The concept of the metaverse garnered a fresh wave of interest after Facebook rebranded as Meta in 2021, introducing the notion of a virtual-reality-powered future to a global audience. Len Williams asks whether this really is the future of the internet.
My rudimentary car design took place in a custom-built virtual-reality (VR) environment created by Seymourpowell, a design engineering firm. During my visit to their south London offices, I tried out Reality Works (my dodgy car design) and wandered around several virtual worlds they had built to demonstrate such marvels as the inside of a Virgin Galactic spaceship, or a close up of a spine implant.
Ian Whatley, the firm’s design director, explains that tools like Reality Works are a kind of metaverse. Designers from across the world can log in to the environment and work with colleagues in different places on prototypes and concepts for things like cars, trains, bridges, or anything else. These initial concepts can then be exported to a more traditional CAD design program for further finessing. Whatley says the firm has been doing work in this very futuristic way for several years already. Not only does it allow people to collaborate from anywhere, Reality Works also lets them very quickly demonstrate designs to clients. In the past, this would have required building out foamboard models, which could take weeks. “We can build things in a matter of hours that would have taken weeks or months in the past,” Whatley says.
Prior to my visits to Seymourpowell’s office, I had felt somewhat sceptical about the much-hyped metaverse concept. Yet having spent a morning wandering around an early version of this world, I find it an undeniably compelling prospect. And with huge sums of money already committed to this notion by big tech firms, dismissing it out of hand would be short sighted.
Since a fully fledged metaverse is, as most analysts predict, at least 10 years from materialising, figuring out exactly what it is and what it will look like is a challenge. That said, as a basic starting point you could imagine it as a version of today’s internet but enhanced with 3D experiences. Whereas most people’s experience of the World Wide Web comes through a 2D interface (social media feeds on your smartphone, videos on your laptop screen, web pages on your desktop), in a metaverse people will simply experience the internet in 3D.
At present, the best bet is that people will browse this 3D internet while wearing VR headsets. It is possible, however, that in time it might extend to augmented-reality experiences, with people wearing glasses, contact lenses or even implants that lay information over the world around them. An alternative possibility could be the use of holograms, or a combination of the three.
This isn’t to say that the traditional 2D internet will disappear, and users won’t necessarily need to own headsets to experience the metaverse. People will still be able to explore 3D environments from a desktop, and Whatley adds that not everything is automatically improved by being presented in 3D.
The metaverse is not a new concept. Depending on who you ask, the notion of people spending hours in virtual-reality worlds has been around for decades. Recognisable iterations of the metaverse have arguably already existed in platforms like ‘Second Life’ (2003), and more recently in video games such as ‘Roblox’ and ‘Fortnite’.
However, the concept was given fresh impetus in late 2021, when Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook was rebranding as Meta and investing $10bn into the concept last year alone. In a frankly weird video, Zuckerberg’s avatar presented his vision for a virtual world. A cruel observer might describe Meta’s ideas as a boring version of real life (things you could do in Zuckerberg’s metaverse include changing your clothes, going to work meetings, and hanging out at home).
But the metaverse goes beyond Meta. Microsoft have also invested heavily in the concept, as has graphics-card company NVIDIA, among several other technology firms. It’s also being driven by the worldwide uptake in virtual-reality headsets; last Christmas, Oculus, a VR headset owned by Meta, become one of the biggest-selling technology gifts worldwide.
Since people are still trying to figure out what the metaverse will be, predicting how it will evolve will, of course, rely on a fair amount of informed guesswork.
According to Sagar Mahurkar, a technologist and member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a professional association in the US, there are several different categories of metaverse. Perhaps the most obvious will be entertainment and gaming. People are already using internet-connected VR headsets to play games and it seems very likely that this will expand to include viewing things like concerts, films and sports.
Another area we can expect a lot of traction in the metaverse is in meetings. Harvey Lewis, chief data scientist at tax consultancy EY, explains the firm is currently exploring the potential of VR headsets to make calls between remote colleagues more bearable. Rather than staring at small boxes on a screen, metaverse meetings could allow us to interact in a more natural way, view presentations, and read one another’s body language better.
Another category is collaboration. Lewis explains: “When we think about how a lot of our tax professionals work, it tends to be on documents, whether that’s a spreadsheet or some kind of report,” and all in 2D. But what if “there are better ways in which professionals can work in making use of some of the tools and technology available in the metaverse?”.
People will, of course, want to make money from VR worlds too. Take the notion of online shopping. “What if you could visit a fashion store in the metaverse and see what their items look like on your avatar?” asks Whatley of Seymourpowell. These kinds of experiences might make online shopping that much more enjoyable (for want of a better word!).
From an engineering perspective, another intriguing potential is the advancement of digital twins. While we already have digital twins of various assets, the metaverse could provide a far more powerful way to view models of the ‘real world’ and experience the effect of changes in them at street level. What are the views actually like from that newly designed bridge? Does a new traffic system cause chaos for cyclists? Will that building façade look a mess from street level?
Although various forms of the metaverse do already exist, Lewis reckons it will be at least a decade before we have a fully scaled metaverse in action. That said, as with all new technologies, “it doesn’t need to be perfect” to begin with. He says there’s lots of potential for more basic forms of the metaverse – such as meetings with pixelated avatars of our colleagues – coming into play in the near future.
“I think it’s important to remember that it’s not just one technology that could hold the key to a metaverse emerging and being adopted. Many technologies will be involved,” says Sue Daley of techUK, an industry body. For the metaverse to materialise, it will require widespread take-up of VR headsets, and augmented-reality technologies will need to develop further. We’re going to need more and better graphics cards, and they’ll have to become smaller and more efficient. A whole host of technologies will need to advance, including things like edge computing, intelligent automation, computer visualisation technologies, software and much more, according to Daley.
Given the raw power needed to generate huge virtual environments with millions of people constantly interacting with them, Daley suggests that “looking into the future, it may also be that the power of quantum computing may also be key to addressing the questions as we move forward”. But, she adds, “only time will tell”.
There is also going to be a requirement to connect different metaverses and the information about users held on them. Most people today do their internet browsing from one browser – Chrome or Firefox, for instance – so they might not want to constantly ‘log in’ to different metaverses. This raises issues around interoperability of platforms. Will I be able to log into different metaverses (my social media community, my online food shop, my sports subscription) using the same avatar? How will all my information be securely stored and shared between environments?
In 2022, it still feels hard to imagine that people will really want to spend large amounts of time in virtual-reality worlds – as envisioned by Meta, anyway. But Simon Bennett, CTO for Europe at Rackspace Technology, points out that for many teenagers it is already perfectly normal to spend hours each day playing on computer games like ‘Roblox’, which are, in their own way, a kind of metaverse. For Bennett, the next generation may well feel very accustomed to a virtual-reality world. It might have seemed unbelievable 20 years ago that everyone would be walking around constantly checking their smartphones, but that’s exactly what’s happened.
If metaverses are going to be a success, then there are numerous issues that they need to address sooner rather than later.
First are some of the basic design issues. EY’s Lewis points out that many of the seemingly innocuous decisions made during the early days of the metaverse could go on to have dramatic consequences further down the line. By analogy, when social media companies originally decided to let people ‘like’ posts, it might initially have seemed perfectly innocent, yet this capability has arguably influenced elections, led to the sharing of hateful ideas, and changed millions of people’s lives.
Bennett says that without proper regulation now, the metaverse could be like “today’s intranet on steroids” – both in terms of its positives and its negatives. Think of the pile-ons that happen on platforms like Twitter, where individuals get attacked for views deemed offensive. This can be difficult enough when it’s on the user’s smartphone but imagine how much more intense it would be to have thousands of avatars insult your avatar to its face. The same goes for bullying, stalking, hate speech, indecent imagery, and so on.
Even more disquieting is the possibility of sexual harassment. Pin Lean Lau, a law professor at Brunel University London, notes that there have already been cases of sexual harassment on Meta’s very own ‘Horizon Worlds’ metaverse prototype (during a beta test, of all things). This could get even worse if people begin wearing haptic vests that simulate touch.
For Lau, the notion of the metaverse raises all kinds of legal and ethical questions, which no one seems to be seriously addressing yet. How do you know an avatar is who they say they are? Whose job is it to police behaviour in the metaverse? Since the metaverse is, by definition, an unreal place, do the rules of traditional societies still apply? If someone commits a crime in the metaverse, how will they be judged? Do we need a legal system and judiciary for the metaverse? What punishments might there be for wrongdoing in an entirely virtual world? As Lau wryly notes, Facebook/Meta has hardly shown itself to be the most effective operator when it comes to protecting users from harm.
Still, it seems likely that the firms investing in metaverse concepts will make efforts to make it secure. Daley of techUK says: “We now see a security and privacy by design approach being taken to the development of new and emerging technologies.” IT businesses will hopefully be more conscious of the risks than in the internet’s early days. They will also have a business interest in ensuring the metaverse is safe, reckons Rackspace’s Bennett. Customers are unlikely to want to use the metaverse if personal or business data gets stolen there.
In his role at the IEEE, Mahurkar takes a keen interest in tech standardisation and regularly reviews papers on how to implement standardisation in the metaverse. This could perhaps be a positive sign for the concept’s development. If independent organisations develop universal standards, it will not only make it easier for more companies to start creating the metaverse, and that could mean it won’t just be dominated by a handful of big tech players.
On the morning I left Seymourpowell’s office, impressed with my metaverse experience, I felt in a good mood. Spring was just beginning, the sun was out, the sky was blue, the streets of south-west London looked charming. I visited a bakery, chatted with the cashier, ate a pastry and, well, enjoyed life in the universe.
It seems highly likely that the metaverse will evolve and become much more widespread – at work, in video games, as we browse online. Yet my original doubts linger. The benefit of collaborative work environments or the occasional entertainment experience seem undeniable. But will people really want to spend large chunks of their lives sat inside their homes exploring virtual worlds and socialising with avatars? It still seems slightly mad – especially when the real thing is right outside your door.