Community: What will it look like in the Metaverse? In October of 2021, a NASA flight surgeon was beamed aboard the International Space Station as a hologram. Dr. Josef Schmid had his feet planted firmly on Earth but by having the doctor and astronauts wearing mixed reality headsets called Hololens, everyone could see, hear and interact with each other as if Dr. Schmid was in the space station. “Our physical body is not there, but our human entity absolutely is there,” said Dr. Schmid in a press release issued in April that outlined NASA’s plans to add haptics technology to the mix in the future to simulate touch using vibrations or motors.
NASA hopes to scale up this special two-way communications system where people on Earth are “holoported” (a blending of the words “hologram” and “teleported”) to space and astronauts can visit Earth. “We’ll use this for our private medical conferences, private psychiatric conferences, private family conferences and to bring VIPs onto the space station to visit with astronauts,” said NASA.
If you’re wondering what this has to do with more down-to-earth things like the next town council meeting, imagine using holoportation to allow community members to attend the meeting and interact with councillors from the comfort of their own homes. Imagine council members in any community speaking with experts located anywhere in the world without the cost or hassle of travel.
Welcome to the Metaverse.
Or, more precisely, one aspect of the Metaverse. And what is the Metaverse? Think of it as the Internet on steroids. Or the Internet in 3D where you aren’t just looking at a computer screen but using augmented reality glasses to immerse yourself in a virtual world. And even that doesn’t quite do it justice because no-one seems to agree on a definition of the Metaverse. It’s a bit like someone in the 1980s trying to define the Internet and how it was about to change our lives.
We’re not in the Metaverse yet. We’re just dipping our toes in the shallow end and will gradually make our way in, deeper and deeper, just as the Internet began with a few emails between university professors and grew step-by-step into the global life-altering vehicle it is now.
The Metaverse is still being cobbled together but much of the technology for it to exist is already here. The technology for “holoportation,” for example, was developed by Microsoft in 2016. IKEA was a pioneer with an app that used augmented reality technology to transform how we shop by allowing us to place virtual furniture into our homes and offices so we can see how things would look. That’s just the tip of the Metaverse iceberg.
“(W)hat’s important is to recognize the Metaverse isn’t a game, a piece of hardware, or an online experience,” said Matthew Ball in a 2020 essay entitled, The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find it, and Who Will Build It. “This is like saying World of Warcraft, the iPhone, or Google is the Internet. They are digital worlds, devices, services, websites, etc. The Internet is a wide set of protocols, technology, tubes and languages, plus access devices and content and communication experiences atop them. Metaverse will be too.” Ball is a venture capitalist, former head of strategy at Amazon Studios and a current contributor to the magazine, The Economist, who bills himself as someone who spends his time “thinking about the way technology is disrupting established business models.”
And the Metaverse promises to be as disruptive as the Internet, if not more so.
Our reliance on the Internet for communicating with others has experienced a quantum leap during the pandemic and has allowed people to work from home in record numbers. The shift allowed workers, particularly younger people, the opportunity to escape the bustle and cost of living in cities for a better quality of life in smaller communities. The Metaverse promises to kick that transition into high gear.
“Under the Metaverse, would-be labourers who choose to live outside cities will be able to participate in the ‘high value’ economy via virtual labour. As more consumer spending shifts to virtual goods, services, and experiences, we’ll also see further shifts in where we live, the infrastructure that’s built, and who performs which tasks,” says Ball.
The Metaverse might be in its infancy but I’ve already experienced a taste of it. Recently, I spoke at a conference in Texas held by an engineering firm for all of its 1,200 staff and team members. My experience wasn’t simply a run-of-the-mill Zoom call. When I logged in, I built an avatar that looked just like me. Using my computer, I wandered around a virtual campus where I spoke with other avatars representing people from all over North America. There was even a registration table in the virtual courtyard where I was directed to the auditorium where I was speaking. I watched people’s avatars come in and sit down. They talked to each other, they laughed together, and they exchanged information and ideas. It was a fascinating experience.
This was a virtual world with complexities I had never imagined possible. The Metaverse is coming at us with such speed that last October Facebook changed its name to Meta as a signal it intends to be a trailblazer in this new landscape. For proponents of the Metaverse, having Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg leading the charge is a double edged sword. Zuckerberg’s money and clout can help advance the progress into new online territory but the Facebook founder comes with more baggage than a VIA Rail train. For years, Zuckerberg and Facebook have dealt with chronic complaints that they don’t do enough to safeguard privacy, halt hate speech and prevent the spread of misinformation.
Certainly, changing his company’s name to Meta is one way for Zuckerberg to hit the reset button.
“In our DNA, we are a company that builds technology to connect people and the metaverse is the next frontier, just like social networking was when we got started,” said Zuckerberg.
But Facebook/Meta is not the only big player in the nascent Metaverse. Others include Microsoft, Google, Shopify and Roblox. According to senior industry analysts with the media conglomerate, Bloomberg, “the metaverse is the next big technology platform, attracting online game makers, social networks and other technology leaders to capture a slice of what we calculate to be a nearly $800 billion market opportunity.”
Money is important, of course, but the Metaverse will allow people to better communicate with each other, and that promises to be a boon to communities of all sizes. At 13 Ways, we have long advocated the need for communities to embrace technological advances. Whether we like it or not, they’re here to stay, so denial is really just delay. We’ve talked about autonomous electric vehicles, advances in new energy production, new technological advancements in healthcare, and education, all exacerbated or accelerated by the pandemic. The evolution, or perhaps the revolution, in virtual worlds has gone beyond gaming.
The idea is to find a new way to connect the real world with the virtual online world. Once upon a time we used to go into stores to try on clothes, and then go online to buy them. As we got more comfortable with online shopping, that experience shifted. Now we go online to browse and then we go into a physical store for the shopping experience. In the Metaverse we will create an avatar that mimics us and we will go virtually shopping where we will be able to try on clothes and see how they look on our avatar.
We will be able to go to a coffee shop to see friends halfway around the world, and sit at a table and socialize as if we were together.
I’m not saying it will be a better experience, or that everyone will see that experience as providing benefit and value. I do know during the pandemic when so many of us missed our social experiences, we would have moved quickly into the Metaverse to get some semblance of socialization and human contact, even if only virtually.
I still feel that the natural desire for many people will be an in-person experience rather than one in the Metaverse. We are hard-wired with a need to belong to a community. But that’s coming from a man who’s turning 50 this year. Younger generations are not so tied to the biases, beliefs, and historical experiences of their elders. The young have lived much more in a virtual world where they have explored the globe through YouTube videos. It seems like much less of a stretch for them to feel comfortable in the Metaverse.
To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out what this means for communities. Communities are critical to our mental health and our success in life. We need each other for support, for comfort, for socialization, and to feel valuable. We all belong to dozens and dozens of communities within our larger community. I physically belong to the community in Ardrossan Alberta, but I also belong to a community of consultants. And because of the Internet, I belong to a community of dads who have a son that plays soccer, and a community of dads who have a son who is artistic.
No one is saying the Metaverse will replace our need for real social interaction or belonging to authentic communities within our neighbourhoods. But I do think it will play a significant role in pulling together so many of the communities that each of us belong to. It will stretch our horizons to communities that go beyond our country’s borders. It will expand our communities to groups of people that will never get the chance to meet in real life, yet have a common interest and an intersection they wish to explore.
The Metaverse will never replace the real world but it is incumbent upon us to understand for ourselves what the Metaverse is, what it one day might be, and how we can use it to make our own communities stronger.