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Metaverse

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Avatars socialising in the virtual world Second Life

In futurism and science fiction, the metaverse is a hypothetical iteration of the Internet as a single, universal and immersive virtual world that is facilitated by the use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) headsets.[1][2] In colloquial use, a metaverse is a network of 3D virtual worlds focused on social connection.[2][3][4]

The term "metaverse" originated in the 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash as a portmanteau of "meta" and "universe." Metaverse development is often linked to advancing virtual reality technology due to increasing demands for immersion.[5][6][7] Recent interest in metaverse development is influenced by Web3,[8][9] a concept for a decentralized iteration of the internet. Web3 and The Metaverse have been used as buzzwords[1][10] to exaggerate development progress of various related technologies and projects for public relations purposes.[11] Information privacy, user addiction, and user safety are concerns within the metaverse, stemming from challenges facing the social media and video game industries as a whole.[12][1][13]

Implementations

Components of metaverse technology have already been developed within online video games.[14] The 2003 virtual world platform Second Life is often described as the first metaverse,[15][16] as it incorporated many aspects of social media into a persistent three-dimensional world with the user represented as an avatar, however historical claims of metaverse development started soon after the term was coined. Early projects included Active Worlds[17] and The Palace. Popular games described as part of the metaverse include Habbo Hotel,[5] World of Warcraft,[18] Minecraft,[5] Fortnite,[19] VRChat,[20][21] and game creation platform Roblox[22][23][24] which has since employed significant usage of the term in marketing.[25] In a January 2022 interview with Wired, Second Life creator Philip Rosedale described metaverses as a three-dimensional Internet that is populated with live people.[26] Social interaction and 3D virtual worlds are often an integral feature in many massively multiplayer online games.

In 2019, the social network company Facebook launched a social VR world called Facebook Horizon.[27] In 2021, Facebook was renamed "Meta Platforms" and its chairman Mark Zuckerberg[28] declared a company commitment to developing a metaverse.[29] Many of the virtual reality technologies advertised by Meta Platforms remain to be developed.[30][31][32] Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen criticised the move, adding that Meta Platforms' continued focus on growth-oriented projects is largely done to the detriment of ensuring safety on their platforms.[33] Meta Platforms has also faced user safety criticism regarding Horizon Worlds due to the occurrence of sexual harassment on the platform.[34][35][36] In 2021, Meta made a loss of over $10 billion on its metaverse development department, with Mark Zuckerberg saying he expects operating losses to "increase meaningfully" in 2022.[37]

In 2017, Microsoft acquired the VR company AltspaceVR,[38] and has since implemented metaverse features such as virtual avatars and meetings held in virtual reality into Microsoft Teams.[39][40]

Proposed applications for metaverse technology include improving work productivity,[41][42] interactive learning environments,[12] e-commerce,[12][43] real estate[12] and fashion.[44]

Technology

Hardware

Access points for the metaverse includes general-purpose computers and smartphones, augmented reality, mixed reality, and virtual reality.[6]

Dependence on VR technology has limited metaverse development and wide-scale adoption.[6] Limitations of portable hardware and the need to balance cost and design have caused a lack of high-quality graphics and mobility.[45] Lightweight wireless headsets have struggled to achieve retina display pixel density needed for visual immersion,[45] while higher-performance models are wired and often bulky. Another issue for wide-scale adoption of the technology is cost, with consumer VR headsets ranging in price from $300 to $3500 as of 2022.[5][3]

Current hardware development is focused on overcoming limitations of VR headsets, sensors, and increasing immersion with haptic technology.[46]

Software

There has been no wide-scale adoption of a standardized technical specification for metaverse implementations, and existing implementations rely primarily on proprietary technology. Interoperability is a major concern in metaverse development, stemming from concerns about transparency and privacy.[47] There have been several virtual environment standardization projects.[48][49][50][51][52]

Universal Scene Description is a specification for 3D computer graphics interchange created by Pixar and supported by Blender, Apple's Scenekit and Autodesk 3ds Max. The technology company NVIDIA announced in 2021 they would adopt USD for their metaverse development tools.[53]

OpenXR is an open standard for access to virtual and augmented reality devices and experiences. It has been adopted by Microsoft for HoloLens 2,[54] Meta Platforms for the Oculus Quest,[55] and Valve for SteamVR.[56]

Criticism and concerns

Feasibility

In a February 2022 article for The New York Times, Lauren Jackson argued that the metaverse is "stalled from achieving scale by a lack of infrastructure for both hardware and software, a monopolistic approach to platform development, and a lack of clear governance standards."[57]

In December 2021 Raja Koduri senior vice president of Intel said that "Truly persistent and immersive computing, at scale and accessible by billions of humans in real time, will require even more: a 1,000-times increase in computational efficiency from today’s state of the art."[58]

Privacy

Information privacy is an area of concern for the metaverse because related companies will likely collect users' personal information through interactions and biometric data from wearable virtual and augmented reality devices.[59] Meta Platforms (previously Facebook) is planning on employing targeted advertising within their metaverse, raising further worries related to the spread of misinformation and loss of personal privacy.[1] In 2021, David Reid of Liverpool Hope University argued the amount of data collection in the metaverse would be greater than that on the internet stating "If you think about the amount of data a company could collect on the World Wide Web right now, compared to what it could collect with the metaverse, there is just no comparison."[60]

User safety

User addiction and problematic social media use is another concern. Internet addiction disorder, social media, and video game addiction can have mental and physical repercussions over a prolonged period of time, such as depression, anxiety, and various other harms related to having a sedentary lifestyle such as an increased risk for obesity and cardiovascular disease.[13] Experts are also concerned that the metaverse could be used as an 'escape' from reality in a similar fashion to existing internet technologies.[59][61]

Virtual crime like sex abuse and other user safety issues such as harassment are significant challenges with current social virtual reality platforms, and may be similarly prevalent in a metaverse.[62][63][64][65] The potential presence of child predators on metaverse platforms is another concern,[66] along with the potential for worsening child depression and loneliness.[67] In February 2022, investigations by BBC News and The Washington Post found minors engaging in adult activities in applications such as VRChat and Horizon Worlds despite an age requirement of 13 years or older.[20]

Social issues

Metaverse development may magnify the social impacts of online echo chambers and digitally alienating spaces[2][68] or abuse common social media engagement strategies to manipulate users with biased content.[68][69] In 2022, Keza MacDonald of The Guardian criticized the utopianism of technology companies who claim that a metaverse could be a reprieve from worker exploitation, prejudice, and discrimination. MacDonald stated that they would be more positive towards metaverse development if it was not dominated by "companies and disaster capitalists trying to figure out a way to make more money as the real world's resources are dwindling."[70] Marketing professor Andreas Kaplan, citing their experience studying Second Life users, argues that the metaverse may have a generally negative societal impact due to their strongly addictive potential.[71]

Fiction

Snow Crash, 1992

The term metaverse was coined in Neal Stephenson's 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, where humans, as programmable avatars, interact with each other and software agents, in a three-dimensional virtual space that uses the metaphor of the real world.[72] Stephenson used the term to describe a virtual reality-based successor to the internet.[73]

Neal Stephenson's metaverse appears to its users as an urban environment developed along a 100-meter-wide road, called the Street, which spans the entire 65,536 km (216 km) circumference of a featureless, black, perfectly spherical planet. The virtual real estate is owned by the Global Multimedia Protocol Group, a fictional part of the real Association for Computing Machinery, and is available to be bought and buildings developed thereupon.[74]

Users of the metaverse access it through personal terminals that project a high-quality virtual reality display onto goggles worn by the user, or from grainy black and white public terminals in booths. The users experience it from a first-person perspective. Stephenson describes a sub-culture of people choosing to remain continuously connected to the metaverse; they are given the sobriquet "gargoyles" due to their grotesque appearance.[74]

Within the metaverse, individual users appear as avatars of any form, with the sole restriction of height, "to prevent people from walking around a mile high". Transport within the metaverse is limited to analogs of reality by foot or vehicle, such as the monorail that runs the entire length of the Street, stopping at 256 Express Ports, located evenly at 256 km intervals, and Local Ports, one kilometer apart.[74]

Ready Player One, 2011

Ready Player One is a dystopian science fiction franchise created by Ernest Cline which depicts a shared VR landscape called "The OASIS". The first novel was released in 2011, with a 2018 film adaptation, and second novel in 2020. The franchise depicts the year 2045 as being gripped by an energy crisis and global warming, causing widespread social problems and economic stagnation. The primary escape for people is a shared VR landscape called "the OASIS" which is accessed with a VR headset and wired gloves.[75] The OASIS functions both as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game and as a virtual society.[76]

See also

References

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