The 30-year transformation from the original World Wide Web to the first commercial quantum computer or virtual reality headset represents a technological escalation with no signs of slowing down. Computer processing power has increased exponentially, an unbelievable one trillion times since its invention. Yet a dystopia may be right on our doorstep, with the pandemic feeding its advancement.
The value of the video game industry has grown 9% since last year. Now worth a record $10.9 billion, this ‘Gaming Boom’ has financed the ferocious evolution of the tech industry. Hardware sales have risen 63% over lockdown. This implies that new gamers are contributing to the economic surge. According to Carter Rogers, analyst at the research firm SuperData, “with people sheltered in place around the world, gaming is one of the few options available”. To sustain this growth, tech businesses need to ‘level up’ to meet consumers’ insatiable appetites. This presents a perfect opportunity to introduce the newest technological macro goal: the Metaverse. This is a hypothetical interactive 3D virtual world where, as in the Matrix, participants could socialise, work and build an empire. However, rather than simulating real life, the Metaverse would let you walk into any experience you could dream of.
In this live synchronous virtual world, there would be no limit to the number of participants in any event or location. Every component of the Metaverse – provided by a wide range of contributors – would act in a compatible way. Both programmed and spontaneous events would occur. It would have its own functioning digital economy, with a currency that could be converted to cash and used in real life. You couldn’t ‘win’ or complete the Metaverse like you would a video game, so it would persist indefinitely.
With its etymology translating as ‘beyond worlds’, the Metaverse may have seemed unreachable. However, the lockdown-induced industry boom has ignited the development of this cyberspace. The CEO of Razer, Min-Liang Tang, summarised the current status of its development:
“We’re not there yet but we are really stepping up for it. Covid-19 has accelerated the path to the Metaverse…primarily because those who typically would not have been a gamer, have now become gamers…and we believe that the first citizens of the Metaverse will be gamers”
Many of the infrastructural components and attributes of the Metaverse have already formed independently. The Metaverse Exchange-Traded Product already exists (www.coingecko.com/en/coins/metaverse-etp), which tech companies like Epic and Razer are already investing heavily into. The hardware and software is almost ready. Regarding the Metaverse economy, gaming currencies such as Razer Gold may be prototypes for a future Metaverse currency. Razer Gold is already transferable between both gaming and ‘real life’ commodities, with companies like Tinder and Twitch now accepting it as a form of payment.
It’s not just the Gaming Boom that has sped up the creation process of the Metaverse. Covid-19 has also increased interest in virtual socialising. This idea was popularised by the 2018 Speilberg film, Ready Player One, which depicts a virtual world similar to the envisioned Metaverse called OASIS. The film quotes comedian Groucho Marx: “I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s the only place to get a decent meal.” Whilst online social interaction may at first seem detached and unfulfilling, new research into body ownership in virtual reality suggests that this is actually not the case, finding that our brains cannot distinguish between our own bodies and our avatars. This indicates that gamers will perceive the actions and manipulations of their avatars in virtual reality as if they are happening to their body in real life.
As well as virtual socialising, the Metaverse would offer online alternatives to activities affected by Covid-19 such as live music. Tim Sweeney, founder of Fortnite, hosted a three-week Party Royale Concert Series in collaboration with Travis Scott in September, acting as a ‘tour stop’ for artists. Due to social distancing, the music industry has had to switch to virtual live-music to survive. Again, the Groucho Marx quote comes to mind. Watching your favourite artist performing live on a screen doesn’t quite replace standing in a crowd of screaming fans with surround-sound and lights. This is where the Metaverse would take over. The immersive nature of virtual reality means that your brain wouldn’t be able to distinguish virtual experiences from real-life ones.
However, the Metaverse could work with two different formats: virtual reality or augmented reality. Virtual reality is an immersive 3D digital world, whereas augmented reality is a projection of digital imagery and information onto the real world. The technology for both has already been commercialised, with the industry worth approximately £354.3 million in the UK alone. Facebook has bought Oculus VR to present Horizon which is the current closest thing to the Metaverse. Reports suggest that Facebook’s recent investments have the development of the Metaverse as a final goal.
Adobe, however, sees the future of technology to be in augmented reality as opposed to virtual. Last year, it released the Adobe Aero program which superimposes graphics onto what the naked eye can already see. For example, instead of a navigation system announcing your directions, the program could project arrows and personalised signs onto the street in front of you.
If made compatible with technology such as Google Glass, the Metaverse could become a mixed-reality platform that is integrated with physical reality. Due to the more accessible and affordable nature of augmented reality, this seems the next step towards commercialising the Metaverse. Hour One has already raised $5 million in venture capital funds to develop avatars that can exist in the Metaverse at the same time as you exist in physical reality.
We have all the components to meet the attributes of the Metaverse. Building it without breaching ethical violations is the next step and a rather big one. However, technological advancements are proceeding at an incredible rate and the speed at which they integrate with everyday life mirrors that. The average screen time today is 3 hours and 15 minutes. With augmented reality, screen time and real life could exist simultaneously, bringing that screen time to all waking hours. You could actually be in two places at once. A year ago, the Metaverse was a science-fiction idea. Now, it’s the next step for technology.