Going to battle in a virtual reality not a solution to…

Perhaps they are the real inventors of the metaverse, that virtual reality space where users can interact with each other in a computer-generated environment.

It’s a new word in my lexicon, but not to gamers and sci-fi readers. The word was coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 book Snow Crash and described a reality where “end users” were treated as citizens in a dystopian corporate dictatorship.

It has since been adopted and customized by Silicon Valley. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg rebranded the company as Meta in October 2020 and announced the company would be investing $10-billion in this new world. What on Earth?

Perhaps the metaverse is a place I can go and do battle with the greedy and avaricious who live in our parallel universe? In which case, I’m Bayonetta, the bad-ass witch who can fire guns from her feet and turn her hair into giant fists and boots. Or maybe Lara Croft. But no, dealing with those scumbags is a battle for the real world, I’m afraid.

This still doesn’t answer the question of what the metaverse is or how it will become meaningful for us.

The idea sounds simple. It’s a 3D, interactive, virtual representation of the internet – a bunch of interconnected virtual spaces that become an extension of our physical world. Okay.

So do I really want to block out my vision with a pair of VR goggles to spend hours in a virtual bar talking to virtual people and drinking a virtual drink I can’t enjoy? I doubt it. And I’m pretty sure you won’t either. Yet companies are investing billions into this world where the potential is almost beyond our imagination.

Microsoft has announced it will partner with Meta and plans to add augmented reality and virtual reality from its Microsoft Mesh platform into Teams; Epic Games has announced a $1-billion capital raise to support its long-term vision for the metaverse, while Nvidia, the leading designer of graphics processing units for the gaming and professional markets, has made Omniverse, its 3D design collaboration and virtual world simulation platform, available free to individual creators and artists.

It strikes me as a clever thing to do. When you don’t know exactly where something is going, invest in the bottom-up, grassroots growth of the universe. And when something catches your eye – buy it!

If our capitalistic society has taught us anything, companies will find ways of taking this world of gaming into products and services that are applicable to you and me, and we can be sure that they are in a race to be the first and only.

That does worry me slightly, though. Do we really want a company like Facebook, whose former mantra – move fast and break things – encourage a culture that rewarded new ideas without careful consideration of the risks, to be the driver of the metaverse, whatever that might look like? Will it create an entirely new environment for Facebook’s legacy problems to take root? Zuckerberg, of course, doesn’t see it like that, saying, “Every chapter brings new voices and new ideas but also new challenges, risks and disruption of established interests. We’ll need to work together, from the beginning, to bring the best possible version of this future to life.”

At the moment, applications outside of gaming are pretty basic – business meetings, concerts and tours. But the potential is vast. Footwear manufacturer Nike is preparing to sell its products in the metaverse and has filed trademark applications to establish itself in the virtual world.

Progressive engineering businesses are using the metaverse to create digital twins of their operations and products.

Again, the idea is not completely new. NASA used digital twin technology in 2010 to run simulations of space capsules. The benefit is that you can run tests and scenarios on the digital twin without affecting the physical original.

I’m still getting my head around the possibilities, which, when it comes to things such as complex surgery, must be infinite.

As a two-bit investor, I’d back the likes of Microsoft and Nvidia to make money out of this. As a cautious human, I’m wary. As Zondo is making perfectly clear, our real world has enough despicable people in it. Yet the world of virtual reality is no different and already has a harassment problem – even Roblox, a supposedly safe game for kids, has experienced problems with virtual orgies and Nazi role-playing.

The metaverse presents a whole world of possibilities and dangers, and I’ve no doubt it is coming, but perhaps we should solve our real-world problems first. DM168

This first story appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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