The term metaverse was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash. Photos: Video grabs; collage: Immayabharathi K

Metaverse: The reality that is and isn’t

Ajay Sukumaran

It’s Saturday evening. There maybe just enough time to finish up some household chores before you head out to meet the ‘gang’. So you rush through the work, stop to catch your breath and then sink into a couch and put on a virtual reality headset. And you’re off for the evening — into the metaverse.

So, what is that really? To begin with, it is something which is and at the same something which is not.

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Naturally, it sounds like a world of pixels. But aren’t we used to that by now? For nearly two years, much of everything people did, while navigating the pandemic lockdowns, was via Zoom–work meetings, conferences, birthday parties, even weddings. What then is metaverse, a term that now throws up about 100 million search results on Google these days – featuring news, explainers, analyses and so on.

Actually, an exact definition isn’t available yet and mostly everybody–enthusiasts and sceptics alike–will point out that it’s still very early to predict the shape of things to come. Here’s how the Merriam-Webster online dictionary describes it: “In its current meaning, metaverse generally refers to the concept of a highly immersive virtual world where people gather to socialise, play, and work.”

The term metaverse has been around for nearly three decades since writer Neal Stephenson coined it in his 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash. But as some commentators note, its usage has caught on only in the past year or so. Since October, however, when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg dwelt on it at length in his annual address before rebranding his company as Meta, it’s been all over.

Clearly, metaverse is being interpreted in many ways at the moment. For a flashback into its literary origin, here’s a snapshot from Snow Crash:

“As Hiro approaches the Street, he sees two young couples, probably using their parents’ computers for a double date in the metaverse, climbing down out of Port Zero, which is the local port of entry and monorail stop. He’s not seeing real people, of course. This is all part of the moving illustration drawn by his computer according to the specifications coming down the fiber-optic cable. The people are pieces of software called avatars.”

Last week, in an interview to Seattle-based news site, GeekWire, Stephenson was asked about the factors driving the rise of metaverse and he said: “The use of the term ‘metaverse’ has become a lot more widespread just in the last year, and I don’t know why exactly.”

But avatars evidently aren’t science fiction–at least in the world of video games. There are scores of apps to render a digital persona of yourself, and then some more apps where you can buy and switch outfits and gear. That’s probably also why gaming, by and large, is the usual entry point for any talk about the metaverse. Players goggle in, create avatars of themselves, and then step into a world whose evolution–in terms of the sheer quality of detail and animation–has come a long way from the old 2-dimensional games.

“Quite frankly, there are many games that you’ll get completely immersed in. You don’t realise that you are in a virtual space… you actually get car sick or motion sick because of how real it is,” says Rahul Matthan, technology columnist and partner at the Bangalore-based law firm Trilegal. That analogy with how games evolved could possibly be extended to what will eventually become metaverse, he reckons.

“Right now, it’s still very blocky….very much like the 8 bit games we used to play. But you realise how much it could potentially improve,” says Matthan.

“The way I understand the metaverse is that so far the internet has been something that we go to, to get things. The metaverse will allow us to be in it.”

Case in point being augmented reality (AR) which sort of bridges the online and physical worlds. Even today, where an AR app is available, you could point your phone towards an object and get a description of it instantly, superimposed on the image as you look at it–just think of Pokemon Go that was the craze just five years ago.

“Augmented reality allows us to annotate the world, which means that nothing will be a mystery anymore,” says Matthan. “You’ll know that this shop sells such and such things. Similarly, restaurants or historical monuments… you don’t need a guide anymore, everything will be annotated. Which is a different construct from now, where you see something and you’ll have to go to the internet and it will tell you the answer.” In sectors like retail, AR is getting a big push. Some applications include a digital store experience or being able to try out a product virtually.

“Globally, the VR market is still short of a robust business model. However, I think the AR market on the other hand has actually caught fire and it’s really kind of trending everywhere,” says Biren Ghose, vice-chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industry’s national committee for media and entertainment. “If you look at the Indian scenario, you will see that it is a really hot property for marketing of brands.”

Ghose, a veteran of the animation and visual effects industry, points to how the game engine technologies and software that animators use are ubiquitous today–take for instance, live action TV and live action movie production. “So, if you go back 30 years or so, every guy who was starting up in games was trying to develop an engine. Today, you have Unreal giving you that engine where you don’t have to do anything except use it.” (Unreal is a game engine developed by American firm Epic Games).

Market research firm GlobalData estimates that the VR market will grow about ten-fold by the end of this decade from a roughly $5 billion industry in 2020. Today, its uses are primarily for training across sectors such as retail, defence, airlines, oil and gas, and healthcare. But apart from gaming, it’s still not mainstream–analysts expect its use in the enterprise space will likely outpace the consumer segment at least for the next few years.

“Consumer-focused VR companies are striving for that semi-mythical ‘killer app’ that would make VR a mainstream hit in the consumer market, but many companies–for example VR headset makers–are increasingly exploring the enterprise space,” says Rupantar Guha, associate project manager for the Thematic Team at GlobalData, in a recent press release.

The shape of things

Back to the metaverse story. “I don’t know if anybody in the world can really say what metaverse will look like in July 2022, or July 2023 or 2024,” says Biren Ghose.

“But here’s what the quest is: that we will be able to enter a virtual space like we go today into a pre-packaged video game. But for a real-time experience that will extend to you and me, not just you and the game that you bought.”

For that to happen, however, somebody has to invent a pair of glasses that replaces that clunky phone clipped on into a large headset, he says.

Even then, an entire ecosystem of technology has to fall into place, many commentators reckon. This includes the actual challenge of moving massive volumes of data around fast enough–virtual reality and augmented reality are probably just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the metaverse, some argue.

“It’s true that VR hasn’t yielded a massive consumer use-case (other than perhaps some in gaming) and therefore is still, in a sense, a hammer looking for a nail,” says Jaspreet Bindra, author of The Tech Whisperer and an expert on digital transformation. “But then, that is true of some other ‘hyped-up” technologies also. If you think of blockchain, for example. Unless you count cryptocurrency, there is no large-scale consumer or enterprise use-case but still we all know that the technology holds promise. So, it takes time.”

Both VR and blockchain are fairly young. As Bindra explains it, artificial intelligence (AI) now has large scale use-cases but “we sometimes forget that AI started its journey about 65 years ago.”

Bindra is still sceptical about the current hype around metaverse. “Is it something real or a new buzzword which people are using for various reasons or for their own ends like Facebook clearly is,” he says. The VR/AR startups would naturally have reason to be excited because it puts them in a more visible situation.

But neither is that buzz around a catchword entirely new–a few years ago, that was the case with AI. “Every company calls itself an AI company, whether it is or not. I think every company with even a tenuous connection to ‘metaverse’ is going to call itself a metaverse company,” says Bindra.

“In fact, some people are now renaming the Web 3.0 as the metaverse.”

To understand either, one needs to see things through various lenses, he says. One way to approach 3.0 would be the business model.

“If you talk about Web 1.0, it was a typical publishing business model. Like people put ads in magazines, people put banner ads on MSN or Yahoo and that was the business model,” says Bindra. “In Web 2.0, with Facebook, Twitter, etc. the business model became much more of data selling, in better and more targeted ways.”

But that changed many things, he says. “It changed the way we work, the way we live and the way we consumed content. Similarly Web 3.0 will also change a lot of things, including work.” More significantly, he says Web 3.0 will bring in the creator economy, in which data is explicitly owned by the end customer who also, hopefully, will get a larger portion of the earnings unlike now.

Even as we grapple with these ideas, the buzz is certainly picking up. Last week, the news was about Nike filing trademark applications for ‘virtual goods’. This was the American sportswear firm’s move into the metaverse, most news reports suggested. A month ago, Italian brand Dolce & Gabbana’s debut NFT sale of digital fashion sold for 1,885 ETH (ETH refers to Ether, the cryptocurrency) roughly worth $6 million. The collection included three jackets, a tiara, two dresses, a glass suit and two crowns–along with the NFTs, the physical version of a few of these items were also available to the buyers.

Briefly, an NFT (non-fungible token) is the record of ownership of a digital asset. These tokens are made via blockchain so that anything digital–art, merchandise, memorabilia, music–can be sold and its ownership made secure.

Back home in India, digital collectibles platform Fantico early this month announced that actor Kamal Haasan will become the first Indian celebrity to have a metaverse avatar of himself as the firm plans to develop NFTs and a game based on the star. Over the past year, as we know, other Indian celebrities too have launched digital collectibles–Amitabh Bachchan and Sunny Leone among them.

“If you think through, we’ve been here before,” says Rahul Matthan, pointing to the virtual world called Second Life that was the big buzz years in the noughties. “Everyone had virtual concerts in Second Life. I knew some law firms which set up a virtual office in Second Life and things like that. That was a 2D world. As these worlds develop, even your avatars will look realistic.”

At the moment, NFTs have probably solved one problem, which is securing the ownership title of a digital artwork. “What they haven’t done is the next thing: why is this valuable?” he says. “That evolution is inevitable.”

All of this is still the technology part of an evolution on which we don’t have an exact fix. But also featuring in the growing volume of metaverse discussions is the key question about the nature of the beast–will it be open and free or will it tend towards centralisation.