We are embarking on an online environment transformation that is every bit as revolutionary as the inception of the Web browser in 1992. The Metaverse will supplant the browser for many of our activities. We will immerse ourselves through avatars to engage in commerce, education, and social exchanges. Now is the time to prepare for the transition.
We are on the verge of a massive reconfiguration of the way in which we digitally communicate, engage with one another, and do commerce. Emerging at the same time are the Metaverse, the 3D, avatar-centric, virtual reality platform, and the decentralised Web 3.0 platform, built on blockchain, supporting 3D displays, and artificial intelligence. Working together, the Metaverse and Web 3.0 will combine to support most online communication and commerce in just a few years. While parts of these entities will stand independently, the two platforms will overlap and combine most powerfully to revolutionise the way in which we all use the Internet and host the combination of our physical and digital lives. Perhaps “phygital” best describes the new environment that is emerging, combining the terms “physical” and “digital”: “Today’s consumer is Phygital: they make consumer choices and purchases both digitally and in the physical world.” 1
The development of email and instant messaging through the Internet in the 1970s and 80s inevitably led to the emergence of the World Wide Web 1.0 in the 1990s, with browsers providing easy access to text and messaging at websites. Following a period of adjustment during which we saw a mass migration from text-dominated to more multimedia-enhanced, visual websites, Web 2.0 became the default digital home for businesses and organisations. Corporations such as Google took on a key role in defining and operating many of the utilities. Today, we are using the mature Web 2.0. We are on the precipice of the equivalent of that mass migration that brought us to this stage as we anticipate the emergence of Web 3.0. This time, the migration will be from the current Web to an environment of 3D platforms that involve us personally online, enabling our avatars to interact and engage in new and innovative ways of information-gathering, sharing, learning, and commerce.
Over the years, the Web empowered an awesome capability for low-cost, high-impact informational marketing and sales messaging. The robust Web platform has served us well over these decades, with nearly ubiquitous access and relatively low distribution costs. It is soon to be overshadowed by the wide-scale deployment of the new platforms that enable representation and interaction via avatars. The advent of the Metaverse is equivalent in importance and magnitude to the advent of the Web. Together, they will revolutionise how business, education, and governments interact with the public.
The Metaverse is not new. It was depicted first in the novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson in 1992, the year the first Web browser, Mosaic, emerged. Note that the word “Metaverse” was used more than 100 times in that book – capitalised in every instance.2 Versions of avatar-populated Metaverses already exist on a number of platforms. As early as 2003, Linden Labs released “Second Life”, a platform that was used in education for simulations and student engagements. Child- and youth-oriented sites emerged more than a decade ago. “Roblox” was released in 2005 and “Minecraft” in 2011. Epic and Unity power a variety of competing virtual games. On their release, all of these companies were forced to grapple with a variety of technical limitations. Transmission bandwidth latency (the delay of a signal from button-push to the distant site and return to the originating monitor or 3D headset) was limited. While coverage is not complete, the advent of 5G wireless3 and other broadband such as 10G cable4 provide speeds up to ten times that of 4G and latency of as little as one millisecond, compared to upwards of 100 milliseconds in 4G.5
In a Metaverse environment, a person is represented by an avatar with walking, talking, and teleporting capabilities. The electronic representation can vary widely from fantasy to realistic. The user can choose to alter the avatar’s appearance at any time. This is a significant difference from the current Web. While we generally collect data and page views of the visitors to our sites, we are not usually able to interact synchronously with visual representations of other visitors.
In earlier avatar-based games and other venues, the avatars were mostly low-resolution graphical images that were often represented by animals and fictional characters. The avatars could haltingly walk, run, and fly. In some cases, they could be visible or invisible while observing conversations, scenery, and other contextual creations, such as buildings and products. Yet, these early avatars lacked fluidity of movement and the basic non-verbal communication that we take for granted in interpersonal interactions. Increasingly, we are seeing enhanced, realistic images of actual people as avatars. However, in some cases, these avatars are currently seen only from the waist up, leaving the legs to less-sophisticated animation as the avatar ambulates across the screen.
The importance of realism of facial expression and body posture in communication and interaction should not be underestimated. As the Metaverse develops, such characteristics will be essential to enable full engagement among those online. Significant research is underway in developing and evaluating models for supporting these characteristics for avatar communication, empathy, and persuasiveness.6
Numerous case studies have been published to demonstrate where we are in the development of immersive environments.7 Yet, while the technological enhancements are being addressed by multiple entities across the continents, not all are interoperable. Questions remain as to who will take the lead in setting the technical specifications for one massive Metaverse or, alternatively, in setting interoperability standards for a wide array of Metaverses that can be connected in ways such that consumers can seamlessly migrate from one to another. If there are too many different, incompatible versions, worldwide implementation will be stunted. In such a case, consumers might have to go through a time-consuming process of creating a new avatar for each app that they want to use, as well as learning new navigational norms and avatar capabilities.8
Currently, there are at least half a dozen major corporations that have announced that they are engaging in development of hardware or software for a larger Metaverse. Of course, Meta, formerly Facebook, has already spent more than $10 billion in research and development in their commitment to move to a Metaverse platform. The other members of “GAMAM” (Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft) are also investing in research and development. We will continue to see smaller-scale sample venues rolled out as the hardware and software are developed. Start-up companies will surely join the fray as we come closer to standards for the platform or platforms that are developed.
One company that began as a Google start-up, Niantic, has a vision of creating an augmented reality (AR) Metaverse that bridges the digital–reality gap. Company CEO John Hanke launched the highly popular Pokémon Go phenomenon in 2016, which brought in a billion dollars in revenue. Last summer, Hanke released his initiative in a public memo titled “The Metaverse is a Dystopian Nightmare. Let’s Build a Better Reality”.9 The AR Metaverse may coexist with the virtual reality (VR) Metaverse approach that most developers have taken so far, as we see in those created by Roblox, Minecraft, Linden Labs, Epic, and Unity. There are advantages to using AR for some, but not all, applications.
Today, we are seeing a flurry of development of approaches, platforms, and designs among the largest of the technology players, accompanied by an unknown number of start-ups. No clear organisational approach has taken the lead in the race to the Metaverse. However, it would seem that a number of platforms and approaches will emerge and compete before a clear leader is decided by the marketplace. Interoperability will be of paramount importance in order for large numbers of platforms to coexist.
Now that the supporting networking is in place through 5G wireless and 10G cable, businesses are asking how long it will take before we see the release of large, working platforms; how quickly they will deploy; and how quickly they will scale. The answers to these questions will set the timetable for investment, adoption and rollout of wholly new avatar-centric versions of the soon-to-be-outdated web page approach.
Of course, the number of variables that are at play that are inherent in research, modelling, development, and competition makes the answers to these questions less precise. I anticipate that meaningful models will appear in 2023. Large-scale implementations will continue throughout 2024. Widespread migration of business will initiate in 2025. Yet, it is not too early to begin planning and preparing for the coming changes.
Management and marketing teams should begin today to conceptualise how their business could best leverage an avatar-centric environment on the Internet. It would seem to be challenging to do this without a hard model in place. I suggest that those who are unfamiliar with such environments spend some quality time with their children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. I have found that sharing time with my ten-year-old grandson as he explains, navigates, builds, and interacts on Roblox and Minecraft gives me an immersive sense of what is to come. I recommend spending additional time in VR games and other apps using VR headsets and touch controllers.
The time to plan and prepare for the Metaverse is now, as tech futurist and Metaverse expert Cathy Hackl is quoted in McKinsey Digital: “If you wait a year and a half or two years to do something, to have a clear strategy, and to start testing these assumptions, it might be a little bit too late.”10
About the Author
Ray Schroeder is Senior Fellow at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) and Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS). A frequent speaker and author, Ray writes the bi-weekly “Online: Trending Now” column in Inside Higher Education and distributes multiple daily curated reading lists for UPCEA.
1. “Phygital: The Definitive Guide for 2022+ Mindblowing Examples – Peer to Peer Marketing”, https://peertopeermarketing.co/phygital/
2. “Is Metaverse Capitalized? – Pro vs Cons”, https://provscons.com/is-metaverse-capitalized/
3. “5G coverage map worldwide” – nPerf, https://www.nperf.com/en/map/5g
4. “Broadband in EU countries”, European Commission, https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/policies/broadband-eu-countries
5. “5G vs 4G: Learn the key differences between them”, Michaela Gross, Tech Target, https://www.techtarget.com/searchnetworking/feature/A-deep-dive-into-the-differences-between-4G-and-5G-networks
6. “Realistic Motion Avatars are the Future for Social Interaction in Virtual Reality”, Shane L. Rogers et al., Frontiers in Virtual Reality https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frvir.2021.750729/full
7. “Demystifying the Metaverse”, Media.Monks, https://media.monks.com/metaverse
8. “The metaverse: Where we are and where we’re headed”, Matt Marshall, Venture Beat, https://venturebeat.com/2022/01/26/the-metaverse-where-we-are-and-where-wed-headed/
9. “AR Is Where the Real Metaverse Is Going to Happen”, Steven Levy, Wired, https://www.wired.com/story/john-hanke-niantic-augmented-reality-real-metaverse/
10. “What is the metaverse – and what does it mean for business?”, McKinsey Digital, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-digital/our-insights/what-is-the-metaverse-and-what-does-it-mean-for-business