The metaverse is being described as the future of the internet, a virtual reality experience that combines work, entertainment, and social activities. The hype around this idea is growing, but what exactly is the metaverse? How does it work? And does it pose a threat to privacy?
The metaverse is a hypothetical evolution of the internet in which all aspects of online life are integrated into a single virtual reality space.
In this vision for the future of online connectivity, practically all services, platforms, websites, and applications would be accessible through a single VR interface (a headset, for example). Advocates for this concept imagine a world in which work, social life, entertainment experiences, and artistic pursuits could all be centralized within a single connected space, available to anyone with an internet connection and a VR system.
A user could work in cyberspace, talking with their coworkers in a digitally rendered meeting room. Afterwards, they might attend a virtual concert, appearing among a crowd of customized avatars from around the world. When the concert is over, they could spend some time gaming, making art, or chatting with friends — and at no point in their busy day would they have to leave the metaverse.
That’s the futuristic vision of its proponents, but how does the metaverse actually work in practice?
The metaverse works in a very similar way to the modern internet, but with greater synergy between different services and websites and a lot more VR integration.
Right now, you can access most online platforms and resources through a single device (a laptop, for example), using one application (your internet browser). In simple terms, the metaverse is a more immersive version of this current system in which the laptop is replaced with a VR headset and all the pages you can access through your browser are rebuilt to be VR compatible.
For many, however, the dream of the metaverse is about more than just VR internet. Some people hope that it will be a fusion of our physical reality and cyberspace, a digital world in which users can live, work, socialize, and create without having to switch between devices or physical spaces.
While this might sound like science fiction, the technology to facilitate this extreme version of the metaverse is already being developed.
The metaverse depends on several core technologies.
Wearable VR and AR tech is an essential building block of the metaverse experience. VR headsets are now widely available, with devices like Meta Quest 2 (produced by Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook) giving users access to a wide range of VR experiences.
Augmented reality technology — tech that adds visual elements to our surroundings rather than completely immersing us in a digital environment — is also important. It bridges the gap between the real world and the metaverse. While early attempts at AR wearables like Google Glass failed to catch on, Meta and other tech giants are in the process of refining new AR systems right now.
Systems that model a user’s 3D environment could play a major role in the immersive metaverse experience. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta, has described the company’s plans to build technology that scans and maps the space around a metaverse user, potentially involving a network of cameras in their home.
In theory, 3D modeling could allow users to have a more physical experience in the virtual world. If you wanted to engage in an activity like fencing or dancing while spending time in digital spaces, your headset could incorporate elements of your physical environment, like walls or furniture, into the virtual space. This lowers the risks of accidents and collisions.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is the ecosystem of our connected smart devices. Hardware like kitchen appliances, entertainment consoles, and home security systems can all be connected across wireless networks, forming an IoT. Since the metaverse is envisioned by some as an integration of the digital space and the physical world, IoT (much like AR) might play a role in meshing the physical and the virtual.
One obvious application for the IoT is in making metaverse users safer in their physical environments. While taking part in an immersive metaverse experience, a person wearing a VR headset is unlikely to be aware of their surroundings. IoT-enabled devices like smart doorbells, security systems, and even thermostats could send messages into the metaverse and alert users to issues they need to be aware of in the real world.
Blockchain is another technology often associated with the metaverse in public discourse, but how does the blockchain work?
To put it simply, a blockchain is a decentralized ledger or database on which it is very difficult to erase or retroactively alter data. This is the system that facilitates cryptocurrencies and NFTs, and some claim that it could be used to underpin property ownership in the metaverse.
For example, an item of clothing worn by your avatar in the metaverse could be stored on a blockchain, making it a unique asset to which only you have ownership rights (an NFT, essentially).
While this is a viable function for the blockchain, it’s also not likely to be widely adopted, and not just because NFT security is notoriously poor. Remember, whatever form the metaverse eventually takes, it will probably be owned and facilitated by tech giants like Meta — tech giants that would much rather you stored your information on their databases instead of a blockchain.
The metaverse has many use cases, from entertainment to work and beyond. While some are still theoretical, others can be experienced right now.
Metaverse content can be accessed through any device that has an internet connection, though ideally you should be using one with a VR interface.
At the moment, however, you can’t really access the metaverse, because in some sense it doesn’t actually exist. You can use a games console or a computer to attend a concert in Fortnite. With a VR headset, you could hang out with friends on Meta’s Horizon Worlds platform. Many metaverse experiences are available, but they exist separately from each other on different platforms, available through myriad unintegrated devices.
Until these disparate islands of metaverse content are unified into one ecosystem, there will be no single metaverse.
Tech companies like Meta are pouring vast amounts of money into metaverse development despite its largely theoretical nature. That’s because, in the long run, they see this as a profitable venture. But how does money work in the metaverse?
The metaverse could generate revenue in countless ways, just like the internet in its current form. Software and hardware vendors, app and infrastructure developers, server hosting companies — there’s no shortage of people and businesses that could profit from the metaverse.
It’s worth noting, however, that the metaverse also opens up some entirely new potential revenue streams. Obvious areas for monetization include cosmetic upgrades for avatars or access to metaverse-exclusive events. Users could even buy property in the metaverse, perhaps purchasing and customizing a space where they can meet with friends.
Companies could also make money from facilitating the metaverse as a whole. The reason Meta is investing so much into creating headsets and VR experiences is likely related to the profits it stands to make by owning a foundational metaverse service.
If the metaverse really is the future, then whoever owns the headsets and interfaces used to provide that future will have access to vast amounts of valuable user data. We could end up with a Facebook metaverse or an Amazon equivalent, but the threat of invasive data gathering is just one of the major risks that the metaverse poses.
The metaverse offers many exciting benefits, but it’s important to balance these against some of the negative consequences of its adoption.
|The ability to connect with friends, regardless of location||Potential for invasive data gathering and privacy violations|
|Access to entertainment experiences, regardless of location||Requires immersion in VR experiences, making users unaware of risks in their environment|
|Immersive online education experiences||Dependent on expensive and, in some cases, theoretical technology|
|Facilitates more effective remote working practices||Discourages real-world interpersonal interactions|
The metaverse is part of the future, but it may never be fully realized. It will undoubtedly have a role to play in the evolution of the internet, media consumption, and social networking. Yet the vision of a single, fully integrated VR platform seems unlikely to become a reality.
One huge hurdle for the metaverse is interoperability. Companies like Meta, Amazon, and Apple are each likely to create their own headsets and VR spaces, forming multiple competing metaverses. Some applications may be available across multiple rival platforms, but like operating systems, clear borders will be drawn between each silo. As a result, the concept of one giant VR network may never come to fruition.
Another issue is public trust in the security and privacy of the metaverse. A metaverse survey carried out by NordVPN showed that 50% of US respondents were worried about identity theft in the metaverse, while 45% expressed concerns about data protection. To achieve the kind of mass adoption that metaverse supporters foresee, these doubts will have to be put to rest.
Of course, this is all speculation. VR and AR tech is developing rapidly, and elements of the metaverse are already here, especially in entertainment and gaming. How far the movement goes and what effect it has on the privacy of internet users remains to be seen.
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