The Oxford Reference defines metaverse as “A slang term used to describe a virtual representation of reality implemented by means of virtual reality software.”
Lexico writes, “A virtual-reality space in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users.”
Collins Dictionary says, “a 3D virtual world, esp in an online role-playing game; the universe as portrayed in a given work of fiction.”
From Wikipedia: “The word ‘Metaverse’ is made up of the prefix ‘meta’ (meaning beyond) and the stem ‘verse’ (a back-formation from “universe”); the term is typically used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe. The metaverse in a broader sense may not only refer to virtual worlds, but Internet as a whole, including the entire spectrum of augmented reality.”
One of the most popular virtual worlds, Decentraland, has its native cryptocurrency, Mana, and prime plots of land on it have sold for up to US$1 million. According to 2021 data the platform now has 80,000 monthly active users.
And in June, Zuckerberg told Facebook employees that the future of the company would go well beyond the current social apps. He said Facebook would build an interconnected set of experiences as part of the metaverse. “Our overarching goal across all of these initiatives is to help bring the metaverse to life,” he said. Zuckerberg’s definition: “a maximalist, interconnected set of experiences straight out of sci-fi — a world known as the metaverse.”
They say truth is stranger than fiction, so think about, “a utopian metaverse portrayed as a new frontier where social norms and value systems can be written anew, freed from cultural and economic sclerosis. But more often metaverses are a bit dystopian – virtual refuges from a fallen world.”
Could this imaginary experience from the gaming world one day come to life and explode into our reality and will it be more utopian? At least, that’s what the enthusiasts tell us. However, it would be prudent to take a deeper, slower, questioning scrutiny of this ‘soon to come world’.
Note: To be a full universe, no single company could own the metaverse, similarly to how no one owns the Internet. But companies may try to monopolize their respective corners of the metaverse, just as a handful of large tech companies dominate online content today.
To find out more about the metaverse, Capital Club Dubai hosted the first of many discussions on the subject with some diverse thought-leaders from the city. Moderated by Karl Tlais (KT), these creators of the future, talked about some core elements in trying to build a new world and a new economy.
Jawad Ashraf (JA), CTO and co-founder, Terravirtua.io
Joel Dietz (JD), co-Founder ArtWallet; MIT Connection Science Fellow
Cumai Aboul Housn (CAH), co-founder of Biennale.io and CIO, C2Native
John Lillywhite (JL), Google research associate at the Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government.
KT: What is the metaverse?
JA: The metaverse is, like the internet on steroids. It’s a way for people to go into a virtual world and to be able to communicate with each other a bit like we do on a flat screen, but with much more depth in terms of interactions. It’s an evolution of the web into a more interactive social space. At present there are multiple little islands which are starting to become the beginning of the metaverse.
JD: The metaverse is everything apart of the physical reality. There are many different layers to it. one very significant component of that is people building these platforms that allow people to create objects that are immersive, virtual or augmented reality experiences. This is merging with the blockchain world and the ability to own and trade digital assets, which is creating these massive virtual economies that are exploding right now.
CAH: In 1492, Christopher Columbus reached the shores of the new world. And that discovery had a long-lasting impact. When we look at the metaverse, it’s like discovering a new world, explored by the present generation.
JL: It’s like you have this vision of what’s possible, but you’re not quite there yet with technology. In terms of the metaverse there are economic opportunities, through the ability to own virtual property, the ability to create value and build things regardless of where you live in the world. But there are massive challenges. For example, the game Fortnite, has 300 million people subscribed, but the computing power doesn’t exist to have all of them playing the game simultaneously at the same time. We don’t have the network infrastructure with the low latency networks to power a lot of the hardware and VR devices that are increasingly coming into the stage and will power the metaverse in the future.
KT: What are the metaverse projects you’re currently working on?
JA: Terra Virtua is a virtual platform at the intersection of blockchain technology, NFTs, and virtual reality. The aim is to create multiple areas where people can have an immersive experience with a VR headset. And within that, to do many things like attend a pop concert, sit behind a racing car, play an interactive video game, or transact in the digital economy.
One of the key things that we need to address is to make sure that we play well with others. Even as the technology progresses, the maturity of communication between teams is vital. We’re being very mindful of how we chat with other metaverses, making sure that we can take your avatar from one place to another and return. Some zones of the metaverse will be optimized for specific things, such as gaming, while another may focus on music. It’s not going to be centralized infrastructure. We’ve got to think about the future. And that means having adhering standards, playing well with others and making sure we can inter-operate.
CAH: For the art and culture community, they are at crossroads and are still trying to find their place in the NFT world, which is driven by collectibles, and inhabited predominantly by gaming communities. This is actually creating a barrier for the art and culture community, because they don’t see the NFT ‘collectables’ world as real art. And, though artists have a great opportunity, this realm needs to be driven by them and their art societies. However, they are unsure how to navigate the virtual art world, so we need to bridge this gap and at the same time preserve the value of true art and culture. In the rush to join the NFT metaverses, there is a real danger today of losing the artistic value in our societies. Do we create art to sell, or do we make art to create? What’s the role of the artist in this realm?
JL: My work as a technology analyst is really asking key questions: 1) What is the metaverse, how does it work? 2) What are the challenges and opportunities with it? 3)What are the kind of policy changes that can be made to an economy (specifically the UAE economy), where segments of the private sector and the public sector can position themselves to take advantage of trends or opportunities that arise in the future.
KT: The Digital Authority is building this new ecosystem and will help define and shape its development and direction. I see the metaverse, as the great equalizer in terms of financial inclusion where the digital realm can bring economic opportunities to many communities. The importance of understanding the strength of interconnectedness is vital, so that we don’t function in isolated islands. What are the opportunities for engagement in the metaverse economy?
JA: Metaverses are becoming more interactive now. For example, we’ve got artists emerging from unexpected regions and new types of creativity and innovation will leak into the metaverse. For example, McLaren is building all their cars in 3D first, allowing potential customers to have trial immersive experiences before finalizing designs and making a physical model. There will be many opportunities for the retail industry, as well as for creative individual expression.
JD: Gathering data of this industry is still very underdeveloped and we need to work on how best to build systems to do this well.
JL: A 15-minute concert on Fortnite recently made US$20 million in merchandise sales. I’m sure everyone in the music industry is looking at opportunities like these now. And then on a higher level, imagine with each one of Facebook’s 2.85 billion monthly users gets a prompt to buy an Oculus VR headset to enter these new worlds…the economic implications of this are big. There is also a real generational issue as the younger people feel they are ‘priced out’ of most of the real economy but understand and have more access in the virtual space. This is works for them. They are shaping the new needs and opportunities.
KT: Let’s talk about automation and avatar economics. Who actually controls the avatar in the metaverse?
JA: There was a metaverse called Second Life, where many people had avatars and it slowly descended into a cesspit and got quite dark, because it was completely unregulated. This cannot be allowed there’s got to be legal framework of protecting your avatar as well as your identity online. Regulations, monitoring and enforcements are as important in the metaverse as in the physical world – same people in both worlds, so total freedom without rules would be anarchy.
JL: Yes, furthermore, how does one ensure privacy and data protection? In the digital realm, for everything you say and every interaction, there is a domain provider who has access to your data, and this then feeds into some of the kind of blockchain… It’s similar to the way the Internet began with an open-source community and then, platform-based community.
Talking about AI, one writer asked, ‘what happens when you cut down a tree in the metaverse?’ And the answer was that in 15 minutes it would grow back (because that’s how the program works). For the metaverse to mirror the physical world, where you have millions of users, it can only be possible through AI, and we are still trying to understand the interplay between blockchain-based standards and other proprietary-based standards.
CAH: If we can forget about the gaming analogies that can be limiting in how we imagine what a metaverse could be, then we might be able to perceive it as a higher enabler. I can attend a conference in Spatial and then move and attend a lecture in Engage, and then I move to Superworld and buy some land. This is empowering and impactful for the economy and society.
KT: I’d love to use AI tools that can capture what I think and need in the physical world and applies that into the digital realm. I can then live a hybrid life in both worlds.
JA: A reality check is that AI is still far away from being intuitive enough to do the kind of actions we speak about. Just as the current tech status is unable to enable a universal metaverse.
CAH: I envision the time when, through AI, my avatar will learn who I am and can have conversations with my kids even after I have passed away. And yes, it’s not possible today, but maybe in a couple of decades…?
KT: There are roughly 8 billion people on earth, and about half of that population are currently online in some form on the internet. And we have another 4 billion to come online. And if you take it further and everyone has a digital twin, you’ve suddenly got 16 billion people. You can just imagine the entrepreneurial and economic opportunities.
Audience member 1: We tokenize lithium mines, coal mines, high-end art, NFTs of Picassos and now high-end properties, and my clients are now asking they can go into the metaverse?
JA: Your clients have heard the word metaverse but don’t really understand what it is. Ultimately when there is a commercial space in the metaverse where you can build your business then that’s where everyone will go. The answer to your clients would be, it can’t be done yet, but it’s coming.
JD: We have people who do virtual real estate development, and they build spaces in the metaverse, and you can build an analog of any physical item that exists in this world to also exist in the metaverse. And if you have 30% share in a gold mine in the physical world, that can easily be represented in a metaverse setting as well. You can even build a full-scale gold mine or a very small version…It’s all quite doable, and there are a couple different platforms that support this at the moment.
JL: There are a couple of broad challenges. If some of these metaverses or systems were interoperable, there would be some kind of on-ramp or bridge for access from one to another platform. However, the barrier due to platform proprietorships is a real challenge. They have to open up and put your artwork or your property in one world and have it cross over easily. Ultimately, the value of property goes up the more accessible it is.
Audience member 2: How do you see the problem of provenance being solved in the NFT world? Is there a decentralized solution for the provenance problem?
JD: When the web three was originally circulated as a concept, Ethereum was actually not just building a blockchain layer that had smart contracts but was also intending to build a decentralized communication layer and a decentralized file storage layer. This was called Swarm. The project still exists and continues outside of the domain of the Ethereum foundation, and the people who have been in the industry for a long time are highly aware of this. The ideal solution is that along with any binding, smart contract, asset registry, you must also have the physical asset that accompanies it. Unfortunately, at present they’re often in very separate systems, and so it’s easy for them to diverge and for you to lose access.
Audience member 3: When metaverse goes mainstream, do you think many activities in the physical world will slow down since more people may be doing life in virtual reality?
JA: There will always be different layers of society that are using it the virtual world in different ways. This is an opportunity to reinvent yourself in both worlds.
JD: If you want to understand future trends in technology, read science fiction, like Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clark specifically deals with this and about generational gap. Another interesting concept is telepathy, as explained by Ray Kurzweil, who think that alongside cybernetic technology and virtual reality, we will have the ability to communicate globally in near real time just on the basis of our brain chemistry.
KT: The physical world will not stop but become more efficient and more sustainable.
Audience member 4: I would like to live half my life or half my day in virtual reality because I find it soothing, inspirational and very liberating. I don’t see the need to merge my physical identity with a digital twin and would prefer to have separate virtual identity. Their avatars, to be their own characters, not link back to their physical selves because we can be a little more shameless in virtual reality, without judgement. The security and authentication that blockchain provides, so that no one can steal your identity is enough protection. Policy can also deter and delay innovation and creativity. What are your thoughts?
JL: Though policy can frustrate, it’s a complex issue. There are some very heated arguments taking place in the US Senate around existing big tech policy. Policy makers can create a system where an economy can grow really fast, and they allow trading in different currencies, exchange your fiat, be free from surveillance, and you can move around a metaverse without your identity. That’s one form of policy making and the other is the opposite.
A famous Lawrence Lessig quote, ‘code is law’, is worth noting, and what you build on the blockchain often forces the policy makers in that way. If you’ve got a trustless decentralized system that allows any kind of behavior, it has economic incentives built into it, in the very structure. Meanwhile, if you have a proprietary model, some things will work very well; might be a bit easier to control behaviour; might be a bit more user friendly, but there’ll also be some policy questions around privacy and how you pay for things.
There’s a lot of aspirational and romantic notions about the metaverse, and it is a definite driver of why people are going for it. It is important to find the right balance. And I think some people would argue that we’ve messed it up on the existing internet, so what’s the way forward? And there’s a whole philosophical movement behind blockchain, including some of with open world systems. One of the arguments they’re making is that we will enforce the vision, not by policy, but by design and by code… How will that fit into governments and governance structures in the future?
KT: That’s the big question. We are talking about economics today, but we need to talk about policy and governance next.
As positive and exciting it is to talk about the new world to come, it is prudent to also hear what people are not saying, read between lines and note some points for concern that will guide our next discussion, “Metaverse Majlis 2: Beyond the aspirational and romantic notions”, where we can talk about policies, social norms and value systems that might or might not underpin the future of this new universe.
According to a 2019 report from the Centre for the Governance of AI at the University of Oxford, “82% of Americans believe that robots and AI should be carefully managed. Concerns cited ranged from how AI is used in surveillance and in spreading fake content online (known as deep fakes when they include doctored video images and audio generated with help from AI) to cyber-attacks, infringements on data privacy, hiring bias, autonomous vehicles, and drones that don’t require a human controller.”
“AI technologies can be used for malicious intent which is sparking new conflicts and elevating existing ones. AI technologies risk widening the gap between different groups and exacerbating inequalities and divides. Biases are also often present in AI datasets and have the potential of spreading and reinforcing harmful stereotypes. Surveillance technology is also impacting human rights. AI is also being used to manipulate behavior through nudges. Governance seems to be failing in addressing these challenges.”
Will a handful of tech giants monopolise the metaverse, as they have done with web 2.0? What legislation and organizations will protect people, especially minors, from abuse? What will we lose as we accelerate unhindered into the metaverse? Will ads be forced upon consumers to unlock new experiences? Will the metaverse be a privacy-conscious, decentralised ecosystem, or whether it is destined to devolve into a dystopian nightmare?
John Hanke, founder and CEO of Niantic, the developer behind AR game Pokémon Go, wrote, “We believe we can use technology to lean into the ‘reality’ of augmented reality – encouraging everyone, ourselves included, to stand up, walk outside and connect with people and the world around us. This is what we humans are born to do, the result of two million years of human evolution, and as a result those are the things that make us the happiest. Technology should be used to make these core human experiences better – not to replace them,” he wrote.
What will be needed for companies to thrive in the metaverse is a careful balance between protecting the rights of various stakeholders without impeding technological growth and development, which shall be a difficult juggling act for lawmakers.