs wouldn’t be limited to the campuses of Silicon Valley.”

“In 2020, the mobile technology sector directly employed about 12 million people globally, and indirectly employed another 13 million people,” he says. “The metaverse economy will not only include the industries that will create its infrastructure, including hardware, software, payment systems, and broadband providers, but also sectors like e-commerce, education, gaming and more which will provide goods and services associated with it. When social spaces are created in the metaverse, people will need to be employed to manage and maintain them, just as they are in the physical world.”

The digital transformation will only be enhanced by the metaverse, says Clegg, democratizing access even further and making it a powerful force for greater access and diversity. It will be possible to create more immersive, more social, more detailed experiences than ever before, all from users’ living rooms, or wherever.

One way to think about the structure of the metaverse, says Clegg, is to imagine a building, where each floor supports the one above it. For each floor, and within each floor, there will be different kinds of rules and regulations required:

  • Foundations — hardware, protocols and standards: The foundations of the building include the hardware — phones, VR headsets, AR glasses, etc.— and the technical protocols and standards that ensure the various technologies can interact, or be ‘interoperable’ in the jargon.
  • Ground floor — platforms and networks: The ground floor of the metaverse will be built on top of these interoperable protocols and standards. This is the intermediary layer where platforms, institutions and other networks will create the universe of products that make up the 3D worlds of the metaverse.
  • First floor — experiences: The first floor of the metaverse is where you’ll access it as a user, and where the vast array of experiences will be available. Current Quest users, for example, can access the metaverse through social VR apps like Horizon Worlds. Apps and experiences will support the ability for creators to design a multitude of unique spaces.

The common theme across these floors is interoperability — the interconnectedness of standards, systems and applications that enable people to travel seamlessly between one part of the metaverse and another. It isn’t an absolute — not every element of metaverse experiences needs to be, or will be, compatible with others. But without a significant degree of interoperability baked into each floor, the metaverse will become fragmented and broken into silos, each impenetrable from the other, says Clegg.

“For those who think the risk of a fragmented metaverse is theoretical, look what has happened in the current internet,” says Clegg. “We have two operating systems that effectively create walled gardens — and in Apple’s case, a walled garden that is increasingly vertically integrated. As interoperability develops it needs to be driven by the interests of users, so that they are not randomly locked into one silo or another.”

Interoperability isn’t just an abstract technical idea,” says Clegg. It will be crucial to people’s experiences in the metaverse.

“A metaverse that is open and interconnected is not only the right thing for users — and something that will involve both technical and policy work from industry and regulators — it is also the sort of thing that might come to distinguish the metaverse in the parts of the world that still believe in an open internet from the metaverses built in other parts of the world where a closed internet has been constructed in recent years.”

There are many challenges in ensuring the metaverse is designed to maximize opportunity for all, says Clegg.

“First, industry must come together around shared technical standards that allow the metaverse to be interoperable. Second, and significantly more difficult, is determining to what extent there are shared rules of behavior for users across the metaverse.”

The metaverse is coming, one way or another, says Clegg.

“The metaverse will bring with it huge potential for social and economic progress. And it will bring risks and challenges, many of which can be anticipated. Our hope is that the lessons of previous technological advances can be learned, and that the rules, standards and norms that will govern the metaverse can be developed in tandem with the development of the technologies themselves.”

For more, see “Making the metaverse: What it is, how it will be built, and why it matters.”

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