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The Metaverse - Origins, Meaning, Challenges and the Responsibilities in Store for Tech Companies

Jan 28, 2022 - 14 Minutes read
The Metaverse - Origins, Meaning, Challenges and the Responsibilities in Store for Tech Companies

Metaverse. The origins.

Ever since Meta’s (formerly Facebook) chief Mark Zuckerberg delivered the keynote speech at Connect 2021, the term Metaverse seems to have found renewed momentum after a lull of almost 30 years. Wait, what? What’s with this 30-year backstory you ask? Well, allow me to shed some light.

In June 1992, science fiction/cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson published his novel Snow Crash, which made the first ever mention of the term Metaverse, with an uncannily similar concept to the one that Zuckerberg shared with the world to boot. Bet you didn’t know that!

Snow Crash is a novel set in a dystopian world in Los Angeles - sometime in the 21st century - after a global economic meltdown rocked the world affecting everyone in its wake. So, LA is no longer a US territory, with private organizations taking control of most of it and servicemen now turning into private operators or mercenaries to make fast money out of defense contracts that they’re now gunning for.

Already sounds like a Mad Max movie plot, right? Sadly, despite several announcements and promises of adapting the book into a film or TV show, nothing has materialized so far.

Anyway, back to the story. The world as they know now has been divided into independent districts, each of them ruled by powerful factions made up of corporations and magnates. These districts now go by Franchise-Organized Quasi-National Entities (FOQNEs), as each of the factions or franchises control their own districts.

These topsy-turvy events ensue around the protagonist of the novel, a hacker by the name of Hiro, who finds himself chasing the creator of a drug called Snow Crash, the virtual form of which was passed on to him within the Metaverse by someone called Raven. Unbeknownst to Hiro, Snow Crash has the ability to give L. Bob Rife, the drug kingpin, complete brain control over humans in the real world once they’re infected in the Metaverse through the neuro-linguistic virus.

What’s worse is that Snow Crash has also been developed in a physical form - an addictive drug that could be spread through infected blood in a church. And, even though a counter-virus did exist, breaking through the security to get to Rife aboard a decommissioned US Navy aircraft carrier, which is called the Raft, would be incredibly difficult.

Hiro, however succeeds in infiltrating Rife’s defenses with the help of his friend Y.T.’s mafia group members and breaks his control over the Raft. The digital version of Snow Crash, which Raven tries to unleash, is also neutralized, thus bringing an end to the reign of anarchy that had gripped the world. Stephenson dubs this societal condition anarcho-capitalism, which happens to be the common thematic link between Snow Crash and his next novel The Diamond Age.

In a world where every human has been digitized, the Metaverse is an online virtual reality that encapsulates Stephenson's imagination of what the internet may metamorphose into in the future. Like many of the MMOs that we see today, the Metaverse features virtual avatars of users, which they can control.

Snow Crash envisioned 2k resolution VR technologies of today way back in 1992Source: uploadvr.com

So, what really is the Metaverse?

Imagine being able to explore another world that is just as real, but entirely virtual. The Metaverse can be best described as an immersive parallel universe with endless opportunities for people, both young and old, to experience in their virtual avatars or altar egos.

Within the Metaverse, you can explore a digital multiplayer world that is quite similar to our own. It may not be as expansive or immersive but it will allow people with limited abilities in real life, such as wheelchair-bound people, to experience full mobility through these virtual spaces.

It's really like an umbrella term used to describe the digital worlds that continue to exist even when you're not immersed in them at that moment. And these kind of metaverses find themselves springing up in today's popular gaming culture where VR-oriented games can be played on devices other than AR and VR devices, such as your computers, game consoles or smartphones.

Speaking of video games - and coming back to the man himself - Horizon Worlds (previously Horizon Facebook), which follows close on the heels of Meta Platforms' earlier VR apps Facebook Spaces, Oculus Rooms and Oculus Venues, is Zuckerberg’s vision of Metaverse offered as a VR social app/game. Initially launched as an invite-only beta-phase game, it was officially made available to everyone aged 18 years or above in the US and Canada on December 9, 2021.

Horizon Worlds is Meta’s offer of a metaverse in the form of a VR social app/gameSource: techcrunch.com

Here’s the problem though - To play Horizon Worlds you’ll need to purchase Oculus Rift S, a VR headset priced at $399 or Oculus Quest 2, the VR headset created by Facebook Technologies and priced at $299. Which in itself clearly points out to the fact that the app/game is not for everyone, not by a long shot at least. Although when you think about the $10 million creator fund announced to back it up, it’s not so difficult to not judge someone for coughing up $299-$399 for a headset.

Next caveat, or more of an unpleasant development - sexual harassment in Zuckerberg’s metaverse, which was raised by a beta tester whose avatar was molested by a stranger in the Plaza (the social hall) with other users supporting the misconduct. Of course, the incident was downplayed as a one-off and a security misstep by a senior Meta representative.

Horizon Worlds' future may be uncertain, judging by a flurry of lukewarm responses, but fact remains that designers of technologies like Augmented Reality (AR), Extended Reality (XR) and VR have already been working to create a Metaverse that will supposedly revolutionize how we consume content. Already in its developmental stages, this new world is touted to have the potential to create unlimited opportunities with outstanding creativity on display through interactive design like never seen before.

It’s really interesting and fascinating when you think about it deeply. Because, the fact that Snow Crash predicted an eerily similar virtual world 30 years into the future makes you wonder - did Stephenson know something we didn’t?

For now, what we can say is that the Metaverse is no longer a fictional creation that can be experienced only in a book or on screen. It's coming to life right before our eyes, as designers are now able to create a more immersive and realistic user experience (UX) for everyone with the introduction of new technologies that they’re combining with existing ones.

The stumbling blocks

Just like when the internet first made its debut where people were promised boundless opportunities that could be seen merely as stepping stones to even bigger developments, metaverse is slacklining its way through a very similar path. Yes, I do admit there really is a lot of scope for development here, almost like the sky is the limit kind of vision.

But then, there are probably just as many, if not more, stumbling blocks in its path. For starters, there isn’t a proper sensitization process in place, which clearly explains the “unfortunate” sexual harassment incident during Horizon Worlds' beta testing.

Also, virtual reality gaming is getting more and more immersive, but it has some serious kinks to work out. For example, the headsets are awkwardly bulky and nausea-inducing for many people if worn for extended hours. However, that’s not even close to the real risk.

Apart from the usual visual damage and seizures from long use, the risks of ending up with broken bones, ligament tears and even dying from a fall inside the apartment are of a very serious nature. The real caveat right now is that solving one problem only seems to open up new challenges to deal with.

While these technologies certainly have promise, it makes you wonder if they're quite ready yet (or inversely, are we ready for them yet). In the meanwhile, do read up on the potential issues that VR headset users could face if they’re not careful, and how best to avoid them.

Headaches, body pain, seizures are some common risks of using VR headsets for too longSource: thetechinfluencer.com

What the future of the Metaverse looks like

Tech companies like Meta and Microsoft are artfully trying to convince people that the future of AR and VR holds great potential for the users, with a bit of an overbloated dreamscape if you please. Oh, don’t get me wrong! I don’t think there’s anything wrong in that lofty dream, being the hopeless dreamer that I am anyway.

But it definitely begs the question in the minds of those with a natural sense of curiosity - to what extent of ‘reality’ one could reach in the future? Ryan Gosling having a holographic virtual ‘companion’, played by Ana de Armas, in Blade Runner 2049 comes to mind. Could something like that be possible someday?

The concept of a virtual partner was toyed with in Blade Runner 2049Source: thesun.co.uk

Of course, the fair-minded nerd in me also thinks the future of Metaverse won’t hold much water unless tech companies pursuing such a future drop the prices of VR headsets and other accessories to make them more accessible to everyone. Wouldn’t you say so?

But, most importantly, in order for the metaverse to be our future, we need new ideas. Today's online worlds are already littered with enough innovation to keep users occupied for hours at end. So, what could the metaverse offer that could be any drastically different from what’s already available now?

The early internet and mobile phones were a far cry from what we know and have today, and while many of those creations have since improved tremendously, there is no guarantee that everyone would want to spend precious time in an artificial reality. It could just as easily become the thing people avoid because they're uncomfortable with their own limitations or lack thereof.

In fact, the first form of metaverse may never even take flight beyond its initial stages without major improvements being made on how AR & VR tech integrate seamlessly with our daily lives, so much so that they become seamless enough for common use, just like smartphones have become now — and even that's not guaranteed either.

Designing for the Metaverse. Reality check.

First of all, let me begin by reiterating that the most important principle of design for us is empathy. Toying with revolutionizing ideas, while still keeping that human touch alive, is the hallmark of a great UI/UX designer that wants to change the world for the better.

In the same breath, I’d like to add that the transition from thinking about the user as a mere "consumer" to seeing them more as a participant, will change how we design experiences. This novel way of looking at the users has the potential to reshape how designers will create their designs.

Technology is becoming increasingly complex and immersive, but the way we engage with it has yet to go through a sweeping change. There are always new challenges and opportunities that designers must face in order to create experiences that can blur the lines between reality and augmented reality.

So, what does it mean to be a Metaverse designer?

In the future, being a metaverse designer will require more than just designing an interface. It's going to take creativity and flexibility - two things that are fundamental in any designer’s workday.

Designing in the Metaverse will be completely different than designing for other spaces. It's important to think differently and use new tools when designing this virtual environment, which are constantly evolving with its residents' needs.

The metaverse is an immersive environment filled with surprises and opportunities. It’s not just a place to go through the motions, but rather one that forces you into new situations where your creativity can take shape in ways of its own choosing - creating design concepts unlike any other.

To create compelling digital worlds, designers will need to dive deeper into the psychology of play and player behavior. They should explore how people get invested in these virtual environments so that their actions reflect more than just simple goals.

The new frontier for metaverse design is not only innovation within tech itself (which continues apace), but also exploring what makes human beings unique when put behind screens where anything can happen. Having said that, here are a few, but vital philosophies that designers should follow in order to design for a metaverse that’s both compelling and inclusive.

Metaverse should be about inclusion and integrationSource: earlygame.com

1. Storytelling

Designs in the metaverse will need to leverage storytelling (it’s pretty much a given) and how it can be used as a tool to present compelling narratives. Since this connected alternate reality is made up of experiential crossovers, designers must find ways to bring them all together through an engaging story-based experience that brings people back time after time.

2. Integration

Designing for the metaverse means designing keeping integration or interoperability (as Zuckerberg famously pointed out) in mind. Each individual experience should work seamlessly together to create a consistent world view – a virtual reality without boundaries or walls between you as user; existententiality on one side versus those around them who also interact through various digital channels. And to create that experience, designers also need to come forward and integrate in the design thinking process.

3. Harnessing new tools

As I’ve mentioned earlier, it would take everything, including the help of new tools and technologies to design immersive environments, all the while progressing constantly to higher levels of development. 3D simulation and design collaboration platform Nvidia Omniverse is one such tool that benefit metaverse designers immensely.

Learning is the name of the game and although jumping from 2D tools to 3D tools may sound daunting, learning platforms like Udemy are a great source of learning and reference materials. Of course, it goes without saying that it won’t be long before these 3D tools will be in the collection of every metaverse designer.

4. Good ol' user research

You didn’t think we would let this slip, did you? After all, what is user experience design without the most omnipresent principle that is user research?

The difference between a good designer and an exceptional one is their ability to observe. Designers will have to look at new skills that they must develop if they want to create unique experiences for this immersive world, where there's more than just designing on screens or paper-based prototypes; it takes seeing what those creations look like from all angles before anything can be created.

Conclusion

Designing for the metaverse is not just about building something that is supposed to bring a tech company glory or even greater fame. It’s about social ethics, a moral web which if spun around the metaverse, could make the artificial world even better than the real world that we live in right now - an escape from the gloom and negativity that haunt us every day.

And for that, tech companies stepping up to create metaverses must purge their minds off any form of greed or pride. As for the designers, the onus is on them to be able to visualize and come up with a metaverse that would actually be a better world for the players.

Got a design idea to share or are you looking for empathetic designers who can give form and shape to your vision? Write to us and we’d be more than happy to oblige. After all, design is our way of life.

author

Manab J Kharkatary

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