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As Meta pushes for the metaverse, it may be a better fit for some, not all

Woman using a virtual reality headset.
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This article was contributed by Olga Vorobyeva, founder of Vox Consulting

In true technical style, there is no single universally accepted definition of the metaverse. Simply put, the metaverse is a vast network of 3D worlds and simulations rendered in real-time for cooperation and participation. This is not a virtual reality experience or a virtual economy with avatars sticking out, but a way to maintain identity, objects, payments, history, and ownership continuity.

The metaverse market may reach $783.3 billion in 2024 versus $478.7 billion in 2020, representing a compound annual growth rate of 13.1%, based on studies by Bloomberg with data from Newzoo, IDC, PWC, Statista, and Two Circles. It is set to expand beyond AR and VR content, incorporating live entertainment and taking a share of social-media advertising revenue. According to that same data, the entire metaverse may reach 2.7 times that of just gaming software, services, and advertising revenue.

The metaverse enables users to interact virtually; a digital reality that combines various aspects of social media, online games, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and cryptocurrency. Augmented reality superimposes visual, sound, and other sensory data into real-world settings to improve the user experience. Virtual reality is entirely virtual, enhancing the fictional reality.

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And the metaverse is already rife with exciting projects, experiences, and platforms.

Kalao, for example, is a popular virtual world that combines NFTs, business collaboration, VR experiences, and a marketplace, all built on the Avalanche blockchain. SoftBank (one of the most influential tech companies globally) invested a whopping $93 million in The Sandbox’s metaverse game. And bridging the gap between the real and virtual worlds, Metahero is a 3D-scanning technology that recreates real-world objects, humans included, and recreates them into ultra-HD avatars. According to CoinMarketCap, Metahero already has an operational, 4K public chamber ready for scanning in Doha, Qatar, with plans to place more scanning chambers in Tokyo, Berlin, New York, Seoul, and more. MetaHero has ties with Sony (through exclusive partnerships), which is undoubtedly well-placed to bring the metaverse to homes through its PlayStation brand.

But all is not well in the metaverse. A black hole is forming, and its name is Meta.

In an interview with The Verge, Mark Zuckerberg turned his head, announcing that Facebook would evolve from a social network to a “metaverse company” over the next five years. Much like Google announced that its name was now Alphabet, mainly for accounting reasons, Facebook renamed to Meta, but did so differently. By revealing the change with fanfare, including demos of its Horizon social VR platform, it made Meta seem more than just an exercise in good money management.

So while Facebook’s apparent endorsement of the metaverse sounds positive, it may be the worst thing to happen to the industry since its inception.

A parallel universe at your fingertips

For many, the metaverse is part of a dream for the future of the internet. Partly, it is an accurate way to reflect some current trends in online infrastructure, including the rise of 3D worlds generated in real-time.

The metaverse is a collective of byte-based alternatives to the characteristics of the atomized physical world. While many people think of the metaverse as a version of the dystopian book and movie Ready Player One, much of the metaverse will have much more utilitarian value. In the end, we will always be connected to the metaverse by expanding our senses of sight, hearing, and touch and integrating digital elements with the digital world.

Neil Stevenson coined the term “metaverse” in his 1992 novel Snowcrash. He introduced a virtual reality world like the internet, which he called the “metaverse” in which users would interact with digital forms of themselves called “avatars.”

In fiction, the utopian metaverse can be portrayed as a new frontier at which we can all rewrite social norms and value systems, free of cultural and economic sclerosis. Unlike Ready Player One, which portrays a metaverse in which the natural world gives way to an infinite virtual world, multiple metauniverses in our world are likely to emerge.

But equally important to a flourishing metaverse will be building a community that values the contributions of developers and creators who create resources and experiences for most users, whether they are developing a new game, digital objects, or entire virtual worlds. The metaverse will allow users to create their content, distribute it freely in a widely accessible digital world.

The metaverse will be an endless world encompassing both physical and virtual worlds. Blockchain technology will ensure the security and public availability of transactions and identities without supervision from governments, corporations, or another regulatory body.

And herein lies the problem with Meta and its ambitions.

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, his first message wasn’t “hello Facebook, Google, Alibaba, Tencent, and Amazon.” It was “hello world.” It was supposed to be the internet by the people, for the people.

However, we have allowed the internet to become centralized and controlled by a few massive corporations. The risk in this model is extraordinary.

So, what’s next for the metaverse?

Currently, according to data from Ethernodes, we know that around 70% of Ethereum nodes are running on hosted services or cloud providers, as we commonly call them. 23% of the Ethereum network sits on one provider; Amazon Web Services. Now imagine what happens if Jeff Bezos decides to launch AmazonCoin, on Amazon’s blockchain and (as I’m confident the terms and conditions allow) chooses to outlaw ETH projects on AWS. While that may not bring about the end of Ethereum, it will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the world’s “Blockchain app store.”

So do we believe that Zuckerberg has our best intentions at heart? Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp collect data from their users constantly. They use that personal information to target consumers’ advertising and profit from that information without recompense or compensation. Meta’s market cap stands at $935 billion as of November 2021, with 2.91 billion active monthly user numbers, and advertising comprised 98.8% of the company’s total revenue in 2020.

Does anyone believe that Meta will act differently in the near future, embracing the metaverse’s true vision? Or will it continue to gain money and power by leveraging a new class of personal data – eye tracking, mood, physical movements, and even potential or prevalent mental health issues?

You could argue that this is just a product of late-stage capitalism. After all, cryptocurrencies, which are supposed to be the bastion of the decentralized economy, have fallen into the same trap that fiat has. As with traditional currency, a small number of people own the majority of crypto tokens, such as Bitcoin.

What could be a reset button for the entire internet, finally delivering on the promise of a system by the people and for the people, is likely to become another centralized ecosystem – with a few corporations in control – and governments maintaining the ability to censor content, block access, and put up firewalls to stop citizens from telling their story to the outside world.

The good, the bad, and the unknown

One positive thing that Facebook’s rebranding is doing for this ecosystem is that it essentially validates the entire concept of a “metaverse” in the mainstream world and validates what builders have been doing in Ethereum over the years. For Facebook, to give weight to the metaverse’s products and services and change the name of the entire company to something relative is a strong signal that we should not ignore (whether you like the company or not).

When Mark Zuckerberg took us on a whistle-stop tour of the metaverse – the still hypothetical next phase of the internet – he showed us a future that delivers a single space, fusing digital and physical reality in a single platform. Zuckerberg previously advertised the metaverse would be “the embodied internet in which you are in the experience, not just gaze at it,” he said as he walked through the demonstration.

And while the global pandemic has heightened interest in the metaverse as more people work from home or remote locations, it is essential for us all not to lose sight of what is being proposed and by whom. There are concerns that the metaverse, under the control of Meta, will become a centralized, dystopian information grab, designed only to serve its parent company and increase its power beyond measure.

Suppose we are to create and virtually live in a place where you can work, play, learn, create, shop, and interact with friends in a virtual online environment. In that case, I want everyone to have a stake in that, gain from it, be compensated for their time and energy, and help each other grow. Left unchecked, all we’ll do, collectively, is allow Meta to become our keepers, and that is inherently inhuman.

Olga is the Founder of Vox Consulting, a marketing firm for blockchain, DeFi, and NFT startups, and a former Head of Marketing at SwissBorg – the first crypto wealth management platform (TOP -100 Coinmarketcap). 

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