Many people, understandably, wonder, “What is the metaverse, and why should I care?”
We mostly typed text on websites when Facebook first launched 18 years ago. When phones with cameras became available, the internet became more visual and mobile. As connections became faster, video became a more rich way to share information. From desktop to web to mobile, from text to photos to video, we’ve come a long way.
The metaverse is a logical evolution in this progression. It’s the internet’s next generation — a more immersive, 3D experience. Its distinguishing feature will be a sense of presence, as if you are right there with another person or in another place.
A diverse range of technology companies, from Microsoft and Google to Niantic and Emblematic, are already developing experiences and products for the metaverse. It already exists in the virtual worlds of games such as Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite. It incorporates technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), which, while new, have been in use for a while.
The metaverse isn’t just about the detached worlds of VR, where we put on headsets that take us out of our physical environment and transport us somewhere else. VR represents one end of a spectrum. It ranges from using avatars or accessing metaverse spaces on your phone, to AR glasses that project computer-generated images onto our surroundings, to mixed reality experiences that combine physical and virtual environments.
The term “metaverse” is a little misleading, because the word “verse” implies that you are transported to another “universe.” Of course, some of these technologies, such as immersive gaming experiences, provide escapism. But the metaverse is so much more. It’s ultimately about finding more ways for the benefits of the online world to be felt in our daily lives — enriching rather than replacing our experiences.
Consider how helpful it would be to wear glasses that provide virtual directions in your line of sight, or instant translations of street signs in foreign languages. Or even allow you to converse with someone thousands of miles away as a three-dimensional hologram in your living room rather than a head and shoulders on a flat screen. The potential societal benefits — particularly in education and healthcare — are vast, ranging from assisting medical students in practising surgical techniques to bringing school lessons to life in novel and exciting ways.
Multiple technologies are enabling different levels of immersion that are appropriate for the individual and their surroundings. They will not be a replacement for our everyday experiences, any more than the internet is today. They will be a way to expand on the interconnectedness enabled by the internet, allowing us to do more and have richer experiences. All of this has the potential to open up new doors and spark new ideas that we haven’t yet imagined, and to have a hugely positive social and economic impact.
People will need to feel safe in order to want to use these technologies. Companies like Meta have a lot of work to do to establish the metaverse’s credibility as an idea and to show people that we are committed to building it responsibly. That begins with explaining as best we can our vision for these technologies and the challenges we believe will need to be addressed as they evolve. It entails being open and transparent about the work we’re doing, as well as the choices and trade-offs that come with it.
It entails building on existing work to protect marginalised communities online and listening to experts in human and civil rights, privacy, and disabilities as systems and processes to keep people safe are developed. And it means being clear that our intention is to be a part of a larger technological movement rather than to develop these technologies on our own.
The metaverse is at a critical juncture in its evolution. There is nothing deterministic about how technology affects society. Technology in and of itself is neither good nor bad. People will use it as they see fit — and they will also misuse it. Just as we’ve seen problems in our physical society manifest themselves on the internet, Problems in our physical society will reoccur on the internet, just as they have in our physical society, regardless of what it is or who builds it. That is why, as the metaverse evolves.