(Credit: Viaframe/Getty Images)The COVID-19 pandemic has given us all the first clear picture of what working from home is really like. Many fear that this could be the new normal and there is no doubt that future pandemics are likely. As we adjust to interacting virtually with coworkers, friends, and family, we’re beginning to discover just how important in-person interactions really are. Many of us miss the hallway conversations at work or the chance encounters with friends at the gym or grocery store.
What has become apparent is that the email, social media, and video chat technologies we rely on for communication during the pandemic are no substitute for real connections with other people. This is especially true for extroverts and partly explains why we are so anxious to return to life as we knew it before the pandemic. This raises the question of whether we are stuck with this new reality. Why don’t we have technological solutions to this problem? The answer may lie in the metaverse.
Nearly 30 years ago, Neal Stephenson published the science fiction book Snow Crash that introduced the concept of the “metaverse” to many of his readers. Stephenson coined the word metaverse to describe a 3D virtual reality that would allow people to escape the unpleasant reality of their real life for a richer mental experience and economic opportunities. Readers were captivated by Stephenson’s futuristic vision because home computers were affordable, and the internet was newly accessible to many around the globe. Users of the internet in the 1990s experienced early versions of email, chat rooms, and the world wide web that we all take for granted today. Total virtual reality did not seem far away.
In fact, the internet technology of the 1990s gave us the first taste of what a metaverse might be like. Multi-User Simulated Hallucination (MUSH) software enabled dozens of people to connect to a central server over the internet at the same time and experience virtual text-based worlds where users could engage in social dialogue, be creative, and role-play. Some of these environments allowed users to work their real-life jobs. For example, the BioMOO world was established to provide a virtual space for biologists to interact and exchange scientific ideas. Although simple, the many MUSH instances gave early internet users an exciting glimpse into Stephenson’s metaverse where people could live and interact virtually.
The basic concept of a metaverse has not changed much since the 1990s. Imagine a 3D world that you would enter through your web browser. You would be able to socialize, shop, and work from your desk or couch over the internet. A key feature of the metaverse is that it’s persistent. When you are logged out, the virtual world continues without you just as the real world does. The goal is for the user interface to the metaverse to be intuitive and easy so you could spend many hours a day immersed in stimulating activities. For some, the metaverse could occupy most of their waking hours with the real world sometimes being more of a distraction.
Could a modern metaverse replace some of the interpersonal interactions we are craving? The key is to create a virtual world that stimulates many of the same senses we experience out in the real world. For example, touch and smell are just as important as the auditory and visual cues we get when talking face-to-face. It’s the combination of all these senses that create feelings and memories. Can we experience that using a computer or mobile device?
The good news is that the technology needed to create a virtual environment exists. Video technology such as that provided in popular online games such as Fortnite are mature and can easily handle large numbers of players due to fast internet service available in most urban areas. Significant progress has been made on “haptic” or 3D touch that provides devices capable of pressing your face or hands as you experience objects in a virtual world. Imagine wearing gloves that press on your fingers as you touch objects in the metaverse. Technology for virtual smell is also available. The key to the metaverse is to bring all this technology together so that we can have the real-world experience we are craving in the comfort of our own home.
So where is the metaverse today? And why is it not available to help us through the COVID-19 pandemic? Those are fair questions given the technological advances that have been made since the publication of Snow Crash. The closest we came to one was Second Life, an online virtual world developed by Linden Lab. This is a commercial effort that has been online since 2003 with nearly one million active users. Second Life looks like a 3D video game but includes a virtual economy and professional activities. Despite its beautiful graphics and sophistication, Second Life is dwarfed in popularity by much simpler social media platforms such as Facebook, which has billions of active users. Why is this? Why is our daily online experience limited to simple email, social media, and video conferencing?
A simple answer is that most people were mentally and physically consumed by going to school and work before the pandemic. Our daily lives were filled with commuting, meeting, and shopping. We did not have the time or energy to adopt a metaverse when real life was so demanding. What happens when you take the daily grind of living away? That is exactly what has happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are now forced to live and work in our home environment. It is this new reality that has left some wondering why we do not have a metaverse to take us away from what for many is a suboptimal existence.
With the ballooning numbers of meetings being conducted by Zoom, and the increasing reliance on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter for social interaction and information, the time is right for a metaverse. For true change or disruption, it will need to be easy and intuitive to use, free for casual use, provide access to news and information, connect users through social networks, stimulate all the senses, and be fun to use.
The commercial opportunities are immense and the potential for a positive impact on our society is immeasurable. We know that periods of strife can be the starting ground for some of our greatest advances. The world’s first all-electronic computer, ENIAC, was built amid World War II to devise artillery trajectories. Perhaps this pandemic necessitating social distancing in all phases of our lives will provide the foothold that virtual reality has been missing.
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