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The Metaverse Big Bang

Promises and issues behind the hype

Metaverse has been gaining momentum since last October when Mark Zuckerberg announced the rebranding of Facebook into Meta amidst a whistleblower scandal. “Metaverse” is a vogue idea but what does it actually mean? And why should we care about it?

What the hell is the metaverse

As Harvard Business Review points out, the metaverse is “defying precise definition”. It is not a single novel technology or breakthrough; it is more of a conceptual framework that incorporates existing solutions and highlights new problems. Matthew Ball, author of the book The Metaverse And How It Will Revolutionize Everything and The Metaverse Primer, gives this definition:

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.

Metaverse is certainly not a new concept. Any comprehensive guide (such as The Verge’s) will tell you that the term “metaverse” was originated by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash. Second Life has been fulfilling the basic criteria of metaverse since 2003. In general, multi-player online computer games can be regarded as protometaverses. Among them, apart from Second Life, are World of Warcraft, Minecraft, Roblox, and Fortnite.

The present hype around metaverse has to do with other uses of this concept. Subtracting the game element from a multiplayer online computer game, we create a virtual venue where people can act and interact simultaneously as if they actually met — which is, in fact, a definition of the metaverse.

This venue presents numerous possibilities. Some have already been predicted, explored, and tested:

  • chatrooms,
  • virtual tours of cities, monuments, and museums,
  • online shopping that allows to examine the products and even “try on” clothing,
  • meetings, conferences, lectures, and classes — like a Zoom meeting, only you see full-body avatars in a virtual space, not a mosaic of faces and (mostly) empty squares,
  • concerts, fashion shows, and other social gatherings — ranging from Fortnite’s 2020 Travis Scott concert with 27 million participants to a nine-year-old birthday party.

Work, too, may benefit from metaversing with virtual meetings enhancing teamwork and digital assistants entering the digital workspace taking human-like shape and disturbingly human communication abilities. Professional training will use metaverse solutions like 3D medical atlases, VR and AR headsets for engineers and technicians and the like.

Future imperfect

As always, new tech comes with its limitations; hardware is an obvious one. Metaverse graphics would be no less demanding than that of the latest computer games. Powerful CPUs and graphics cards are expensive and may become even more expensive due to present crises. Cloud computing could help solve this problem if it was not for connection speed — many around the globe still have no access to broadband internet or cannot afford it.

The software presents another problem. The whole case for the metaverse rests upon an assumption that people would prefer immersion into virtual reality to accessing it via a device with a screen. However, you cannot be immersed in something, which is not there. Creating an array of objects, avatars, and textures would require serious work and investment. Many brands from Adidas to Balenciaga have entered the metaverse, but it will take much more effort to make the metaverse habitable and cozy. This new market could earn millions — that is, if the metaverse ever scales up.

Yet another barrier to wider use of metaverse is communication and interaction difficulties. Many have cited blind and near-blind people as an example of users unfit for the metaverse.

There are other, less obvious issues.

Since you are represented by an avatar, your metaverse interlocutors cannot see your facial expressions and gestures, many nonverbal signals are lost. Paradoxically enough, the more perfect the rendition of your face is, the creepier it seems without expression. A primitive emoji looks fine as it is, but your digital double provokes the notorious uncanny valley effect. It is said that Meta is developing technologies to mitigate this effect but the exact nature and uses of them have not been revealed. What’s more, it is stated that advertisers will benefit from these technologies while their effect on the user remains to be seen.

Apps and techware like Facel help solve this problem by identifying various emotions and changing your avatar’s appearance accordingly. Thus, your avatar will be a truer reflection of you and your emotions. Moreover, if you’re not at all in the mood to interact, Facel would disable your communication option, leaving you to explore the metaverse on your own.

Other, even more, ambitious ideas spring up. Presently, Facel can select music to suit your mood — it would play different tunes if you’re concentrated or relaxed. Imagine this being extended to the metaverse. The metaverse is akin to the real world in more respects than one. For instance, as we are not the creators of the universe, so we’re not the creators of the metaverse. It is created by corporations like Meta. However flexible they make it, any personalisation would require your voluntary action.

With Facel, your mood would be able to control and change the metaverse to suit you. You will be transferred from one metaverse to another (or between venues of a greater metaverse, if you prefer), from a relaxing visit to a museum to an invigorating game depending on how you feel and what you want, without your voluntary command. Meta itself may be working on such tech — to sell you more ads. Facel works for your benefit, not the company.

Where do we go from here

150 years ago television did not exist but many predicted its arrival based on the telephone, phonograph, and other technological innovations of the era. It was predicted that television would transmit theatre plays, operas, scientific lectures, and real-time events from around the globe. Yet no one foresaw the appearance of new kinds of entertainment like talk shows, series or reality shows. These were brought only when television arrived with its new capabilities (and limitations).

Today, we stand on the edge, looking into the new medium like our ancestors who looked at the TV screen some ninety years ago. The metaverse holds much promise due to its fluid, all-encompassing nature. It can be all things to all men — things we did not imagine possible or necessary.

No matter how the metaverse looks like or how it is called (the Wired article points out that, were we to change “metaverse” to “cyberspace”, “the meaning [of a sentence] won’t substantially change” in ninety per cent of cases), only we hold power to vitalise it. The metaverse will be what we want it to be — or not at all.

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AI-based stress reduction app that uses behavioral and physiological data to understand how you feel

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Denis Shilov

Denis Shilov

CEO of Facel, an AI-based stress reduction app that uses behavioral and physiological data to understand how you feel

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