The term “metaverse” first appeared in the 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash” authored by Neal Stephenson. It is set on a futuristic backdrop wherein humans and even intelligent software agents interact with each other as avatars through an online virtual space. Stephenson described this virtual space as the metaverse. This same virtual space represented his vision of the possible future evolution of the internet based on virtual reality technology.
Several influential figures in the tech industry have set their eyes on the eventual creation and the promotion of a three-dimension world or an immersive virtual environment intended for a more wider consumption. The first Metaverse Roadmap Summit held in May 2007 envisioned that the internet in 2016 would evolve into an all-encompassing digital playground that would immerse people in a multitude of accessible and on-demand digital information.
Notable participants include Robert Scoble from Microsoft, previous Sony Online Entertainment chief creative officer Raph Koster, Bob Moore of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, and video game developer Randy Farmer. The summit concluded with four imagine scenarios of what the metaverse would be like or its most probable outcomes. Some of these outcomes include dubbed augmented reality, lifelogging, virtual worlds, and mirror worlds.
The metaverse gain a wider public attention in October 2012 when Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook changed its company name to Meta Platforms to steer clear from being identified as a mere social media company and represent its direction toward developing technologies that are related to the metaverse. The company envisioned an implementation of current online social experiences through three-dimensional worlds and physical worlds.
Explainer: What Exactly is the Metaverse
1. Some Similarities with Multiplayer and Multiverse Games
Stephenson also stated in the afterword of his novel that the MMORPG “Habitat” resembles his idea of the metaverse. Note that this video game was released in 1985. It has been considered as the forerunner of modern MMORPG genre and used as a standard for designing digital or online communities featuring virtual environments dependent on graphics.
There are similarities between the idealized notion of the metaverse and modern games under the MMORPG genre. Both involve the use of virtual representations of actual persons called avatars to navigate through virtual environments. The two also enables these persons to interact with one another in a shared and immersive digital environment or virtual world.
However, apart from the aforementioned, there are differences between the two. Modern games under the MMORPG genre often feature non-persistent instance and lack seamless long-distance travel. The shared virtual worlds and all other digital elements or properties are also confined to a particular game title. The game mechanics also limit what a user can do.
The specific multiverse and sandbox genres of video games are the closest to the imagined idea of a metaverse. These games feature a collection of interconnected virtual worlds. User are free to travel within and between these worlds or across the multiverse. These games also enable the creation of user-generated content. Examples include Roblox and Minecraft.
It was in 2004 when The Multiverse Network was launched as a startup company that aimed to provide video game developers with technologies needed to create games with cross-platform and cross-title compatibility and interactivity. The company shutdown in late 2011 because of poor profits and its failure to attract a substantial number of developers.
The emergence of blockchain or NFT games has also been considered a solution for developing video games that can accurately demonstrate a metaverse. These NFT games provide users with the freedom to use earned or acquired in-game assets across different platforms or game titles using the principles behind non-fungible tokens and blockchain technology.
2. Understanding the Difference With Cyberspace and Web 2.0
American-Canadian fiction writer William Gibson used the term “cyberspace” in his 1982 short story “Burning Chrome” and again in his 1984 novel “Neuromancer” to describe the graphical representation of data. He later admitted that his usage was meaningless and it had no semantic meaning. The term is now used to capture internet-based computer networks.
There are several attempts to formally define what the cyberspace is. A 2009 paper from security researchers mentioned that it is a global and dynamic domain that combines the use of electrons and the electromagnetic spectrum to create, store, alter, exchange, and share information, as well as extract, use and eliminate information while disrupting physical resources.
Nevertheless, based on the aforementioned, it is easy to understand the similarities between the cyberspace and the metaverse. However, based on a more recent paper, J. D. N. Dionisio, W. G. Burns III, and R. Gilbert noted that cyberspace is a more inclusive term that represents the sum or totality of shared online space across all dimensions of representation.
The metaverse is more specific and defined. Dionisio and his colleagues explained that it allows users to access its environs while still being aware of their world. The researchers noted further that the concept represents a move from a set of separated and independent virtual worlds to an integrated network of three-dimension virtual worlds or environments.
It also shares some similarities with Web 2.0 or websites and other internet-based applications that put emphasis on user-generated content, ease of use, participation, and interoperability. The difference is that these websites and apps still remain two-dimension. The metaverse provides a more immersive and graphics-intensive user interface and user experience.
3. Highlighting and Understanding the Elements of the Metaverse
The film series The Matrix and the novel-turned-film Ready Player One provide a rough idea of what a metaverse is or how it will look like. The former depicts a virtual world that is controlled by artificial intelligence. The latter depicts a disaster-stricken future in which people use a virtual universe called Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation.
Nevertheless, based on recent developments, the actual technical standards and protocols are still in the process of standardization. Paul Lee et al. identified several enabling technologies. These include VR and AR technologies or mixed reality, systems and algorithms or models in artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and advanced wireless communication networks.
The imagine scenarios from researchers and tech people, as well as some of the characteristics of related technologies and depictions in fiction, provide the key elements of the metaverse. These include avatar creation and customization, content creation, virtual economy, a more immersive interaction within shared virtual environments, and novel security measures.
Pros: Advantages and Applications of Metaverse
Big Tech companies such as Microsoft, Meta Platforms, Apple, and Google have set their eyes on developing and deploying their versions of the metaverse. These companies have recognized the fact that the future of the internet and digital communication is headed toward an advanced digital realm that blurs the boundaries between the physical world and virtual world.
The core advantage of the metaverse is the identification and realization of new applications that would revolutionize how people use the internet and computers. It would also bring forth novel value-creating products and services with practical applications similar to the accomplishments of the internet, social media, and communication devices such as smartphones.
Below are the specific advantages and applications of the metaverse:
1. Expansion of Social Media Beyond Web 2.0
Zuckerberg and the people behind Meta Platforms recognize the role of tech in allowing people to connect with each other and express themselves better. The problem with current social media and other communication platforms is their restrictive and limited capabilities. These platforms restrict communications and interactions within a two-dimensional plane.
Users of social media platforms like Facebook or communications services such as Zoom are limited by their computer and mobile screens. Platforms based on the metaverse will allows a more immersive experience that entices a feeling or sense of presence. Zuckerberg calls this an embodied internet in which the user is part of the overall the digital experience
The aforesaid is the reason why Facebook changed its company name to Meta Platforms and has geared away from being identified as a social media company to head toward branding itself as a social technology company. Zuckerberg intends to combine virtual reality and augmented reality to enable more realistic digital communication and interaction.
Nevertheless, because it is an expansion of social media beyond, the specific applications of the metaverse center on creating and sharing digital information or content. This marks a dramatic leap from simple texts, photos, and videos. The user-generated content are more enriching and graphics. The users also become the content themselves through their avatars.
2. Innovative Communication for Work and Education
The Covid-19 pandemic that started in 2020 compelled businesses from different industries and sectors around the world to embrace digital technologies or online-enabled communications and interfacing. Telecommuting or work-from-home arrangements have become a solution to keep these businesses operational and also keep people at work or productive.
Even education institutions were forced to utilize technologies and services to enable remote or distance learning due to restrictions in face-to-face interactions. The Covid-19 pandemic is the primary reason why video conferencing platforms such as Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom Video Communications have become more popular across the globe.
However, as discussed above, these platforms do not provide a compelling and engaging user experience, unlike face-to-face interaction. Interaction is limited to screen-to-screen real-time audio and video. A platform based on the metaverse would allow a more engaging interaction due to the immersive and graphically-rich virtual environment.
Imagine being placed inside a virtual office or a lecture hall, and being able to see around and navigate through this virtual environment in a complete 360-degree fashion while interacting with life-like avatars. This is one of the main advantages of the metaverse. It is ushering in the development of innovative and more practical digital communications.
3. New Opportunities for Businesses and Marketers
Social networking sites and platforms have disrupted the media industry. These platforms are unlike traditional mediums of mass communications such as print and broadcast in which the audience are limited to consuming content or recipients of messages. Social media has enabled the public to become the messenger and content creator themselves.
These social media platforms have also opened new opportunities for business organizations of all sizes to promote their products in a manner that far surpasses both the reach and capabilities of traditional media. These platforms have paved the way for the introduction of a new subfield of marketing called digital marketing and social media marketing.
Of course, because one of the idealized applications of the metaverse is the expansion of social media beyond Web 2.0, it can also be used as a platform for marketing. It will inherit the same advantages of social media but with added benefits. The specific benefits of the metaverse in businesses revolves around the greater advantages of virtualization.
Marketers can create digitized versions of their products or place storefronts in a shared virtual world that can be visited and navigated through by users. This also presents a novel avenue for electronic commerce that takes advantage of VR and AR. The interactions between the target market and marketing content such as digital ads will be more immersive.
4. Complementing Blockchain and Spatial Computing
Another notable advantage of the metaverse is that it supplements the applications of blockchain technology. Take note that blockchain is the main technology behind cryptocurrencies. It is also applied in the creation and distribution of digital assets called NFTs or non-fungible tokens and the maintenance of decentralized financial systems and transactions.
Remember that a metaverse is a shared digital realm of virtual space. Blockchain applications such as cryptocurrencies, tokenization of digital content, and decentralized finance are made possible through the participation and collaboration of internet uses. The core characteristics of these blockchain applications are well-suited for the metaverse.
Furthermore, apart from blockchain technology, another technology that metaverse complements is spatial computing. This evolving form of computing that centers on the use of technologies or other technological products that allow humans to interact with computers in a more natural and intuitive manner. This brings new forms of human-computer interfacing.
One of the advantages and applications of spatial computing center on its use in the development and implementation of virtual reality or mixed reality platforms. It is worth underscoring the fact that these platforms are also central to the development and implementation of the metaverse. It is safe to consider the metaverse and spatial computing have overlapping principles.
5. Creating and Further Promotion of a Virtual Economy
There are virtual economies existing in the current digital realm. One of the notable examples are video games. Interactive video games such as RPGs and MMORPGs, action games, simulations, and even casual games have internal and often inclusive virtual economies demonstrated through their in-game acquisition and exchange of in-game virtual assets.
A virtual economy is simply an economy existing in a virtual platform. These virtual economies are far different from real-world economies. For instance, in video gaming, gamers participate in virtual economic activities for entertainment and recreation. Participation in real-world economic activities is based on the need to earn a living and be part of society.
Nevertheless, in considering social media expansion, the advances in digital communication, the benefits to business and marketers, and the impacts to related technologies, another advantage of the metaverse is that it can support the creation of a virtual economic and foster relevant virtual economic activities that function the same as real-world economies.
The metaverse will provide a digital platform for an immersive transaction or exchange of digital and offline products and services. These include digital assets with real economic value. It is also seen to support the creation of novel trade activities and categories or classes of occupations that can exist in either the shared virtual space or the real world environment.
Cons: Disadvantages and Criticisms of Metaverse
Based on its aforementioned characteristics, as well as the main advantages of the metaverse and its applications, it can be considered that this concept is a shared virtual space that enables users to experience a more immersive interaction. The tech companies that are working on its creation are aiming for people to live both the real world and digital world.
This idea does not sit well with critics and other industry players. It has also raised several issues and concerns due to the persistent and still-unresolve problems plaguing the current online space. Hence, if these problems remain unsolved, the metaverse will simply inherit them and in certain scenarios, will make them worse. This is a notable drawback.
Below are the specific disadvantages and criticisms of the metaverse:
1. Required Accessible Advanced Digital Technologies
One of the disadvantages of the metaverse is that its implementation will require the introduction of advanced technologies. There are technologies and standards or protocols that are available to the public. The newer ones are awaiting mass adoption. It is still worth noting that the concept is till new and will require additional investments in technological development.
Consider internet connectivity as a prime example. The participation in shared virtual spaces will require reliable data transmission speed because of the graphic intensiveness of the virtual world or platform. The current fiber-based broadband internet network and wireless technologies such as 5G network technologies or mmWave 5G network are decent enough.
But the fact remains that reliable services are still inaccessible to a number of people around the world. Enticing people to participate in the metaverse and maximize its benefits and applications will require services providers and relevant government agencies to develop and deploy better or more advanced and accessible digital communication technologies.
The concept will also require next-generation digital communication gadgetries. These devices are not readily accessible to individuals and communities for the simplest reason that they are either still unavailable to the greater market or remain expensive. Failing to make these devices accessible will alienate groups from the promised benefits of the metaverse.
2. May Erode Human Relationships and Social Fabric
One of the selling points of the metaverse is that can improve further the benefits of social media and existing online-enabled means of communication through the introduction of an immersive means of interacting and socializing with people online. But a number of people and groups have expressed concerns over this purported advantage or benefit.
Former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt was skeptical about the plans of companies such as Meta Platforms. He warned in an interview with The New York Times that the metaverse is not necessarily the best thing for human society. He expounded further that the people who often talk about metaverses are describing worlds that seemed better than the current world.
Schmidt added that artificial intelligence, which is seen as one of the technologies for developing and running the metaverse, is a “giant false god” that can create unhealth relationships and even parasocial relationships. He asked what would an AI-enabled friend would look like to a child or if AI perceives aspects of the real world or realities that people do not.
Other business leaders have also raised concerns about relevant technologies. For example, in a series of posts made on his official Twitter account in February 2020, SpaceX and Tesla chief executive Elon Musk mentioned that the confidence is not high with regard to the transparency and overall safety of artificial intelligence within his own companies.
3. Prevailing and Upcoming Privacy and Security Issues
Social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, as well as other online-enabled services like video conferencing platforms Zoom and even web browsers have been riddled with a range of controversies due to the security and privacy risks they pose to the public. These services and platforms have been criticized for exposing their uses to relevant dangers.
Part of the criticism is that their developers have become too intrusive due to the collection and processing of massive amounts of user data. These expose users to privacy issues and possible problems arising from security breaches. Some of these data have been collected, sold, and use for intrusive digital advertisements or identity theft and cybercrimes.
It is also worth mentioning that some companies behind them have failed to sufficiently address the criticisms thrown at them. Meta Platforms have been the subject of investigations across the world for their supposed internal practices that either downplay or disregarded how its platforms and services have worked against the interests of their users or customers.
Hence, if the current digital realm is still plagued by these unresolved criticisms and issues, the future iterations to online-enabled platforms and apps, which include the metaverse, will still be problematic. The idea of a shared virtual space will worsen existing problems and open novel issues relating to the security and privacy of individual and organizational users.
Nutshell: Understanding What a Metaverse is and Its Pros and Cons
The metaverse is a term that fundamentally represents a more immersive online experience that combines several aspects of social media, augmented reality, virtual reality, online gaming, and artificial intelligence to allow participants create a virtual presence that will also enable them to interact with one another in a manner that is closer to real-world interactions.
Nevertheless, based on the discussions above, the advantages of the metaverse include elevating the existing social medial and digital communication experiences, opening new opportunities for businesses, creating a working virtual economy, and complementing other technologies such as blockchain technology, mixed reality, and the concept of spatial computing.
The disadvantages of metaverse, as well as the issues and criticisms hurled toward it, primarily center on the fact that the current online-enabled platforms and services remain problematic or plagued with issues. These include security and privacy concerns, the social and cultural impact of modern digital communications, and unequal access to technology.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Dionisio, J. D. N., IW. G. Burns III, and Gilbert, R. 2013. “3D Virtual Worlds and the Metaverse.” In ACM Computing Surveys. 45(3): 1-38. Association for Computing Machinery. DOI: 1145/2480741.2480751
- Lee, P., Braud, T., Pengyuan Zhou, Lin, A. W., DianLei Xu, Zijun, J. L., Abhishek Kumar, Bermejo, C., and Hui, P. 2021. “All One Needs to Know about Metaverse: A Complete Survey on Technological Singularity, Virtual Ecosystem, and Research Agenda.” DOI: 13140/RG.2.2.11200.05124/6
- Mayer, M., Martino, L., Mazurier, P., and Tzvetkova, G. 2014. How Would You Define Cyberspace? Available online
- Walsh, E. 2021. “Former Google CEO Says Facebook’s Metaverse is ‘Not Necessarily the Best Thing For Human Society,’ and Expresses Concerns About the Safety of Artificial Intelligence.” Insider. Available online
- Zuckerberg, M. 2021. “Founder’s Letter, 2021.” Meta. Available online