Tuesday, June 25, 2024

    DON’T PANIC! The metaverse is coming

    The metaverse is growing in popularity among consumers and businesses alike… but what is it and how is it going to change the telemedia, telecoms and payments world? Dario Betti takes a look

    The Metaverse is on its way – but should you care? Yes. The Metaverse has the potential to change how we access and think about the Internet in the future; your every-day life is likely to be different in a few years because of it. Currently, there is a fair amount of Metaverse-hysteria sloshing about, and a reflection on what is going to come next could be a very profitable move for many companies. And a few facts under your belt might provide good protection from the current level of Metaverse-hysteria. 

    What is the Metaverse?

    The Metaverse is a virtual digital world where interconnected platforms replicate and improve real life experiences or create new digital and hybrid services. If that didn’t help to clarify things, let’s take a step back – placing things in context will help with understanding. 

    The first time I tried the Internet I was looking at some green text codes on a black monitor screen via a very noisy dial up modem. That was the Web 1.0, or the first incarnation of it: it had hyperlinks and was connecting publicly available databases. There are millennials who will struggle to understand what I have just described. 

    We had to wait until the late 1990s for the web-browsers, graphical interface with pictures, colours, audio and eventually video. That is what we refer to nowadays as the Web: a PC-based interface first, but nowadays more commonly a smartphone-based two- dimensional screen experience. 

    For the experts this was followed in the mid-2010s by Web 2.0 or the social element of the web – social networks, for instance. The web was not just a repository of content but a platform to ‘meet people’ and create content and services. The concept of the Cloud fits here well.

    Web 3.0 is emerging now as a new form, where AI and Blockchain can cut out intermediaries and make information and services more readily available, more private, and potentially more secure. This is still very theoretical and debated, but it assumes that society will work out solutions/services to problems (a distributed architecture) and it will reduce the dependence on big technology companies running large services for all.

    The Metaverse fits here as it will be a contemporary of the Web 3.0 – it refers to the user experience rather than a grander role in society or technology. Imagine moving from the two-dimensional experience of a web browser screen to a three-dimensional virtual world where people, businesses, services can create a new presence or identity. You— to be more exact, your ‘avatar’—would move across the different shops, offices, theatres, meeting places in the Metaverse. The avatar will be able to talk with others, listen to concerts, buy items, conduct meetings and work, all without the need to be physically anywhere in particular. A lot of this is available today as virtual services without the new 3D interface (web conferences, video channels, e-commerce site). 

    It should also be noted that many of these three-dimensional worlds already exist in the form of games: Second Life, Minecraft, and Roblox are good examples of virtual games turned into virtual worlds. 

    How would you navigate in this new world? Possibly by voice assistants (rather than URL addresses) and using Virtual Reality headsets or Augmented Reality interfaces (that will superimpose virtual objects on a smartphone screen pointing at the area next to you.

    In the future, rather than VR headsets people might be able to see holograms in front of them, and thanks to Web 3.0 the elements of digital currency (blockchain) and AI assistants will help navigation. Yes, it sounds like an episode of Star Trek, but much of the technology we use nowadays would fit nicely in the original TV series.

    Many confuse the elements of Web 3.0 with the Metaverse. Expect that in the future the terminology might be adjusted to provide better clarity and separation. But I expect continued confusion for a couple of years. So far, the Metaverse refers to the customer experience elements only. But even these are far from being simple to deliver.

    We do not have a ‘Metaverse’ yet. The idea of the Metaverse is still based on a similar concept of the World Wide Web – it should be a global interactive platform where interoperable worlds are connected. Currently there are many meta-islands, or meta walled-gardens, smaller communities where you can build a service. The global standard for interconnections is missing. We will not see real global mass take-up of Metaverse services, until there is an interconnected model of the digital world.

    Thinking things through

    Many companies seem to love the potential of the Metaverse and are happy to join in. However, before a hasty move we would suggest taking a moment to reflect. The creation of a new Internet experience is a big step: it allows us an opportunity to look back and see what needs to be adjusted or improved. There is much that needs to be improved in today’s customer experience before we all start jumping into holograms.

    Today, cyberspace is a great tool but one that suffers from some big flaws. Customers and businesses do not have a ‘real’ identity on the Internet. A libertarian view would welcome that, and the potential to create secondary or anonymous persona should be supported. However, keeping in mind the history of fraud and crime on digital, society needs to address identity, not as a secondary after-thought, but as a key issue. It is time to take decisions that will positively impact the life and security of many, including the vulnerable and minors.

    Navigating the Metaverse today is a traditional experience. To enter Nike’s ‘Metaverse’ experience in Roblox you need to download the Roblox app, search for Nike (by typing) and then clicking on a 2D picture of Nike showing in the results. After that you will be able to play a basketball game against other real players. There are still a lot of old-fashioned web/app interactions in the early Metaverse experiences. New models and interface modes are needed to bring a new fresh experience. Otherwise, the Metaverse will die after a short gimmick-laden life. 

    Payments were not built for the web, and while credit cards are now commonly used this is another after-thought with shortcomings. The concept of web 3.0 would often include a reference to ‘Crypto Currency’, or more simply digital currencies. In fact, most metaverse platforms have built their own blockchain currency in their system. 

    There is more work to be done there to clarify the legal compliance and security for most of these. The multiple attempts by Facebook to create a global digital currency (Libra/Diem) were crashed by local and global regulations. It takes more than a blockchain solution to create a digital currency: the legal framework for real digital money does not yet exist.

    Thinking ahead

    So, is the future already here? No. But that is what makes the entire topic of the Metaverse so interesting. A new wave of usability improvements is coming, which will change the way we experience the Internet. These might not replace the web as we know it, but they will complement and expand it.  We have time to understand, plan, test and deliver a new experience.  

    Dario Betti is CEO of MEF (Mobile Ecosystem Forum) 

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