Future of the Internet
If you drive south on the Florida Turnpike for about thirty minutes past Miami, nestled between Homestead and Leisure City, you’ll find Coral Castle, one of the strangest tourist attractions in the entire Sunshine State. A limestone structure consisting of hundreds of stone statues in the form of walls, carvings, furniture, and a castle tower, Coral Castle was built by the eccentric Latvian American Edward Leedskalnin, but how exactly he constructed it remains a mystery to this day. According to its website, “From 1923 to 1951, Ed single-handedly and secretly carved over 1,100 tons of coral rock, and his unknown process has created one of the world’s most mysterious accomplishments.” Legend has it Ed built the monument to prove to a lover who abandoned him a day before his wedding day that he could do something remarkable with his life in spite of his poor upbringing and lowly education. At the very least, Coral Castle is a monument to Ed’s industriousness, and Leedskalnin’s quixotic journey to create this strange world reminded me of another man’s peculiar journey to create something fantastical of his own – Mark Zuckerberg and his metaverse Horizon’s Worlds. Both Leedskalnin and Zuckerberg seem obsessed in creating something that most many people look upon with curiosity but probably have little interest in visiting.
What is the Metaverse?
“Metaverse” is a portmanteau of “meta”, meaning virtual and transcendent, and “universe.” Neil Stevenson coined the term in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, which is set in an immersive 3D world of virtual and augmented reality. As Jungmi Lee explains in her article, A study on the intention and experience of using the metaverse, the metaverse “is a system that expands reality into a digital-based virtual world so that all activities can be performed in a virtual space. Specifically, in terms of politics, economy, society, and culture in general, it is widely used to represent a living-type and game-type virtual world in which the real and the unreal coexist.” Fusing technologies like AR, VR, 3D web technology, blockchain, and nonfungible tokens (NFTs), it serves as a base system for supporting games, education apps, and various businesses in the virtual world, Lee adds.
According to a study revealed at the 2007 Acceleration Studies Foundation (ASF), the metaverse consists of four major components – augmentation techniques, simulations, techniques that familiarize individuals or objects, and external techniques. Utilizing these four technologies, the metaverse can generate four scenarios, the virtual world, the mirror world, AR, and lifelogging, claims the ASF.
Today, there’s a gold rush mentality for businesses expanding into the metaverse. Many companies haven’t figured out how to monetize the space, but they know they have to be in it, almost like the early days of the internet. While Lee claims, “The metaverse platform provides realistic and precise images through the expansion of smartphones and internet networks and it allows the real world to move to the virtual world by recreating the feeling of the real world,” it is still far from a seamless experience. A lot of kinks need to be worked out before mass audience acceptance is achieved. It’s also highly unprofitable as Meta’s recent earnings reports show. Also, some people suffer from what’s known as “cybersickness”, a motion sickness many users feel after spending prolonged time in a digital space like the metaverse.
Gaming companies, manufacturers, healthcare providers, educational institutes, political campaigns, and museums are utilizing the metaverse in a multitude of ways. In the education field, students use AR/VR for non-face-to-face events like education classes, seminars, job fairs, entrance ceremonies, amongst others.
In medicine, the metaverse is used to simulate difficult surgeries or even provide the tools for remote surgeries as well as games that might help treat a whole host of illnesses. In politics, the metaverse was used by the Joe Biden presidential campaign as a space for voters to learn about his platform. For example, in the game “Animal Crossing: New Horizon,” players could visit an island called Biden HQ and learn all about the presidential candidate’s platform, reports CNN. For manufacturers, the metaverse lets designers from all over the globe share their prototypes in 3D. Products can be designed across continents. A design team in Europe can provide the manufacturing team in China with detailed real-time models of what needs to be produced. Any design changes can be handled quickly and efficiently, speeding up the manufacturing process. “The metaverse shows the potential for infinite growth of platforms in each field,” claims Lee.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes the metaverse will succeed the mobile Internet. He is so convinced of the metaverse’s potential success, he’s putting billions of his own money behind his quixotic, virtual dream. The problem, however, is Meta’s Reality Labs unit, which is responsible for developing the metaverse, lost $9.4 billion so far in 2022, according to CNBC. Zuckerberg is not playing with a virtual currency, the money is very real, and his investors are getting tired of seeing billions of dollars getting sucked into a hungry sinkhole of metaverse virtuality. There’s nothing virtual about the cold, hard currency that’s being spent to create a world that even Meta’s own staff aren’t embracing.
Future of the Internet – A second Second Life?
In his Venturebeat article, No, the metaverse is not dead – it’s inevitable, claims Louis Rosenberg, an early pioneer of virtual and augmented reality, who believes the metaverse is about revolutionizing the digital world experience. “Since the dawn of computing, digital content has been accessed primarily through flat media viewed in the third person. In the metaverse, our digital lives will increasingly involve immersive media that appears all around us and is experienced in the first person. It will impact everything, from how we work, shop and learn online to how we socialize and organize,” contends Rosenberg. He sees the metaverse as the technological impetus that transitions the digital world from a flat content world to a full-on immersive experiential world. The metaverse is inevitable, he hyperbolically proclaims. But is it?
Lee provides an example from the education field: “Soonchunhyang University, in cooperation with Ifland SK Telecom, held a metaverse freshman entrance ceremony through the Jump VR platform.” She adds that, during COVID, Korea University and many other universities held metaverse entrance ceremonies, which showed that the metaverse was an effective platform during COVID times. However, building a business around a once in a century pandemic probably isn’t always a great long-term business proposition. Once the pandemic passes, students will surely prefer attending classes and events in person.
Another industry embracing the metaverse is the music industry. Fans can interact with virtual humans and exchange digital goods at virtual concerts, and fan signings with K-Pop girl groups Espa and Blackpink are hugely popular. Other entertainment companies are also working hard to utilize and develop the metaverse platform.
“In the field of public relations, Naver Z collaborated with global apparel company Gucci to promote Gucci-related items on ZEPETO, a metaverse platform that is being developed to focus on avatar-based brand promotion and item production, such as the sale of collaboration products with convenience stores (CUs) and ZEPETO,” states Lee. NFTs and virtual products are popular items to sell in the metaverse, but how long can that last? The crypto implosion of 2022 has seen NFT prices collapsing and even popular NFTs, like the NBA’s Top Shots, are seeing interest crater. For products that are built on hype – and often nothing more – this could be disastrous for business in the long run.
Of course, there’s no mystery about how the metaverse is being built today; Meta alone has sunk billions into the virtual space while Microsoft, Nvidia, Google, Roblox, SKT, and Nintendo are jumping into the metaverse to build communities they can monetize in various ways. The Sandbox and Decentraland are two of the most well-known crypto-powered virtual-reality platforms, both powered by the Ethereum blockchain. These are big players, putting in billions of dollars to build up their metaverse businesses, but will they lose interest and decrease their spending if the metaverse doesn’t pay off soon?
Of all the companies working in the space, Microsoft may have one of the best strategies. In his article, Metaverse Companies: Who’s Involved and Who’s Investing in 2022, Aaron Drapkin explains, “Microsoft is different from many other metaverse companies with its focus on developing work-based metaverse environments – most notably Microsoft Mesh. Rather than focus specifically on gaming, the company defines its metaverse exploits as ‘the ability to bridge the digital and the physical worlds.’” Mesh integrates seamlessly into Microsoft Teamsand is a mixed-reality overlay that facilitates immersive collaboration in virtual spaces for teams and can be accessed via mixed-reality glasses and VR headsets.
The problem for the proponents of the metaverse is we’ve travelled this virtual road before. Second Life, an online multimedia platform that allows people to create their own avatar and interact in an online virtual world, launched on June 23, 2003. Admittedly, it’s not an immersive virtual world, but it does contain many of the elements of the metaverse, including the ability of a user to create an avatar that can interact with objects and other virtual characters inside the space. These avatars can buy and sell goods as well as build and trade real estate. The platform is run on the Linden Dollar, which is exchangeable for real money via a currency that floats against the U.S. dollar.
The metaverse, like artificial intelligence, has had its share of winters, including the 1997 through 2012 “frigid winter” as Rosenberg calls it. Tech history is littered with products, services, and movements that either never live up to their hype or quickly went nowhere. Undoubtedly, there is a future (as many say metaverse is future of the internet) for the metaverse, but it might be a lot smaller and a lot more limited than its current proponents contend. Tech is certainly not adverse to financial failure; Facebook has lost billions in the metaverse and still weirdly can’t get legs on its avatars; Amazon recently admitted its Alexa division has been a colossal failure and is set to lose over $10 billion by the end of 2022; With FTX’s recent implosion, the crypto, NFT, and Web3 worlds are reeling and might have deep trouble attracting future investors.
Even Rosenberg recognizes the metaverse’s limitations. “I’m not suggesting we will spend our lives in cartoonish virtual worlds using creepy avatars to chat with friends and coworkers. Virtual spaces will get far more natural and realistic. Still, I believe that purely virtual worlds will be aimed mostly at short-duration activities, similar to the way we lose ourselves in movies today,” he says. Of course, the big difference between spending time in the metaverse and at a film is the level of commitment required for the two experiences. The metaverse requires a lot of interactivity while films can be viewed rather passively. A ticket for a film can be as little as a few dollars while a visit to a metaverse, with all the hardware and software required, can be upwards of a few thousand dollars.
“The true metaverse—the one that will transform our lives—will be rooted in augmented reality, enabling us to experience the real world embellished with immersive virtual content that appears seamlessly all around us. That is by far the most natural way for us humans to bring the digital world into our lives. For that simple reason, the metaverse is inevitable.” Some form of the metaverse is probably inevitable, but those venturing into it should be careful and understand consumers can be both fickle and rather impulsive.
Legend has it Leedskalnin constructed Coral Castle on his own using mysticism. After spending more than 28 years building Coral Castle, Leedskalnin lived there and would charge visitors twenty-five cents to explore the grounds. He’d give personal tours, but he never revealed how he made the castle. “It’s not difficult if you know how,” he would teasingly quip when asked. However, in his 1996 book Mr. Can’t Is Dead! The Story of the Coral Castle, Leedskalnin’s longtime friend, Orval Irwin, explained through photographs, drawings, and schematics, how the place was constructed. Irwin debunked the paranormal construction theories he found rather insulting. The myth might be gone but the reality is Leedskalnin got to live out his life in a castle, a dream for many. For Zuckerberg and all those investing in the metaverse, the hope is they’re building more than hugely expensive castles in the air.