The metaverse: What is it, will it work, and does anyone want it?

The metaverse: What is it, will it work, and does anyone want it? stokel explains

Since its rebrand as “ Meta ”, Facebook has been throwing its considerable weight behind the idea of an immersive virtual reality world. Here’s everything you need to know. Some 47 million people use the Roblox platform every day, amounting to 11.2 billion “hours engaged” in the third quarter of 2021, according to the company. With their experience in building immersive worlds and their already enthusiastic user bases, the gaming companies could be a significant challenge to Meta’s vision of a metaverse built from scratch that it controls. Just as the “format wars” of the 1970s and 1980s saw VHS and Betamax video tapes battle for supremacy, with one eventually winning out, so there is a real possibility that, like

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Second Life, one or several of the many metaverses now being built will end up as ghost towns.Hackl hopes for an open metaverse, with interoperability between different platforms allowing your digital avatar to leap to another world just as we can easily travel from one city to another. That is a model that the European Union is already pushing for with social messaging apps in its

, meaning that you don’t need to sign up to a certain app to talk to your friends just because they aren’t on the same services you are.Pop star Ariana Grande gave a concert in Fortnite’s virtual world in August 2021Epic GamesAll that swerves the real multibillion-dollar question, however: whether we will want to abandon our “meatverse”, where we press flesh, touch and feel and interact with fellow humans, for the metaverse where, the development of technologies such as haptics notwithstanding, we are gesturing at digital alternatives. Even with its change in name, Meta’s involvement may give some potential users pause for thought, mired as the company is in negative publicity

ever since the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which users were targeted for political advertising.The hype might serve to pose the question of what we might want from expanded digital worlds, and how that compares with the visions of the metaverse on offer. “There’s this idea that it’s openness; that it’s actually expanding the possibilities of your life by entering the metaverse,” says Kelly. “I would argue it’s doing the opposite. It appears to be open in the same way that the internet is open: that the actual practicalities of who is able to create that world is extremely unequal.”

“Some or many of the metaverses now being built may end up as ghost towns”He sees the idea of the metaverse being coded by, and inevitably shaped in the image of, Meta’s workers – rich, predominantly white and based in Silicon Valley. It is a “very constraining idea that will narrow the scope of human lives when they spend time in this hypothesised metaverse”, says Kelly.

When Hiro Protagonist donned his virtual reality goggles inSnow Crash, he was doing so to escape the horrors of his life. He ended up finding the metaverse equally unpalatable, populated by gangsters and ne’er-do-wells. Social media platforms such as Facebook have shown us how virtual platforms can end up amplifying undesirable currents in the world outside – with knock-on effects in the real sphere. It is time to consider, perhaps, how we can ensure that whatever the metaverse ends up being, it ends up being what we want.

FUNNY-LOOKING THINGSdeepfake video technology makes it possible to fool even the most sceptical viewer. Yet log on to the mooted iterations of the metaverse from the likes of Meta, Microsoft and Roblox (see main story), and the blocky, cartoonish graphics still look like they have been imported from an old generation of video game consoles. It raises the question: why does the metaverse look like it does, and when, if ever, will that change?

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“Reproducing natural forms, and particularly natural forms we are very sensitive to, like other humans, is super-difficult,” says Steve Benford at the University of Nottingham, UK. The simplest explanation for the cartoonish rendering is the strain more realistic representations would place on processors and online connections. “My guess is that it would be related to technical limitations,” says Nick Kelly at Queensland University of Technology, Australia. “As mass multiplayer games have shown, it’s really difficult to have 500,000 people all interacting simultaneously without huge lag.”

Then there is the “uncanny valley”. This term, coined in the 1970s by robotics professor Masahiro Mori, describes how lifelike robots canprovoke feelings of revulsion or horror if they aren’t quite right. It has since been extended to graphical renderings of humans in video games and movies. If and when metaverse technology becomes more widespread, the unease that such avatars generate will have to be confronted – and it could mean that the graphics of the metaverse always remain in the realms of the cartoonish.

KEYSTONES OF THE METAVERSEMark Zuckerberg’s Meta is developing tech for us all to enter the metaverseMetaMany of the technologies necessary to make an immersive virtual version of the physical world already exist to at least some extent.AUGMENTED REALITY

This involves overlaying a virtual environment on top of real life, often using special glasses or a phone. Google Glass, an attempt by the search giant to do something similar, flopped in the early 2010s. Some primitive, but common, examples now include Snapchat’s Lenses that, for example, turn you into a dog when you open your mouth. Meta is developing a pair of augmented reality glasses called Nazaré that CEO Mark Zuckerberg hopes will become as ubiquitous as mobile phones are today.

VIRTUAL REALITYPlugging yourself into virtual reality usually involves wearing a headset, often accompanied by handheld motion controllers, and seeing your entire field of vision and other elements of your senses overtaken by a digital world. Your movements map onto your digital avatar’s, allowing you to traverse a virtual universe. Entry into Meta’s version will probably require a pair of virtual reality goggles made by Oculus, a company Facebook bought in 2014.

HAPTICSTouch is a big thing missing from many extended virtual reality experiences. Meta’s AI research department is one of many trying to make the metaverse more touch-responsive using haptic technology, which applies force or vibration to your skin to mimic real physical touch.

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BLOCKCHAINA distributed, decentralised ledger of information that is held across multiple users, the blockchain could be the digital key to the metaverse. Its immutable records would allow users to have the confidence to transact their business online without worrying about being scammed.

MIXED REALITYCombining elements of the real world and the virtual, mixed reality is a broad-brush term for things that often don’t fit into augmented or virtual reality.EXTENDED REALITYExtended reality is a catch-all term to cover the likes of augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality. Taken together, it is a key area of research for academia and industry alike.

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