The Metaverse & You
Take the number one and add ten zeros. $10,000,000,000. Ten Billion dollars. That is how much Meta is planning to invest in the new Metaverse. And this number does not include the investment of other companies and developers, which will dwarf those original estimates.
Meta is putting a lot of money into the Metaverse. CEO Mark Zuckerberg indicated that Meta would invest $10 billion in its metaverse projects in 2021 during a Q3 earnings call. He acknowledged “the magnitude of this bet on the future” while cautioning that “this is not an investment that is going to be profitable for us anytime in the near future.
Meta recommended that businesses “don’t stop focusing on today” and calls the investment in existing social media platforms “foundational to help grow your business in the metaverse in the future. (MarketWatch)
Despite that astronomical sum, it did not surprise me when Mark Zuckerberg announced the creation of the Metaverse on October 21st, 2021. Many were and still are skeptical. Gaming is one of the most lucrative areas in technology — but an entire Virtual Reality? Been there, done that. For over 15 years, Linden Lab, which created Second Life, lay on the fringe end of what we considered worthwhile tech. AI, Bio-Medical, and Big Data all took over. But a Virtual World with Augmented Reality? Leave that to the kids playing WarCraft.
Is Zuckerberg looking for a lifeline to keep Facebook relevant? Is he grasping at the proverbial straw? Absolutely not. Zuckerberg is one of those rare individuals who has proven that he possesses a particular trait that leads to success. In his books on Da-Vinci, Steve Jobs, the introduction to the book on Jeff Bezos, and many others, the excellent author, Walter Isaacson, has consistently pointed out that all these individuals possessed a “reality-distortion field” (RDF). In his introduction to “Invent and Wander,” Isaacson explains the RDF:
Another characteristic of truly innovative and creative people is that they have a reality-distortion field, a phrase that was used about Steve Jobs and comes from a Star Trek episode in which aliens create an entire new world through sheer mental force. When his colleagues protested that one of Jobs’s ideas or proposals would be impossible to implement, he would use a trick he learned from a guru in India: he would stare at them without blinking and say, “Don’t be afraid. You can do it.” It usually worked. He drove people mad, he drove them to distraction, but he also drove them to do things they didn’t believe they could do.
This RDF has driven Zuckerberg and other companies toward creating a Metaverse. He has seen what people want and what technology is and will be capable of doing and creating. Still, this is not a “new” idea. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) have been around for quite some time. Zuckerberg just bet that this is where the young generation will flourish during the next 20 years.
Fifteen years ago, based upon a recommendation from a friend in high tech, I entered the world of Virtual Reality (VR) via Second Life (SL), owned by Linden Lab (LL). Over the following year, with the help of a few friends and investors, I established a free study environment called “The Learning Experience,” or TLE for short. TLE gained some notoriety in Second Life and outside of it, with articles on CNN and other news outlets based upon the Free University model I was proposing. (Because of this, we had to change the name 18 months later because of a cease-and-desist letter from a Boston kindergarten who used the same name.) However, the story of TLE is not for this series of posts. I should note that there was no Augmented Reality (AR), and VR was in its infancy. Nevertheless, the potential was there. Even in the era of Covid-19, where hybrid education is part of the norm, there is still a desperate need for it.
When the Metaverse was announced, Philip Rosedale, the original visionary of SL (possibly another individual with RDF qualities), who had left years LL and SL in 2010, suddenly announced his return in January 2022. This is critical, as Rosedale was the first visionary who created an RPG that lasted throughout the years. He suddenly saw the vindication of his dream in the Metaverse’s creation.
In January 2022, that same month, a prestigious academic publishing house asked me to write a “Scope Presentation” for a new VR/AR academic journal (an excellent idea as the time has come for it). In doing so, I had to cover many topics because VR has all the components of our everyday existence, albeit with a few twists and turns.
It is an enthralling subject with fascinating technology and research. While writing the “scope,” I realized Artificial Intelligence (AI), legal, psychological, economic, technological, finance, disruption, innovation, and business topics all rolled into this system. It is essentially building a world with all our “real” world elements.
The caveat here is the word “reality.” Because of the subject, almost any aspect of human endeavor and the human condition will apply to VR/AR. The technology itself is fascinating. However, the metamorphoses of an individual from actual reality to a virtual reality augmented by tools to create a 3D environment are just as intriguing and critical.
In this series of articles, I hope to demystify this subject so those tempted to write the Metaverse and VR/AR off as just another game will think twice about that opinion.
What Is Virtual Reality (VR) & Augmented Reality (AR)?
This series of articles mention topics valid for research, data, theories, and technology. It is not comprehensive. A detailed scope of VR/AR would take a full-length book and then some.
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are two different areas currently converging. They are part of the same theories, applications, and sciences — however, each can and should be approached on its own merits.
The subject intersects with various areas of AI.
The subject covers theory, technology, data, finance, psychology, ethics, philosophy, and almost any area of human endeavor. Virtual Reality is “reality” and thus will reflect reality as we know it, albeit with changes.
Gaming, specifically RPGs and MMOs, is part of the VR/AR world.
VR — Much of this technology exists within Role-Playing Games (RPG) and Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG or MMO). However, even here, there are varying technologies used by each system. MMOs concentrate on the user experience within a predefined world, no matter how big it may be. RPGs allow users to build their own experience requiring interaction with the user, known as an “avatar.” For instance, in almost all RPGs based on Second Life, OpenSim and others, there is a programming (scripting) language, a creation method for everything from building to clothing to dancing to animations. This requires a scripting language system and the ability to incorporate proper programming results within the technology stack elements. It also involves back-end technologies that can handle the massive amount of graphics, programming, and front-end and back-end systems.
AR — Refers to the tools we use to process a VR environment (or even our reality) with allowances in a 3D environment. These tools may be special glasses and sound devices, which allow the user to be “immersed” within the environment. This is also known as “immersive technology” or an “immersive environment.” It takes VR into an area where the user is in an actual 3D world. This point is critical to understand when dealing with psychology and its ramifications within this technology. (Albeit, an RPG without AR also has some fascinating psychological ramifications.)
An important distinction here: we do not use AR only in VR. It is utilized within our own normal reality to augment our view. The applications of AR are numerous, and in the medical and automotive industry, it is already implemented.
There is VR in a 2D or semi-3D environment within RPGs. One can experience this with tools like Second Life (SL) and the Metaverse. While SL does not yet offer a 3D experience or AR (and its first attempt to do so with “Sansar” ended in dismal failure), the Metaverse will combine an RPG with an MMO, including the ability to create, build and sell content while adding AR implementation.
In summary, AR requires the creation of a VR so that it can operate within the parameters of that VR. (It can also be used without a VR, but we are discussing the VR/AR integration.) VR alone needs only a computer with an excellent graphics card and connection. The statistics generated from the user hardware are measured constantly. However, the principal factor in allowing for a decent user experience is the “Frames-Per-Second” (FPS) rate. AR turns VR into an “immersive” experience where the user is surrounded by a distinct reality. These distinctions are critical for understanding the new worlds of VR being created.
As has been mentioned, in VR, there is a programming language open to developers. Within strict rules, they can apply programming to virtual objects causing them to work in diverse ways. However, because data can leave and return to the system, it also opens up the door for AI algorithms to be run upon collected avatar data on the server end. Avatars will soon experience the same type of individual tagging and advertisements that their real identities already have on the Web. Currently, this does not work in SL. However, companies operating within the Metaverse will be built upon this foundation. But the tools are there, and with the correct investment, it can be achieved. Let us make no mistake. Coupling AI with Avatar behavior is crucial for the system to grow. Yet what will complicate matters is that one real person — can have many virtual personas — each acting differently. In VR & AR, the world of AI will face incredible challenges.
There is always data. However, in the traditional social network systems, most people are themselves. We will disregard the deviants, misfits, and phishing at the moment. However, this subject must be dealt with in a comprehensive article. The data collected on what an avatar does, likes, and dislikes will point to a “real person.” However, the very idea of RPG and Metaverse is that there is an alter-ego wholly separated from the actual individual.
In most cases, the actual user will want to remain anonymous behind that alter-ego, especially in RPGs. Therefore, the data collected must undergo a different scenario of algorithms and deductions. Predictive analytics becomes a whole other science here.
Let us be clear, as this will lead us into the next aspect of security. The data collected will be from virtual people within a virtual universe. Eventually, strict laws will be legislated on connecting a virtual user to the physical counterpart. This will create “split personalities” in the data world. (BTW, this is a fascinating subject that I think will engender much theory and debate in the years to come.) Data lakes, data integrity, and bias are all affected here.
There is the traditional security of the technological systems involved. This does not differ a great deal from the current need for secure systems. All the modern aspects of cybersecurity are required.
The second mode of security results from keeping the “virtual user” secure from the “physical user.” This poses much more significant security problems and will probably demand legislation. Leaving this in the hands of the colossal technology corporations would be a drastic mistake on all levels.
There is the normative nature of financing the various VR/AR systems. They are massive, as the systems need massive infrastructures. This works in the current traditional atmosphere of VCs, Angel Investors, etc. However, the required funds can only be compared to bio-tech development or AI development.
The considerable difference in the Metaverse will be the acceptance of the cryptocurrency. This may help bring Bitcoin and other currencies into the mainstream. It will affect funding, taxation, government control of laundering, and a thousand other areas. It will also bring distributed systems on which cryptocurrencies are based into maturity.
Many RPG systems such as Second Life run their own currencies based on real currencies. They even have a currency exchange market, where the price fluctuates minute by minute depending on demand. Research into spending habits and profits made is another area not to be ignored. Data is collected on how much is spent, where it is spent, what time of day it is spent, and on what it is spent.
To give a personal example. When I convert real USD to Lindens, the SL currency, my receipt comes back with my SL avatar name, while my real name, the one on the credit card, never appears. The only way to connect the two is through the credit card statement. It took me over thirty minutes to explain this to my accountant for tax purposes. The natural tendency is to think of it as a cryptocurrency, which it is not, though the Metaverse may change that paradigm.
One of the most essential parts of a VR/AR world is to understand the following:
When I order a jacket from Amazon, a physical product has to have been created, stored, shipped, and delivered to my physical address. The company has a certain amount of stock, and if it runs out, that product cannot be provided.
In a virtual world, this paradigm does not exist. One creates a virtual product only once, and it can be delivered to ten thousand customers or a million customers. There is no “stock” in the traditional sense, no replication of a physical product, and no need for a warehouse. It is essential to wrap one’s head around this, as it becomes vital to 3rd party businesses who create items in the Metaverse. For instance, Nike recently purchased a Metaverse startup that created virtual Nike sneakers based on their actual models. The data collected is precious for continued business.
Nikeland, which is the sporting goods brand’s micro Metaverse built in Roblox, has attracted 6.7 million people from 224 countries since its launch in November. The space allows users to try on virtual products in addition to playing to the strengths of Roblox as a platform with games such as dodgeball…
Nike’s results delivered compared with analyst expectations. Nike Digital continues to be the fastest-growing component of its marketplace, now representing 26% of our total Nike Brand revenue. (The Drum)
VR/AR are obvious points of innovation in their purest sense. Yet, RPG stands for “role-playing games,” and role-play can come in infinite forms leading to an endless amount of creation and innovation. If this must be explained in-depth, the whole point of VR/AR is lost. The innovation in this area will continue to grow, just as it has within AI. The user experience will become more substantial, less expensive, and more immersive. AR will truly benefit here, and this area will be full of theory, technology, and user experience.
Clayton M. Christensen is the father of Disruptive Innovation Theory. Twenty years after introducing this theory, he realized that most people did not understand real disruption. He was correct. Even among the “C-structure,” very few individuals can adequately define, let alone implement, a disruptive system. Within VR/AR, disruption will become even more constant. As the technology improves, disruption by:
The systems creating the Metaverse
The companies within the Metaverse selling wares
As virtual worlds grow, so will the methods of disruption with these virtual worlds. Growth is dependent upon data and predictive analytics.
Within psychology, there is so much to investigate, understand, and theorize — it is in and of itself a massive area of investigation.
Consider the immersive experience and how it will affect current lifestyles.
Consider the requirements for maintaining a real and virtual identity and the possibility of developing a “Dissociative Identity Disorder.”
Consider the effect on study and education.
Consider the effect on a real business within a virtual environment.
The legal ramifications will affect “freedom of choice” and our own identities.
Will companies be allowed to connect the data of virtual users, e.g., avatars, with their physical counterparts? (Remember there is the ISP and IP of the user, which can and will be used to do so.)
Crypto Currencies — can they or should they even be regulated? And if so, how do we go about doing it.
Who owns what? Do the corporations own the objects you maintain in the VR or the user? Who has to indemnify the end-user if that stock is lost through server faults?
Will business carried out in a virtual environment and contracts signed by virtual users take on the same validity as an actual contract?
Will it be ethical to connect a virtual user to their physical counterpart without permission?
Will ethics allow one to “out” an individual in an RPG world if that virtual user says something contrary to moral or ethical norms?
Will ethics allow us to track deviants within such a system? How will we do so, and what limitations will be applied?
If a user decides to use a different gender and age than their physical counterpart, is that a valid reason to expose their deception?
Ownership & Authorship:
Under all normative conditions, when discussing ownership or authorship, it is imperative to have the real identities of all those involved. However, when dealing with VR, much of the actual data, primarily business data within the environment, is accrued based upon a virtual persona. This may lead to many individuals only being willing to reveal data, finances, and business methods under their “virtual names” and not having it associated with their real names or lives. I know quite a few people who have made a great deal of money in VR in the businesses they began. To convince them to relay that data for research or financials under their real names would be an unattainable goal.
One may think of it simply as using a pseudonym for a real name. An article, blog post, or academic piece may have an Avatar’s name listed as the author. The only caveat is that it is clear from the outset that it is written under the avatar’s name (pseudonym) and not the individual’s real name. The same applies to “owning” any object or virtual land.
Data will have to refer to two different segments that cannot be confused. A balance must be found between the split real vs. virtual personalities. A pair of authentic Nikes may cost $100, while virtual Nikes may cost $3. The avatar who spends $3 for Nikes in a VR may never consider spending $100 for the real version.
Ask yourself but one question and ponder a bit on the answer.
What if we all had a measure of a “reality distortion field” hidden deep within us, waiting to be released in an immersive virtual world?
I will be dealing in-depth with all of the above in this series of articles on VR/AR and the Metaverse in all its permutations. We will attempt to understand how and why the current generation of pre-teens will have to find a way to normalize and balance two different realities. VR/AR is here to stay. And like AI, it will change our lives.
Meanwhile, look closely at the image below. Can you tell if it is taken in a virtual world or on a pristine beach in Nice? Reality itself is about to take on an entirely new dimension. And we are witnessing the birth.
About the Author: Ted Gross is Co-Founder & CEO of “If-What-If.” Ted served as a CTO & VP of R&D for many years with expertise in database technology concentrating on NoSQL systems, NodeJS, MongoDB, Encryption, AI, Disruption, Chaos & Complexity Theory, and Singularity events. He has over 15 years of expertise in Virtual World Technologies & 6 years in Augmented Reality. Ted continues to write many articles on technological topics in professional academic journals and online on the Facebook If-What-if Group, Medium, and LinkedIn. You can also sign up for the free weekly newsletter of If-What-If here.
About the Photographer: Poko is the pseudonym for a Second Life Photographer. If-What-If is proud to use her work. She normally posts her photography from Virtual Worlds on Flickr. All the photographs included in this article were taken in Second Life.
Undoubtedly this is true, virtual reality has become so popular and in demand that it is not something unusual and unattainable. What awaits us in the future depends only on ourselves and on the younger generation, looking at how they will be able to manage these technologies and develop them. But at this stage, one thing we know is that the possibilities of virtual reality seem at times limitless, which only contributes to the diversity and even improvement of the vital processes of humanity.