Thursday, February 22 2024

A set of interconnected virtual worlds, work, games, and educational platforms; a heightened reality, populated by avatars and governed by algorithms. These are just a few things that make up the metaverse.

What is the metaverse?

It is a three-dimensional space that can be accessed through special devices, which allows people to “move around” and interact in 3D: from shopping to traveling, from conducting business meetings to arranging social gatherings, groups can access new learning environments and individuals can even monitor their health. It’s an online three-dimensional world in which you can “teleport” from your office in Madrid to a museum in Rome, buy a t-shirt from your favorite brand, play a virtual chess game with a friend, and, before you fall asleep, check your vitals (blood pressure, heart rate, etc.). There are even people who got married in the metaverse!

Metaverse: How does it work?

Since Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced the name change to “Meta” on October 28, 2021, curiosity online about what was happening has grown tremendously.

How exactly does the metaverse work? Entering the metaverse seems a fairly simple feat, and it seems to be accessible to all. All it takes is a computer or a smartphone, an Internet connection, an account on one of the platforms in the metaverse virtual world, and, to make the experience more immersive, a reality headset can be used.

One of the platforms that allows access to the metaverse is Decentraland, a virtual universe where users can construct virtual buildings, and gain money by charging an entrance fee to others.

In short, the metaverse already existed, and Zuckerberg invested a lot to expand its potential and accessibility.

The layman’s perception, however, is that on a day-to-day basis it is still only an opportunity for select a few and that the risks outweigh the benefits. An opportunity for a few, but why? For example, the reality headsets used for a fully immersive experience are still quite expensive. Furthermore, the tools are rapidly evolving and continuously being updated, which may mean a gradual decrease in price. However, this might also mean that the previous versions become useless and lose almost all their market value.

Benefits… For whom?

McKinsey, a global management consulting firm, recently conducted a study called “Value creation in the metaverse,” in which they interviewed more than 3,400 consumers and business executives. They found that by 2030 the Metaverse will grow to be worth $5 trillion, posing itself as the biggest growth opportunity in several industries over the next decade for the development of new business models, products, and services. According to McKinsey researchers, the Metaverse could have a $2 trillion – $2.6 trillion impact on the e-commerce market by 2030, and a $180 billion – $270 billion impact on the academic virtual learning market. It could have a $144 billion – $206 billion impact on the advertising market, and $108 billion – $125 billion impact on the gaming market. Other hopeful estimates talk about the online fashion market, from fast fashion to high-end designers.

But these rosy estimates for 2030 compiled by McKinsey, based on the opinions of 3,400 people—assuming they represent the population well—don’t align with the fact that today, in 2023, Zuckerberg’s company has put 13,000 workers (and thus their families, if they have one) on the street. That’s 13% of its workforce! It’s the first time this has happened in the history of Zuckerberg’s company (The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 5, 2023).

Moreover, are we sure that it’s actually a good thing to be able to do just about anything from anywhere, teleporting to various virtual spaces, even simultaneously, and using avatars, holograms, and digital twins as virtual representations of one’s real identity?

Risks of the Metaverse

Studies have identified significant areas of concern related to ethics, data security, regulation, safety, as well as potential psychological impact on the most vulnerable. Within the existing sectors of the metaverse, users report increasing levels of offensive and unwanted behavior, including harassment, and risks related to increased gambling. It gives pause to the study conducted by researchers at the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) who posed as minors, spending hours on Oculus and VR chats within the Meta Platforms metaverse, noting that users were “exposed to potentially harmful content every seven minutes,” including bullying, pornographic content, racism, threats of violence, and child grooming.

A 2021 report published by Statista, a company that provides the business world with data and statistics, highlighted and listed the main dangers of the metaverse, with simulated reality addiction, and privacy and mental health issues as the top concerns among Internet users worldwide.

The wish

Demonizing the metaverse certainly does not help us to understand it better. Instead, maybe we should be questioning what is happening in a healthy way.

Let’s hope that the Metaverse can somehow enrich our social interactions, help us monitor our health, provide more educational programs, and at the same time manage to protect the privacy and rights of its users as much as possible, with the hope that we are still able to maintain our real lives and build relationships in the “real world.” After all, users populate the Metaverse, and we are those users.

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