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A peek into the metaverse: How to prevent a virtual world from becoming a dystopian nightmare

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On Facebook’s recent second-quarter earnings call, co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg outlined his vision to transition the social-media company to a ‘metaverse’ company, in what he called “one of the most exciting projects that we’re going to get to work on in our lifetime”.

The metaverse converges Facebook’s major investments across augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), gaming, commerce and social networking into one virtual environment. Zuckerberg defines it as “an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at”. The concept is that it will facilitate everything from social interactions to entertainment, shopping and work. It will be interoperable, allowing consumers to easily teleport from one experience to another, and accessible in different forms from a range of devices—from mobile apps and PCs to immersive VR and AR devices.

“You’re basically going to be able to do everything that you can on the internet today, as well as some things that don’t make sense on the internet today—like dancing,” Zuckerberg told investors. “The defining quality of the metaverse is presence, which is this feeling that you’re really there with another person or in another place. Creation, avatars, and digital objects are going to be central to how we express ourselves, and this is going to lead to entirely new experiences and economic opportunities.”

In Zuckerberg’s view, the metaverse will not only be “the next chapter for us as a company”, but also the next generation of the internet. For its part, Facebook is throwing “significant investment” (CFO Dave Wehner categorised it as “billions”) into building its portion of the virtual world.

Not everyone shares Zuckerberg’s unflinching enthusiasm. The founder and CEO of Niantic, the developer behind AR game Pokémon Go, recently published a blog post likening such a virtual world to a “dystopian nightmare”. The novels, films and TV shows which have inspired the metaverse concept (a term coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash) in fact “served as warnings about a dystopian future of technology gone wrong”, John Hanke wrote.

Where Zuckerberg believes a virtual world will bring a stronger sense of presence with the people in your life and the places you want to be, Hanke thinks it will do the opposite.

“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 2 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.

Niantic is working on building what it calls a ‘real-world metaverse’, one that overlays data, information, services, and interactive creations in the physical world.

Other companies, including Atari, Epic Games and Nvidia, are building their version of what they believe will be the future of social technology. Which brings us to an important question: will there be just one metaverse, and how will governance work?

“No one company is going to be able to build this all by themselves,” Zuckerberg acknowledged in his address. “In order for the metaverse to fill its potential, we believe that it should be built in a way that is open for everyone to participate. I expect that this is going to create a lot of value for many companies up and down the stack, but it’s also going to require a very significant investment over many years.”

The tech founder believes that hardware will remain siloed but software will be interoperable, permitting consumers to teleport from one experience to the next without having to leave the ecosystem. “People are going to want to reach the people they care about no matter what service they’re on and be able to move between these,” he said.

But there are concerns that a handful of tech giants will monopolise the metaverse, as they have done with web 2.0, rather than fulfilling the indepedent industry’s utopian vision of a dencentralised ecosystem. Their business models are built upon establishing scale and muscling out competitors, while keeping their strongest assets—user data—within walled gardens.

Such concerns come as rules and governance of the metaverse remain undefined. An XR consortium that includes Google, HTC VIVE, Microsoft, Oculus from Facebook and Sony Interactive Entertainment aims to promote the responsible development of XR technology.

Then there’s the question of how brands and advertisements work in this environment. Facebook believes there is “huge” potential for digital goods, such as digital clothing for people’s avatars. Early case studies show brands such as Gucci, Netflix and SK-II are figuring out ways to organically embed themselves within a virtual world. But will less deep pocketed brands pollute the ecosystem, like the pop-ups of the web? Will ads be forced upon consumers to unlock new experiences?

Campaign asked social technology and innovation experts to prophesy what the future will look like in the metaverse, whether it will be a privacy-conscious, decentralised ecosystem, or whether it is destined to devolve into a dystopian nightmare.

Aleissia Laidacker, global director of creative technology, The Mill

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The current perception of many is that the metaverse is rooted in a dystopian, virtual future synonymous with worlds such as Black Mirror and Neil Stephenson’s science-fiction novel Snow Crash (the origin of the term ‘metaverse’). Many fearing that the metaverse will be dictated by big-tech such as Facebook.

To avoid this, many of us are looking towards developing a decentralised metaverse future, the ‘open metaverse’, that involves a diverse range of creators, developers, artists, educators and perspectives, so the metaverse platform and content of the future isn’t just dictated by the tech giants of silicon valley and brands with money to spend.

The metaverse future I see is a hybrid, virtual and physical reality that offers a new kind of accessibility to data, entertainment, art and experiences, much like the internet did upon its inception. These can be both experiences with friends ‘IRL’ as well as integrating those who can’t physically be there through the virtual world. I think the metaverse will also play a huge role in education through accessibility to data and experiences that make the world an education playground. Right now, data is accessible via our phones, but the metaverse will embed data and experiences in the world around us. Bringing us away from our phones and back to the world around us.

One of the things we’re seeing in the emerging technology field is that brands are looking to use these creative technologies such as game engines, AR, VR and AI to create experiences that resonate, not just passive ads. I think we’re less likely to see ads to unlock experiences in the metaverse, and more likely to be invited to take part in meaningful experiences that allow us to engage with brands in new ways.

Tom Simpson, SVP APAC, AdColony

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It’s 2030 and the global village is in full swing. The last big iteration of the internet, Web 3.0—fuelled by gaming, DAOs, NFTs, AR, VR, and blockchain—was the start of the metaverse era.

The key innovation was the creation of platforms that no single entity controls, yet

everyone can still trust, via blockchains. Anyone is able to build and connect with each other without permission from a central platform. People have become the platform. New economic models such as play-to-earn and a revitalised maker economy grew from this.

The global village is a happy place, built on play—after all the metaverse emerged

first from gaming. People spend time shopping, watching movies, or just hanging out with friends.

Crucially, we own our data and digital footprints using the provable digital scarcity

of data and NFTs. Privacy itself is part of our metaverse identities, and we manage consent everywhere we go with zero friction. The data-owning centralised platform businesses of the Web 2.0 era have struggled to adapt.

In an environment where trust, money and identity are built into the environment, the

conversation around advertising and identity looks very different. Brand and consumer relationships have evolved to partnership as they connect directly via decentralised commerce.

Luxury brands now generate almost half their revenue selling digital-only goods. Everyone wants to own a Gucci skin for their avatar in the metaverse for exactly the same reason they owned a Gucci handbag in the real world. (Of course people increasingly ask the question: “Which is the real world?”). Humans seek scarcity and uniqueness, and this is what NFTs enable.

Because programmable money makes value transfer so easy, advertising no longer dominates as the economic model for content. The advertising that survives offers a clear value exchange, or is non-interruptive and seamlessly built into the environment like DVOOH (digital virtual out-of-home). With content producers no longer chasing click-based sensationalism, the entire environment online has changed—people spend more reflective time on what makes them happy, and quality content has made a comeback.

We spend time across both physical and virtual worlds using AR and VR. Our sense of community and connection is stronger as we are able to connect more directly in every direction with the people and things we care about. Play has returned as our dominant way of knowing, understanding and creating meaning. This is the global village. This is the metaverse. This is the play economy.

Wilfrid Obeng, CTO, AudioMob

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I don’t think the metaverse is inherently good or bad as a concept. It’s how we as people use it that will make the metaverse a utopia or dystopia—and it will probably be a bit of both; just like reality.

I equally believe that initially, the metaverse will be a place to dip into rather than continuously occupy. We are not going to suddenly see reality abandoned. But the idea of a persistent shared virtual space without the limitations of reality has so many exciting implications. We could see concepts like fashion, identity, gaming, travel, sport, performance, creative processes, work, and more expand and evolve in so many simultaneous directions. The possibilities there for brands to provide remarkable experiences are really exciting.

There really is potential to build ad experiences people flock to—a change in the dynamic of the relationship between advertisers and the public. Travis Scott’s Fortnite concert attracted over 27 million viewers; that intersection of music and gaming is an exciting space for brands, and a real growth area at AudioMob.

But I suspect it won’t all happen overnight, nor replace the simple pleasure of meeting friends for a meal, a night out or a beach holiday.

Privacy, safety, wellbeing, security, accessibility, and so on are critically important here—more so than ever before. The metaverse should not be developed in silos and independent guidelines should be set, so we can apply what we’ve collectively learned as part of our forward journey existing as a digital society.

Jonathan Edwards, head of data and transformation, Dentsu Solutions APAC

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I see the metaverse as neither a utopia nor dystopia, simply where that’s akin to saying the internet is good or bad. It’s both, where it reflects human nature. We connected everyone, and that’s produced wonderful and terrible results. Similarly, the metaverse won’t magically filter out bad actors. It will be the same cat and mouse game with some people trying to exploit new opportunities, whilst others try to stop them. But that’s no reason to stop progress.

The balance—between positive and negative—depends on whether we as humans can use the metaverse as a tool to live in a less tribal manner, remembering that we have a lot more to gain from exchange and experimentation within a widely accepted social contract.

That shift, from today’s identity-lensed politics and a wilful ignorance of what has advanced human well-being to date, rests on education. We need the skills and mindset to analyse whether something is fair, logical or even true, lest we condemn ourselves to bring out the worst in our nature.

Facebook is very unlikely to achieve that. Their interests are not well aligned with our disposition towards social dopamine. They will probably play a significant role in the metaverse—their early moves around VR highlight the strength of their vision.  But I envisage others, not least government, shaping how we live in such a reality.  

Privacy and identity: I foresee the emergence of both privacy- and identity-management services in the coming years. Both will be a result of growing data consciousness.

Privacy management will reduce complexity for people in selecting which data to share with who. That we will produce ever more data isn’t in question, hence we will seek to simplify our lives. Solid’s vision of this seems most compelling.  our data is held in a ‘pod’ and can be shared or rented to others on terms you agree. This data value exchange is no less fundamental than it is today—the purpose, benefit, trust, control and sensitivity of the data will still determine whether it is shared. And people will trade privacy (the level of observation and disturbance they experience) in return for reward. But a privacy manager will reduce friction and ultimately should be capable of predicting which exchanges its user will and won’t make.

Identity managers will serve a dual purpose—to authenticate exactly who you are, and to mask who you are in real life, depending on the digital scenario. Being able to prove who you are has clear benefits now, reducing transaction friction and getting away from fallible passwords. It could also help the collective good, feeding analysis of a pandemic or social safety nets. It should also enable safer environments within the metaverse, with known participants offering a level of protection often lacking in today’s internet. Conversely, humans have a need to be anonymous some of the time, typically to try new ideas and experiences, and ultimately to develop as people. An identity manager should enable people to choose which state—fully known or unknown—they are in and when. A privacy manager will govern the points in between.

Real versus digital world: The ‘human dividend’ doesn’t go away with the metaverse; the why is the same, the what and how changes. We’re still social beings. Digital contact supplements rather replaces human interaction. We’ve seen that in the pandemic. People still crave physical contact. 

In the workplace, we’ll move beyond Zoom, at home we’ll move beyond Facetime. Whether that’s AR, VR or a mixture, it will result in us better allocating our time. The pandemic was good at turning some meetings into emails; the metaverse will help turn some catchups into a hologram-to-hologram chat (or something like that).  But it won’t alter our need to communicate and interact.

Brands: I anticipate brands that can communicate in a more human way will gain value in the metaverse.  We’re already starting see—in the form of conversational commerce, or well-connected customer experiences between digital and staffed channels—that a human touch is valuable. As more activities become digitally enhanced, that magnifies the resonance genuine human exchanges have. Put another way, will your brand be able to pass the Turing Test?

Will we trade ads for experiences? Absolutely. We already do, on and offline. This will simply evolve with what technology can provide. And that will be the correct proposition for some people in some verticals. Others will prefer to pay with money rather than time, attention or data. It’s why the value exchange always needs careful consideration. With new forms of technology, there may even be other business models we haven’t yet considered.

Keith Timimi, chief innovation officer, VMLY&R Asia

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The metaverse is already here, as fiction writer William Gibson might say, it’s just not very evenly distributed. Or, to put it another way, it’s like the internet was in the ’80s, using a 300-baud modem. The experience was so bad, that only a starry-eyed dreamer could have imagined the internet to be the world-changing leap forward it became.

The Usenet of that era is now similar to Minecraft, Fortnite or Roblox today, where both gameplay and the ability to create new worlds is unleashed.

As hardware, software and connectivity improve, these worlds start to move into virtual reality, and the beginnings of the immersive experience that we think of as the metaverse are slowly being realised.

Today, Spectacles by Snap offer us an early taste of how a digital reality can be overlaid on the physical world, and ultimately act as what Magic Leap called Spacial Computing Layers.

Talking of buzzwords, Microsoft CEO Satya Nardella was roundly mocked for saying Microsoft is an ‘enterprise metaverse’ company, but with HoloLens this is more than just hyperbole. Google Glass died as a consumer product but quietly built a great V2 for Enterprise.

Most interesting of all though is the emerging use of crypto to create fully a decentralised and economically viable metaverse. A virtual plot of land just sold in Decentraland for $913,000, while Axie Infinity’s play-to-earn model has led to 6,532.41% growth in their AXS token since the year back, creating a $2.5 billion economy. Unevenly distributed indeed!

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