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Metaverse – A New Universe Awaits

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Our physical world is three-dimensional but the digital world we interact with is two-dimensional.

A simple 3-D object such as a Rubik’s Cube is easy to visualize on a computer screen but that’s not the case when we look at a schematic diagram of a large manufacturing plant, for example. That’s why we have technologies that are clubbed under immersive media (augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality, and extended reality) to give the user the impression of 3-D. A simulation is almost the real thing. Over decades, this idea has been stretched.       

Gaming is a powerful example of how these technologies are used to create effects that give the feeling of the user being there – physically. While the author Neal Stephenson coined the term Metaverse in his 1992 sci-fi novel, Snow Crash and Zuckerberg popularized it recently but it has been around for a while now in some form. It is a combination of multiple technologies such as augmented reality & virtual reality that allow users to live within a digital universe.

The word is a portmanteau of “meta” and “universe”. These games – Second Life, Minecraft, etc. – were developed in the last decade, and used metaverse in a limited manner. Craig Donato – CEO of Roblox a gaming platform has said: “What the internet is for information, the metaverse is going to do for social connections. I’m no longer bound by physical distance or all these constraints in terms of who I interact with or how I represent who I am. All these things are suddenly unleashed. It’s insanely disruptive.” When our digital selves (avatars) are set free, the possibilities are limitless – both bad and good of course. And, rather obvious.

You don’t need to visit a store to see the latest in fashion and how it sits on you. Or for that matter communicating with colleagues digitally can become the “real” thing. It can save on time and effort but right now, the cost part of it, we are not so sure – head-mounted devices aren’t cheap. And, the supply chain challenges of making them easily available. Of course, this is only a matter of time before it starts to seem doable at scale. The negatives are equally powerful – non-consensual pornography, deep-fakes and more.

This leads to the idea of Liar’s Dividend. A time may come when we stop believing altogether in what we see or we start believing in everything we see.

 Seeing, is no longer believing?

It’s not so difficult to comprehend this idea. Think of Whatsapp or as critics say with heavy sarcasm – the Whatsapp “University”. Some people believe what they receive as forwards while others don’t believe a word of it. If the digital avatars resemble humans, it would be very difficult to distinguish between a real and tampered image – did the person say those things at all, or were they implanted?    

We are, of course, quite a distance away from this happening at scale (though it’s happened in silos) but there’s a strong possibility that we will land there eventually. It has also ushered in the era of Web 3.0 which is about collaborating in a manner in which physical distance is irrelevant. We are building on technologies that give the impression the individual is right there. In 2010 which is not too far back in time, it would have been risible if someone floated the idea that “Data Would Be the New Oil”. By 2018, this phrase had already become a cliché. The point is, technology covers distances and gaps in ways that are often unforeseeable.

What we need right now are use cases that have a positive impact and at scale. Blockchain showed early promise but it did not pick up as fast as we had expected.

“After a flurry of more than 180 bids in the final hour, a JPG file made by Mike Winkelmann, the digital artist known as Beeple, was sold on Thursday by Christie’s in an online auction for $69.3 million with fees.” Scott Reyburn, The New York Times. We read this. But how do we ensure that these images aren’t copied and sold as fakes? A painting by Picasso can have many fakes but there’s only one original piece. Similarly, Beeple’s creation in the digital world will have one original piece and others will be just that – digital copies. To ensure this, we have something called a non-fungible token (blockchain-based) where the sign-off between the buyer and the user is closed by an NFT transfer. A sort of digital lock which only these two parties can open with a private key. A kind of authentic seal, you can say. You may say that digitally it’s much easier to copy, sure, but thousands – wannabe artists – have also copied masterpieces and only true connoisseurs can distinguish between the real and the fake. Sometimes, the fake is imagined to be more real. The risk of fakes masquerading as real exists in the physical world too.

Realistically, we are five to seven years away from any of this and there’s an estimate that this too will yield a trillion dollars in revenue. To the common individual, billions and trillions are just huge numbers but the real learning is how do we evolve ethically to keep the digital world safe and secure?   

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