“These days, the reality is a bummer. Everyone is looking for a way to escape,” said Wade Watts, the protagonist of the Ernest Cline novel Ready Player One, which was turned into a movie by Steven Spielberg in 2018. In the novel and film, which takes place in 2045, the world is on the verge of collapse, but a virtual reality universe, OASIS, has given people something to find hope in.
While Ready Player One is clearly a science fiction story about a contest taking place in a virtual community, it draws many parallels to the rise of the metaverse. In OASIS, hosted avatars could be customized according to individual preferences, people could purchase items and outfits to use in the game and those purchases had real value. Sound familiar?
The metaverse, a massively scaled, interactive virtual platform, is just on the horizon of bringing some of that sci-fi to life, as a place where people can play, socialize, work, shop, and then buy and pay using nonfungible tokens (NFTs) and other forms of cryptocurrency. It consists of decentralized, interconnected virtual reality worlds where people (or their avatars) can do just about anything they do in the physical world.
The Trajectory Of The Metaverse
The metaverse is poised to become the next big milestone in the evolution of the internet that will change how private and public-sector businesses work. And, as with many tech revolutions like the cell phone or mobile computing, it will be driven by the consumer, looking for the same digital experience at work that they experience in the home. Consider a couple of business examples:
• Next frontier of ecommerce. Picture Amazon not as a static web page but a metaverse shopping mall, where your avatar walks down the street and through its door, where you’re greeted by a sales associate who guides you to the camping goods aisle. It recommends different tents and lets you cozy up in one. You purchase the goods using cryptocurrency. On the way out, you visit an art gallery where you purchase an NFT of a popular meme and also notice another avatar with a cool pair of Nike Air Jordans. Since your feet are tired from all this “walking,” you notice a Nike store where you buy the same shoes for your virtual self and a pair for your “real” self. The metaverse opens up enormous opportunities for increased sales and user experience and gives marketers a treasure trove of consumer data.
• New level of virtual conferences. The metaverse could soon become the next big conference center, where companies, associations and trade groups join together under the disguise of their avatars. Virtual conferences became the norm during Covid-19, but many people found they sorely lacked the benefits of in-person conferences. With the richer, immersive experience that the metaverse can provide, attending a virtual conference will more closely resemble being beamed up and placed in a far-off conference location.
• Design-driven manufacturing. Manufacturers will be able to design products and let digital versions loose in the metaverse. Take, for example, a new model of a sports car. The manufacturer can see how people react to it, use it and where they “travel” with it. They then can retool certain features according to reactions. In essence, it’s bringing the concept of a “digital twin” to a whole new virtual level. Further, it opens up huge marketing opportunities to design contests, races and other promotions that broaden brand awareness.
The Role Of AI In The Metaverse
In such a rich and deeply immersive world, the power of many technologies will play a major role. Advances in virtual/augmented reality and blockchain will be required before we can fully realize the metaverse. Advanced supercomputers already are being developed to rival the most powerful ones out there.
For example, Meta announced an AI supercomputer in January, and other companies will soon follow suit. Additionally, today’s virtual reality headsets, smart glasses and other wearable devices won’t be adequate in the metaverse. New wearables will need to be designed that provide users with a more seamless, comfortable and non-intrusive experience.
Perhaps what will power the metaverse and enable its scalability and automation more than any other technology, however, is AI. Deep learning-based software will autonomously drive all activities, and chatbots and other forms of natural language processing will drive interactions. AI will be called upon to understand words, images, video and text and respond accordingly—regardless of the user’s language. This all requires a massive amount of training data and modeling.
In fact, many of the 3D images, animation, speech and even metaverse artwork will actually be generated by AI. Also, AI will be called upon to automate smart contracts, decentralized ledgers and other blockchain technologies to enable virtual transactions.
Yet just as we are already trying to manage with AI’s usage today, ensuring that bias doesn’t creep into AI algorithms will be key. The problem of unfair AI is compounded in the metaverse because there won’t be anyone setting the rules of play or enforcing any ethical codes. The quagmire is that, while there needs to be some law of the land, no one can rule the metaverse or it won’t be able to live up to its promise of a decentralized, non-authoritarian society.
There will be huge opportunities for businesses to thrive in the metaverse eventually, but we need to tread lightly. We’re already living in a polarized world with too many platforms for extremists and bad actors. In the Wild West metaverse, they could be given free rein. The challenge lies in living up to the promise of the metaverse while making sure there are rules of conduct for entering it.
In Ready Player One, Wade Watts says, “A gifted human player could always triumph over the game’s AI because software couldn’t improvise.” The AI of the metaverse will need to learn how to improvise and be more human-like, but in the end, it’s still a software program that needs real people to succeed.