Monday, September 25
01:35 AM

Next stop – The Metaverse

17 Sep 2022

Muscat – The journey from scratchy 56k modems and choppy www addresses to the mobile Internet that we constantly jump in and out of has been short and intense. And it continues at full force. The Metaverse is coming – and it is bringing a tail of possibilities and dilemmas in its wake.

As so often with alien new technologies, the debate about the Metaverse is mostly characterised by caution. So, let us start instead with the possibilities that the Metaverse provides in relation to the Internet we know today.

The Metaverse is spatial. With the Metaverse, glasses will replace smartphones. Instead of holding the mobile phone in our hand, the screen moves up into the field of vision. We see the information we need as an integral part of our surroundings. It is more immersive, and in many cases far simpler and more “natural” to use.

It will eventually be meaningless to distinguish between the physical and the virtual world. We experience them together, they play closely together, and we make use of both dimensions without considering whether one is more “real” than the other. We do not want to be “on” the web, but “inside” the web.

The general expectation is that it will be filled with photorealistic avatars and chatbots, it will integrate and be the interface to all the “smart” objects that will soon fill our houses and cities, and it will be supported by an unimaginable amount of artificial intelligence.

It is all just around the corner, it seems. Investments are pouring in, hardware and software are getting better, and lightning-fast networks are spreading. The COVID-19 pandemic has made billions of people more comfortable meeting, working and studying virtually. Countless companies around the world are considering how they can find a foothold in the upheaval that is coming.

The wave of interest in the Metaverse started in earnest when Mark Zuckerberg announced last October that Facebook was changing its name to Meta. Back in 2014, Facebook bought the largest and leading manufacturer of VR headsets, Oculus, and has recently hinted at developing an operating system that can support the services in the Metaverse.

Microsoft has for many years developed both software and hardware for the Metaverse, and Apple has, with each new version of the iPhone and iOS operating system, added features that can act as building blocks to create a 3D graphical world.

The Internet today is two-dimensional. It is like reading a book and flipping from page to page. The Metaverse, on the other hand, will be characterised by real-time graphics like in a computer game. There is good reason to speak about “Mixed Reality”, a combination of Virtual and Augmented Reality.

The Metaverse will indeed mix our worlds and impressions well and thoroughly together – the streets are filled with avatars, facades and walls are covered with decorations and advertisements targeted at the individual, and the operations of all our devices are done by pointing and gesturing to menus and displays that float in the air.

Together with all the possibilities of the Metaverse, there are some problems associated with it. We know many of them from the Internet today, but more powerful and immersive technology, more connected devices, an increasingly digital economy and much stronger artificial intelligence will amplify the risks.

Internet services are characterised by the fact that they are largely financed by advertising. In the Metaverse, advertisements will appear directly in our field of vision. We will see avatars, billboards, pop-ups and notifications that overlap with what we see in the physical world. The underlying data could potentially be misused to influence the user’s actions and choices by changing the world the user sees and the objects in it.

Just like the Internet of today, the Metaverse could be used to spread fake news, propaganda, rumours and lies – but in a photorealistic virtual world; it possibly will become even more difficult to distinguish between the true and the false.

We are not going to wake up one morning and see the Metaverse as a reality. The pieces are being laid and you can sense it already.

It will come. And in time, we will probably get “haptic” suits and gloves that can simulate the sensation of touching objects. Work is underway to build the screen into contact lenses – or why not have an implant in the brain that can connect our nervous system directly to the web?

Is Oman ready to embark on the Metaverse journey?

Syed Adil Abbas

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