Will the metaverse augment reality or replace it?
"Meat averse? No, I haven't seen any posts about that," says my friend's uncle as he eats his sausage and pancakes breakfast while showing me his Twitter feed. It's the morning after attending the FSU vs NC State football game, in the weeks following the announcement of Facebook renaming to Meta. The rest of us are still waiting for our breakfast at the Bada Bean, a popular brunch spot along one of Tallahassee’s main gateway roads, so I'm checking to see if the metaverse has reached his Twitter verse -- his primary news source. It hasn’t. But with Meta's $10B commitment, this once niche word now occupies headlines at Time magazine, the Associated Press , and the New York Times . While it’s been given credence by the Newspaper of Record, the red squiggly line underneath it when I type it underscores its current state -- not quite, not yet, or not at all. Zuckerberg says it's five years away. Some say that's optimistic. Others say it's been here all along. But on this Sunday morning, as I reflect on yesterday's football festivities and foresee a fresh-cooked country skillet sizzling in my immediate and certain future, I question how a metaverse will fit in. Will it augment our experiences as minimally-intrusive as a Twitter feed on a phone resting between two people on a dinner table, or will it replace these experiences entirely? That weekend, most of us make a trip to get there. My two and a half hour trip reconnects me with people I haven't seen in a while, a campus I haven't tailgated on in a while, and a stadium I haven’t lost my voice to in a while. The couple tailgating next to us are from Gainesville. They grew up in North Carolina and Louisiana, each. Their hot and spicy gumbo and friendly conversation warm us up during that unusually cold and wet Florida Saturday. The others in our party are returning from a cross-country road trip, arriving in their camper from St. Augustine. They energetically share stories of their journey through the historic Route 66, sailing off the shores of the west coast, and driving through redwoods. A memorable trip.
The metaverse should need no introduction at this point, given its overwhelming mainstream press coverage. Excluding the plethora of third party coverage, Facebook’s hour long Connect event focusing on the metaverse has been visited by over twelve million viewers on Facebook, and three million on Youtube alone. While there is no single definition, most definitions of the metaverse are comparable to a trip. It’s a trip, like going on a journey, but without going anywhere physically. And it’s a trip, like seeing what isn't there; a hallucination. The working definition that this story uses is a collection of virtual worlds that you can visit, explore, play, work, and make transactions in, using your avatar, which is a virtual representation of yourself. Your avatar can go from virtual world to virtual world while keeping its possessions. The metaverse interacts with the physical world with varying degrees of immersiveness. For example, you can put on VR goggles and immerse yourself inside a metaverse world, or someone can visit you in your physical space via the metaverse, as a hologram visible through AR glasses.
The Metaverse’s potential stakeholders
While the metaverse is speculative, several tech industry players already have a stake in it. Some have argued that the power of the metaverse rests in the hands of two major game engines. One is Unreal Engine, a decades-old engine originally developed by Epic Games for the game Unreal Tournament and later adopted to build Fortnite, among other popular games. Another is Unity, which Pokémon Go and Beat Saber are built on. If the metaverse is a collection of virtual worlds, it is thought that these game engines will be the major underlying operating systems of the virtual worlds -- much like Unix and Windows are the major operating systems of the web-servers hosting today’s websites. Power could also rest in the creators of tomorrow’s AR and VR consumer devices. While there are several theorized access points to the metaverse, one of its defining characteristics is immersivity; the visceral feeling of presence. If immersivity in digital media is a spectrum from least to greatest, asynchronous text communications over a flat screen such as e-mail are on one end, and real-time VR and AR with spatial interaction and physical stimulation are on the other. It is assumed that AR and VR will be major access points for engaging in the metaverse. Several companies are actively operating in the AR/VR hardware space, including Meta, Apple, and Microsoft. Haptic feedback wearables are also undergoing research and development, which would make interacting with virtual objects more intuitive and shaking someone’s virtual hand feel more physical.
Since your avatar is meant to be able to travel from virtual world to virtual world, power could also rest in the platforms that provide the avatars to users. Most people aren’t skilled in using Blender or other 3D modeling tools, so they would likely need to use a service to create and manage their 3D avatar. While it’s too early to say how the cross-world avatars will be managed in the metaverse, there is some prior art. Avatars are analogous to the Single-Sign-On services seen in the modern web, where your Facebook login or your Google login allow you to bring in your name, email, and even profile photo everywhere you go, without having to explicitly register different user accounts. The existing entities best positioned to service cross-world avatars could be the virtual game worlds that already exist, where people already have avatars within their worlds. Or, a third party could serve as the avatar layer that enables users to bring their avatar from world to world. There would need to be a common set of standards, reminiscent of the way different web browsers formed standards bodies to decide how best to ensure web pages are displayed consistently between different browsers.
Power could also rest on the financial platforms that facilitate commerce in the 3D virtual worlds. One notable virtual world is Decentraland. It’s a place where -- among other things -- people can buy and sell virtual parcels of land using “Mana”, the virtual world’s currency, which is also a tradeable cryptocurrency. Another metaverse world, Sandbox, is backed by the Etherium blockchain. Virtual land deals worth millions of dollars have been executed on both of those platforms. The buyers assume that those land parcels will be highly-trafficked prime real estate, situated along the main entrances and gateway roads that people visit or pass by when they navigate metaverse worlds. Thus, the metaverse can be seen as part of the emerging “Web 3,” characterized by decentralization, blockchains, and the cryptocurrencies and decentralized autonomous organizations that are built on top of them. If cryptocurrencies will be part and parcel to the metaverse, then exchange platforms such as Coinbase would play a role, since they’re where cryptocurrencies and tokens are traded. In addition to exchanges, platforms that make it easy to create and manage decentralized financial services could become stakeholders. Ex-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently renamed his payments processing company from Square to Block, proclaiming a change in focus for the financial platform, and solidifying the serial entrepreneur’s commitment to blockchain technologies and decentralized finance.
Much of the metaverse’s physical and digital systems remain to be built. Each stakeholder has their own vision for the metaverse, and those visions have their critics . To date, Facebook / Meta has planted the boldest flag, which could help give them an edge with recruiting top tech talent to build their vision, as well as with executing major mergers and acquisitions to help assemble their vision, both of which are part of their M.O.
How metaverse worlds can connect us
During their Connect event, Meta presented their visions of the metaverse through a series of stories woven between monologues from Zuckerberg and dialogues with his company’s executives and guests. Like most predictions of the future, there are going to be things that we simply can’t predict. We can’t fathom the way that things will unfold, and the opportunities that they will create. However, for now, their vision of the metaverse includes everything from gaming together, to learning together, to working together. Their vision presumably also includes viewing ads together, although that’s the elephant in the room. In one Connect scene referenced by entrepreneurship influencer Gary Vaynerchuk in his recent interview with Zuckerberg, a young woman at a concert captures a photo and posts it on Instagram. Then a friend sees the post and joins her at the concert. But virtually, as an avatar, via the metaverse. And instantly, without making a physical trip to the venue.
When it’s difficult to make a trip to meet in person, anything that allows us to feel more present with each other presents a palatable value proposition. The Covid pandemic made it riskier to be physically present with each other. Until a Covid vaccine became massively available, many friends and families were kept apart entirely -- either due to public restrictions or personal ones. In response, many people connected over the internet. People held Zoom weddings, Zoom conferences, Zoom dissertation defenses, Zoom graduation ceremonies, and some even dated over Zoom. While Zoom is on a flat screen, the virtual spaces of the metaverse are meant to provide an immersive, visceral sense of presence; the closest thing to the real deal yet. So when people can’t meet in person, instead of a phone call or a Zoom call they may opt to connect within virtual 3D spaces, assuming it’s easy to do.
Possible consequences of the metaverse
One possible downside to Meta’s vision of the metaverse is the lack of true face time in the virtual worlds. During a Zoom call we can see the person’s real face. But in Meta’s vision of the metaverse, we often interact via an avatar, with VR goggles on. In a world where we can see someone’s real face on our social media platforms, as well as during video calls using apps like Facetime and the ubiquitous Zoom, interacting with a cartoonish representation of someone seems less real, in some aspects. It also opens up the possibility of getting catfished. One of the defining features of facebook was that it convinced people to use their real names and real photos on the internet. This was revolutionary at a time when most people navigated the web with screen names and profiles that hid their real identities. As a result of exposing our real names and faces to digital strangers, facebook created an online space where people behaved as if their online reputation could impact their real-world reputation. The greater web became more personable, as people became accustomed to representing their real identities online in other corners of the web. As Meta steps into the metaverse, the sense of trust, familiarity, and humanity that comes from a digital photobook of faces may be blurred in a cartoon avatar world.
There is another concern raised by the concert scene during Meta’s Connect event. Being able to teleport into an event from the comfort of your own home and feel physically present may undermine the event itself. People make choices between things, and immersive digital experiences have competed with the real deal in the past. Growing up in Jacksonville, I suffered being a Jaguars fan for nearly two decades. While it was bad enough to experience disappointing season after disappointing season, the most disappointing part was planning to watch the game on TV only to discover that it’s not going to air. During this time, the most immersive technology at the time -- the big screen TV -- was becoming affordable, and thus ubiquitous in the homes of people who purchase NFL tickets. Living rooms turned into "home theaters." In this new media landscape, if a team was having a bad season, more fans would choose to watch the game at the comfort of their house, or someone else's. Why go all the way to the stadium, buy tickets, and pay astronomical prices for concessions just to watch their team lose to a middle of the road team, when they could watch their team lose for free surrounded by the comforts of home? To combat low ticket sales, the NFL policy at the time required the games that failed to sell 85% of tickets to be designated as "blackout" games, and to not air on TV. In at least one season, seven of eight of the Jaguars’ home games were blacked out. If the metaverse will be more immersive and visceral than anything we’ve seen, I wonder how being able to meta into a live event will impact physical attendance to less popular events, and also how venues will respond if people prefer the virtual experience over the physical one, or if attendees become live broadcasters, reducing ticket sales.
Metaverse can expand audiences
My prior example highlights a historical situation where fans have chosen to watch a live event from home instead of going to the live event. But for venues that have sold out tickets, opening up virtual seats could satisfy the audiences that couldn’t attend the physical event, in comparison to watching the event through a flat screen.
In the two and a half hour drive back to Jacksonville, I think about these pros and cons of the metaverse’s propositions. It’s easy to be a critic on the sidelines, but these visionaries are building out their visions, and putting up billions of dollars where their mouth is. However, as I try to avoid the drowsy trance of hypnosis that comes from staring down the endless strip of asphalt parting the endless woods around me, one thought lingers. If I could have simply meta'd myself into yesterday’s tailgate and football game from the comfort of my own home, would I have made the 160 mile drive to Tallahassee that weekend? On this day my answer is a resounding yes. No virtual experience can compare to actually being there. I would rather be in Doak for a game, or at least a friendly sports bar. But what if I couldn’t? There have been several FSU games that I’ve watched by myself from home, while following the discussions on social media. If I had to choose between that and being teleported into Doak virtually, I’d probably choose the more immersive experience and join my tribe from afar.