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Enter the Metaverse for Better or for Worse
If we told you that another universe is evolving in the digital space, where people can live just as in ours, would you believe it or write it off as fan fiction? It is time to take a serious look at the metaverse, which coexists—and even interoperates—with our real world, because it is poised to get bigger.
You cannot escape the term Metaverse. It stares back at you from the newspapers, television, social media, conferences, investor meets—practically every place except maybe your grandma’s living room. (Then again, you might be visiting your grandma in the metaverse!)
Facebook changed the name of the parent company to Meta, while Microsoft is betting big on collaboration using Mesh. Boeing and Airbus want to build their next planes on the metaverse. Barbados is building an embassy in Decentraland. Sotheby’s has a store there too, by the way, and Christie’s recently sold one of the most expensive pieces of digital art in the metaverse for nearly US$70 million. Adidas opened a virtual showroom in The Sandbox, and Ariane Grande performed a grand concert in Fortnite.
People are buying land and building malls and mansions in the metaverse, while youngsters in Philippines are giving up their real-world jobs as they earn more money by winning battles on Axie Infinity. Closer home, people are depositing their cryptocurrency in fixed deposits on Zionverse, while two Potter-heads in Tamil Nadu hosted their Harry Potter themed wedding reception on TardiWorld. The metaverse is all over the place—but what really is it?
The metaverse, 29 years after its conceptualisation
A lot of the advanced technology we see in reality today was once the realm of fiction. Neal Stephenson coined the term metaverse in his 1992 book Snow Crash. He described it as a parallel digital world where humans interact with each other in avatar form. Almost three decades later, venture capitalist Matthew Ball describes the metaverse as a massively-scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered threedimensional (3D) virtual worlds, which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users.
That answers all of you who are asking how the metaverse is different from the massively multi-player online (MMO) games, which are so popular today. The multiverse is not one virtual world—rather, it is a universe that brings together multiple virtual worlds. Over time, the virtual worlds will be
connected and people will be able to go from world to world, carrying with them their things and money. Basically, their activities will not be tied to one world, but be spread across multiple platforms in the metaverse. That is the broad picture—although it is going to take time to get there.
Not just that, the metaverse will also be a realm that blends real and digital worlds. For example, you will be mingling with real people, and making real money on the metaverse. It is not an entirely fictional world or a game. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, nailed it when he said the idea is to embed computing into the real world and to embed the real world into computing, bringing real presence to any digital space.
Dissecting the definitions
As we cut through the jargon, you will see that the metaverse is actually made up of several components—virtual worlds, virtual reality gear, digital currency, etc. This will also help you understand the spate of acquisitions going on in this space, as the tech majors like Meta and Microsoft try to bring together the different cogs that make the metaverse run.
“The metaverse is a concept of virtual collaboration where people join shared three-dimensional (3D) environments as avatars, where they can talk, teach, learn, work, play and can also transact using blockchain tokens. Overall, it is a combination of 3D collaboration platforms, blockchain, non-fungible tokens (NFT), cryptocurrency and gamification,” explains Pushpak Kypuram, founder-director, NextMeet, a Hyderabad based startup that has developed an immersive metaverse platform for meetups.
The metaverse is made up of virtual worlds
The metaverse, as we said, is made up of several virtual worlds, many of which are evolved gaming platforms. Second Life, for example, was launched in 2003. Although it seems like a game from the outside, its ‘residents’ take it quite seriously—it is their chance at a second life, where the first one has not met their expectations. It feels like being in a real world, where the residents explore, meet other residents, socialise, build, create, shop, and trade virtual property and services with one another.
Way back in 2008, a couple even married each other on Second Life. They later met each other in the real world, and, thankfully hit it off. But it can also be the other way round; with couples getting divorced due to affairs in the virtual world.
Not all virtual worlds are, like, complete worlds. Some of them focus on some activities alone. For example, in World of Warcraft, Fortnite, Call of Duty, or Axie Infinity, you battle with villains to save the world. In Farmville, you focus on developing an awesome and profitable farm. In The Sandbox, you play God’s assistant, exploring and bringing together resources like water, soil, humans, wildlife, and machines to create stuff.
If you are tired of superhuman environments, then maybe you can go for the LokaLocal, a virtual world based on 3D maps of real-world cities and locations, where players can chill out in 3D versions of their favourite hangouts like Connaught Place in Delhi, Marine Drive in Mumbai, or MG Road in Bengaluru.
There are also virtual spaces for more serious work, like Microsoft Mesh and Meta’s Horizon Workplaces for collaborative meetings and design sessions, or NextMeet for meetups, and VRXtream for organising events.
Meta hopes to also bring you closer to your family and friends with Horizon Worlds and Horizon Homes, where, rather than fighting to save the world, you will be building escape rooms, social hangout spaces and party games to foster relationships.
So, now we know that there are multiple virtual worlds in this metaverse, each with different themes and purposes. If you look at it very objectively, these worlds are nothing but interoperable software platforms that you log in to for work or play. What makes them worthy of being called ‘worlds’ is their immersive nature, and ability to host thousands of people in a single instance of the server.
These worlds are immersive, and you enter them as avatars
Take Zoom or Google Meet—these are also ways of interacting with people.
But everyone, including you, is just a thumbnail in it. You can see and talk to each other, but you are not really in the same space. The metaverse, on the other hand, is immersive and experiential. You enter this 3D digital space and become part of it, along with others. So, if you are playing with friends in Horizon Worlds, your avatars will be together in the same park or beach. If you are attending a math session, you will be sitting in a virtual classroom next to your friend.
So, to experience the metaverse, you first need an avatar, and then you need the tech gear to immerse yourself in the virtual world. Your avatar is, simply put, a 3D character that represents you in the digital world. You can create your own avatar, or customise available ones, most of which look like animated characters. However, the more serious and realworld applications emerging today will feel better if your avatar looks something like you. So, Epic Games owned company Unreal Engine has developed a tool called MetaHuman Creator, which would help you develop digital humans that look and behave pretty much like you.
Once you have an avatar, you enter the virtual world. “Metaverse can be experienced using personal computers (PCs), laptops, mobiles, etc. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are hardware technologies used to experience the metaverse. With VR, you are in a 360-degree immersive environment, whereas with AR you augment the 3D elements with the real world,” explains Kypuram. Going a step forward, we now have mixed reality (MR)—a form of AR where the real world and digital objects are not just visually interleaved but also interact with each other.
As the Rs (VR, AR, MR) keep increasing, we see them being brought under one umbrella term called extended reality (XR). According to VRdirect, the term simply represents any sort of technology that alters reality for the user by blurring the line between real and digital worlds. So, it combines VR, AR, and MR, as well as any new technologies that will come up in the future.
VR/MR headsets need no introduction to gaming enthusiasts—Oculus from
Meta, HoloLens from Microsoft, and Playstation VR headsets from Sony, to name a few. VR headsets, most commonly used by serious gamers, will totally immerse you in a simulated environment using 3D vision, spatial sound, and motion trackers that sense movement of your eyeballs, and sometimes even jaw movements. The headsets usually come with handheld gaming controllers too. Some advanced sets might also include cameras to detect full body movement, and haptic feedback vests to give you a sense of touch—so you can feel it when your opponent punches you!
MR headsets go a step further to combine real-world and digital elements, usually using holographic display tech. Not an easy task, and right now they cost a whopping lot, but MR headsets might be the actual solution to balancing real and digital lives. Betting big on the metaverse, most of the industry majors are working on developing advanced MR headsets. Last year, Meta revealed two such projects—Project Nazare and Project Cambria. Apple is also developing an MR headset. Microsoft HoloLens 2 is a preferred MR headset for professional and industrial uses—but its lowest-end model costs more than US$3,000.
The problem with most headsets today is that they are not comfortable to wear for long durations, and do look a little odd when worn in public. Or perhaps it is a saving grace, as it naturally pulls out someone who tends to spend too much time in the virtual world.
You can manage without these Rs too
Leave alone an expensive MR set, the average Internet user does not even have a VR headset. So, if you are conducting a university course on the metaverse, or a company town hall, how can all the employees participate?
“The metaverse can be experienced via PCs and mobiles, but a VR or MR headset would enable users to experience real immersion. Right now, a decent VR headset would cost around US$300 and an MR headset would be around US$2,000. VR and MR technology is in motion, and it has gained good traction in some niche markets like industrial training and simulation. Once more affordable and comfortable VR/ MR headsets are in the market, it will become a consumer product. Right now, people who want to attend an event in the metaverse—say, a townhall conducted by their company—can come either on PC, mobile, or VR depending on the convenience and availability,” says Kypuram of NextMeet.
Vignesh Selvaraj, CEO, TardiVerse, shares similar sentiments. TardiVerse developed a Harry Potter themed space in their blockchain powered TardiWorld for Dinesh and Janaganandhini to celebrate their wedding reception with friends and family, without any restrictions on the number of guests! Given the cost of headsets, it would not have been possible for all the attendees to login with one. So, they decided to keep it simple. While they had special equipment for the wedding couple to be present at Hogwarts’
Great Hall, others just had to click on a web link, create a login for themselves, choose and customise an avatar, and enter. They could participate in events and games using simple mouse or touch screen controls. This is what is practically possible currently, but over time as headsets become more prevalent, people can immerse themselves fully—just like video gaming enthusiasts do already!
The metaverse supports economic activity
Virtual reality platforms are not new—we have been watching this space for a long time. The real twist in the metaverse story probably came when these make-believe worlds suddenly became hotbeds of commercial activity, and people started minting money. This is a subject in its own right, but for the sake of completeness we will attempt to give you a short overview of commerce in the metaverse.
When you think of trade, the two basic elements that come to mind are assets and currency. In a virtual world, these are powered by blockchain technology.
Assets are represented by nonfungible tokens or NFTs. A non-fungible token is a non-interchangeable unit of data stored on a blockchain. Think of it as a unique digital token that represents a digital asset. So, buying an NFT gives you ownership of the associated digital asset. Once an NFT has been encoded using blockchain technology, no one can alter its ownership data or metadata. Owners can prove its validity using blockchain verification. NFTs can be moved across different ecosystems owing to the open nature of blockchain standards. So, you can trade NFTs outside the world in which you bought them! Ethereum is the most popular blockchain platform used for encoding NFTs, but one can also use others like Tezos, Algorand, or Polkadot.
Just as NFTs represent assets, cryptocurrencies serve the equivalent of money. These are fungible tokens, that is, they can be interchanged. They are identical to each other and traded, hence an ideal medium for commercial transactions. Ether (ETH) is the native crypto-currency of the Ethereum platform. Every virtual world can have its own native currency, which can be converted into other cryptocurrencies, or even real-world money based on prevailing conversion rates. For example, MANA is the native cryptocurrency in Decentraland. Approximately 1123 MANA equals 1 ETH, and 1 ETH equals US$3,137.5 (you heard it right!), so 1 MANA is roughly US$2.8.
With the basic building blocks— assets and currencies—in place, marketplaces began to emerge in the virtual world. Some of the well-known ones are Decentraland to buy, develop, and sell virtual plots of land; OpenSea to trade in rare digital items and cryptocollectibles; SoRare for digital player