It seems only five minutes ago that we were talking about Web 2.0, virtual reality, blockchain and artificial intelligence. Now they have all been merged together to create the metaverse. A virtual world which as Mark Zuckerberg says is “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.”
Sounds cool doesn't it? Well I'm not so sure. Its certainly being hyped. Facebook renamed itself Meta, Accenture's 2022 Technology Vision report is called 'Meet me in the Metaverse' and Microsoft cited it as a reason for acquiring Activision Blizzard, saying the deal would provide "building blocks for the metaverse."
The term metaverse comes straight out of science fiction, coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 book Snow Crash, and lots of people plan to make money off of it. Apparently gaming, avatars and virtual worlds will soon be essential to our lives. BMW is creating virtual factories to train robots. Deloitte touts its metaverse capabilities as offering 'an innovation space where Deloitte professionals and clients can develop and test break-through capabilities that leverage virtual worlds powered by enabling technologies.' That's a lot of buzzwords for one sentence! PWC says 'The metaverse promises a stunningly realistic 3D digital world where you can (for example) purchase and sell goods and services, sign and enforce contracts, recruit and train talent, and interact with customers and communities.' Not much there about making the world a better place.
So the metaverse is all about creating a virtual representation of the real world so you can make more money. Why do we need another world? I know real life is tough but is the answer to replicate it and then allow you to pretend to be someone you're not, doing something you can't, in a place you where you don't exist to earn rewards that aren't real?
I've been involved in technology for almost 45 years and have seen a lot of 'waves' and 'breakthroughs' most of which promised more than they delivered, but the early signs are that the metaverse is the most detached from reality--well its supposed to be you may say! But if it is to create so much value its needs to deliver something tangible. At the moment most of the discussion seems to surround peripheraluse cases. I am most interested to see how the metaverse is going to help solve some of the real world's biggest challenges:
1 Ensure all the world's population is fed, clothed and has shelter. Instead of trading bitcoin or allowing peple to design their own avatar, a virtual world of farms, cities and finance can deliver real value. Its not Sim City but real world modeling without the expense of the physical world. Test the road before you build it, run scenarios on climate impact on crop yields without waiting for it to rain, allow the world's best doctors to provide care in rural Africa. The possibilities seem enticing.
2. Provide accessible high quality education and healthcare to all. This should be the most potent metaverse application (sorry Meta and Microsoft!). Accelerated training, modeling of symptoons and treatments, support of physically remote but digitally connected education. Providing access to the best doctors and educators regardless of physical location is something I can get excited about.
3. Safeguard the environment while also improving the quality of life. Smartgrids are already having a postive impact on electricity usage, however, one of the downsides of the metaverse is its thirst for electricity. Bitcoin mining is already a huge consumer of power and virtual worlds are built on an abundence of servers, routers, communication networks and data storage.
It is incumbent on leaders to move beyond simplisitic use cases and demonstate that meaningful societal and economic value can be delivered. It took more than a decade to go from the dot.com craziness of the late 90's to the Internet delivering real . Let's hope the metaverse is moving at a faster pace!