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Home / Opinion / Columns /  A look at the metaverse through four lenses of a metamorphosis
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What is common to Facebook, Nike, Snap, Nvidia, Microsoft, Epic Games, Tencent and Roblox? All of them are plunging headfirst into the metaverse, about which I wrote here recently (bit.ly/3EPkgw8) and sceptically described it as a new name for existing technologies like virtual and augmented reality, multi-player video games and digital twins, all mashed into one. I wasn’t alone. Kevin Roose in The New York Times speculated that it is an ‘escape hatch’ for Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook (nyti.ms/3qf803Z ). If so, Zuckerberg clambered down that hatch with blinding speed, even renaming his $86 billion company after it: Meta.

While Facebook may have reason to do so, it is worth re-examining what the metaverse really is. Memes abound, but there are different lens through which we can try to understand it.

The mixed reality lens: This is largely what Facebook seems to be aiming at, using virtual and augmented reality technologies along with other sensors to create a parallel immersive world. As Roose writes, “Mr. Zuckerberg painted a picture of the metaverse as a clean, well-lit virtual world, entered with virtual and augmented reality hardware at first and more advanced body sensors later on, in which people can play virtual games, attend virtual concerts, go shopping for virtual goods, collect virtual art…" Facebook is snapping up AR/VR startups.

The gaming lens: Some would argue that massive multi-player online role-playing games are the metaverse already. Gamers virtually live in Minecraft or World of Warcraft as avatars in a simulated world. Companies like Epic Games and Roblox, with 115 million users on gaming platforms, and even Microsoft seem sold on this view.

The screen avatar lens: With our work lives already on Zoom and Microsoft Teams, it is perhaps one small step for us to move into a more vivid digital space as avatars. Microsoft, also bitten by the metaverse bug, has unveiled a version called the ‘enterprise metaverse’ and may enable Teams attendance as avatars. The Financial Times reports that “…Microsoft would use AI to make an avatar’s lips appear to mouth the words being spoken, and to add facial expressions and hand gestures." It’s in play with an arsenal of 250 million Teams users, AR headset HoloLens and Minecraft, and has started creating an underlying platform, Mesh, for virtual interactions.

The crypto/NFT lens: Cryptos have created a parallel world under our very noses. It started with alternative money, with Bitcoin and other alt coins, and then extended to a whole alternative financial universe of DeFi (or distributed finance), where instruments like fixed deposits, derivative trades and bank loans are available on blockchain-run platforms. Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) allow creative works to be monetized in a virtual environment. Expect to see this world envelop education, recruitment and other facets of life we consider ‘real’.

The metaverse, to me, is all the above merging into a parallel universe with its own infrastructure and applications that replicate and go beyond the real world. Perhaps the best description is from Shaan Puri, a serial founder. To paraphrase his Twitter thread (bit.ly/30aQIdw): Most people think the metaverse is a virtual place.... But what if it’s not a place? It’s Not a Place, It’s a Time. Yes, a moment in time. You know in AI, there’s an idea of ‘the singularity’? It’s a moment in time where AI becomes smarter than humans. The metaverse is the moment in time where our digital life is worth more to us than our physical life. This is not an overnight change. It’s a gradual change that’s been happening for 20 yrs. Every important part of life is going digital. Work --> from factories to laptops, boardrooms to zooms. Friends --> from neighbours to followers. Games --> more kids play Fortnite than basketball & football combined. Identity --> filters are the new makeup. Stories are your personal billboard to broadcast who you are. What matters more. What you look like in real life? Or what you look like on Instagram? Everything goes digital. Your friends, your job, your identity. And now with crypto, your assets are online too. Bored Apes are the new Rolex. Fortnite skins are the new skinny jeans. If everyone hangs out online all the time, then your flexes need to be digital. Play this forward another 10-20 years, we will cross into the metaverse. The moment in time where digital matters more to us than physical.

Or maybe the best description of the metaverse was given by Neal Stephenson, who coined the word in his book Snow Crash, where it refers to a shared virtual space inhabited by both humans and digital “daemons". Stephenson famously said he was just “making shit up". Maybe that’s what it is.

Jaspreet Bindra is the chief tech whisperer at Findability Sciences, and learning AI, Ethics and Society at Cambridge University.

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