What is the metaverse?
The metaverse is a vision of how the next generation of the internet will operate.
A metaverse will be an improved digital environment where it is possible to move seamlessly between work, play, shopping, socializing and creativity in one digital landscape.
What form that landscape will take is a subject of debate. Firms such as Meta (Facebook) are investing heavily in an immersive experience, where users with wearable hardware discard reality for a purely virtual world, interacting via avatars – the basis for the ‘Oasis’ depicted in Ernest Cline’s novel, Ready Player One.
Others see the metaverse as more like an integration of the physical environment with the digital, where the real world is overlaid with digital surfaces and objects. This augmented reality approach builds on experiences like the highly successful Pokemon Go phone game, which allows players to seek and discover digital creatures in real world locations.
At the moment the metaverse is mainly a commercial enterprise. The building blocks are being rapidly developed by big corporates including gaming and technology companies. Firms like Facebook, Apple, Google and Microsoft are in direct competition, drawing on their enormous technological resources to design their own metaverse offerings.
This situation has serious implications for society. Just as the internet transformed the world in unexpected ways, the next iteration of our digital world will have an impact far beyond delivering more exciting entertainment and efficient commerce.
The metaverse could fundamentally change not only how humans interact with technology but also how they interact with each other and the world around them. It also raises questions about the effect on national and individual identities in a society where people spend increasing amounts of time in a parallel world.
How does the metaverse work?
The way the metaverse will work is still being defined. But it will probably provide users with a single avatar or digital identity, which grants them access to an integrated digital ecosystem. The ecosystem would potentially have its own currency, property and possessions. This could be a digitally altered form of reality, a virtual world built from scratch, or some combination of the two.
Within this metaverse, users may ultimately be able to perform all the online tasks that are currently spread across separate digital properties like websites and apps, ideally without the need for the many passwords and user accounts that characterize current digital experiences. Chinese apps (or ‘super-apps’) such as WeChat already have significant interoperability, integrating a discussion platform, payments and a social credit system.
Meanwhile the gaming community may argue a game such as Fortnite qualifies as a kind of prototype metaverse. The game boasts 350 million registered users globally (a population equal to the US) and includes in-game currency that can be earned and traded.
While the building blocks exist, they are not yet connected into a true metaverse. Our assumptions are based on existing knowledge and behaviour. Many predictions may come true, but other possible paths will fail or simply not be taken up by developers and users as technology grows and people adapt to and help shape its possibilities.
How do you access the metaverse?
It is not yet possible to access a complete metaverse. But how we access the metaverse in the future will be a crucial influence on its development. Will it become an open access tool of opportunity or a closed access, more commercial enterprise?
Currently users access the digital world via screens, whether mobile or desktop devices. A metaverse will be accessed via easily portable and immersive hardware like headsets, gloves, watches and contact lenses. These will allow users to view, hear and touch a digital landscape directly, as opposed to via a projection on a screen.
This hardware will, however, also allow the metaverse more direct access to its users. It will be increasingly easy for sophisticated algorithms to collect far more complex, dynamic data on users. This would include heart rate, pupil dilation, gestures and gaze direction.
Therefore, while users will be granted greater access to a digital world through a metaverse, providers of goods and services will have an even more intrusive insight into their users’ beliefs, fears and desires.
Existing information such as likes, clicks and shares are already used by platform providers to shape our experience online, sell us goods and services and share information about us with other companies. The temptation to put users under even more constant and detailed surveillance will be hard to resist in a metaverse founded on profit-driven motives .
Who owns the metaverse?
As no fully fledged metaverse currently exists, it is not possible to say that there are any ‘owners’ as such. However, major technology companies are positioning themselves to serve as portals (or gateways) to the metaverse. Each seeks to offer the preeminent, if not the only, point of entry.
Meta has invested $10 billion in its metaverse work already, after purchasing virtual reality firm Oculus Vision Tech in 2014. It and other major companies such as Walmart and Nike are busy filing trademark protection and copyright on virtual versions of their products in preparation for the metaverse.
It is likely these big companies will try to achieve dominance in the metaverse and guard their intellectual property. But their unchallenged monopoly would create serious problems.
Users of the metaverse would find themselves in environments entirely defined by big tech and other large corporates, with interactions taking place on their terms. Metaverses set up by authoritarian regimes may subject users to a different from of control, by deciding what they may say, see or access.
There is also a threat of extreme concentration of wealth, as digital gatekeepers in the technology industry use their insider knowledge to establish an unfair ‘first mover’ advantage in the metaverse economy.
If the process of shaping the metaverse is outsourced to commercial interests, it risks prioritizing profit and consumer experience at the expense of activities that greater benefit society.
To be equitable and stand a chance of making a positive contribution to human lives, the metaverse must be free and available to all. It must also be designed by a diversity of actors and regulated at its inception so that individual rights are safeguarded.
Regulation of the metaverse
Regulation of the metaverse presents a real challenge – not least because it is not yet clear exactly what form the metaverse will take.
But governments, the private sector, international organizations, and civil society need to anticipate rapid technological advances. These sectors should work together to provide a regulatory structure built on an informed, international, democratic consensus as opposed to corporate priorities alone.
Regulation needs to consider a range of human rights and legal issues, from the level of monitoring, data collection and oblique advertising permitted, to the protection of vulnerable people including children. There are also more technical issues such as contractual terms, intellectual property, content licensing and ownership and trading of digital assets.
It requires governments to take a more directive approach than was adopted for the early stages of the internet and social media. The model should give users more control and move away from surveillance capitalism, which for too long has left companies largely self-regulating under their own ethical guidelines.
At the same time, regulation by governments needs to be proportionate and respect international human rights law, including freedom of expression. National regulators should also be independent of government to protect against abuse of power.
One problem is that the technology companies are far ahead of policymakers in their knowledge of both the technology underpinning the metaverse and its implications, commercial and otherwise.
This knowledge imbalance contributed to the mistakes and gaps of the last twenty-five years. During this time, governments legislated retroactively as problems emerged, failing to anticipate emerging issues.
Regulators need better understanding of the technology basics, so that they are not operating in the dark. Policymakers need more proactive relationships with big technology firms and other businesses, to better understand big tech’s ambitions, the potential risks to society and where regulation will be needed.
Most of all digital regulation must become more agile and predictive in order to prevent the metaverse magnifying existing internet dangers or creating new ones.
The world needs to get better at creating laws that factor in rapid technological changes. Governments may choose to adapt existing legislation or create new laws. For example, the UK’s culture secretary has stated that metaverse activities will fall within the scope of its Online Safety Bill.
But the metaverse will likely be transnational for citizens in most countries. International cooperation and coordination on standards are therefore crucial, as well as on issues such as competition and taxation.