Learn everything you need to know about the metaverse and how it could change the internet
What do you think of when you hear talk of "virtual worlds"? Perhaps the "San Junipero" episode of Black Mirror in season three that features a future in which the minds of the deceased are preserved in a virtual world, where they live forever in their youthful form?
Or Steven Spielberg's 2018 film Ready Player One (based on the novel written by Ernest Cline in 2011) is set in a virtual world known as OASIS, which serves as an escape from the dystopian future?
All these sci-fi works explore virtual reality’s (VR) ability to create other universes. And millions of people around the world refer to the alternative realities they describe as the metaverse.
This new era of the US multinational was launched under the name: Meta. The takeaway was that while Zuckerberg’s company will continue to support its app family, including Facebook, it will now focus on developing virtual reality (VR) platforms.
Zuckerberg believes the metaverse is the new internet: a platform we will increasingly use to simulate presence, to meet people, and to share experiences. But the idea of the metaverse goes far beyond what one or even a group of companies can generate. In fact, this concept has already existed for a long time.
So, what is the metaverse?
The metaverse is nothing new, still less a Facebook creation. It was born in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash. In his story, the metaverse is a 3D virtual world populated by avatars of people like us, who interact in a range of experiences. This is where the term and its key ideas come from.
Second Life, the virtual space created by US studio Linden Lab, was born some eighteen years ago as a place for new experiences. Brands invested in virtual stores in this new world, but in spite of massive media coverage and a huge initial buzz, Second Life never went mainstream. It is still around as a niche concern serving a small community—which just proves how it’s not always the first ideas that work smoothly in practice.
Investor Matthew Ball is an expert on the subject. He wrote The Metaverse Primer, a hub that explains its main concepts and developments. He believes that the best definition of the metaverse is:
“The Metaverse is a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.”
In short, it's a set of spaces in which you can live out virtual experiences. Or, in the words of researcher Janet Murray, shared in an article published on the Institute of Network Cultures: "When people talk in intoxicated terms about the metaverse, they are imagining a magical Zoom meeting that has all the playful release of Animal Crossing."
Real vs. virtual
Is the real world ready to finally embrace the virtual world in the metaverse? Could the power and money behind Meta (formerly Facebook) be the missing ingredients in a recipe that Linden Lab (and many other gaming companies including Epic Games, the creator of Fortnite) have been working on for years?
The answers to these and many other questions may still be far from clear. To date, promises of a virtual reality future that’s within reach have yet to convince the average consumer.
Yet, since COVID-19, and especially in the context of accelerated workplace changes that most of us have experienced, something new does seem to be afoot.
A 2020 PwC report predicts that by around 2030, nearly 23.5 million people will use Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality (AR) at work in fields like training, meetings, and customer service.
In an article projecting Entertainment and Media Macrotrends through 2025 (published in Portuguese in September 2021 on PwC’s Brazilian website), consultant Ricardo Queiroz explains that, “In spite of the 31.7% expansion in VR use during the confinement, the market is still growing. Slower than anticipated growth in consumer adoption of virtual reality was more concentrated in the business sector and on potential business applications.”
“It’s very Black Mirror!”
Ana Raquel Hernandes, Head of Yahoo Creative Studio that produces branded content and immersive experiences in Brazil, believes “we are still building a definition of the metaverse.”
For her, the most common understanding of the metaverse is the persistent and shared convergence of our real and virtual worlds to create something like a 3D internet. All the creative areas that feed into this digital environment tend to use 3D programming and modeling in everything from their design, to UX, art direction, writing, storytelling, and gamification. Hernandes also told Domestika that she believes, “We'll see the birth of new disciplines we have yet to imagine.”
Journalist Gustavo Miller (@gumiller) specializes in marketing and teaches the Content Marketing: From Planning to Execution course on Domestika. In his opinion, our lockdown experience helped make things that had seemed like fantasy more real. “Some changes used to feel too futuristic, too far away, but we’re actually now experiencing them on a daily basis,” he notes.
“The pandemic has changed the way in which we interact with both the digital and the real worlds. We now spend much more time at home and have started to question the value or importance of real-life experiences. I recently attended an [offline] event; there were queues, getting there was expensive, and the food wasn’t cheap. All this could have been solved by a hybrid experience allowing me to consume the same content online, at home, stress-free,” he explained to Domestika.
With this type of scenario in mind, Mark Zuckerberg's Meta is testing out virtual meeting spaces with avatars. Microsoft is also testing this feature in Teams or Gather, which is becoming very popular in the United States. Their vision is designed to allow us to experience new ways of interacting in everyday situations.
Greater immersion also means creating platforms that go beyond major corporations’ ecosystems. We need to think about how to make these new experiences more open and more democratic.
“The metaverse is another opportunity for businesses to connect and understand consumer behavior. One company could provide the logistics and structure for a metaverse brand, for example by providing subscription services. Products can be (and are already being) tested in these virtual environments to assess audience receptivity before they are developed in the real world and vice versa,” notes Hernandes.
Will we move into the metaverse?
When you consider the opportunities presented by the metaverse and technological progress, it’s logical to believe that this new version of the internet might one day replace everything we know as the virtual world, right? Wrong.
Filmmaker and VR specialist Ricardo Laganaro emphasizes that we are not living in Ready Player One. “We have to see the metaverse as a meeting place between the physical and digital worlds. It’s been a long time since we started using mobile phones. In spite of our many digital interactions, we live in the real world, and are increasingly thinking of more integrated ways to experience it, not the other way around,” he points out.
Although technologies like virtual and augmented reality are advancing and becoming more accessible, through smaller, more efficient headsets, Langanaro believes we will continue to live in the real world. After all, we still need to eat and sleep.
“Remember when the internet first began and people said we were all going to end up in cyberspace? Now we actually don’t even realize we’re connected. We’re going to see an improvement in presential experiences,” the filmmaker predicts.
Skills in fields including design, programming, illustration, sound design, and animation will be more in demand.
Domestika asked research consultant and social media teacher Carolina Terra who will be responsible for creating the future of the metaverse? She answered: “It’s not going to be an inclusive environment. Opportunities will be limited to skilled developers, we’re not talking about simple experiences after all. These sophisticated environments will require design and technology professionals at a time when these profiles are in short supply. Fortunately, we’ll also see lots of courses being launched to help develop new talent. But it’s going to take a while before things really take off.”
Current and future opportunities in the metaverse
When we talk about current and future metaverse opportunities, we can already start to see things like a new way to interact with friends and family on video calls or in work meetings. Face-to-face events can also benefit from hybrid experiences, for example when you go to see the doctor, meet a teacher, check out sales, customize your clothes or even enjoy an art exhibition.
Fornite, the massive online game, has experimented with shows by artists including Travis Scott and Ariana Grande. While enjoying the musical experience, players can even buy their icon's skins (character outfits) to personalize their play.
Similarly, artist Zara Larsson recently used the Roblox gaming platform to sell customized items including bags, sunglasses, and avatar hats, making over a million pounds.
“In the future, progress in technologies like 5G will enable better quality, faster, and possibly more accessible productions. AI and data will unite to allow things like dynamic creativity in AR and video game programming, as well as more hybrid experiences at stadiums, festivals, etc. We are already beginning to see this in markets with more advanced technology,” notes Ana Raquel Hernandes, Head of Yahoo Creative Studio in Brazil.
Ethics and data privacy
All these changes raise sensitive issues like privacy and data control. How will we use these technologies? How will they affect us? Hernandes adds that, “For better or worse, existing real-world behaviors are currently being reproduced online.”
“You can see what this looks like in current social media and gaming habits. We probably need to build a common code of ethics for these environments, in which we need to define how they will be enforced and by whom. Because in its purest form, the metaverse has no owner,” she explains.
Carolina Terra believes all the current problems we see with social media platforms—such as behavioral predictions and zero privacy—will persist in the metaverse. “Everything we do in these environments will be easy to track and data will probably be used without our consent,” she warns.
Domestika also interviewed Dr. Elizabeth Saad Corrêa, a professor of Communication Science at the University of São Paulo's (ECA-USP) School of Communication and Arts.
She stresses that: “Virtual users tend to expose more of their privacy, meaning they will probably allow a digital system into their 'homes' where it will be able to gather data, perceptions, and feelings. This process is practically unlimited due to the allure of virtual exploration. This breaks the rules of ethics. We are talking about the ethics of an algorithm that functions according to its own rules, which are generally not legitimized by social consensus."
Filmmaker and VR specialist Laganaro hopes that our current experiences of data concerns online—stemming from the lack of an established model for how to behave—could allow the metaverse to be built in a healthier, more open source, and more responsible manner.
But in terms of ethics and data privacy, there currently seem to be more questions than answers. Hernandes concludes, “In the ideal metaverse, I’d have a unique identity connecting me to all the spaces and I would know how my data will be used. But consumers are already unafraid to share their data in return for a positive experience, as we see in e-commerce and relevant content consumption.”
Although we are still far from the worlds shown in Black Mirror and Ready Player One, the near future seems to be bringing discussions about how to make these new worlds a positive experience in the real world we all know so well.