The term “metaverse” first appeared in the 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson. The story is set on a futuristic backdrop wherein humans interact with each other and software agents as avatars in an internet-like and online-enabled virtual space. Stephenson specifically described this virtual space as the metaverse, and it represented his vision of the future evolution of the internet based on virtual reality technology.
Players and movers from the technology industry have set their eyes on the possibility of creating and implementing a three-dimensional virtual world for mass 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 myriad of highly accessible and on-demand digital information.
Some of its participants include Robert Scoble from Microsoft, former Sony Online Entertainment chief creative officer Raph Koster, Bob Moore of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, and game developer Randy Farmer. The summit concluded four imagined scenarios of what the metaverse would be like or its most likely outcomes: dubbed augmented reality, lifelogging, virtual worlds, and mirror worlds.
In October 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook has changed its company name to Metaverse Platforms to steer away from being identified as a mere social media platform and represent its direction toward deploying its own version of the metaverse. The company envisions a hybrid of the current online social experiences that can be expanded into three dimensions or projected into the physical world.
Explainer: What Exactly is the Metaverse
Similarities with MMORPG and Multiverse Games
Stephenson also stated in the afterword of his novel that the MMORPG “Habitat,” which was first introduced in 1985, resembles his idea of the metaverse. Note that the game has been considered as the forerunner of modern MMORPGs and used as a benchmark for designing online communities featuring graphics-dependent virtual environments.
There are several similarities between the idealized notion of the metaverse and modern MMORPGs. Both involve the use of virtual representations of actual persons called avatars to navigate through virtual environments. In addition, both also allow these persons to interact with one another in a share immersive digital environment or virtual world.
However, there are differences between the two. Most MMORPGs feature non-persistent instances. They also lack seamless long-distance travel. The shared virtual world and all other digital elements or properties are usually confined within a particular game title. The game mechanics also limit what a user can do in the shared virtual world.
The specific multiverse and sandbox genres of video games have a closer resemblance to a metaverse. These multiverse virtual games feature a collection of interconnected virtual worlds. Users can travel within and between these worlds while also contributing user-generated contents. Examples include Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite Creative.
In 2004, The Multiverse Network was launched as a startup company that aimed to provide video game developers with technologies needed to create game titles with cross-platform and cross-title compatibility and interactivity. However, the company closed in late 2011from lack of profits and due to its failure to attract developers.
The emergence of NFT or blockchain games may perhaps provide a solution for developing video games that with accurately exemplify a metaverse. Using blockchain technology to create in-game assets via non-fungible tokens, these NFT games provide players the freedom to use earned or acquired in-game assets across different platforms and titles.
A Note on the Difference with Cyberspace and Web 2.0
William Gibson used the term “cyberspace” in his 1982 short story “Burning Chrome” and the 1984 novel “Neuromancer” to describe a graphical representation of data. However, he admitted that his usage was essentially meaningless and it had no semantic meaning. The term has now been used to collectively capture internet or online-based computer networks.
There are several attempts to formally define cyberspace. A 2009 draft by security researchers mentioned that it is a global and dynamic domain of “combined use of electrons and the electromagnetic spectrum, whose purpose is to create, store, modify, exchange, share, and extract, use, eliminate information and disrupt physical resources.”
Based on the aforementioned, it is easy to understand the similarities between the cyberspace and the metaverse. However, researchers J. D. N. Dionisio, W. G. Burns III, and R. Gilbert explained that “cyberspace” is a more inclusive term that represents the “totality of shared online space across all dimensions of representation.”
The metaverse is more specific and defined. As mentioned by Dionisio and his colleagues, it “allows its users to access its environs while still aware of their world.” They further noted that the concept represents a move from a set of separated and independent virtual worlds to an integrated network of three-dimensional virtual worlds.
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, participatory culture, and interoperability. However, these websites remain two-dimensional. Metaverse provides a fully immersive and graphics-intensive user interface and user experience.
Highlighting and Understanding the Elements of the Metaverse
Some of the representations of what a metaverse is or how it will look like include the film series The Matrix, which depicts a dystopian future wherein humanity is unknowingly trapped inside a virtual world called run by artificial intelligence, and Ready Player One, a novel that depicts a disaster-stricken future where people use a virtual universe called the OASIS.
The technical standards and protocols are still in the process of development and deployment. Researchers Paul Lee et al. identified the following enabling technologies: virtual reality and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, computer vision, cloud computing, and advanced mobile networks such as fifth-generation network technology and beyond.
Considering some of the imagined scenarios made by industry players and researchers, as well as those introduced through fiction, the key elements of the metaverse include avatar creation and customization, content creation, virtual economy, a more immersive interaction within shared virtual environments, and security and privacy, among others.
Pros: Advantages and Applications of Metaverse
Big Tech has set their eyes on developing and deploying their version of the metaverse. Companies such as Microsoft and Meta have recognized the fact that the future of the internet and digital communication is headed toward a more immersive digital realm that reduces the boundaries between the physical world and the virtual world.
The core advantage of the metaverse is the identification and realization of novel applications that would revolutionize the way individuals use the internet and other related digital communication technologies. Similar to the advantages of Web 2.0 and social media, the concept will bring forth new value-creating digital products and services with practical applications.
Below are the specific advantages and applications of the metaverse:
Expansion of Social Media Beyond Web 2.0
Zuckerberg and the people behind Meta Platforms recognize the capability of technology to allow people to connect and express themselves more naturally. But current social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, as well as communication platforms such as Zoom restrict digital human interaction within a two-dimensional plane.
Users of the aforementioned social media and communication platforms are limited to merely looking at their computer or mobile screens. However, a platform based on the metaverse will allow a more immersive experience by enticing a feeling of presence. Zuckerberg calls this an embodied internet in which the user is in 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. The company intends to combine virtual reality and augmented reality to enable more realistic digital communication and interaction.
Of course, because it is an expansion of social media beyond Web 2.0, the specific applications of metaverse centers on creating and sharing digital information or contents that mark a dramatic leap from simple texts, photos, and videos. These contents are more graphic-intensive. Furthermore, the users become the content themselves.
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 forms of communication. Remote work or telecommuting and work-from-home arrangements have become a solution to keep these businesses running and individuals employed.
Even education institutions were forced to utilize technologies and services to enable remote or distance learning due to restrictions in face-to-face interactions. Note that the Covid-19 pandemic is the primary reason why video conferencing platforms such as Zoom Video Communications, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams have become more popular.
However, as discussed above, these platforms do not provide a compelling and engaging 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 among participants due to the immersive and graphically-rich virtual environment.
Instead of seeing the rest of the participants on a computer screen and communicating through microphones and speakers, imagine being in 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 of the participants.
New Opportunities for Businesses and Marketers
Social networking sites and platforms have disrupted the media industry. Unlike the traditional mediums of mass communication such as broadcast and print in which the audience or confined to consuming and receiving messages, the introduction and eventual popularity of social media has enabled the public to become the messenger and content creator themselves.
It is also worth mentioning that social media platforms have also opened opportunities for businesses of all sizes and marketers to promote their products and services in ways that surpass the reach and capabilities of traditional media. These platforms have paved the way for the introduction of a new subfield of marketing and a specific type of digital marketing called 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 advantages of social media but with more added benefits. More specifically, the benefits of metaverse in businesses and marketers center on the advantages of virtualization.
Marketers can create digitized versions of their products or place storefronts in a shared virtual world that can be viewed and navigated through by users. It will also open a new avenue for electronic commerce that takes advantage of augmented reality. The interactions between the target market and marketing contents and ads will be more immersive.
Complementing the Applications of Blockchain Technology
Another notable advantage of the metaverse is that it supplements or complements the applications of blockchain technology. Note that blockchain is the primary technology behind cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, the Ether cryptocurrency of Ethereum platform, Dogecoin, and the Ada cryptocurrency of the Cardano platform.
But blockchain is more than just a technology for implementing and maintaining crypto-coins and crypto-tokens. It is specifically a decentralized or distributed database used as a record or ledger of transactions. Another one of its notable applications is in the creation and distribution of digital assets called non-fungible tokens or NFTs.
Through the creation of NFTs using blockchain technology, a new trend in gaming attempts to promote the concept of play-to-earn in which players can earn an income and acquire in-game digital assets that are tradable and usable in other platforms or game titles. These games are called NFT or blockchain games. Some of its notable examples include Axie Infinity.
Remember that a metaverse is a shared digital realm of virtual space. Blockchain applications such as cryptocurrencies, tokenization of contents through NFT, and blockchain games, as well as decentralized finance and cybersecurity, are activities that are made possible through the participation and collaboration of internet users.
Creating and Further Promotion of a Virtual Economy
There are virtual economies existing in the current digital realm. Video games are a notable example. To be specific, interactive video games such as RPGs and MMORPGs, simulation games, action games, and even casual games have internal virtual economies as demonstrated through in-game acquisition and exchange of in-game assets.
A virtual economy is simply an economy existing in a virtual platform. However, it is also worth mentioning that virtual economies are different from real-world economies. People participate in virtual economic activities for entertainment and recreation. On the other hand, participation in the real-world economy is a necessity because it is a matter of survival.
Considering the future expansion of social media, the advancements to digital communication, the benefits to businesses and marketers, and the complementary impact to blockchain applications, another advantage of the metaverse is that it can fully support the creation of a virtual economy that functions similarly to a real-world economy.
The metaverse will provide a digital platform for an immersive exchange of digital and offline products and services, including digital assets. Note that these digital assets can have a real economic value. Furthermore, it will support the creation of new trade activities and jobs that exist in either the shared virtual space or the real world.
Cons: Disadvantages and Criticisms of Metaverse
Based on the aforementioned characteristics, as well as the advantages and applications of the metaverse, it can be considered that this concept is a shared virtual space that allows a more immersive interaction among its participants. Big Tech companies that are promoting its creation are essentially aiming for people to live in this digital realm.
However, the idea does not sit well with other industry players and critics. It has also raised several issues and concerns due to the persistent and still-unresolved problems plaguing the current cyberspace. Of course, if these problems remain unsolved, the metaverse will simply inherit them and in certain scenarios, will make them worse.
Below are the specific disadvantages and criticisms of the metaverse:
Required Accessible Advanced Digital Technologies
One of the disadvantages of the metaverse is that its implementation will require the introduction of advanced technologies. Of course, there are several technologies and standards or protocols that are already commercially available to implementers. However, the concept will require additional investments in developing newer technologies.
Consider better internet connectivity as a prime example. Participating in a shared virtual space will require reliable data transmission speed because it is graphically intensive. Current fiber-based broadband connectivity and 5G network technologies, especially the mmWave 5G network technology, may adequately support the realization of this concept.
But the fact remains that reliable services are still not accessible to a number of people around the world. In addition, enticing people to participate in the metaverse, as well as to utilize its benefits and applications, will require a widescale deployment of better or advanced digital communication technologies by service providers and relevant government agencies.
The concept will also require next-generation digital communication tools or gadgetries. These items are not readily accessible to individuals and communities for the simplest reason that they either are still unavailable in the market or remain expensive. Failing to make them accessible will alienate several people from the promised benefits of the metaverse.
May Erode Human Relationships and the Society
One of the selling points of the metaverse is that can improve the benefits of social media and existing online-enabled means of communication by introducing a more immersive way to interact and socialize with people online. However, a number of people have expressed concerns over this purported advantage or benefit.
Former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt has expressed concern over the plan of Meta Platforms to introduce a metaverse. In an interview with The New York Times, he warned that it is “not necessarily the best thing for human society.” He also said that “all of the people who talk about metaverses are talking about worlds that are more satisfying than the current world.”
Schmidt noted that artificial intelligence, which is one of the underlying technologies for designing and running the metaverse, is a “giant false god” that can create unhealthy and parasocial relationships. He asked what would an AI-enabled friend look like, especially to a child, or if artificial intelligence perceives aspects of reality that people do not.
Other business leaders have also raised concerns about relevant technologies. For example, in a series of commentaries posted on his official Twitter account in February 2020, Tesla chief executive Elon Musk mentioned that confidence is “not high” in the transparency and safety of artificial intelligence within his own company.
Prevailing and Upcoming Privacy and Security Issues
Social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, as well as other online-enabled communication applications to include the use of video conferencing platforms such as Zoom Video Communication and even internet browsing have been riddled with controversies and criticisms due to the security and privacy risks they pose to the public.
These platforms and applications have been criticized for being too intrusive, particularly because they collect a lot of data from their users that create security and privacy risks. Furthermore, these data have been collected, sold, and used for intrusive online advertisements, as well as for identity theft and other cyber-related crimes.
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 social media platforms have negatively affected the interest of its users.
Of course, if the current digital realm is still plagued by these concerns or issues, it is safe to say that these will be inherited in future iterations to online-enabled platforms and applications, including the metaverse. Furthermore, the idea of a shared virtual space will open new problems relating to the security and privacy not only of individuals but also of institutions.
Nutshell: Understanding What a Metaverse is and Its Pros and Cons
The metaverse is a term that fundamentally represents an immersive online experience that combines several aspects of social media, augmented reality, virtual reality, online gaming, and artificial intelligence to allow individuals or participants create a virtual presence that will allow them to interact with one another in a manner that is closer to real-world interactions.
Based on this definition, its advantages revolve around elevating existing social media experience and digital communication, opening new opportunities for businesses, creating a valuable virtual economy, and complementing the applications of blockchain technology.
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 or products and services remain problematic. These problems include security and privacy risks, the social and cultural impact of modern digital communication, and limited accessibility 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