When Cathy Hackl’s son wanted to throw a party for his 9th birthday, he didn’t ask for favors for his friends or themed decorations. Instead, he inquired if the family could host the event. Roblox. On the digital platform, which allows users to play and create a multitude of games, Hackl’s son and his friends would attend the party as their virtual avatars.
“They hung out and played and they went to other different games together,” she says. “Just because it happens in a virtual space doesn’t make it less real. It’s very real to my son.”
The futility of throwing an outdoor pandemic-friendly event in January wasn’t the only reason Hackl’s son lobbied for a digital event. Roblox The platform, which is 13 years old, might seem unfamiliar to those over 25. You can access it on both mobile and desktop platforms. It offers free games and an engine to create new activities. There is also a place to trade those experiences and side products such as outfits to make your own avatar.
It’s also part of the “metaverse.” Once a niche concept beloved of tech enthusiasts, the idea of a centralized virtual world, a “place” parallel to the physical world, has careened into the mainstream landscape this year, as epitomized by Facebook’s decision in October to rebrand as Meta. People spend many hours each day on virtual social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. RobloxAnd Fortnite. Interest in purely digital ownership—and the technology that proponents believe can ensure the security of persistent virtual experiences—has spiked dramatically, with non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and cryptocurrencies making headlines. With Microsoft and Facebook announcing innovative ways to work online, virtual productivity platforms are also growing. Analysts say Nike even plans to offer virtual sneakers. Hybrid offices, video-based education and online social communities are just a few of the ways in which more of our lives—for better or worse—is spent in digital spaces.
Hackl and others have been going in the same direction for many decades.
After she was introduced to VR in the late 2000s, Hackl says she “pivoted really hard” into it. She reoriented her media career toward cinematic virtual reality work and then moved onto work with headset manufacturers, eventually serving as a “VR evangelist” for the HTC Vive headset. Today she says she’s known as the “godmother of the metaverse.”
For many younger people, like her son, such a pivot isn’t even necessary: they’re growing up with the expectation that a large part of their future will exist in the metaverse. It might be time for the rest of us to get on board—whether we like it or not.
The word “metaverse” is often traced to Neal Stephenson’s 1992 dystopic, cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, and many see a more recent inspiration in the dazzling warren of experiences at the heart of Earnest Cline’s 2011 novel The Ready Player One. The metaverse, however, is not sci-fi. It’s not even new.
Since at least mid-1980s online communities exist. They grew with the introduction of chatrooms and AOL instant messaging, as well as the first social media websites. It is a game World of WarcraftIn the 2000s it became an established social scene that was popular with millions of people. Communities have continued to grow within and around these games. Today, logging onto FortniteFor younger generations, chatting over console platforms with your friends is as much social interaction as any other form of physical contact.
Virtual reality (VR), AR (augmented reality) and simply on a monitor, the metaverse promises to increase the overlap between our physical and digital lives. This will result in greater wealth, socializations, productivity, shopping, entertainment, and even financial security. No headset is required to see the interconnectedness of these two worlds. The Uber app will tell you how far the car is by using your location. Think about how Netflix gauges what you’ve watched before to make suggestions. Consider how your surroundings can be scanned by the LiDAR scanner found on older iPhones. At its core, the metaverse (also known to many as “web3”) is an evolution of our current Internet.
“You’ve got your goggles on, 10 years from now, but they’re just a pair of sunglasses that happens to have the ability to bring you into the metaverse experience,” says John Riccitiello, CEO of Unity, maker of a video game engine that is increasingly used to develop immersive experiences on other platforms. “You’re walking by a restaurant, you look at it, the menu pops up. What your friends have said about it pops up.”
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Riccitiello considers the most interesting part of the metaverse to be what it could mean for relationships.
The idea that we might be able to “feel like we’re together when we’re not,” he argues, could likely lead someone to create a company on par with Facebook and Apple.
Investors and banks are paying attention.
“There’s clearly a kind of a desire to move that direction,” says John Egan, CEO of L’Atelier BNP Paribas and an investment analyst focusing on emerging technologies. “This metaverse concept gives us the opportunity to create any universe that we’ve ever imagined.”
Social networks are not enough
Hackl’s son wasn’t alone in having a birthday party on RobloxIn the past one year, 16-year-old founder of the RobloxSpiel Math ObbyUsername 0bid0, the party was hosted by 0bid0. He invited his school friends and also Twitter followers, as well as fans. “I couldn’t manage to make plans in real life because of the pandemic, so I took the chance of building a cool place to host the virtual event,” he tells TIME.
The metaverse is not just for kids. Paul Tomlinson (41), has been working remotely for many years. He lives in Maine with his family, and manages tax- and financial-processing software at a company that assists state and municipal governments. There’s “nothing sexy” about the job, he says, but it does involve needing to have eyes on a large amount of data at once. His desk used to have four computer monitors. It was already difficult and complicated to set up an office, and now it is impossible.
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Tomlinson had always been interested in virtual reality, but it wasn’t until he tried the Oculus Quest headset and was introduced to a productivity app called Immersed that he found the answers to his work conundrum. Immersed connects to your computer via Bluetooth and creates a virtual workspace. This allows you to arrange the screens in any way that suits you. And, crucially for Tomlinson, it’s very difficult for cats to mess with virtual desktops.
“Within a week, I took the monitors off of my desk,” he says. “It just made my life so much better.”
For more than two years now, he has almost exclusively used virtual reality for his 40- to 50-hour work weeks: “Unless it’s a business-critical meeting, I typically don’t take off the headset.”
Immersed VR already has millions of dollars in investments and has partnered in different roles with Microsoft, Samsung and Facebook. And for companies developing headsets, the COVID-19 work shake up provides an opportunity to do just as Renji Bijoy, Immersed VR’s founder and CEO suggests, making the case that VR is less of a novelty and more of a quality-of-life tool.
Facebook and Meta are the most eager to see this narrative shift. Facebook, now Meta, is avoiding damaging leaks, deflecting antitrust actions from international authorities, and shrugging its own stagnated attempts to establish a decentralized digital currency. The social network also owns Oculus VR, a VR-brand. Facebook introduced Horizons Workrooms through its Oculus Qest late in summer as an alternative for the Zoom meetings, which have been so common to remote workers. Multiple requests for comment from Facebook regarding this story were turned down by the company.
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The dream of working in the metaverse for any portion of your work day seems far away to most global workers. Tomlinson understands that. His coworkers took a while to adjust to the fact that he usually appears in group video meetings as an avatar, and his family is “not as enamored” as he is. Still, he sees himself as a “pioneer,” of the future, and is comfortable in that role.
“I am an outlier, and it’s a good thing that we have outliers who don’t get bored easily,” he says. “I have no hang ups about strapping boxes to my face for eight hours a day. I can do that.”
The metaverse has real money
The metaverse offers many opportunities for those looking to earn a living. Case in point: metaverse entrepreneur Carrie Tatsu, 48. Over 15 years, she has made her living by designing, marketing, and selling avatars and pets for the citizens of. Second LifeThe game was launched as an open-world digital world in 2003. Users could purchase land or spend real money to customize clothing in the virtual world. If you believe that it sounds like the metaverse being touted currently by large tech, then you are correct. Tatsu joined her in dissatisfaction over her work as a marketing manager. Tatsu loves cats so she got a pet to be her avatar. She was instantly able to launch her career.
“I thought, well, you know, I think I can make a better cat,” Tatsu says.
It didn’t take long before she and her ex-husband set up a store, Zooby, and earned enough for her to quit her physical-world job to focus on creating Second LifePets and accessories are her passion. Her immediate observation was the fact that other players had made genuine connections with virtual animals. “There was a paradigm shift in the way I looked at this,” she says. “This wasn’t like joining a video game and competing on something like a first-person shooter. This was a very emotional attachment to something that wasn’t physical.”
With RobloxThis hustle was always a part and parcel of the game.
“You can imagine a future where I can go to the [virtual] hat store, and I have a very seamless experience to customize my hat I created, and now I can potentially then sell that hat to other people in the metaverse,” Roblox Chief Product Officer Manuel Bronstein says. “We made it very easy for people to start monetizing those creations.”
Young people are the majority of those taking advantage of such potential. Josh Okunola is an example of a young digital artist, a Nigerian teenager who studies in London and has been creating for over a year. RobloxSince 2014. After a few years of exploring, he grew curious about the games’ development tools and using his own artistic talent on the platform. He scored his first game in 2018, Roblox paycheck—for $7—though he says his parents didn’t believe it was real because, unable to withdraw it from PayPal, he could only spend it on digital goods.
Players can convert the time that they spend in blockchain-based games into cryptocurrency. Popular games include the Axie InfinityThe platform allows players to buy, breed, and train Pokemon-like animals. They are each NFTs that can be individually registered on Ethereum. The marketplace is open for players who wish to trade the creatures in exchange for crypto. Axie InfinityThe game has enjoyed a huge international success during the pandemic. It has been particularly popular in the Philippines, where players of all ages have used it to make money. You need to own three of these “Axies” before you can even play the game, and currently the lowest priced creatures on the marketplace are over $100.
This digital opportunity to earn a living is inspiring young people to think that the metaverse can be their place.
“Eventually I was able to cash out $1,000 from the platform,” Okunola says of his Roblox art. “My parents were [in] shock because it was very rare to see a 16-year-old make that much in just a little time from a side hobby.”
The pandemic destroyed any hopes of reducing screen time for children. DAK-Gesundheit in Germany published a study showing that the use of video and social media by children aged between 12 and 17 increased by at most 60% by 2020. Think of a whole world.
Tatsu has two children. Despite her success in digital media, Tatsu insists that she spends as much time with her kids in real life.
“It’s so important for humans to be with humans in real life,” she says. “And so I think that as kids grow up in this space, there will have to be outlets for people to engage, go smell a flower here, walk in on a trail, have a real conversation with your friend and throw a ball. You can’t simulate it, but the reality is different. And so I feel in some ways bad for my kids.”
Digital spaces have more to us than time. This is the most likely direction that technological innovation will go, but it is not enough to consider whether or not. ShouldThis is the direction that we’re heading.
If the metaverse is essentially an extension of the internet we currently have, one only has to think about the myriad problems that we have yet to solve in our online existence—hacking, catfishing, harassment, hate speech—to see how truly perilous a future on the metaverse could be.
The consulting firm GlobalData notes concerns in how governments, notably the U.S., have been sluggish in their approach to cybersecurity concerns such as the rise of artificial-intelligence enabled misinformation, including videos known as deepfakes.
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“These false images—again, going back to deepfakes—not only are used to trick users into giving away personal details, but also from a political perspective to convince them of something happening that has not happened or is just simply not true,” Charlotte Newton, a thematic analyst at GlobalData, says.
“It’s important to recognize that there are five really important problems we haven’t yet solved in the mobile internet: data rights, data security, radicalization, misinformation and platform power,” says Matthew Ball, author of the forthcoming The Metaverse and How It Will Change Everything. “If the fundamental premise of the metaverse is that we will spend more of our time, labor, leisure, wealth, existence inside virtual worlds, then by definition, every one of those five problems is exacerbated. The amount of data captured and the importance of that data goes up, or the risks of data loss are intensified.”
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There’s perhaps a reason many fictional touchstones for a metaverse, including The Ready Player OneAnd Snow CrashThey take place within grim dystopias.
“There’s no way the metaverse is going to help with things like income inequality, or food deserts, people who cannot buy groceries, disparities and access to health care,” says science fiction writer Ted Chiang, on whose work the 2016 movie Arrivalon which it was founded. “None of those things are things that you can deliver through the metaverse.”
True believers would disagree. They believe that the metaverse has benefits for all, that it can expand access, opportunity, social networks and mental health—though even they have to admit that a lot of the good the metaverse can do is still speculative, and depends on a confluence of events, from hardware deployment to data infrastructure developments, on very fuzzy timelines.
Tatsu and other proponents argue that what is certain, however, is the realization of the metaverse’s potential to improve empathy and instill kindness.
“I think that when you’re in a virtual space, they’re usually smaller, they’re usually more intimate. And I think that when we move into this world, where you really customize your avatar, you develop a more intimate relationship with the people you have online,” she says. “Even though you’re behind a screen or you’re behind a headset, you still see somebody.”
An odd YouTube video was uploaded a few years back. It was in the middle of an ordinary day. VRChatSession, itself an inferno of fiendish avatars and frenetic voicechat chat, was dominated by a user in a full-body tracking suit who apparently experienced a seizure. It was clear that virtual distances can vary between individuals, and there was a lot of concern about the avatar wearing a red robotic suit.
Hackl believes the future shift in technology will be a way to make a greater mission and better purpose. “I feel we’re working on the printing press of the future,” she says, ”being able to preserve, let’s say, a language that is soon to disappear. If you’re able to retain not only in a flat video, you’ll see the sound and you’ll see the movement of lips and stuff. In a 3D performance capture and an actual 3D video, you’ll be able to see a lot of the nuances of how the tongue moves, and the teeth move, and you’ll be able to preserve the same dances as well as artifacts, stories, all sorts of things. I believe that that is something we’re working on today to preserve those stories for the future.”
According to her, the metaverse will make that future a brighter one.
“When I look at the architects of the internet, they were all men,” Hackl says. “Being a Latina woman that is very publicly out there, I want more people like me. We need to see people like me, in these public facing roles, because you can inspire a lot more people to join and say, ‘Hey, I am welcome in this metaverse world. I can build.’”
For those whose lives are already being lived partly in the metaverse—despite its pitfalls and risks—that building has begun.