Metaverse or metacurse?

Categories: AI and MLAugmented Virtual RealityDigital TransformationTech News

Emerging technologies have changed the way we live – whether that be how we work, socialise, relax or learn. Where we might have once travelled miles to the office, we now find ourselves working from home, reaping the benefits of a more virtual lifestyle.

Some believe this new virtual lifestyle removes the authenticity of human interaction. How do colleagues create lasting relationships at work if they never meet in person? How do individuals replicate social cues through digital screens – especially in avatar form?

Well, this is a problem that the metaverse aims to solve, among others.

 

What is the Metaverse?

Metaverse – a combination of ‘meta,’ meaning beyond, and ‘universe’. This is a term coined by Neal Stephenson, a science fiction writer, in his 1992 novel Snow Crash. If we were to hazard a guess at the concept of the metaverse from the word alone, we could say that the metaverse aims to be a place where anything is possible. And it just might be.

For anyone familiar with the ‘Ready Player One’ book or film, you’ll no doubt be clued up on the metaverse model – a virtual world that anyone can access, often using a virtual reality (VR) headset, and in this virtual world, you can socialise, game, work, learn, shop…

You can collaborate with your colleagues at work from the comfort of your home. You can attend a virtual concert with your nearest and dearest. Or you could find yourself in the middle of a call of duty battlefield collecting coin.

Doesn’t sound much different to what’s available now, right? But this time you’ll be able to create your own 3D avatar, manoeuvre throughout the virtual world, meet other avatars, see them, hear them and even feel the virtual world around you.

Many of the platforms will be powered by blockchain technology, using cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), allowing a new kind of decentralised digital asset to be built, owned and monetised[1].

Whilst in its infancy, this tech dream seems to be picking up momentum. Meta (formerly Facebook) has just invested 10,000 new hires in the EU to work on the metaverse[2], Microsoft has announced they’re creating 3D avatars to add to their Teams platform[3] and Google is investing in VR and augmented reality technologies[4]. Step aside space race… this is the race towards the metaverse!

Today, we take a deep dive into the potential benefits of the metaverse, and the challenges faced in bringing this idea to life.

 

More authentic exchanges

The pandemic provided a platform for companies to accelerate their working from home strategy, and with an overwhelming response from employees to keep hybrid working opportunities in place, new and innovative tech is being developed to make processes more efficient. Conferencing software is becoming more popular as a result, as are live chat channels and VR headset chatrooms. Whilst effective as they are, something that could really enhance hybrid working is the metaverse.

The metaverse welcomes the idea of bringing people together in one virtual space and has the potential to mirror people’s body language, facial expressions, and social cues – creating a more authentic business exchange, without the cost of travel and hotels.

Not only could this help individuals build a better rapport online, it could go some way to levelling the playing field for those with disabilities, young families and personal commitments who might not be in a position to frequently travel but would otherwise add tremendous value to international organisations.

 

Shopping from home

Whilst there has been a huge increase in the number of individuals working from home, this hasn’t extended to all industries – take retail for example. But with the metaverse, it could.

Customer behaviour is constantly changing, and roles that previously required an in-person interaction will begin to offer virtual dealings, as well as open up more job opportunities. Picture virtual malls, virtual stores and digital marketing spaces.

Using the retail industry as an example, a customer’s avatar could walk into a store within the metaverse, engage with products they’d like to purchase in real-time, interact with a shopping assistant, purchase a product and then, have this product delivered to their home in the physical world – reshaping the way people shop online.

This means that in the future, companies might have to consider purchasing virtual real estate, creating virtual replications of products, virtual ads… but that’s a topic for another time.

 

Reducing travel

As individuals begin to exist in the virtual space more, travel is expected to reduce. Rather than grabbing a cab into town, a typical Saturday might see you don the VR headset to hang out with friends in the virtual mall or catch Adele at a virtual concert. COP27 could take place at a Meta event campus and offices could pop up on makeshift beaches.

If this happens, organisations will no longer require expensive inner-city offices, reducing employees need to commute and opening up opportunities for less concentrated trade – greater use of local shops and lunch stops. It could also irradicate the need to send employees on a 13-hour flight and days of jetlag to meet international clients.

With the hybrid-working boom, we are already starting to see business travel reduce. But the introduction of the metaverse could see this travel disappear completely, reserving all travel for leisure – reducing emissions and travel costs for both employees and businesses.

 

Environmental impacts

Whilst a reduction in travel may reduce carbon emissions, the metaverse will likely rely on VR technologies and data centres. This tech uses AI to be able to track eye and hand movements, and VR itself relies on cloud services to be able to function. Now, this kind of tech already uses huge amounts of data centre processing power and in turn, comes at a huge environmental cost.

The increase in physical hardware needed for the metaverse also poses a problem. More data centres means more data chips and we’re already in short supply of the materials needed to create these – it’s going to be a challenge for any company to keep an entire virtual world running sustainably.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts performed a study and found that training a single AI model can emit as much as 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide – nearly five times the lifetime emissions of an average car. Researchers at Lancaster University also ran a scenario revealing that if 30% of gamers moved to cloud gaming platforms by 2030 carbon emissions would increase by 30%[5].

Wide-scale adoption of the metaverse could see emissions increase significantly and only time will tell how companies choose to combat these environmental challenges. Meta themselves say that by 2030, they will reach net-zero emissions across not just their own operations but also their value chain[6]. And with the majority of organisations across the globe committing to green energy acts following COP26, we can expect to see the metaverse running on sustainable sources.

 

Data security and privacy

With any new tech, data security and privacy is a top concern – and with the metaverse, it would mean that more data would be collected from users and businesses than ever before. A big concern from a data privacy perspective. Creators of the virtual world will be forced to consider security precautions at a whole new level, throwing many into uncharted territory.

Specifically, sophisticated deep fakes, hacked avatars and other cybersecurity issues are of concern[7]. Some companies have gone as far as to create deepfakes to highlight the importance of tightening cybersecurity measures and promote conversations surrounding ethics. MIT and Mozilla recently released a deepfake video showing President Nixon announcing an Apollo 11 disaster, and Channel 4’s deepfake Queen delivered an alternative Christmas message in 2020.

Metaverse providers will be able to access a whole host of data globally – people’s bank details, biometric data, home addresses, personal preferences, company information… the list goes on.

If companies are to embrace the Metaverse and engage with clients/employees using the software, businesses need to be assured that the tech is secure and confidential. There also needs to be a serious conversation around regulation of the platform, especially when it comes to using the infrastructure of the metaverse to monitor and manipulate users at levels that will make social media seem like child’s play.

From the outside looking in, it seems like a mammoth task. How will Meta, and other companies willing to take on the metaverse challenge, ensure companies and consumers their data is going to be kept secure when data breaches already frequent headlines?

To help avoid data scandals, creators will need to invest heavily in cyber security measures and stress test their solutions to understand the strength of the defences in place.

 

Human interaction

One major concern regarding the metaverse, also depicted in the Ready Player One book, is the loss of social interaction as we know it today.

As people become more accustomed to working, socialising, learning… anything but sleeping and eating, in the virtual world, individuals may find it hard to stay connected to the real world.

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has expressed concern over metaverse plans, warning it is “not necessarily the best thing for human society,” also describing AI as a “giant false god” that can create unhealthy and parasocial[8] relationships. Individuals tapping into the metaverse every day may begin to lose a grip on reality, negatively impacting a person’s mental and physical health.

To avoid unhealthy attachments to the virtual world, digital wellbeing measures will need to be put in place to avoid the metaverse putting engagement with the platform over value to the user.

Ready Player One saw the OASIS close on a Tuesday and Thursday, TikTok introduced measures to flag when an individual has been watching videos for too long and Instagram now has the option to hide likes on posts – all things to consider when developing the metaverse.

 

Conclusion

Well for a start, anyone who thinks that the metaverse won’t extend to them as they’re not a hardcore gamer better think again. This concept has the potential to stretch into all industries, globally.

But realistically, the metaverse is a way off and any software that is implemented will be done so in stages. We’re talking about developing a whole world here and as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day… unless you want to Terraform it!

The potential of the metaverse is large. Providing more jobs, more opportunities for remote work, international collaboration, but the challenges are also sizeable. Data security needs to be considered, legislation, health and wellbeing, the environment.

As the metaverse is still mainly idea based, it will be interesting to see how it is executed and more importantly, who gets there first!

[1] https://www.reuters.com/technology/what-is-metaverse-how-does-it-work-2021-09-08/

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-58949867

[3] https://www.theverge.com/2021/11/2/22758974/microsoft-teams-metaverse-mesh-3d-avatars-meetings-features

[4] https://tech.hindustantimes.com/tech/news/facebook-google-in-but-metaverse-only-gets-real-when-apple-joins-71636740395222.html

[5] https://www.verdict.co.uk/metaverse-environmental-impact/

[6] https://tech.fb.com/renewable-energy/

[7] https://www.verdict.co.uk/metaverse-facebook-microsoft/

[8] Parasocial: Describing one-sided relationships, as for example between celebrities and their audience or fans.

 

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More about the author

Hi, I’m Louise Fenn and I’m from sunny Yorkshire! Up until now, I have spent my career working in healthcare – but I thought it was time for a change. I joined GlobalLogic in April 2021 as a Content Marketing Executive, with a keen interest in writing and design. I’m really enjoying my time at GlobalLogic and I’m excited to deepen my knowledge of the world of tech.

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Louise Fenn

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