As the lines between offline and online begin to disappear, are we ready to build digital spaces that transcend the space-time of our physical world?
In his 1992 science fiction book Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson provided a vision of a digital landscape where humans hid behind avatars and interacted with each other in a 3D world. The author was credited with coining the term metaverse. Those of a certain age will remember how the mainstream iteration of this vision was attempted with Second Life in 2003. But living in an alternative universe hosted on the internet was still a long way off until now.
The arrival of a global pandemic and enforcement of physical distancing forced citizens of the world to find solace in digital environments. Back-to-back corporate meetings on Zoom or Teams were just the beginning of this transformational shift online. How we live and socialize quickly changed too. As the lines between offline and online began to disappear, many began to question if we were ready to build digital spaces that transcended the space-time of our physical world.
Building the Metaverse
Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang recently revealed plans to create a virtual copy of the current world using its Omniverse 3D modelling software. At its GTC conference, Jenson talked about how their Omniverse would become the Metaverse for engineers. He provided virtual attendees with a vision of a future where every factory and building in the world had a digital twin. It would continuously emulate and replicate its physical version, and simulation would allow it to be downloaded later in the actual version.
Roblox, the immersive gaming and co-experience platform is also building its Metaverse. But it's not just about meeting online to play games. Roblox has an entire virtual economy where meetings, live events, and collaborative work are fuelled by the Roblox currency. Ahead of a public offering revealed that Roblox had raised more than $520 million and a valuation of $29.5 billion.
With a healthy backing and a global fanbase of millions, Roblox aims to bring their Metaverse to life by transforming how we earn, play, work, shop, and consume entertainment.
Epic Games also recently announced that it completed a $1 billion round of funding and an equity valuation of $28.7 billion. The company is on a mission to build a universe of virtual worlds around popular titles such as Fortnite, Rocket League, and Fall Guys. But ensuring all these worlds are interconnected could take us into Ready Player One territory.
Setting up home in the Metaverse
The rise in non-fungible tokens (NFTs) has seen an enormous demand in crypto-rich investors snapping up virtual real estate and digital artwork costing millions of dollars. Everything from expensive properties to NFT artwork to Persian rugs is currently available with payments accepted in cryptocurrency.
Many activities that we take for granted in real life already extend to the Metaverse. You can order a pizza in Decentrland and have it delivered in your real life. These are just a few examples of how the divide between our online and physical realities is already disappearing.
"People come to the Oasis for all the things that they can do, but they stay because of all the things they can be."Wade Watts, Ready Player One
Does life imitate art more than art imitates life?
Gaming has always pushed technology and innovation in computing forward with its insatiable need for more powerful processors and memory. But throughout history, many have pondered why life seemingly imitates art more than art imitates life. In the novel and movie adaptation of Ready Player One, the story takes place around a metaverse where a digital copy of the physical world is available in an enhanced virtual world.
In 1993, internet anonymity inspired the cartoon and one of the first memes, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." Here in 2021, we are building metaverses to empower people to adopt new identities, personalities, and even bodies. But in the words of Kurt Cobain, isn't being someone else a waste of the person you are?
Many will also fear that in the wrong hands, the Metaverse could become just another tool of manipulation. However, there is a counterargument that people turn to alternate collaborative environments and virtual realities to complement their existence in the real world.
In a world where it can often feel like we are surrounded by non-playing characters (NPCs), it can be difficult to distinguish between online and offline.
Especially when our actual reality consists of Elon Musk embarking on a mission to colonize Mars and make humans an interplanetary species or Jensen Huang creating a virtual copy of the Earth.
We are already tearing down the barriers between online and offline to explore virtual, collaborative environments. But we are many years away from entering a metaverse that evolves based on the choices and actions of the virtual society within it. But advances in VR augmented and mixed reality could change that sooner than you might think.
Our future could eventually consist of a hybrid virtual-physical world. For these reasons alone, I will be first in the queue to get my hands on a shiny haptic suit. Will I eventually prefer to live in the Metaverse? I will get back to you on that one.