The Metaverse – What It Holds For Gen Next And What Challenges It Faces (Opinion)

Santanu Mishra is co-founder and Executive Trustee, Smile Foundation.

Samsung recently launched its latest flagship smartphone simultaneously on metaverse and in the real world a few days back.

This was the first time that such an event was being held in a virtual format, but for all the hype, attendance was more for the novelty factor alone, as the live web cast of the event on Youtube gave a better experience. If the video grabs of the metaverse version were anything to go by, the graphics looked more like the video games of the 90s than that of a cutting edge new technology.

So, what is the reason behind all this interest in the metaverse with all the tech biggies ranging from Facebook, (which has even changed its name to Meta), to Microsoft, Apple, Amazon etc. rushing to be a part of this phenomenon?

It is obvious that organizations and investors can see business opportunity through the metaverse, which is why they are taking it so seriously and spending big money on developing the hardware, software as well as the infrastructure to get it going.

For example, Meta is developing a record-breaking supercomputer to power its metaverse, reaching quintillions of operations per second, that is thousands of petaflops in one second.  To put it in context, the Param Pravega supercomputer commissioned recently at the IISc Bengaluru, has a capacity of 3.3 petaflops (1 petaflop equals a quadrillion or 1015 operations per second). 

Other companies are racing to build chips, AR/VR mounts that can capture physical movements of not only the head but of arms and hands as well, cloud infrastructure and networks to handle the massive amounts of data that will need to be transferred, stored as well as processed.

As an aside, one marvels at the brilliance of Facebook’s move to rename itself Meta – with one stroke they have made sure that their name is a part of the next big thing in technology!

Already, deals in the millions of dollars are being made to purchase space on the various metaverses that exist as of now. And the reason for this is simple – the inhabitants of the various metaverses will in the most likelihood be individuals with sufficient purchasing power – those who are driving the consumption in the physical world as well. Not being present in the metaverse could have a very adverse effect on the bottom lines, if not immediately, definitely in the medium as well long term.

Which is probably why even bankers like J P Morgan, who foresee the metaverse becoming a USD 1 trillion yearly opportunity, have set up their presence in the Metajuku mall in a metaverse called Decentraland.

To be honest, the potential for a virtual world or worlds is enormous, for it would liberate us from the limitations that we live with.

As the world learnt during the Covid-19 pandemic, seeing rows of faces on a computer screen is a poor substitute for physical meetings or classes. In the metaverse, we would be able to interact with others almost as if we were physically meeting with them, for the ultimate objective would be to provide a world that was as close to reality as possible.

Our relationship with the world around us is primarily through our senses – sight, sound, smell, touch and taste, and for any virtual world to be immersive, all the senses need to be invoked and involved.

This brings us to the biggest challenge that the metaverse faces – allowing its inhabitants the ability to seamlessly enter and interact within it, in an as life-like and natural manner as possible. Till it achieves this, the metaverse will remain the domain of those comfortable with using the mouse and keyboard, or maybe voice commands, to move and communicate.

Current technology has given us the option to engage virtually through our eyes and ears through VR headsets and other similar devices. Locomotion, as well as movement of our limbs within virtual worlds is possible through sensors attached to our legs and hands, while actions can be carried out through mouse clicks or voice commands.

Our imagination is linear, based upon what we already know, so most of us would imagine that advances in technology would probably be in the lines of lighter headsets and sensors that could be easily put on or removed.

In April 2021, Elon Musk’s company Neuralink released a video showing a macaque monkey, named Pager, playing Pong. In itself, this was no big deal because monkeys have earlier been taught various skills.

The mind blowing fact was that Pager was playing the game, and very well too, by thinking his moves. There was a chip embedded in his brain that read the signals being sent by the part of his brain that controlled hand movement, and transmitted them wirelessly to a sensor in the computer that then converted these signals to move the cursor on the screen.

To take this to the next logical step, theoretically at least, the reverse should be possible – sensory input like sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, received in the metaverse could be felt by us in the physical world through chips implanted in our brain. Once that is achieved, users could seamlessly flit between and enjoy the best of both worlds! An extreme version of this could be the world that was portrayed in the Matrix movies.

This then leads us to the effect that the metaverse will have upon our society. As with anything related to technology, it is usually the young who are the early adopters, so good or bad, it is they who will be experiencing first. 

The nearest parallels that we have in current technology are social media and multiplayer games like PUBG etc., and if the effects of the metaverse are similar, then there is need for extreme caution that needs to be taken.

In their drive to monetize their massive investments, it is highly unlikely that the corporations running the metaverses will give proper importance to the checks and balances that need to be put in place before our youth are drawn into them.

As we have seen with popular social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the highly sophisticated AI algorithms running in the background can turn what appears to be an open platform into an echo chamber, reinforcing the user’s beliefs – however distressing they may be.

Already, we have seen a dire warning issued by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in the UK that some apps in the virtual-reality metaverse are ‘dangerous by design’. 

This warning was in response to an investigation by the BBC, where a researcher posing as a 13-year-old girl, witnessed grooming, sexual material, racist insults and a rape threat in an App called VRChat. The app was accessed on Facebook’s Meta Quest headset from an app store present there. The only requirement to access the app was a Facebook account. 

The researcher, though she was posing as 13 year old, was allowed to enter virtual-reality rooms where not only was she shown age-inappropriate items and avataars simulating explicit acts, she was also subject to approaches by numerous adult men.

By its very nature, technology brings progress – both desirable as well as undesirable. And it requires not just the desire and ability, but also tremendous amounts of will power and enormous resources, to ensure that the undesirable does not overpower the desirable. 

We are still unable to monitor the content on the publicly available content on the Internet, and it is assumed that a large amount of the content as well as traffic relates to pornography and prohibited trades. 

Considering that we still struggle to ring-fence the Internet, it is essential that measures to ensure safety of users are envisaged and put in place before the metaverse reaches the proportions its creators hope it will.

It is necessary to not only curate content wherever possible, but also to put in place proper entry barriers, linked if necessary to official identity documents, if there is any hope of making the metaverse safe our children and youth to leverage the benefits it can bring.

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