Metaverse - what, where and when?

Prof. Grzegorz Szymański's commentary on transforming the Facebook social networking platform into a metaverse company.

Metaverse has recently become a very popular buzzword thanks to Mark Zuckerberg's interview. The Facebook CEO presented the concept of the metaverse project, which is to seamlessly connect the Internet with virtual reality. The very genesis of the concept probably comes from Neal Stephenson's 1992 science fiction novel Blizzard, where the metaverse is a kind of virtual reality in which people, with the help of avatars, lead their 'normal' lives. The idea itself can be found in many books as well as films such as Ready Player One or Surogaci and the popular anime Sword, e.g. Online. Recently, there has also been a rapidly developing new subgenre of fantasy and science fiction novels called LitRPG, where the adventures of characters are described from the perspective of players, e.g. The Way of the Shaman.

What is the metaverse?

The metaverse is supposed to be a future modern world with a common space for all participants in the currently known virtual worlds, augmented reality, the internet and, most importantly, the physical world. This is probably what Zuckerberg had in mind when he said that Facebook is working on such a world. It will be an alternative virtual reality in which everything will be possible, everyone will be able to create their own world or use others seamlessly, visit friends, work, go for walks, and at the same time, thanks to AR glasses, will be able to combine these pleasures with the real world.

A walk around the real campus of Lodz University of Technology, where we admire dinosaurs, auroras, comets, where we meet avatars of friends from popular games, talk to Albert Einstein while holding the hand of a virtual dream partner - this is what the complete metaverse is supposed to be. Nowadays we need AR glasses and VR headset, but in the era of rapid development of technology and artificial intelligence, in a few months it will be enough to have a wrist-based neural interface, and in a few years it may already be a small chip in the pocket for the user to experience the unity and togetherness of reality and virtuality.

What stands in the way of the metaverse?

There appear to be two significant problems currently standing in the way of the metaverse. The first is the technology itself, as current computing power is not yet at such a high level to create and support worlds that allow millions of people, avatars of other users and artificial intelligence to reside simultaneously, with a huge diversity of activity and constant exchange of data between different platforms and systems. The second barrier is today's increasing social resistance caused by total integration with virtual platforms. The dangers of using traditional social media, such as TikTok or Facebook, of surveillance and even manipulation by these platforms, of the collection of all possible data on our activity, on the basis of which our views, intentions, plans or even our current mood or hidden desires are identified, are spoken about more and more often and loudly.

Mark Zuckerberg's vision of our future is exciting and terrifying at the same time. It definitely seems that it is not unrealistic. The number of products envisaged by Robert Zemeckis in the second part (1989) of the cult sci-fi trilogy Back to the Future is already astonishing. Similarly, no one imagined how realistically the time of the pandemic would be depicted in the 1962-63 animated series The Jetsons, where working and learning remotely and even medical teleportation were standards of living for the eponymous family. The metaverse is being developed by major corporations with access to technological innovation and vast amounts of data about the behaviour of individuals in modern society, so the question is not whether the metaverse will actually be our future, but when it will be.