Meta together: Why collaboration is key for future immersive technology?
Whenever a new transformative and immersive technology dawns, it takes a while to embed itself in our lives, or for people to figure out the real use cases.
The first full-scale, self-propelled mechanical vehicle (or car) was built by French inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in about 1769 – it was a steam-powered three-wheeler – but mass production and adoption came along when Henry Ford adopted and expanded Ransom Old’s vehicle assembly line.
The internet began in the 1960s when the US Department of Defense developed packet switching. But it wasn’t until English scientist Tim Berners-Lee, often (incorrectly) called the creator of the internet – developed the World Wide Web that the true power of the Internet became clear.
Even the iPhone – arguably the most recent revolution to people’s lives – did not launch with the App Store embedded. The second generation of Apple’s smartphone (iPhone 3G) did offer third party apps, and it was this that helped make mobile phones a central part of our everyday lives.
The next so called ‘tech trend’ that’s on everyone’s lips is the metaverse, something that builds on the legacy of previous tech revolutions such as the smartphone and the internet. From Facebook to Microsoft, the metaverse has become a central topic for tech evangelists to focus on. But often, it seems like companies are talking about very different ideas.
TechInformed columnist and best-selling author Tom Ffiske, in his new book The Metaverse: A Professional Guide argues that companies are capitalising on interest in the metaverse, and this can harm the development of this nascent technology.
“If you ask any of these companies what the metaverse is, you will get a range of different answers. Some say it is a super internet where people can access experiences, zipping through the metaverse and going surfing, climbing, socialising and more,” he writes.
“Others say it is a wholly social experience, where friends can hang out and conduct activities together. Still, others see it as a layer of reality, not a separate one: an overlay of information as people walk around the world. The madness of the conversations stems from the myriad of conversations that clutter social and mainstream media, obfuscating the view with a pyramid of poor takes.”
So, what exactly is ‘The Metaverse’? Essayist Matthew Ball describes it as “an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations that support continuity of identity, objects, history, payments, and entitlements, and can be experienced synchronously by an effectively unlimited number of users, each with an individual sense of presence.”
If this is vague, that’s because the true answer is no-one really knows. The cynics worry about a Matrix-style world where people are so locked in, the “real world” becomes an irrelevance, while critics question how tech giants such as Facebook and Google – whose business models currently rely primarily on data and advertising – would monetise such a space if they own it.
For those who support it, the metaverse could be the ultimate leveller. In the same way that the internet has helped to democratise information – for much of the world (particularly the West) an answer to almost any question is just a Google search away – the metaverse can allow people to experience Tokyo during Cherry Blossom season, or visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras, all from the comfort of their own home, without any of the usual limiting factors such as cost or distance.
Perhaps more excitingly, it opens concepts beyond even the realistic. Children might be able to experience being sorted into a house at Hogwarts, or what it is like to fly into space on the Millennium Falcon or fly over Mount Doom on the back of a conveniently timed eagle.
So far, we’ve seen Facebook go in so hard on the metaverse that Mark Zuckerberg even rebranded his social media firm as Meta. Yet for all Zuckerberg’s success in creating businesses embedded in our lives, his vision of the metaverse seems boring, when compared with publishers like Epic Games, which has leveraged its popular Fortnite game as a platform offering immersive experiences, such as live concerts.
The problem, then, stems from who we allow to take control of the metaverse. Journalist James Ball in his book “Who Owns the Internet” looked at the murkier world of how everything online works, and who benefits from it. And there are lessons to be learned as we build out the metaverse.
While it is a good thing that no single person or company owns the primary structure underpinning the internet, will the metaverse become a cluster of experiences and platforms? If so, how do we connect them? And who will control this functionality?
Or will it become one big, whole collaboration – a true online world where, once you’re plugged in, your experience is connected somehow, but the experiences are managed in one central platform or service?
This question is one that both terrifies and excites me. If the metaverse is developed on open-source principles with collaboration in mind, it could become a transformative technology that helps democratise experiences and brings the world closer. But if it becomes a closed-off system managed by just a few small corporates whose aim is solely to make money off users, we risk seeing some of the harmful elements now so dominant on the internet – disinformation, hate speech, and so on – leak into this new, virtual world.
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