The Metaverse (Part I)

The Metaverse is coming.  That is the latest pronouncement from Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, also known for his fascination with transhumanism (which is a topic for another article!).  But what is the metaverse?

According to Zuckerberg, this is the next phase for Facebook – soon to be known as “Meta.”  No smart CEO in history has taken a brand as famous as Facebook with its nearly three billion members and changed the name.

But he thinks it’s necessary to reflect his very ambitious “new initiative.”  He says that it is going to go far beyond its present mandate of simply building interconnected social apps and the hardware to support them.  It will be an “embodied internet” where you will be “in” the experience.

What he wants to build is a “maximalist, interconnected set of experiences straight out of sci-fi…”  In other words, a new, virtual world, known as the metaverse.  In his words, “it will be the successor to the mobile internet,” where you will be “right there with people, no matter how far we are apart.”

In a nutshell, this would be a virtual world in which people would live, work, play, shop, and connect with one another without actually leaving their homes.  You will be able to do pretty much anything you can imagine in such a world. It is a fascinating idea.  But is it a good one?

The term “metaverse” was born in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel, Snow Crash.  It referred to the convergence of physical, augmented, and virtual reality in what we now call, “the cloud,” a “space” that exists only in the online world.

But indeed, Stephenson was far from the only person to come up with such an idea.  Undoubtably the most famous of all such fictional examples was (and likely still is) the Matrix series.  I well remember watching the first one and trying to figure out where reality, augmented reality, and virtual reality were divided.  Such is the world of the metaverse.  The line dividing fiction and reality is becoming blurred…

Matthew Ball wrote a 2020 article in an attempt to identify the main characteristics of this metaverse.  He determined that it would have to “span the physical and virtual worlds.” It would need to have a complete economy of its own, and provide “unprecedented interoperability,” meaning that users would need to be able to move their avatars and goods from one place in the metaverse to another, regardless of who administrates that particular region.

Most importantly, just like in the real world, no single company would run the metaverse.  Instead, in Zuckerberg’s metaverse, it would be operated by many different participants in a decentralized system.

The moral, ethical, political, and legal questions arising from such an idea are enormous.  How would this immersive virtual world be governed?  Would (or could) the same laws that govern the physical world work in the virtual world?  Would anything actually be immoral?  Or unethical?  Or even illegal? How much power would, say, the “president” of this metaverse have?  How would the effects of any of these questions cross over into the physical world? Or would they?  Or could they?  There is a lot to consider.

It’s no surprise, given the present government scrutiny of privacy protection by tech companies that Mr. Zuckerberg is quick to state that, “Privacy and safety need to be built into the metaverse from day one.”  We will see!

Meanwhile, the hardware requirements of the metaverse are enormous.  If you were or are a “Trekkie,” a Star Trek fan, you will be familiar with the “Holodeck,” a fictional device that was able to created lifelike immersive 3D settings, complete with people you could interact with.

This is absolutely where Zuckerberg wants to go.  He says that the defining experience of the metaverse will be “that feeling of presence,” where you really feel like you’re there with other people.

Some declare the technology used to build a holodeck physically impossible because it would have to violate the laws of physics, which many top engineers will tell you is easier said than done. 

To begin with, while quickly admitting that his company is going to be one among many companies building it, he expects it to be fully immersive (like the holodeck), where rather than simply viewing content, you are actually in it (at least in your experience).  In his vision, you would feel as present with other people as if you were with them physically, experiencing the same things you would if you were there in person.

This is clearly a giant step beyond today’s virtual reality.  Even the first step beyond current technology is a big one, going from the clunky “welder’s goggles” virtual reality headsets to glasses you can wear as easily and as stylishly as the glasses we are all familiar with for everyday life.

In this first step, for example, you could pick a concert to attend from your smartphone, pay for your ticket from your crypto coin wallet, and join the crowd from the comfort of your living room for your fully immersive, 3D experience at the appointed time.

But even this is a very long way from the holodeck! Even so, people are even now practically living in a virtual world as they access the internet via mobile devices from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to bed, and for even, even after they are in bed.

Zuckerberg and others like him imagine expanding this from spending every part of their lives through these “small, glowing rectangles” to something much larger and more life-like.  He spoke of the difficulty he has had remembering what meeting he was talking to a certain person in over the many months of online meetings.  He wants to change that.  In his words, “A lot of the meetings that we have today, you’re looking at a grid of faces on a screen. That’s not how we process things either. We’re used to being in a room with people and having a sense of space where if you’re sitting to my right, then that means I’m also sitting to your left, so we have some shared sense of space in common. When you speak, it’s coming from my right. It’s not just all coming from the same place in front of me.”

So, he pictures a new, much more interactive experience, using augmented and virtual reality.  In this new metaverse, people will have a sense of presence in space, rather than simply staring at a face on a screen.  He dreams of a future where people will be able to sit next to someone across the planet as a hologram on their couch and thereby actually feel like they’re in the same space.

In your virtual office, you would be able to have as many monitors up as you wanted at the blink of an eye, and if you needed help, your expert would just teleport in and stand next to you, guiding you through the whole process, rather than going through the often clumsy effort of a phone call.

There are some very smart people who say this is an impossible dream.  But when people were punching away with FORTRAN, COBOL and ALGOL 60, many engineers would have sincerely told you that holding a tiny device in your hand with 16 Gigabytes of memory and 128 Gigabytes of onboard storage that could also play music and videos, make phone calls, and monitor your blood pressure was impossible!

And if you stop to try to imagine where we might go in the next fifty years, think about this:  The Wright brothers flew their first plane in 1903.  The first man set foot on the moon in 1969, using less computing capability than the simplest handheld calculator and no touch screens!  Today we carry around computers all day in our pockets with computing power you could not have fit into ten Apollo spacecrafts!

Meanwhile, Facebook-Meta is building a new platform they call “Horizon,” as their part of the foundation for the metaverse. Horizon Home, Horizon World, and now Horizon Workrooms as the first three iterations of their new spaces.  Horizon Marketplace is in the works, as well as an entirely new and exciting education experience.

Mark Zuckerberg and his team are very excited about their future but admit that it is expensive and still years away.  At the same time, they are very positive about the metaverse really becoming reality.  They plan to do this by opening their development to as many creators as possible.

They believe that the metaverse will open up many different opportunities for employment, many more businesses, entirely new business opportunities, and even new industries not yet imagined.  What could almost be their motto is the statement by Facebook executive Nick Clegg, “The metaverse is not something we’re building, but something we’re building for.” 

In Mark’s closing remarks, as he introduced the metaverse in his yearly keynote address, he said, “Together, we can finally put people at the center of our technology and deliver an experience where we are present with each other.”  With attitudes like this, if sincere and if they remain so, this could be the evolution of something very exciting, indeed!

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