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Enter the Metaverse – into and out of this world

Enter the Metaverse – into and out of this world

Posted on 15th November 2021

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Red Dwarf, the BBC’s legendary sci-fi comedy, that ran from 1988 to 1999, contained a lot of entertaining conjecture about what life might be like in future centuries.  In one episode, Charles Craig, in the part of Dave Lister, a space punk, is “kissing” a virtual woman via a VR headset.  You can find this on YouTube and in one of the comments below the video someone has written, “It pains me to know that this tech now exists.”  It does indeed, as this other YouTube video, from 2013, about Lovotics “The Kissinger,” amply demonstrates.  All of which is by way of introduction to an investigation of what Facebook’s new Metaverse might become…

If you were with me last week, you’ll recall I had discovered HG Wells’ astonishing predictions of future technology, made in his 1901 book, “Anticipations.”  I finished by wondering who in our current world would be making similar “anticipations” that subsequently come to fruition. With metaverse, we may have found the answer.

I have read a number of articles on just what this metaverse might mean, with the most succinct summary being, “We will no longer think of the synthetic and the real as distinct realms.” The term itself first appeared in Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson’s 1992 futuristic novel in which humans distract themselves from economic disaster by removing themselves into a parallel (virtual reality) world. Like the Red Dwarf scene, this supposes VR being used for entertainment and distraction, but the concept behind the metaverse is far more all-encompassing and, in some respects, very scary.  The metaverse is, as the quote above suggests, what happens when simulation merges entirely into the real world. 

Facebook’s description of the metaverse is somewhat imprecise.   They see it as a network of “virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you.” An article in the Spectator magazine described it in more detail, thus:

“Imagine you’re out walking, enjoying the splash of autumnal light in the oak trees. You decide to show your friend the view. You call her, and, thanks to your augmented reality goggles, her lifelike hologram bursts into existence in front of you. She, meanwhile, is at home wearing a headset too and thanks to the metaverse ‘mirrorworld’ can suddenly see exactly what you do. The mirrorworld is a full-scale, real-time, three-dimensional digital replica of the entire planet, right down to the last millimetre, recreated by hundreds of thousands of drones and millions of microscopic cameras planted in every street (as well as in everyone’s headsets of course), all scanning and refreshing the landscape. 

After admiring the sun-bright leaves for a moment, your friend wonders what the same landscape looks like in winter. Instantly, your headsets transport you back to a digitised blizzard from February. Then, waving your hand over a tree, you trigger a hyperlink that tells you all about oak trees or the exact location of England’s other oak woods… Brrrring! Your boss is calling. So you say goodbye to your friend, select a digital suit for your avatar that you bought the previous week with bitcoin, and boot up the mirrorworld of the office meeting room.”

In case you think this is not just pie in the sky but a full, four course dinner, it’s actually just what Facebook and others are aiming for, namely the evolution of a sophisticated digital ecosystem which seamlessly can be interwoven with the real world via smart devices of every kind.

The technological challenges are daunting, but they are being overcome. Google’s Project Starline has already made three-dimensional holographic video calls a reality by using next-generation photo-booths. Nomoko is currently working on a digital twin world.  This is done by drones equipped with high-resolution cameras and the company claims that it only needs ten of these to map a city the size of Zurich in 24 hours. Microsoft is getting in on the act too. Its Flight Simulator has already replicated vast areas of the planet, including, ”two trillion individually rendered trees, 1.5 billion buildings and nearly every road, mountain, city and airport globally… all of which look like the ‘real thing,’ because they’re based on high-quality scans of the real thing.” And as those of you keen on gaming will know, many moons ago, Epic Games produced their ‘Unreal Engine,’ which creates human avatars and photo-realistic landscapes at the touch of a button. 

If you are like me, you’re probably wondering how our normal, physical world will interact with this metaverse.  Don’t worry, Google (of course) have it sussed.  Google’s Ray Kurzweil believes that by the end of the 2020s, what we currently regard as “normal eating” will be replaced by nutritional “nanosystems.” Does that sound yummy to you?  No, me neither.

Then there are neural implants (for example, Elon Musk’s “breakthrough technology for the brain” Neuralink) that make humans perceive sensations that aren’t actually there. When we surveyed my colleagues at Be-IT before the pandemic, nearly a quarter of them were prepared to have a digital implant, so there is a market for this stuff.

Opting out of the metaverse may prove impossible.  Let’s say you want to visit an actual gym.  There may not be one. Instead, you would visit a virtual one, having first bought your shoes, shorts and running vest form a virtual shop (there won’t be any real ones), where you try on digital replica garments before a drone delivers your purchase from the warehouse.  It’s not hard to see where Amazon’s experiments with drones are going…

There is, of course, a downside.  Fake avatars, stalkers, surveillance by the state and business and criminals and, of course, an almost total absence of privacy. It has been said that “civilisation is three days deep,” meaning it takes three days without technology before you start to experience the world in the ways we did before the risk of computers, smartphones and the like.   If – when – the metaverse comes into being, will any of us ever experience that state again?

Scott Bentley, Be-IT

Posted in Opinion

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