Metaverse: The future of the Internet is here!

An illustration showing Virtual reality glasses and a human with a tablet

Abstract

In recent times, Metaverse has become the topic of interest for many social media companies with the development of new AR(Augmented Reality)/VR(Virtual Reality)devices. Along with the advancement in device new technologies such as secure web3.0, 5G, Robotics, and blockchain has provided hope for a more connected and secure Internet. With more and more devices and AR/VR games devices, the internet is moving towards a more immersive technology that can possibly allow humans to connect with each other over the huge persistent, and shared internet. This paper examines the origin of virtual worlds, the structure of the metaverse, and its relation with the virtual world representation of the real world through the human senses. Then it explores features of the metaverse and the current limitation of the technology. Finally, it explains common use cases for the metaverse and the role of designers in making the ideas of metaverse a reality by exploring the current problems on the internet such as privacy, security, and ethics.

Introduction

Metaverse is the new buzzword within the field of technology. Facebook announced that it will transition from being a social media company to a Metaverse company in the next few years. Facebook changing its name to Meta has put a focus on a whole new future of human-computer interaction called the metaverse, and no one knows what it is. An estimated 2.62 million searches for the term ‘metaverse’ were made in October 2021 (George Miller,2021). This announcement along with many major companies moving in the same direction of a metaverse has made people from different backgrounds such as literature, movie directors, game designers praise the efforts and at the same time criticize the idea of an immersive virtual world because of its grounds from the literature ‘Snow Crash’ a novel that shows a post-apocalyptic world where humans are using the means of virtual worlds to escape the harsh real-world ruled by tech giants by monopolizing the internet and become a governing body. Several questions arise when I looked at mixed comments on Twitter and blogs about Meta’s (formerly Facebook) decision to move towards a metaverse. What is Metaverse? Why is it so important? Why are people intimidated by the idea of connected and immersive virtual worlds? The initial version of metaverse that showed the idea of the virtual world in 2003 was Second life — an immersive shared virtual space. The idea for a metaverse has been around for some time, but now thanks to the Meta and Microsoft efforts & interests in the metaverse, there is a growing interest in building simulated worlds that closely model our reality (Bernard Marr, 2021).

The Virtual Worlds and Metaverse

Before we dive into metaverse we need to understand the heart of metaverse -Virtual worlds. Virtual worlds are online computer-generated pretend environments that people can visit whenever they like. ‘Second life’ by Linden Lab is an example of a virtual world where they allow users to create avatars for themselves and interact with places, objects, and other avatars in the online virtual world. Though the 3 idea of digitized virtual worlds was observed after the rise of the internet, its traces are seen in the old literature and tabletop games such as Dungeons and Dragons (John David n. Dionisio, William g. Burns iii, & Richard gilbert, 2013, p.34) back in 1974. Players create fantasy realities that allow players to create their characters(avatars) and interact with other players in that fantasy habitat. It was decades later when the concept of virtual fantasies was digitized that became the root or the initial form of virtual worlds for today’s modern AR/VR games and the concept of the metaverse. Habitat was the first digital world technology that took inspiration from the 1984 publication of Neuromancer by William Gibson. Habitat was the first application to use a 2D graphical user interface-based virtual world application. The advances in 3D graphics and computer processing power in 2003 along with the popularization of the internet expanded the commercial user group of virtual world platforms such as Second Life that provided content creation tools, improved experience, and better immersion. Immersion is an act of being completely involved and engaged in something. As the online user base increased and more such virtual worlds like Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto Online, Pokémon Go emerged with better 3D graphics and better online connectivity with the world, the load on the computing system, storage, and servers was evident and became s challenge for designers and developers. Blockchain came to the rescue with the concept of decentralized data servers and distributed data storage (Haihan Duan et al., 2021, p.154). The data in a decentralized system such as blockchain is stored in blocks distributed over different peer devices which reduces the computing load on individual computers. The introduction of Blockchain and decentralized computing has given hope to a more connected virtual world that is not limited to just individual platforms but interconnected with multiple platforms which are known as the metaverse.

A diagram showing Timeline of application and literature about Virtual Worlds and Metaverse

‘The metaverse’ is an idea of the virtual world that reduces the differences between the real and the digital world. It is an interconnected web of real-time 3D virtual worlds that can be encountered and experienced by a wide number of users simultaneously and synchronously using a digital avatar. metaverse provides users a means to experience a world that can only be dreamed of in real life. ‘The general progression has been from viewing the Metaverse as an amplified version of an individual 4 virtual world’ (John David n et al,2013, p.34). Neal Stephenson, who coined the term in his 1992 novel ‘Snow Crash’, vividly conveyed the Metaverse as a Virtual World perspective. (Daniel Villarreal, 2021) Snow Crash is based on a society in which there is great suffering or injustice, where Metaverse is a means to escape from the corrupted world controlled by corporate mafias protected by armed mercenary force. Users of this metaverse are represented as avatars in virtual form. Users can connect through computer terminals that show a first-person view of the virtual world through goggles connected to the computer, users can customize their avatars and travel in sci-fi vehicles in this metaverse.

Features of the metaverse

Metaverse leverages the basic concepts of human interaction with technology and groups them into a system. Currently, interactions are limited to text, and voice, and recently the covid 19 pandemic has boosted the use of video as a means of communication. Designers thrive to stimulate different human senses to create an engaging experience with technology, be it addictive engagement, or minor micro-interactions such as quick accessibility of features or animating buttons, which reduces user job and the cognitive load. The design of virtual worlds and games has been following the same idea of exciting different human senses during the interaction. The initial Virtual environment such as Tinytim MUD was a text-based multi-user dungeon virtual environment where players collaborated by creating their rooms, puzzles, and games. Later with the advancement in technology and the beginning of the internet, more human traits such as vision, voice, gesture, and motion started emerging in various collaborative virtual environments that make the modern Virtual games and devices such as oculus that has become the starting and the inspiring factor for the idea of the metaverse.

A screenshot from an old Virtual world based game Tinytim User interface

viable metaverse is based on the four essential features of Virtual World Technology (John David n et al,2013, p.34). realism, ubiquity, interoperability & Scalability. Understanding the below key feature in detail allows designers to understand and relate the virtual; world with the real world and also the current status of the technology for Virtual worlds and in turn metaverse.

i. Realism

Realism in appearance refers to how closely the visual qualities of the experimental interface resemble those of the interface as encountered in real life [ Letitia Lew et al, 2012, p2]. For a viable metaverse, users should feel psychologically and emotionally engaged in virtual worlds. The current games make use of human senses and mental models to make games more interactive, for example, the haptic feedback of the controller gives a sense of motion or impact or different types of remote controls such as the driving wheel for racing games give users the sense of driving a real race car. Some of the common factors that comprise making the metaverse more realistic are vision, sound, touch, expressions, smell, etc. for the scope of the paper, I will just touch on some of the key features that contribute to realism in the metaverse.

A screenshot from a Virtual world game second life showing different human avatars

Vision:

The human sense of vision acts as a support for the user to relate the visual cues and graphics from the virtual world and relate it to the mental model of the environment and reality. To relate the visual data from the virtual world, the computer graphics should be visually rich in detail. This can be achieved by increasing the number of pixels and smaller polygons and realistic textures that seem more realistic to the user. The immersion of the user in virtual reality is not just related to the graphical quality or computer graphics but also dependent on the contextual and situated factors such as attention, nonvisual cues, location, and environment for example a virtual world depicting earth cannot have weird cartoons roaming around, this can give the user a feeling of fakeness. The same cartoon if used in a virtual world of a different world or environment from an animated movie will be an appropriate use of that character. Hence the context of the 3D world and its object also plays an important role in portraying realism in Metaverse. The one limiting factor for an immersive and engaging experience is special glasses that isolate both eyes.

A women using A Virtual Reality headset

Sound:

Like visuals, sound is another human sense that has a major role in the immersive metaverse. Users will be constantly connected to a hearing device for collaborating with other users and also while exploring the virtual world. replicating ambient sound and speech sound is crucial and a non-tradable trait for metaverse as it helps the user to engage with the environment. No one enjoys watching a face talking with a mismatch in movement and sound. Though capturing verbal communication is now easily available, recording and eliminating ambient sound from the environment and integrating it with metaverse is a challenging task. Designing new techniques for modulating the recorded sound and also efficient sound systems will be the focus area during the development of the metaverse. Similar to the vision for complete immersion in the metaverse even sound requires isolation of both the right and left ear.

Touch:

After Vision and Sound, the sense of touch is the next important topic of attention for an immersive experience in the Metaverse. The common feedback that we have for touch is the haptic feedback that we receive in form of vibrations from our mobile screens and game controllers. the very methodology of capturing, modeling, and ultimately reproducing touch-related object properties has been proposed as haptography (John David n et al,2013, p.34). Haptography is a technique that enables recording a haptic feel of real objects. Digitizing the sense of touch remains a topic of research. more immersed interactions such as hugging, and cuddling will require additional garments while accessing the metaverse.

ii. Ubiquity

Ubiquity can be defined as a notion of being present anywhere and everywhere. The ubiquitous availability of and access to virtual worlds can be viewed as a specific instance of ubicomp or ubiquitous computing, as first proposed by Mark Weiser (1991, 1993), The Internet has become ubiquitous in our daily lives. From the moment we wake up we grab our mobile to check emails, messages from friends, or watch reels on Instagram without consciously performing an act of using the internet. currently on our mobile, the account data such as your Facebook profile, Snapchat profile, google account is managed by individual companies. Metaverse will allow avatars to manage their account identity and the same account can be used for every application or system they use in the Virtual world. To attain true ubiquitous avatars, the migration of data should be seamless and transparent between different applications.

iii. Interoperability

Interoperability is the ability of a system to interact with other systems to exchange information over the internet. In the case of the metaverse, avatars or users can easily travel or teleport to different virtual worlds thus giving the sense of interoperability. Consider you are playing a game in a virtual world, you receive a notification from a friend about a concert she is attending in the virtual world. the ability to join the concert instantly is interoperability.

iv. Scalability

Virtual worlds have scalability concerns similar to that of other systems and technologies. As the promise of the metaverse is to provide an infinite range of space and dimensions, managing such computing power is a challenge. Three dimensions of virtual world scalability have been identified in the literature (Liu et al.,2010).The concurrent players or avatars accessing a particular virtual world in the network of the metaverse. The complexity of the scenes in virtual worlds such as the number of objects, their details, and usability of such objects on the scene and the third one is the scope of the interaction of the avatars or users with the object and other users in the virtual world. Multiple avatars/users consequently accessing metaverse generates and requires a huge amount of data. handling such an amount of data is impossible for current centralized databases and the cloud. Decentralization of data-splitting data on different blocks instead of servers — through blockchain could be the possible solution, but it is in the nascent phase and constantly developing.

How will metaverse look in the future!

The Acceleration Studies Foundation (ASF), a non-profit technology research organization, classified the Metaverse into the following four categories: a virtual world that experiences a flawless virtual story like Second life, a mirror world that reflects the current real-world such as virtual travel documentaries, an augmented reality that shows a mixture of augmented information in the real world (Pokemon Go, Google glasses), and life-logging to capture your daily life which captures and stores everyday information about people and things (Smart, Cascio & Paffendorf, 2007).

i. Games

Gaming is the first use case that comes to my mind. though there are already many games that are using the concept of virtual worlds such as Second Life, Beat Saber, and many more. but metaverse could make these game experiences more realistic with advances in haptics.

ii. Local Interaction

Recently Facebook announced their new Meta concept of Horizon. Horizon will allow users to stay connected with more than just text, photos, or video. In Metaverse it will be possible to interact virtually and simultaneously such as playing games, watching a movie or concert in a virtual world. Covid 19 has already have made companies realize the increased productivity of the concept of work from home with an application such as Zoom, Teams, Discord. virtual metaverse will remove the limitation of current technologies.

iii. Travel

Metaverse will allow a new means to travel not just any place on earth but also open areas of exploration of different planets or even a place back in the past like a Jurrasic age or a time when ancient Egyptian civilization was burgeoning.Though we already have bits and pieces of the virtual world applications, metaverse will help reduce the current limitations and allow a more immersive experience.

Metaverse will open new scopes for utilizing virtual worlds such as eCommerce, ad economy, Architecture & Design, Education, Automotive application, health industry, application for people with disabilities, experiencing concerts, sports, and many more.

Designers' role in Metaverse

Internet was considered a savior of humanity by providing a means to connect with people around the world and a means to gain knowledge, express oneself, participate in campaigns, and online banking, but all the good things it also provides a new means to harm such as cyberbullying, cyber terrorism, banking frauds, addiction, modern weapons such drones, etc. The metaverse is said to be the next Internet and the same threats are implied on the metaverse as well. Also if we consider the source of the idea of the metaverse is a literary novel that is based on the dystopian world where humanity has lost its essence due to the advancement of technology and some major companies controlling and monopolizing virtual worlds and the real world is overrun by violence and poverty. Today big social media and gaming companies are very interested in bringing this future vision of a virtual world to life. John Hanke Founder & CEO of Niantic (2021) on the company's blog mentions that these Sci-Fi novels serve as a warning about a dystopian future of technology gone wrong. As the writer and media studies professor and video game designer Ian Bogost (2021) noted ‘The metaverse was never a fantasy about virtual reality, but just one about power, and know that these founders have the capital and power to pursue the fantasy, that is exactly what they are doing.’ Though designers can not completely control the big monopolies, it is our responsibility to learn from the mistakes of the internet and make a better metaverse by working on things that we can control. Privacy and ethics will be important factors while designing the metaverse. privacy concerns related to leaking and selling user data and the use of dark patterns and dark designs for economics are not a new topic on the current internet. coming up with a privacy mechanism will be a crucial part of the metaverse. Metaverse being a global concept with its promise to connect the world of virtual worlds without limitations, there will come a need for a common governance body that can look over the fairness in terms of diversity and inclusion of underrepresented communities in the metaverse. The algorithms used to provide and analyze content on metaverse should be fair and not have any favorable bias towards race, ethnicity, gender, location, or community. Just as some people are addicted to social media, metaverse provides a new means for escaping from the real world.to design a metaverse more immersive and less addictive will be a challenge and a topic of research on human behavior for designers. Biometrics and blockchain is the main component of making the metaverse interoperable. The unique nature of biometric data and the ability to record and maintain the record of the source of data for digital objects in blockchains can make the metaverse interoperable and also secure. There is a huge new scope for designers to witness and contribute to the rise of the new Internet — the Metaverse keeping in mind that the focus of new technology should be on making the human experience better and not replacing it.

Conclusion

Metaverse is inevitable(David Armano ,2021). In the early 80’s computers were the focus of attraction, then came to the internet, smartphones, IoT, and recently blockchain and cryptocurrency. we are already connected to the world through the internet, it is the logical next step in technology, to take connectivity to the next level replacing the current norms of connection via text and photos to a new digital world that resembles the actual real-world properties. We are already in the initial stages of the metaverse, the parts and pieces that comprise the metaverse are known and already in use in their application such as blockchain as a means for digital currencies and a new way of trading products, the virtual environment is been used in games for more than a decade. Now the next step is to find a way, a mechanism & infrastructure to integrate all these known parts into a universe of Virtual worlds — Metaverse. The current technology and our network infrastructure is not yet capable due to hardware limitation, but it’s not impossible, Moore’s law(the observation that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years, though the cost of computers is halved.) will make the hardware more powerful and also affordable for the general public. We all have seen movies that depict a world with advanced technology and a post-apocalypse world. This grim future of the metaverse is mentioned and criticized in the literature and gaming industry. New York times in their recent article stated that ‘Leaders in technology, entertainment, and fashion have rushed to stake their claim in it, though few seem to agree about what exactly it is. ‘The important thing is that it’s coming (John Herman, 2021). The recent announcement and a presentation by Meta have raised a stream of discussion and concerns on social media about huge companies moving towards the Metaverse and not mentioning the possible futures that are depicted in literature like ‘Snow Crash”. In the end, it all depends on how we make use of the metaverse, some will use it for good, some for bad, but being a part and witnessing the forming of the metaverse is going to be interesting. So let’s be ready as the future is here!

References

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