The metaverse – a vision for the Internet that employs technologies like virtual and augmented reality to merge the real and digital worlds – has been getting a lot of attention recently. With Facebook changing its name to Meta to focus on this field and other big tech giants like Microsoft joining in, the metaverse’s promise to improve the way we socialise, work, and learn is generating a lot of buzz.
But what exactly is the metaverse? And when will it get here? The metaverse is a hybrid of several technologies in which users “live” in a digital realm. Its supporters see its users working, playing and remaining connected through everything from concerts and conferences to virtual tours around the world. But there are still many questions about the metaverse and its connection with virtual-reality (VR) technology.
“The technology was made available a long time ago through a digital environment called Second Life. The difference now is that it is led by a big tech company like Facebook,” commented Sherif Al-Nabarawi, the 33-year-old CEO of the startup VERO for Virtual Reality Solutions.
Meta, the company that owns the most-used social media platforms worldwide like Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger, has now also acquired others like Oculus, Giphy and Mapillary. “Oculus is the division of Meta Platforms that produces virtual-reality headsets, which means that Meta owns all the tools for virtual life,” Al-Nabarawi added.
Virtual life can be intimidating, but it has many benefits. “Living virtually can help with business, meetings, social activities, education and interactive trainings, retail, entertainment, real estate, medical consultations and healthcare,” he added. “However, there are still fears over security and privacy. When a giant tech company like Meta is promoting virtual reality using all the security data and personal information it has collected, we should expect more regulation, though this has not yet been announced.”
“We can’t evaluate the metaverse unless we use it personally and see its impact on society,” Al-Nabarawi said.
“After many years of social media usage, some people have turned out to be more introverted or prefer a digital alternative to dealing with the world. What if social media now becomes more immersive? What will be its side effects? Some kinds of people will get more isolated. The more social media brings us closer, the more it separates us. People should know when something is to their benefit and when to stop it,” he added.
As more individuals worked from home and went to school online due to the Covid-19 epidemic, interest in the metaverse grew. But even in a post-Covid world, there are concerns that the metaverse will make it simpler for individuals to spend time apart. This is because the metaverse creates a shared virtual world that users access through the Internet. Virtual-reality headsets already enable something like this, and the virtual space of the metaverse appears to be comparable to that found in virtual-reality programmes.
Users will be identifiable by personal avatars that interact with one another in virtual environments. They will also be able to buy and develop virtual items and environments. The main difference is that existing virtual worlds are limited in size, but the metaverse will offer unlimited access to the Internet.
“Virtual-reality companies will integrate a lot with the metaverse, and it will eventually become the core of the virtual-reality industry. We, as VR tech people, will develop an infinite number of virtual-reality applications that serve this environment. For example, we currently provide virtual tours for real estate developers for marketing and sales purposes. The demand for these will be higher when the marketplace becomes officially virtual and exposure is multiplied in thousands,” Al-Nabarawi explained.
“Such virtual solutions already serve as optimum alternatives for many needs like training in oil and gas, medicine and tourism. The market for all this will be enlarged, and VR providers will dominate. Accordingly, while we can’t say that we are working directly on building a metaverse, we may say that we are working indirectly on this through thinking about how all our applications will be integrated into the metaverse and exposed to as many people as possible.”
“I believe we can construct more using the Internet or virtual reality. The metaverse’s magic is that it brings everything together. When we consider the world as a whole and the number of people in it, the idea is mind-boggling. The metaverse doesn’t free us of limitations as much as bring us to a place where we can use our virtual-reality applications,” he added.
“The metaverse is unavoidable. It is a notion that we are closer than ever to realising. When virtual reality didn’t exist, it was considered science fiction. And there are no breakthrough technologies required to make the move from VR to metaverse. User interfaces will continuously improve. It will not be just another fad in technology that will fade away.”
“We started working on virtual-reality technology at the Faculty of Engineering at Ain Shams University in Cairo more than 10 years ago, trying to convince everyone that VR is not just for research purposes. We have used the technology since in a wide spectrum of fields such as medical and pharmaceutical, oil and gas, training and education and tourism. VERO is the commercial pay-off of this hard work to prove that this technology can serve business growth and marketing activities as well.”
The Internet has flourished as a result of its openness and the fact that it is a “dumb network” with intelligent edges. Its scalability is a direct result of early decisions, and it will continue to be so. It is a system that is extremely difficult – if not impossible – to overthrow and one that continues to evolve in interesting and valuable ways exactly because of a lack of control and monitoring. “But policymakers should at the same time consider people’s awareness of their mental health when using and being exposed to this technology,” Al-Nabarawi concluded.
People today might be worried about what developments will have the greatest impact on society in the next ten years. We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the computer revolution, many say, with this pervading everything, even changing our sense of reality, in ways we cannot even fathom.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.