Mastering the metaverse: a beginners’ guide
Trying to predict the development of the metaverse is as problematical as trying to predict the development of, well . . . any baby! Both entities are simply too far from their final forms to gauge a meaningful answer. Certainly, one can describe their present shapes, perhaps identify the building blocks of more sophisticated systems to come – yet clues to their final forms remain equally opaque.
Will the metaverse continue to evolve forever? How large will it grow, what doors will it open, what transformations (for better or worse) will it inspire? What, in other words, is its ultimate potential?
For these questions we presently have few definitive answers, although educated conjecture indicates this particular baby just might trigger a fundamental shift in how we live our lives.
What is the metaverse?
As a concept, the metaverse has been around since the 1980s, employed in fictional terms to suggest a virtual sanctuary for characters to escape oppressive societies. However, the term truly penetrated the public consciousness in October 2021, when Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg officially rebranded Facebook’s parent company as ‘Meta’. In doing so, he effectively refocused company resources on creating the first global, interconnected metaverse, an endlessly expandable pixel-built realm for existing and co-existing.
Zuckerberg described his vision of a metaverse as “the successor to the mobile internet – we’ll be able to feel present, like we’re right there with people, no matter how far apart we actually are.”
His announcement had one immediate impact: sending ‘metaverse’ as a search term soaring up the Google rankings.
For those who resisted the urge last October to Google the future, consider the metaverse as a collision of the real and digital spheres. At its most rudimentary level, it is a technology that allows users to interact virtually across social media, gaming, digital environments and cryptocurrencies. Further along its evolutionary course, the metaverse will become a more multidimensional experience, allowing users to immerse themselves in a communal simulation of our own world.
Yes, one day you (or, more accurately, your representative avatar) could enter a virtual domain and interact with others in the same way as in ‘normal’ life. You might gather to work on a shared business project, or to relax over a movie or sports game, or to trial particular cars or holiday destinations before purchasing.
The technology is gradually shifting from the drawing board to the circuit board. Facebook’s Horizon Workrooms app is already online, a virtual office environment for co-workers to hold meetings.
And this is only the tip of the iceberg. What the metaverse comes to signify might be beyond the imagination of today’s most lucid forecasters. We do not even know whether this ‘metaverse’ will be one centralized entity or a more complex ecosystem of overlapping, independent platforms.
In its most philosophical iteration, the metaverse could reshape our world by creating whole new ones.
Still, given the exponential rate of technological development underscored by Moore’s law and other yardsticks, it is not unrealistic to assume that the metaverse will, over time, become increasingly indistinguishable from the reality to which we presently awaken each morning. All told, this baby could grow up to be quite a beast, boasting the world-building power of a digital deity.
So, what exactly are the technologies that will underpin the rise of this revolutionary metaverse? Our journey starts with four letters: VR and AR
VR/AR: A glimpse into alternate worlds
Immersing oneself in a visual metaverse will, for the foreseeable future, mean wearing a primary interface such as a virtual reality (VR) headset: initially, Facebook’s own Oculus device, but potentially encompassing rival kits from the likes of Sony, HTC, Valve and more.
These headsets, and their in-the-pipeline successors, contain two tiny screens, one per eye, which when viewed side-by-side give the impression of image depth. Connected to the internet, a VR headset can unlock the shared space of the metaverse and even allow us to introduce scanned elements from our own world such as desks and files.
Augmented reality, or AR, is an adjacent technology with a subtle difference. Rather than submerging us into a second world, AR projects CGI (computer generated image) enhancements overlaying them on our real-world environment by beaming digital light directly into the human eye. You could, for instance, summon a whiteboard into an empty office ready for a presentation, or materialize remote colleagues around a table for a cyber conference. With just a handful of AR headsets currently available, including Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap, AR remains at a more tentative state of readiness than its VR counterpart.
But whether a headset is designed to invent a new reality (VR) or supplement an existing one (AR), such high-resolution, low-latency devices will be our initial portals to the metaverse.
Sales figures suggest consumers are voting with their wallets, with Meta shifting a reported two million headsets last Christmas (2021) alone. Investors are taking note, channeling hundreds of millions of dollars over the last 12 months into companies developing metaverse-related software and peripherals.
AR platform, Niantic, a Google spin-off, hit a US$ 9 billion valuation in November 2021 after a fresh funding round.
Such faith is likely well-placed, with combined sales of VR and AR units tipped to surpass traditional flatscreen consoles as soon as 2024.
The rise of the metaverse seems all but assured, given that complementary technologies are progressing rapidly in a number of core areas:
- Next-generation graphics processing units (GPUs): Enabling faster than ever simulation of real-time immersive environments.
- Photorealistic 3D engines: For creating more expansive worlds of unparalleled fidelity.
- Volumetric video: A performance capture system for rendering lifelike avatars in virtual or augmented realities.
- Artificial intelligence (AI): Providing more intuitive, recognizably human behavior for virtual characters.
- Cloud computing and 5G: New technologies for storing and transferring all the data required for operating a complex alternate world.
Looking further ahead, what if one could dispense entirely with headsets, screens and controllers, and utilize senses beyond mere sight and sound?
This is the future promised by brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). With implant devices wired directly into the human brain, a whole new experience could emerge: a rich world of tastes, textures, fragrances and unencumbered movement – all sidestepping the immersion-killing nature of tactile equipment. It is, perhaps, the point at which dreaming becomes being.
A BCI-accessed metaverse might linger at the concept stage for now but exists as the ultimate goal – a milestone moment, perhaps, when science-fiction spills out into the real world.
Business as usual? Not in the metaverse
While no one can say when the metaverse (as the term is understood today) will reach ‘maturity’, it will undoubtedly offer game-changing possibilities for commerce and politics alike: new ways to buy, new ways to sell, new ways to communicate and expand our networks, new ways to learn, and new ways to influence opinion.
From either public or private sector perspectives, if you’re not engaged with the metaverse from the start, you risk missing out on the myriad potential future opportunities in store.
Approximately US$ 100 million was spent on virtual goods within gaming platforms in 2021. Some experts see this soaring to US$ 1 trillion or more annually by 2024, with the explosion of whole new commerce models based around physical-to-virtual purchases (those made in the real world but for a virtual product or service) and virtual-to-physical purchases (those made in the virtual world but manifesting in a real world product or service).
For example, children’s toy firm LOL Surprise is selling trading cards in the real world with QR codes unlocking virtual experiences. Conversely, food chain Chipotle Mexican Grill has launched a virtual restaurant online where players can practice making recipes to earn Burrito Bucks for spending at real world restaurants.
Indeed, we could conceive of the metaverse not so much as a separate world entirely, but as a convergence between our physical world and its digital equivalent, a ‘phygital’ sphere.
Forward-thinking companies should start considering today how well their offering translates into the virtual realm. For big business and existing brands that means investing early, securing a presence on a platform before a nimbler operation takes the initiative. Startups, meanwhile, can aim to be disruptors, exploiting their relative agility to upset the dominance of heritage brands and carving out niches in this expansive new marketplace.
Any foray into a brave new world comes laden with risks, and the metaverse is surely no exception. So, what issues should give this latest wave of digital pioneers – and us as consumers – pause for thought?
Mitigating risk in the metaverse
Given social media’s questionable track record so far on policing truth, encouraging impartial debate, and increasing societal cohesion, many wonder how the metaverse can be protected from similar misuse. Will it become just the latest playground for trolls, hackers, political operatives, and criminals? Can we learn something from the pitfalls of the internet to limit harassment abuse, radicalization, and misinformation?
With few clear answers so far, these issues remain some way off being resolved. However, they are at least being actively discussed within the community where there is broad agreement that data protection and security laws will need to evolve in tandem with the technology to ensure a healthy and functioning metaverse.
Data rules currently comprise a patchwork of international laws, such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), or Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. The USA lacks federal regulations governing many companies but relies instead on a potpourri of laws including the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. China operates under its own Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL).
Consumers will have to adopt a new wariness too, recognizing that swathes of once-hidden data (body language, vocal inflection, physiological responses, behavior patterns) will be readily available to advertisers and scammers alike.
Canada is worth monitoring as an interesting test case. Last year the country’s Privacy Commissioner concluded that an American AI firm had violated privacy rights by collecting billions of headshots from the internet to use as part of its facial recognition software. The biometric database was intended to assist law enforcement, but the Canadian commissioner argued this amounted to surveillance and mass identification of private individuals – a finding which highlights the delicacy of weighing business needs against people’s right to privacy.
Without greater international harmonization of rules, how can we begin to solve the even deeper conundrums to come: Who will ‘own’ the metaverse? Will one central body control access to its data and distribution? Or will the simple act of participation empower countless entities, public and private, to harvest and trade data for often competing means?
These are not new issues for society and come up whenever humankind enters a new virgin territory, or adopts transformational technologies. For example who would control, the oceans? The Antarctic and Arctic, the moon, space itself? And of course, today’s internet. Then there are the discussions around ethics and governance in medicine, surgery, and artificial intelligence.
Facebook itself seems well aware of the issues at stake – or at least the PR value of appearing to tackle them. In May this year it unveiled a US$ 50 million investment to help build a ‘responsible’ metaverse. Its goal? Establishing a common system of values in the coming virtual environment.
The money will help pay for skills development and ethics research at a variety of institutions worldwide including Seoul National University, the Organization of American States and the Centre for Technology, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence & the Law at the National University of Singapore. It is hoped the fund will spur vital collaboration between the industry, public sector, and academia.
Metaverse expert and author Matthew Ball notes that given the complex interaction required between platforms, developers, brands, and customers, a collaborative effort on the scale of the World Trade Organization may be required to realize the metaverse’s full potential. 
Still, Ball believes the metaverse signifies a ‘profound generational change’, observing that early adopters include two sectors that typify the potential of the digital revolution – education and healthcare.
In classrooms, metaverse apps are already allowing students to participate in virtual science experiments, investigating volcanic eruptions at a microscopic level. At Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland, USA, meanwhile, two patients have undergone operations performed by surgeons wearing AR headsets.
One small step into the technology of tomorrow
Holoeyes’ pioneering VR surgical support system allows physicians to peer inside a patient’s body with unprecedented clarity, meaning faster and more accurate diagnoses for all. By displaying a surgical target zone in navigable 3D, Holoeyes allows surgeons to identify the locations of nearby organs and blood vessels, preplanning their approach with personalized individual extended reality environments of the actual patient, thereby reducing the chances of unforeseen complications arising during operations. Procedures can also be recorded and used for educational purposes.
Not only is it detailed, it is also fast. Just 15 minutes after a CT scan is uploaded to the Holoeyes site, a 3D image and VR app are ready for download to a viewing device.
Now Abdul Latif Jameel Health is helping Holoeyes distribute its life-saving VR tech to more than 2.4 million surgeons across the Middle East and Africa.
One Japanese hospital which has already used Holoeyes says it “dramatically improves the understanding of the location and positioning of items of interest when compared with viewing 2D images on a monitor, and this information can be easily shared with other doctors. This reduces risk during surgery and is very effective in teaching young and less-experienced physicians.”
This idea – of live data being shared across secure platforms, of code being transformed into immersive imagery, of a shared space for specialists to unite on a project with real-time, real-world consequences – signifies one small corner of the metaverse flickering into life. It deftly illustrates the fusion of new technologies that will help the metaverse discover its purpose and mature. And it is another indicator of how the metaverse will overlap ever more frequently with our physical lives.
But what about our more everyday digital activities: the work meetings we have by Zoom, or the family catchups we enjoy on WhatsApp? How long before these conferences graduate from their current passive forms to something more experiential? Another Abdul Latif Jameel investment can shed some light here, too.
The metaverse: meeting the future head-on
In early 2022, Toyota Turkey, part of the Abdul Latif Jameel Motors in Turkey, decided on an unusual venue for its annual strategy meeting – the metaverse. More than 100 stakeholders gathered virtually using an assortment of VR, AR, 3D holographic avatars and other cutting-edge conferencing kit.
“It’s important that we continue to adopt new technology, understand how we can utilize innovations and apply them to our working practices,” commented Ali Haydar Bozkurt, President and Chief Executive Officer of Abdul Latif Jameel Turkey.
A few months later, in June 2022, luxury automotive brand Lexus Türkiye launched the new Lexus NX with a unique and pioneering ‘Metaverse Experience’ and ‘Special NX NFT Artwork’, a ‘phygital’ press launch event.
Lexus was commended for pushing the boundaries by stepping out of conventional automotive launches with this event. Press members met in a large hall in Belek, Antalya and were positioned at tables spaced apart. In the weeks leading up to the event, photos of the participants were requested and their life-like unique avatars were specially created for the Metaverse. Each participant received state-of-the-art, high-tech VR glasses which allowed everyone to make an intuitive entrance into this digital world, specially prepared for Lexus in the Metaverse universe.
Participants met with Lexus executives, chatted with their colleagues, and even interviewed executives for the first time within the Metaverse environment. Guests enjoyed the interactive gamification elements, such as building the new NX in various different environments, specifically designed with the Lexus design theme in mind.
So, in our own way at Abdul Latif Jameel, we are helping to characterize this newborn metaverse very early in its developmental phase.
Where on earth – or Earth 2.0 – could this all lead?
It may be, in the not-too remote future, that digesting an article like this will be a noticeably different experience.
You might discover it not by following a link on a cellphone or a news scroll on your laptop, but while browsing some virtual library in a fully immersive cultural precinct within the exploding metaverse. You might want to summon some friends to sit around the same virtual coffee table as you, to read and chat together, your avatars interacting as naturally as they would in organic life. And after they depart, maybe you’ll decide to finish absorbing the article with some musical accompaniment. But what to listen to? You’re feeling a little melancholic, so perhaps your BCI will read your brain signals and compose for you a personalized symphony, responding to your undulating emotions and creating an almost transcendental digital ‘moment’.
Dreams of a utopian metaverse might remain just so – dreams. After all, the metaverse is being created by, and will be populated by, people, and for all their wondrous qualities, humans are also flawed.
However, this does not relieve us of our responsibility to ensure that the metaverse, once it emerges from a likely turbulent adolescence, is an inclusive, prosperous, and safe place. A place that broadens horizons, generates opportunities, and expands minds.
It turns out that ours is the generation entrusted with laying the foundations for this grand project. The onus is on us to help the metaverse, our first true experiment in world-building, become a lasting tribute to the creativity and cooperation of humanity.
 Moore’s law is the observation made in 1965 by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, that the number of transistors (and therefore the processing power) in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years.