Just like previous centuries were marked by the industrial revolution and the advent of the Internet, the twenty-first century may be remembered for the inception of a new world, or “metaverse” offering an immersive virtual experience unlike any other to date. Dr. Joseph Nettikaden, Esol Education’s Chief Information Officer, takes a deep dive to bring us up to speed with this emerging new world.
By: Dr. Joseph Nettikaden, Chief Information Officer, Esol Education
What is the Metaverse?
“Snow Crash,” a 1992 science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson, first introduced the idea of the “metaverse.” In this post-apocalyptic novel, humans are able to interact in a virtual online 3D world via individual personal devices and VR goggles, or public devices. Real estate can be bought and developed, individual users can appear in avatars of their choosing, and even move about using the virtual monorail programmed into the virtual environment.
Today Stephenson is hailed as a futurist in tech circles, and many of his concepts, including the metaverse, have gained traction in the form of apps and new technological developments.
The metaverse that is now making waves among digital enthusiasts is a shared digital environment that allows users to “live” virtually using their 3D avatars, without ever having to leave the comfort of their homes. Proponents are imagining a sophisticated virtual reality that will allow people to move seamlessly between the physical and digital world, a major future technology trend for business and human interaction.
Implications for our World
Open-source blockchain technology, freely available to anyone around the world, is emerging as a foundational component of the metaverse, allowing it to be owned by everyone rather than a specific private or public entity. The decentralized nature of blockchain technology is a key driver behind this trend. Blockchain-based networks create permanent records of business transactions by storing multiple copies of them on different devices on the network, and recording them in a decentralized public database known as a “ledger.” This recording system offers easy verification of transactions, automatically securing them against manipulation or falsification of data. It also enables secure peer-to-peer transactions without the need for a central authorizing body, fueling the rise of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, as well as NFTs (non-fungible tokens), smart contracts and more.
Once fully developed the metaverse will have a profound impact on not just traditional vocations and activities, but also on how humans interact with one another. Some of the factors that will underpin the metaverse’s success are free access, easy operability and the ease of transacting online, which in-turn hinges on cryptocurrencies, which are already being used to finance both real-world as well as digital transactions.
Using wearables, students will be able to travel to different virtual worlds in the metaverse from the comfort of their homes and classrooms.
Future Possibilities with the Metaverse
When the COVID-19 epidemic swept the globe, crippling economies, the Internet and the resulting Work from Home (WFH) technology aides were instrumental in keeping businesses afloat, and in some cases, rapidly expanding. Various sectors, including K-12 and higher education, have seen significant transformations because of the epidemic and have grown more technologically demanding. By incorporating augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)-based wearables, the metaverse has the potential to further transform these industries. Using wearables, students will be able to travel to different virtual worlds in the metaverse from the comfort of their homes and classrooms. Just like the popularity of virtual parent meetings and online conferences, people will no longer have to worry about traveling long distances, or even dressing up for events! Children will be able to study a variety of subjects and courses at their own pace, broadening their horizons beyond what standard syllabi allow. After-work and school activities such as watching movies or socializing with friends will be available in the virtual world without the limitations of the physical world. As organizations accelerate their digital transformation, the metaverse can help people meet up in a digital environment, making meetings more comfortable with the use of avatars, and facilitate creative collaboration from all around the world. In a nutshell, the metaverse presents infinite potential!
Beyond opportunities for retail and service industries, or balancing work and life, the metaverse can also be used for a range of social and business applications. From quickly rolling out training in different fields such as medicine, technology, manufacturing or retail, to arts and music lessons to live concerts, shows and book clubs, the possibilities are endless.
The immersive environment of the metaverse isn’t just an opportunity for consumer-facing companies, or balancing work and life - there are plenty of business applications. Jensen Huang, CEO of the world’s largest maker of graphics and artificial intelligence chips, Nvidia, believes simulations in the metaverse can translate to billions of dollars of savings in the real world. In a recent interview, he told CNBC: “We waste a whole bunch of things to overcompensate for the fact that we don’t simulate. We want to simulate all factories in metaverses, in this omniverse. We want to simulate plants in omniverse. We want to simulate the world’s power grids in the omniverse. By doing that, we could decrease the amount of waste, and that’s the reason why the economics are so good for companies,” he continued. “They’re willing to invest a small amount of money to buy into this artificial intelligence capability but what they save is hopefully hundreds of billions of dollars.”
Meanwhile, Microsoft is gearing up its cloud services to create a foundation for the metaverse, using its Mesh platform to enable avatars and immersive spaces to thread into its collaboration environments, such as Teams. With post-Covid hybrid or remote working environments, many of these more creative virtual business experiences are likely to become even more relevant to how companies connect to their people and to their customers. Large-scale artificial intelligence models are now becoming platforms, creating ambient intelli – digital environments that are responsive and aware of a user’s needs. These AI breakthroughs can be used by organizations in a variety of ways, from deploying intelligent agents to aid in customer service to extracting information from volumes of unstructured data.
Armed with the ease of converting conventional currency into cryptocurrencies, people will be able to seamlessly switch between the physical world and the metaverse. From digital avatar enhancement and buying virtual property to throwing a baby shower, consumers can buy a range of goods, services and experiences using cryptocurrencies in the metaverse.
Artists will perform in the metaverse, get paid in cryptocurrencies, and exchange those earnings for goods in the physical world. The expansion of the metaverse will be powered by different groups or companies. These groups or companies may build their own versions of the metaverse, but the real expansion and growth of the metaverse will be realized when these different versions become interoperable, allowing participants to carry their cryptocurrencies and goods from one to another, thus leading to a rapid expansion of the metaverse.
Fashion retail could be transformed with virtual showrooms and digital fashion shows being accessible to a mass audience. And people aren’t just selling physical goods! In fact, the auction house, Sotheby’s recently announced its own metaverse gallery for curated virtual art, housed in Decentraland (a 3D virtual world open to public where users perform commercial transactions using the Mana cryptocurrency, which is based on Ethereum blockchain). New business models for influencers, virtual goods including NFTs, and commerce on physical goods purchased in virtual worlds will all emerge in importance as capabilities scale.
With major technology companies such as Meta (Facebook) and Amazon (Web Services) working on solutions to build the metaverse and offer blockchain network support, other companies are sure to follow, leading to exponential growth of the metaverse, providing value to both consumers and investors.
As the global companies work expediently towards establishing a foothold in this nascent digital space, some psychologists and mental health experts convey caution on the impact on the development of children in K-12 age group. Recent research has shown the negative psychological effects of social media on children and adolescents, with increased self-esteem and body image issues, as well as more commonplace online bullying and harassment. The concern expressed from social-emotional wellbeing experts is that these issues could be exacerbated in the metaverse. If the companies building these new virtual worlds can address these concerns in a purposeful manner, then perhaps they can find technology-based solutions to remedy the related mental health issues.
History provides several examples of positive and negative use cases emerging from new technologies. Educating oneself is the best approach when considering the use and adoption of new technologies. At this early stage of the metaverse, it is hard to predict what the future holds, but looking ahead you can be an active participant in this new virtual landscape.