The word ‘metaverse’ has become the talk of the town ever since Facebook rebranded itself to Meta. The move not only marked Facebook (now Meta) acknowledging that it was more than just the Blue app, but it also signaled the direction in which the Mark Zuckerberg-led conglomerate would be heading into. While making the announcement at its Connect 2021 event, Zuckerberg described ‘bringing metaverse to people’ his ‘new North Star’. He also said that as of now, the name Facebook is still closely linked to just one product. He hoped that over time, ‘we are seen as a metaverse company.’ Also Read - iPhone 12 Mini is now more affordable, Is it good as a secondary phone?
What followed the announcement were a series of developments – support for Messenger audio calls on VR-based platforms, Project Cambria, and making Horizon Worlds available to users above 18 years of age among others – that would help Meta achieve the mammoth goal that its founder has set out to achieve. Also Read - Elon Musk may make an 'alternative' smartphone to iPhone, Android phones
Soon after, companies all across the world chimed in to achieve Zuckeberg’s dystopian dream. Microsoft announced Mesh, a mixed reality-based platform to give users a shared experience from anywhere. Adidas acquired a virtual plot in a metaverse platform called Sandbox. McDonald’s entered the metaverse with a virtual event held by Offline TV. Nike and Ralph Lauren announced their own virtual worlds on the Roblox metaverse. Nike also announced the acquisition of a startup that makes sneakers and NFTs for the metaverse. Also Read - Apple is likely to ditch the $50 Pencil with its upcoming iPhone
Then there are companies that are gearing to enter the metaverse.
Boeing has expressed its interest in making its next plane in the metaverse. Tinder is working on ‘Tinderverse’ and Niantic, the company behind the famous game Pokemon Go, raised $300 million last month to work on what it calls the ‘real-world metaverse.’ The list doesn’t end there. Game maker Ubisoft has also announced Project Quartz to cash-in on the ongoing trend.
It wouldn’t be erroneous to say that there is immense excitement in the world about this new platform, which Zuckerberg has described as a “successor to mobile internet.” There is also a sense of urgency that can be seen in companies across industries to embrace this trend. It’s almost like the dotcom boom of the 90s. Everyone is talking about it. Everyone wants a piece of the pie.
But not everyone agrees
But, not every company is treating the ‘metaverse boom’ with the same urgency as others.
Intel, after much deliberations, shared its views on the hype around metaverse. Intel’s Senior Vice President and General manager of the Accelerated Computing Systems and Graphics Group, Raja Koduri in a blog post said, “Truly persistent and immersive computing, at scale and accessible by billions of humans in real time, will require even more: a 1,000-times increase in computational efficiency from today’s state of the art.”
While he doesn’t deny that we are on the cusp of the next major leap in computing, he does say that the infrastructure available right now isn’t enough to support the metaverse as it has been imagined to be, that is, a mirror world. “…you will quickly realize that our computing, storage and networking infrastructure today is simply not enough to enable this vision,” he added.
The Intel executive believes that “Many advances across transistors, packaging, memory and interconnect that will help are in the pipeline.”
Why metaverse is not as pragmatic right now
Meaning, the metaverse isn’t here just yet. But we are inching towards turning it into a reality.
There are several reasons for this supposition. First is the infrastructure. Metaverse will require a host of technologies – augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), mixed reality (MR), high-speed connectivity, and devices with far greater computational capabilities – to work in tandem with each other and communicate with each other constantly. This infrastructure, which includes both hardware and software components, needs to be capable of handling the computational requirements of millions of people across the globe almost all the time. It also needs to be easily accessible to the end users.
Now, a lot of companies including Meta’s Oculus, Apple and Oppo are working on developing AR/VR headsets that will transport users to the metaverse and help them connect with other users. Even Snap has its Spectacles. But these devices are far from accessible to most users, sometimes owing to the lack of usage, other times owing to the price. And it’s not just the AR/VR devices that we need to worry about. It’s also the humble personal computers that need a major upgrade. Sure, companies like Intel and Qualcomm are offering advanced platforms that are meeting the existing requirements, especially amid the pandemic, but whether or not it will be enough remains to be seen.
Then there is the issue of standardisation. Meta is working on its own metaverse. Roblox is developing its own virtual space. They are not alone. Companies like Tinder are also trying to create their own virtual worlds. With so many versions of metaverse coming into picture, it would be important to have a way that these ‘metaverses’ can communicate with one another in order for their inhabitants to be able to communicate with one another. It’s like having a landline or a mobile connection that will allow people across the virtual geographies to communicate with one another. A fragmented metaverse is no metaverse. And so, it is important that there be open standards – just like the internet – while building this alternate universe.
The challenges don’t cease there. Adoption is another challenge that proponents of metaverse will have to think about. To ‘bring metaverse to people’ technologists will have to make it easily accessible to people at large. More importantly, they will have to prove that metaverse is more than just a buzz word and that there are actual benefits to it. Landlines gave people connectivity. Mobile phones gave people accessibility and flexibility to connect with anyone anywhere. Then, the internet gave people the access to everything else on a tiny screen. Now, low-budget smartphones are democratising those benefits further. Metaverse needs to present an equally compelling case if not more to be able to gain wider acceptance.
There is also the issue of security. Social media in the present scenario has become the mouthpiece for spreading fake news. It is plagued by hate, dissent, and disregard for privacy to name a few. It has become a beast that everyone is trying to tame but with no relief in sight. These issues are a matter of concern for the metaverse as well. When tech companies have not been unable to curb these issues on the internet, as we have known for a long time, what is to say that the same issues won’t percolate to the metaverse as well?
Lastly, there is the matter of security of people in the metaverse. A recent report by the MIT Technology Review documented a case on Meta’s Horizon Worlds wherein a beta tester was groped (virtually) by a stranger. Upon review, Meta found out that the beta tester wasn’t using a tool called ‘Safe Zone’ that would protect her from such incidents. Now, the question that arises here is what are general norms that people will have to adhere to in the metaverse and how can the experience be made safe for everyone while ensuring that notorious elements don’t disrupt this alternate universe as well?
Metaverse is coming. The building blocks are already in development. But it’s not just the technology that companies and proponents of this evolution have to worry about. Much work needs to be done to make everyone a part of this evolution while making it secure for them to be a part of this change. All of this will take time. The time that is not tomorrow.