What Metaverse is & what it is not

by July 25, 2022 0 comments

One needs to see beyond the cartoonish aesthetic that we come across today in the name of a metaverse experience. The Metaverse won’t just be an arbitrary caricaturist game world built by developers. It will be digital replicas of very real spaces, and digital twins of actual objects. It is about integrating the virtual world into the physical world

The year was 1982, the place was Daman where we were planning to spend the summer vacation. We had spent many there, but this was special for a particular reason. It was the first time we would be laying eyes on a television set. I remember dreaming about what it might be like. My imagination knew no bounds, but when reality struck, I was thoroughly disappointed.

I had fantasized about round-the-clock movies, a plethora of games, and endless entertainment. And here we were, this nondescript box sitting in front of us, switched off, as we waited for the 7:30 pm news bulletin followed by a 30-minute program on agricultural updates. It was a thorough disappointment for the pre-teen in me. I returned to my world of books, hoping that one day we would get something more fun and meaningful out of the TV.  Eventually, that did happen, but it did take a few years.

A decade or two later, I experienced the same excitement of anticipation when I bought my first cell phone (before the turn of the century) – the idea of making a phone call from a moving car or train was mind-boggling. There was a catch though. Every incoming call was priced at Rs 17 – this at a time when gold would fetch you Rs 4,000 for 100 grams. That’s 235 minutes of jabbering or 100 grams of gold!

A few years later, not only was making calls much cheaper, but the cell phone had also become ubiquitous. I recently read that a generation of students doesn’t even know what the word “landline” ‘refers to.

tv 2213140 1920
tv 2213140 1920

Imagine you were transported to 1947 while India was celebrating its independence. What would you report or cover with your cell phone and bring back to 2022? What would you tell your fellow citizens about the technological leaps we were to make in the coming years? Now, remember, even then we did have computers that were built for World War 2 – gigantic, slow machines operated by programmers who would literally stick their hands inside the contraption to make them do the work. The man-machine interface was very physical. Subsequently, engineers developed newer interfaces using punch cards; these interfaces would later progress to more sophisticated and natural language-like interfaces such as the MS-DOS operating system. This was a game changer because no one could interact by typing words – a more natural way of interfacing. But the real breakthrough moment for computers was the creation of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) – this made it possible to interact with computers by “clicking” pictures – it’s what most of us take for granted, and it’s simply the way we all function today. GUIs are now used in everything from ATMs to ticketing machines – and they are the primary reason why any ordinary person, even the most technically challenged, can make use of them.

At each phase of our technological advancement through every decade, computers made machines more accessible – becoming easier to navigate, allowing more people to use them. Over the past several decades, every time designers and engineers made computers work more intuitively – every time a layer of machine-like abstraction was removed, computers became more useful and more valuable to us.

Today, if you pay close attention, the next era of the computing interface is emerging, though in truth it has been in development for a while. And by that, I mean concepts like augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality, immersive computing, or whatever two-letter acronym you may stumble upon. All of these advancements involve the use of three-dimensional space – which is a very big deal when it comes to intuitive and more human-like interaction with machines. 

macintosh 2619617 1920
macintosh 2619617 1920

A more generic term for this 3D way of interfacing is called “spatial computing”. A word of caution though. 3D-based interfaces or spatial computing should not be confused with the Metaverse, nevertheless, it is related, but we’ll come to that.

Typically, spatial “things” have the properties of being able to move around in space – for example, a video game like Fortnite is spatial (you move around within it) whereas a Zoom call is not.

Okay, so we know what the Metaverse is not. Let’s understand what it is.

For starters, very soon few will even call it the “Metaverse”. in the same way that people had once called the internet “the information superhighway” or “cyberspace”. Based on Gartner research, the Metaverse is expected to be:

  • A collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical and digital reality.
  • It is persistent, providing enhanced immersive experiences.
  • It will be device-independent and will not be owned by a single vendor.
  • It will have a virtual economy of itself, enabled by digital currencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

The Metaverse is a combination of Spatial Computing and Game Engines designed to create an immersive experience in Virtual Environments with Virtual Economies (NFTs. Social tokens etc., and we’ll come to that soon).

The Metaverse is the internet in its new avatar – spatial (and often 3D) in nature, primarily game-engine-driven, and a collection of virtual environments built to provide an immersive experience – a virtual 3D world, if you will, where you would be controlling a virtual avatar with digital property rights. 

The Metaverse will also have rules and regulations, however, it is early days, and firms like Meta and Microsoft are paving a way for a more standards-driven metaverse. One might wonder what one cannot do with the current internet that one can in the Metaverse? It’s more or less like asking what the benefit of digital banking is when you already have web-browser-based Internet banking.

The application of the Metaverse will be far beyond the usual gaming and learning use cases. For instance, take a look at Protectwise, now owned by Verizon – they have gamified cybersecurity in a way that monitoring cyber threats is more natural and can be done by anyone. One doesn’t have to sift through logs of data to detect threats.

There are numerous other examples – music concerts and even weddings being held in the metaverse. As the technologies get refined and the standards of interoperability get firmed up, we will see a rapid change in how newer, more human-like experiences will take over the internet.

In a few years, the Metaverse will be a place to do banking, shopping, experience entertainment, and much more. If you go by the experts relentlessly tweeting about its impact, the Metaverse will not just be a place or a virtual environment, but a time when your digital life (avatars, experiences, connections) is worth more than your physical life.

And if this sounds absurd, try posting an unflattering picture on social media. Would you? Why do we care about our Instagram pictures? Our LinkedIn profiles, and the content we post? It’s simply because our Digital life or “presence” plays a far greater role in our daily life, and has an impact way beyond what we might even be able to imagine.

One of the key components of the Metaverse is the “Game Engines”. These are the construction tools used to build the Metaverse. Game engines may well be one of the most consequential technologies of the decade. A Game Engine is what the software developers use to build games – it enables one to upload 3D objects, apply rules for how those objects can move, add sounds, etc.

The term “video game” is also misleading, since it alludes to something recreational or less serious. As the world becomes more digital, Game Engines are powering the computing interfaces for all sorts of industries.

boy 1262989 1920
boy 1262989 1920

Another concept that will be central to the idea of the Metaverse is the “Digital Twin” – the concept that physical things (like a car, machine, etc) can use their sensor data to create a software copy of itself inside a computer. This allows us to interact with simulated objects in the same manner as we would interact with computers.

There’s much happening in the world of Game Engines and will warrant dedicated attention. For now, there are two engines to keep an eye on Unreal and Unity. Unreal is owned by Epic Games, the publisher who owns Fortnite, and Unity is a large publicly traded company. These Game Engines are going to see stratospheric and mind-boggling levels of improvement in the coming years.

Let’s take the example of the electric Hummer – the first car to have an Unreal-Engine-based interface. It takes information from its sensors and visualizes it in 3D on the dashboard – a classic example of spatial computing in the real world.

Taking this a step further in Hong Kong International Airport’s Terminal 1 which uses a digital twin in the Unity game engine. It gives facilities managers a real-time view of passenger movement and reveals equipment that might need repairs.

The key takeaway is that graphics will stop looking like graphics, and we’ll see photorealistic virtual environments that appear as real life. One needs to see beyond the cartoonish aesthetic that we come across today in the name of a metaverse experience.

The Metaverse won’t just be an arbitrary caricaturist game world built by developers. It will also be digital replicas of very real spaces, possibly even the entire planet, and digital twins of actual objects like your car or house. It is about integrating the virtual world into the physical world. Essentially, you could be working in the Metaverse controlling equipment, supply chains, or selling art.

The potential is just so vast that it’s about remodeling our thinking for what could be possible. it’s really all about our imagination and how far we can stretch it – perhaps akin to living in the 1950s and envisioning the potential impact of the internet.

The vision of the Metaverse is that all of these experiences will become an interconnected network of virtual environments, in a manner that will alter and elevate the way we experience the internet.

It’s time for enterprises to start planning for their existence in the Metaverse.

JP Morgan, in the report titled – Opportunities in the Metaverse, revealed that the Metaverse will most likely infiltrate every sector in some way or another in the coming years, with the market opportunity estimated at over $1 trillion in yearly revenues.

It also became one of the first banks to have a lounge in the metaverse. While It took the internet some two decades to proliferate into banking, the mobile phone took a matter of a few years. 

As we go beyond 2D and into 3D, we can design an expansive universe with the ability to immerse customers. Banks and other businesses should consider newer ways of operating where experiences will drive growth and lead to new business models.

As the metaverse technologies mature, traditional businesses like banking will be moving to newer business models. As extraordinary as it may seem, enterprises will need to consider possibilities that will transform everything from the very basics to the future of business.

Is it too early or too late to consider the impact?

I would say it’s too early to make a significant investment for businesses. However, the time is right to consider the potential uses – there is a case for being prepared, creating readiness in terms of the anticipation of employee skills and customer expectations. 

Interestingly, the futurist Alvin Toffler’s comments are more relevant now than when he was first quoted in the 1970s – “the illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who cannot learn”.

Let’s then gear up and learn what the metaverse is set to unleash upon us!

Rajashree 2
Rajashree 2

By Rajashree Maheshwary, President, McLaren Strategic Solutions

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