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Metaverse: The 101 and Its Potential Impact for the World

The Metaverse, while neither new, nor innovative, is now accessible to all and has lasting impact on consumer trends. Since Facebook dropped the phrase, many have asked: What is the Metaverse?

Credit: Ready Player One/Warner Bros.

Before exploring this suddenly very trendy term and what it represents, let’s look back at its source word – meta. Originally a Latin word, it is used to describe a situation that comes after. In its simplest form, it means “going beyond” the subject that meta is paired with.

For example – meta-physics or meta-economics, meaning what comes after current theories for physics and economics that are now in use.

It only gained wider acceptance among youths thanks to Magic: The Gathering as that popular card game reintroduced the word to describe anything that is related to its game mechanics or strategy. This includes what happens inside – character lore and how its diverse world can affect gameplay. On a wider scope, the meta also comprises the player interactivity and what they bring to and take away from the game. Richard Garfield – the creator of Magic: The Gathering – first coined the term in a 1995 column that he wrote for The Duellist.

While Garfield explained in that article how the metagame is an inherently large interactive structure that games and its players reside in, it widened its reach from tabletop games to videogames. The expansion now goes beyond world-building narrative lore and character playstyles. In this explosive era of video game streaming and eSports, meta literally means in-game character arcs within the game or any tie-in content and how their skill-sets can be used and how they impact gameplay.

So where does Metaverse fit in? The popular movie based on the book of the same name – Ready Player One – explains it in very layman terms with its own Oasis virtual realm:

Now, that aside, let's dive deeper into what the Metaverse has to offer and ask some hard-hitting questions:

  • Why and how did this trend become so hyped-up? Is it the real deal or a hot-flash fad?

  • How is this intangible trend able to negatively impact share values for Facebook’s holding company?

  • What are short- and long-term socio-economic issues that will appear in the coming months/years?

It’s obvious that both Meta, formerly known as Facebook, and Microsoft – now the two biggest players trying to take ownership of the Metaverse – are trying to make sense of it all. In fact, everyone is – even the press. A recent Wired article – “What is the Metaverse, Exactly?” – aptly describes the confusion the tech industry is in right now as Big Tech try to explain their take on this supposedly hot trend.

It’s an easy choice to make, especially when new and shiny social media platforms have quietly defined their own little spots in cyberspace – like new upstart TikTok and still-hanging-on Snap – and have taken away users from Facebook. This not only caused user levels for the social network giant to drop for the first time, it also managed to wipe out over US$250 billion in share value for Meta.

Some pundits even believed this pursuit of Metaverse leadership contributed to the biggest single-day slide for the now not-so-hyped social network.

Notably, within all this confusion, most market players have opted to not mention one of the first brands to explore the Metaverse – Second Life, a virtual reality realm that launched in 2003.

Potential Problems

Beyond affecting the overall equity of other tech leaders in Silicon Valley, Meta and its competitors have kept silent on a few growing concerns. In fact, while major tech leaders are getting lost in their own messaging about the Metaverse, consumers and businesses have started to wonder how this still-in-its-infancy concept will affect their economic livelihoods and way of life.

Unlike the ongoing disruption the world is now experiencing, which was sudden yet long-lasting, the concept of the Metaverse – old as it is, since it came to be when the Internet became mainstream – only has drivers who want to profit from it. As is, ongoing issues that have long plagued social media, such as cyber-bullying and user data hacking – including private data theft and behavioural tracking, have yet to be properly addressed.

These, along with body image issues and various forms of harassment, will very likely carry over into the virtual and hyper-immersive realm that is the Metaverse.

A recent Quartz article alluded to the fact that the cultural import of the Metaverse, as in how this new trend can affect socio-economies and cultures, is less clear. “Due to the metaverse’s immersive interface and virtual interactions with other users, along with largely non-uniform user safety policies across services, the technology represents a myriad of unknowns for families with young children,” it noted.

Young kids entering the Oasis. Credit: Ready Player One/Warner Bros.

What should parents and businesses, especially those that make video games and eSports their primary focus, expect from these progressive trends? More importantly, how can they get Big Tech to pitch in and do something about it?

Impact Indication #1: Consumer Concerns

Besides eSports and game streaming, immersive game worlds that cater to education and engage youths of all ages – like Roblox and Minecraft – have a big say in the Metaverse. After all, they have long been focused on world-building in the virtual realm and, as such, they already have a foothold in this digital space.

Unfortunately, the toxic culture and negative practices that are prevalent in social media and eSports are also present in these education-first games.

Are there no personnel in Roblox or Minecraft, even Facebook and TikTok, policing these issues? While Twitter spelt it out clearly in its user policies and platform guidelines and Roblox have similar processes in place to manage its over 150 million young players, with half of that being under-13, the same can’t be said for Meta.

Credit: Roblox

In addition to its poor track record of managing fake news when the 45th US President was in office, the automated content management for Facebook has been dismal at best and the user safety page for Oculus – its virtual reality arm, only stated the following: “While we know that children under 13 may want to use Oculus devices, we do not permit them to create accounts or use Oculus devices.”

The Quartz story also confirmed that there is no direct identification or age verification requirement when registering for a new user account on Oculus.

Sports in the Metaverse. Credit: Oculus

Impact Indication #2: Big Business Bets

Concerns over user experiences and policy management that aim to improve quality-of-life for consumers are also major focuses for businesses. In fact, they need to contend with the fact that current technologies and next-gen innovations will be connected to the Metaverse in some way.

Credit: Microsoft

When Facebook made the move to change its name to Meta, the world reacted the same way when potential and trendy game-changers appeared – it sat up and listened.

Consider the Napster peer-to-peer music sharing platform; the equally as notorious BitTorrent powering content piracy; YouTube giving birth to video-streaming; Apple disrupting the music industry with the iPod and, subsequently, the iPhone; and Sony PlayStation taking apart the duopoly that was SEGA and Nintendo. The Metaverse is the next frontier for this Digital Decade – it’s like the Internet when the world got its first glimpse of the World Wide Web.

Credit: Meta

How would a Latin word that has close ties to video games be able to change the world? While no one can respond to that now, beyond spouting “What Ifs” and sci-fi-esque imaginary worlds, businesses must be ready for new disruptions.

Jeff Wong, Global Chief Innovation Officer, Ernst & Young, shared the following in his recent LinkedIn post: “Metaverse is the buzzword burning through tech circles today, garnering the sort of intrigue that smartphones and social media built as the next big thing about 15 years ago. The concept can sound abstract, relying on a glossary of technologies that may fit together better in theory than in practice. (Its) transformative impact will ripple through most sectors beyond media and entertainment — whether it’s a way to try on clothes virtually according to your dimensions in retail shopping or training simulations in an educational or job orientation setting. (It already affected) how you interact with a doctor.”

What Wong referred to is now in use – augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), along with telehealth – all of which are powered via digital communications and high-speed mobile connectivity. Of course, these transformative experiences are all part of the larger digital economic trends: eCommerce and the accelerated use of next-gen technologies – fintech and artificial intelligence (AI).

Even as the world quickly makes sense of the various interpretations that is the Metaverse while continuing to embrace these new innovations, there are a few critical things to consider. Among them, as per the PwC deep-dive report of the Metaverse, are:

  • The Metaverse is an evolution, not a revolution – and it's one that businesses should not ignore

  • This trend may profoundly change how businesses and consumers interact with each other

  • Key concepts, including next-gen digital economy innovations, are business-relevant today

The Hype – Real or Fad?

Amidst the clutter of “Me first!” and “industry leader” messaging that now dominates hustling tactics for businesses, The New York Times put out an ingenious article – “An 8-Year-Old Explains the Metaverse” – that explains the Metaverse in the simplest of terms. The story shares that while the Metaverse can be a fun and educational place, it also has an equal potential risk for harm.

Undoubtedly, hype for the Metaverse will continue to grow as the likes of Meta and Microsoft, along with an expansive list of businesses from various verticals, continue to use and develop new technologies that expand on the commercial viability of this new digital space. In another Metaverse deep-dive from The Drum, brands like Verizon, Disney, Google, Walmart, Nike, Adidas and Apple are aggressively spinning strategies to own a share of voice in the new space.

Virtual Dungeons & Dragons anyone? Credit: VRChat

The technologies that power the Metaverse now – AR and VR; AI; enriched and hyper-personalised content; decentralised systems; and hyper-connected networks and platforms have matured and will continue to make new in-roads in terms of usability. As is, they've already reached mass saturation since the one primary barrier for entry – pricing – is removed, forcing these innovations to be made more affordable for all.

While the Metaverse is a dated concept, its renewed purpose will pretty much define how new innovations will influence and impact socio-economies of the world. Is it a fad or the real deal? While it will certainly influence policy-making and introduce new changes to daily activities, there are still plenty of unknown factors.

If anything, the coming months will be exciting to see how far Big Tech will rock the boat to take ownership of the Metaverse. Meanwhile, content platform leaders and the virtual world developers will just continue to churn out more immersive content and expand their hold in their corner of the Metaverse.

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