Everyone is talking, thinking and writing about it — the pivotal ‘Connect’ presentation where Mark Zuckerberg (the college dropout we all love to hate) announced to the world that his brainchild, Facebook, is rebranding itself as Meta with the goal of better representing the current endeavours and future goals of the multi-billion dollar tech company. Regardless of the views you hold on the company’s timing and reason for the rebrand, or on the validity of the Metaverse it plans to create, it’s tough to deny the fact that Zuck’s presentation was deeply engaging and pretty persuasive on many levels. Can you honestly say you didn’t consider for a moment how cool it would be to pop in and join your best friend at your favourite band’s concert, happening thousands of miles away? Or that being able to say you were getting a good workout in while improving your rhythm wouldn’t be the perfect excuse for another round of augmented reality Beat Saber? Let’s face it — the early adopters among us are chomping at the bit for the Metaverse to take off.
Connect was produced to feel like part casual conversation among trusted friends and part epic action movie trailer. Staying true to character and harnessing their strengths, Meta used their understanding of the human experience and our emotional reactions to consciously manipulate our psychology through video. The whole thing was eerily Black Mirror-esque as we got to preview a future where sci-fi becomes reality (reference to the Striking Vipers episode, anyone?).
Let’s hold off the critical review for a bit to acknowledge the true implications of what Meta is proposing. Through their developing social platform, Horizon, users would have the ability to design, build and share with friends and colleagues a new virtual existence. Horizon includes a home base that can reflect your personal style, a social space where friends can join you, collaborative workrooms for professional interactions, a marketplace where digital collectibles (likely NFT’s) can be created and exchanged, as well as Horizon Worlds where you can build entire worlds on your own or with others — a la Minecraft or Fortnite. For gamers, designers and creatives, this sounds heavenly. Being able to imagine and create a world of your own to inhabit is something many have been yearning for since seeing Inception, and while gaming is expected to be the entry point to this new world, the uses will quickly rise from there. Meta is wasting no time in launching first looks at these technologies either, having released Horizon Worlds to users in select markets on December 9th 2021.
Not only is Meta creating platforms that will allow people to interact with the metaverse, but through Spark AR they are also developing the technologies and hardware that will make it easier for developers to create new programs, products and services within the metaverse, expanding it even further beyond our current conceptions. With all this future talk, it’s important to note that a lot of this is not new. Lots of lives are already being lived partially in the metaverse. There are already virtual workrooms that allow users to log in to their workspace remotely, attending meetings as avatars and using multiple “screens” in VR rather than setting up a clunky array of physical monitors and other hardware. Users of Oculus and other VR products are already used to virtual messaging, and for the 80.4 million Fortnite players around the world, interacting with others for hours through a digital, virtual space is pretty commonplace. A development we can certainly expect is the exponential growth of the Gaming as a Service model, also referred to as Live Service Games, as more and more studios find ways to attract gamer audiences and keep them engaged with consistent updates.
Beyond building personal spaces and fantasy worlds, we also now have the option of purchasing digital “land” in the virtual realm. The platform Decentraland, created in 2015, has been gaining traction as a sort of blockchain-based, real estate company in the metaverse. With plots of “land” selling like hot cakes and the world’s newest sovereign state, Barbados, taking the lead in setting up its own virtual embassy, we’re going to have to start taking this all pretty seriously. How much does a piece of land even cost in Decentraland? At the time of writing, the cheapest plot was reported to cost 3487 MANA (the cryptocurrency on the Ethereum chain that powers Decentraland) which, based on the current high trade value of the altcoin, would amount to USD$18,132.40. On the much higher end, one parcel was recently sold for about $2.5 million. Yep. No joke.
With the rise in digital engagement and transactions through cryptocurrencies and NFTs, it’s not difficult to imagine a world where every interaction has a virtual element to it. The pandemic may have simply fast tracked our way to being more comfortable with a remote world. While for many it has made us realize how much we crave human contact, it has also made it that much easier to avoid other humans altogether. Very soon, owning virtual pets and items in the metaverse may be more important to most than having real life interactions. As exciting as the prospect may be, this impending societal change begs the question, ‘What can we truly expect of a society with access to alternate virtual worlds?’
We already see the effects of excessive screen time on our physical, mental and emotional health and on our interpersonal relationships. One can only imagine the extent to which feelings of inadequacy in the real world will skyrocket once we’re regularly interacting with people from across the world in completely made-up spaces with completely made-up lives. It also begins to bring the Inception subplot to life — the concept of someone becoming so deeply entrenched in an alternate reality that they start to question real life seems a lot more… realistic.
For better and for worse, the metaverse is coming. In fact, it’s already here.