Welcome to the metaverse
The author is the head of the Cognitive Robotics Center at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST).
Meta is the new name of Facebook. Microsoft and Nvidia are also preparing to release their versions of the metaverse. What has made big global tech companies suddenly become so engrossed with the metaverse?
The answer may be found in the 2011 science fiction novel “Ready Player One” that was adapted into a film in 2018 by Steven Spielberg. The story is set in a dystopia in 2045, where people frustrated by economic stagnation in the real world are immersed in a virtual universe called the Oasis. Clad in head-mounted displays (HMD) or visors and haptic gloves, they regularly connect to the virtual world. The virtual society has become obsessed with the hunt for an Easter Egg, a series of clues left by the creator of Oasis, who died after hiding his fortune and control of Oasis in the egg. The HMD connects the user to virtual reality. The users can create their own avatars in costumes and styles entirely different from their real selves and drive sports cars, go to dances, and explore exotic locations. Avatars can create robots and fight enemies. The avatar moves in accordance with the user in a haptic suit. Body senses invoked in the virtual world, including pain, can be felt by the person in the real world through the suit.
Metaverse is a portmanteau of meta, which means “surreal” or “virtual,” and universe. The virtual world was first created in a 1992 science fiction novel about a world populated by lifelike avatars of people. The idea felt too futuristic until recently. Pricy headsets were in development and graphics hardware to achieve near-reality was too costly for general consumers. By 2016, however, HMDs started selling for 1 million won ($845) to 3 million won. High-performance graphics cards also became mass-produced. HMDs can connect to the virtual content from the mobile Android operating system without having to connect to a PC. Prices have come down to the 500,000-won level, cheaper than smartphones.
The rapid advance in human interface devices, network infrastructure, graphics technology and content coupled with changes in the social environment during the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the explosive potential of the metaverse. Some could liken the hype over the metaverse to past excitement over Korea’s pioneering social website Cyworld or the ongoing excitement over online activities through smartphones and PCs. It may be true. And the scope and depth of online services and activities on smartphones and PC connections will continue to evolve and progress.
But the connection through social medial platforms of Facebook and Kakao Talk or video-conferencing through Zoom and Google Meet is still limited in meeting the human desires to communicate and connect in the environment even when physical contact and remote working have become common. The metaverse has filled that gap with its immersive connecting features, which existing social media platforms are lacking. Thanks to remarkable advancements in the metaverse, people in their own space feel as if they’re really working together, discussing work and study affairs, shopping, and watching films.
In his 2005 book “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology,” futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted that it would become impossible to distinguish reality from virtual reality by the late 2020s, and by the 2030s, we would have full-immersion, shared, virtual-reality environments, or spaces involving all the senses where we can actually go inside our bodies and brains and tap into the flow of signals coming from our senses. In short, the barriers between humans and machines, reality and virtual reality, and work and play would come down.
Another winning feature of the metaverse is that the players can create their own environment. In typical cybergames, players play by the rules preset by the game developer to find joy and rewards. But metaverse users can create new content by themselves and make their own virtual wardrobes and sell their products. The number of game developers on the metaverse has soared to 7 million — and creators to 700,000 — who can earn millions of dollars. Over 2 million game items are tradable there. International brands like Gucci and Nike also run shops on the metaverse. As businesses and sellers on the metaverse are increasingly cashing in on their returns from the space, they are helping bring the virtual and real economies closer.
As a result, big-tech multinationals are racing at full speed to get into business and services based on the metaverse. Horizon Home under development by Meta (formerly Facebook) envisions a metaverse version of social platforms where friends can be invited for further communication and creation. They can party and travel to any location of their desire and enjoy concerts and live sports matches. Microsoft Mesh is a hologram-based remote collaboration platform using mixed-reality headsets. Through holographic avatars, more human-like interconnection, sharing and joint work can be possible. Various types of fledgling metaverse services will lead up to the immense space of virtual — and hybrid — reality through the gateway of Web 3.0, which enables a decentralized habitat.
By putting on a headset and gear, we will be able to study and work together, travel and receive medical care and consulting without having to move. But such reality may not be all good. In the film “Ready Player One,” the “Big Red Button” scene appears where the creator of the Oasis wonderland, who has set the option to permanently shut down the virtual space, tells the hero of the film, “As terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real.” Instead of entirely shutting down the Oasis, the hero uses his power to close it twice a week to force people to log off and enjoy the real world as a compromise to lessen the highly-addictive virtual reality’s command over the real world. Nevertheless, if the virtual and real worlds cannot be differentiated, an identity crisis about the self and others could lead to wrongdoings, immorality, excessive obsession and addiction that can distort human relationships and make lives unstable from guilt or shock.
Then, what should governments and companies do to prepare for such a brave new world? The government must prepare for a metaverse industrial age through the establishment of related environments in networking, standardization and platforms, while expanding their investments in research and development for competitiveness. Korea could not have achieved IT supremacy without world-class hardware like smartphones and wireless network technology. To sustain national competitiveness in the metaverse age, creative content and innovative human interaction devices must be advanced at the same time. Multinationals like Meta and Microsoft have been enhancing technology in headsets and other interaction devices. Legal and system infrastructures also must be established to usher society into the metaverse age to preemptively defend against any possible problems arising from such a dramatic transition.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.