The Metaverse has gained elevated attention over the past few years, followed recently by a cooling off in what some are already calling a “metaverse winter.” After exploring metaverse origins and conceptual underpinnings in Part II of this series (and VR’s history in Part I) we move on to Part III in which project outcomes at the intersection of VR and the metaverse. Though it’s still early and theoretical, the stakes could be high in someday transforming our connected digital experiences.
Social Impact of the M-Word
One of the most significant metaverse implications is its impact on social dynamics. As we spend more time online, virtual interactions are increasingly prevalent. The metaverse could offer immersive experiences that transcend traditional social media, allowing us to interact in more meaningful ways across personal and professional settings.
Starting with personal settings, the metaverse has the potential to transform entertainment, including new mediums for storytelling and creativity. Users could attend concerts, festivals, and events from anywhere. It could similarly open up possibilities for education, allowing students to experience historical events, scientific experiments, and cultural immersion in more dimensional and embodied ways. This could lead to more engaging and effective learning that caters to individual students.
As for professional impact, the metaverse could change the way we work. As remote work becomes more prevalent, the metaverse could offer a new way to collaborate and conduct business. This further lessens the need for physical offices and commuting. The result could be more sustainable and flexible work environments, higher morale, and positive environmental impact.
There’s also potential economic impact. As individuals buy and sell virtual items and experiences, it could create new markets and business opportunities, leading to new jobs and economic growth.
The Dark Side
To tell a balanced story, the above metaverse pros are met with potential cons, as well as technological obstacles. One example of the latter is the need for a fast and reliable internet connection. A lagging or unreliable connection can hinder the immersive experience or make it downright dysfunctional.
Though that leads to frustrating user experiences, there are worse outcomes if we pan back. For example, not everyone will have access to the necessary bandwidth to participate. Similarly, not everyone will have the right hardware to participate. These and other scenarios could widen the digital divide and exacerbate existing socioeconomic inequalities.
Joining that are ethical considerations. As with any new technology, there are concerns about privacy, security, and regulation. With a fully immersive environment, users could be tracked and monitored in granular ways. If you think that the privacy backlash to mobile device tracking has been elevated, wait until we have technology that tracks things like your heart rate and eye movement.
Additionally, there’s potential for addiction as the escapism of the metaverse lures individuals in and becomes a replacement for real-world experiences. Similarly, mental health issues could develop as people become too immersed in virtual worlds and lose touch with reality – similar in some ways to the mental health issues amplified by social media over the past decade.
Weighing all of the above together, the hope is that the metaverse is a net positive as we work out the kinks and pre-empt potential pitfalls. In fact, now is the time to start building guardrails, which is easier to do in construction phases as we’ve learned in the retroactive reform of the web.
As we examined in Part I of this series, VR has advanced in ways that make it more immersive and accessible – a trend that will continue in positive directions. VR headsets will also become lighter, more comfortable, and offer better resolution. With the additional twist of the metaverse, or at least its future potential, new possibilities open up for the embodied connected experiences outlined above.
As for timing around these converging technologies, VR is at more advanced stages than the still-conceptual metaverse. Indeed the latter is still in very early stages – and some might say a trough – of development and ideation.
Nonetheless, the trendlines appear to be on a collision course. This raises exciting but also scary possibilities. As these technologies continue to develop and converge, it will be crucial to consider their implications carefully and ensure that they’re constructed and applied for good.