• Jackie Nagtegaal

When things go Meta

I love dinner time. As the kids drag their daily news away from their screens, my partner and I settle in. It's like a lottery spin, anyone's guess where the conversation will land.

Tonight's looped from the morning’s school-drop discussion on how DuoLingo uses TikTok to own themselves better than most brands (it's really gold) to a sudden abrupt flip to the word on everyone’s lips: Metaverse.

Disclaimer: We don’t have a lot of Zuckerberg fans in the house, to state that from the onset.

“He’s kind of gunning for President of the Metaverse,” I offer.

“Yeah, he’s to the metaverse what Trump is to America,” my partner chimes in.

And off the Gen Zs go! They speak at a thousand words a second, clambering over each other to share their insights. Multiple tirades, trying to juggle a future of mental health concerns, wealth gaps and the complexity of conceptualising the merger of digital and real worlds.

“Wait, Reddit’s been crazy about this video, scroll to the gaming section!” the second youngest Whatsapps the link to the Family Group as he makes inappropriate quips about the robotic nature of people.

So the ever mysterious and heavily tweeted about metaverse:

The metaverse is loosely defined as a 3D version of all of our combined digital technologies to date; everything from the Internet to games to virtual reality experiences, live-streaming, social media, email, cryptocurrency, you name it.

To put it differently, it’s the dematerialization of physical space, distance, and objects. It’s everything from Siri to your NFTs.

The idea is that the metaverse opens a new experience of life, where you can live in any way you imagine, without limits.

Perhaps the best example to help us frame a simple understanding of it is Fox’s new reality show called Alter Ego, which gives people the opportunity to perform as an avatar they create. According to the show, it will give them ‘the chance to show how they’ve always wanted to be seen', creating their dream avatar alter ego to reinvent themselves and perform like never before.

What's in a name?

As science-fiction origins go, ‘metaverse’ is a pretty recent term, coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel “Snow Crash” and depicted as a 3D virtual space where humans interacted with each other as avatars. A more recent and vivid version of what the metaverse could look like came in Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One”, with the movie adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg.

The book imagined a similar metaverse to Stephenson’s, where people used avatars to interact and occupied the metaverse - for jobs, school, and an infinite amount of entertainment purposes while wired in with virtual-reality headsets and a variety of haptic gear to make the experience as lifelike as possible.

Futurist like Ray Kurzweil has been talking about the metaverse for more than a decade. A future where we won’t need controllers, a mouse, or VR goggles to engage with the digital world - it will be as simple as the power of thought.

This would all sound a bit off if Elon Musk’s Neaural Link didn't release a clip of a chimp controlling a video game with his mind.

Some of the biggest names in tech are already slapping trademarks on everything they can and making all sorts of multi-tiered alliances like they were competing houses in “Game of Thrones.” Not surprisingly, the most recognizable face at the top of this heap is Facebook creator and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Earlier in 2021, Zuckerberg said that he expects people will transition from seeing Facebook primarily as a social-media company to seeing it as a metaverse company. And soon after, he introduced Meta.

Facebook doesn’t own the metaverse, albeit their desperate attempts to claim it with the literal adoption to their name. Of course, the rest of the tech-savvy world isn’t just going to sit back and watch Facebook (a.k.a. Meta) corner the market on what could be mankind’s biggest leap forward since the arrival of the Internet itself. Nvidia Corp. is promoting its own Omniverse platform as the guide for the metaverse’s eventual framework, but Unity Software wants the same thing. Toss in big-time players like Microsoft, Epic Games, Roblox, and ByteDane, which owns TikTok, and you can see that things are going to get crowded in a hurry. Check out Jon Radoff’s Metaverse Market Map.

However, while the big players race to get to the head of the class in the development phase, the biggest roadblock is the lack of ultrafast, low-latency Internet capability that would make such an environment possible. 4G speeds are perfectly capable of giving users around the world what they want from video conferences and Internet browsing, but mobile carriers around the globe are aware of the metaverse’s potential and don’t want to be left out of the bonanza; hence their obsession with reaching 5G speeds. In February 2021, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile - the United States’ three largest mobile carriers, spent $81.2 billion in an auction to purchase C-band spectrum, which will be crucial in nationwide 5G network success. Some experts think that even global 5G coverage isn’t going to be enough to harness the power of the metaverse, and that another incarnation - a so-called 6G will be required to make the metaverse a reality.

How do cryptos fit in?

Now closing in on a decade-and-a-half since its birth, cryptocurrency has captured plenty of investor interest, but an overwhelming amount of people still don’t have an answer to their biggest question: “What’s it for?”

The metaverse environment might finally have the answer that takes crypto from parlor trick to everyday staple. If the metaverse will become a hub of commerce, not just entertainment, having a universal means of payment that isn’t hindered by country-to-country exchange rates is the perfect parlay for leading cryptocurrencies to gain universal acceptance. We’re already seeing it play out in Southeast Asia where Axie Infinity has caught on like wildfire in places like Vietnam and the Philippines, where banking services are next-to-impossible to access for poor people living outside of major population centers. Its token is the in-game currency and players use it to purchase non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that allow them to play the game. Axie calls its game a blockchain-using metaverse project and it is attracting major-league attention. The native token hit $110 per coin in early October 2021 and the company has a valuation of $30 billion.

What will the metaverse look like in the next decade?

A decade is becoming one heck of a jump into the future as the velocity of innovation keeps accelerating. A decade ago many of us didn’t have Facebook or iPads, smartwatches, wireless earphones, electric cars. What’s to even say about Siri and Alexa?

The ever-growing Internet of Things (IoT), will allow massive quantities of data from our real lives to flow into our virtual world - sensors that measure everything from our measurements for clothing to our current heartbeat, blood pressure, and blood-sugar readings to schedule doctor’s appointments, to how many of our work tasks we have knocked out for the day.

Events like concerts and sporting events will sell virtual tickets to experience them as close to reality as possible, using cryptocurrency for payment and video-conferencing to create party rooms to watch with your fellow friends and fans. If the technology is there, the possibilities are limitless.

In this future we are releasing ourselves from the physical.

When we think of the metaverse and our increasing merger with the virtual world - it is not a question of will it happen. It is more a question of how to find levels of comfort in navigating both realms, and ensuring that they are both better than previous versions of the world.

The future is non-binary

I like to think of the future as non-binary. Although our brains battle to understand that. We want this or that, those grey areas that incorporate both are difficult to comprehend.

And now, like what is happening in so many of our systems and to our identities - we are breaking from the binary as more and more of our ideas and worlds bleed into each other. In this sense our real life is merging with our virtual life, real experiences are bleeding into online: everything merges in the metaverse.

What do we need?

Our world is built by the power and scope of our imagination. The more tools at our disposal, the more varied and exponential our inventions will become. As they evolve, we don’t just need new rules or regulations (although we need them seriously), we need tremendous paradigm shifts.

The metaverse is coming, and it is an immensely powerful platform.

The question is not how to stop it, but rather how to leverage it to improve life. To provide space for a better experience. Not just the virtual one, but the actual human one, too.