Courtesy of Meta

December 5, 2021

Into the Metaverse? The Future of Technology in a Budding VR World

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While Facebook has been leading the world in VR hardware development for the past decade, it’s recent rebrand as “Meta” shows that the company is determined to take the next step, or leap, in VR software as well. But in the new Meta keynote, Mark Zuckerberg proposes more than just the creation of a network of VR worlds: he sees the future as an increasingly digital landscape. Outside the terms of augmented and virtual reality, Meta’s vision for human connectivity challenges the meaning of “irl.” And we see that a technology once developed for gamers might soon become something much more common and widely applicable. 

The giant gulp that Meta gives us as part of their concept keynote includes a mix of VR and AR. But first, what’s the difference between AR and VR? And what do these terms mean for us and for Facebook Meta? AR or augmented reality is essentially what happens in Pokemon Go. It’s when virtual components are laid over an existing background or environment. Meta is interested in using this technology as a means of giving users the ability to interact more with the real world, or more specifically with virtual components placed in a real world setting. The video’s example of 3D street art sticks out here as a great example, but the truth is we don’t know the full scope of what kind of AR Meta might look to implement. VR, on the other hand, is something everyone’s familiar with, unless you’ve been living under a rock. 

Now that we’ve established the tools that Meta has at its disposal, we can talk about what they plan to build. In the early segments of the keynote video, Mark Zuckerberg describes the creation of a network of VR spaces called the Metaverse. More specifically, Facebook calls this early network “Horizon,” and it comes built in with a personal space, Horizon Home, a larger community space, Horizon Worlds, and a smaller collaborative space called Horizon Workrooms. Each of these spaces functions like an item in a drop-down menu on a website, where you can hop in and out of each option while still remaining on the same web page, Horizon. 

This function falls under Meta’s idea of “interoperability,” which is essentially the founding principle of the Metaverse. In other words, everything in the Metaverse is connected, and everything you create or own digitally exists and can be transferred across all individual spaces. Individually, the features listed in the keynote video all exist. Avatar creation, home realms, NFT merchandise and a slew of new interactive landscapes have already been established in separate realms. But it’s this idea of interoperability that breathes new value into VR and, more importantly, an emerging virtual economy

However, in spite of this slew of VR capabilities, it’s the AR technology that might have the greatest impact on everyday life. Because AR is a halfway point between a virtual world and the physical environment around us, it could easily creep into our daily schedules in much less noticeable ways than it’s fully immersive counterpart. I always imagined what real-life holograms would look like since seeing Star Wars as a kid, but I never imagined that by looking through a pair of glasses I might be able to play table tennis in my apartment’s living room with someone who is 3,000 miles away. 

At the 16 minute mark in the keynote video, Meta shows us their version of “Holograms,” and how these virtual assets can be present at any time and place in the real world. And while it is true that you could take your AR glasses off at any time to opt out of the digital overload, you might not want to if everyone else is opting in. 

It’s not hard to imagine that AR could facilitate much of the interaction our computers or phones do, and in five or maybe ten years will come to define the way we communicate across the internet. Just picture sitting at your desk, looking up and seeing your parents sitting across from you and you’ll know what I mean. While from a technical standpoint, AR is more difficult to create than VR, realistically it would be much easier, and less invasive, to use on a daily basis. 

But to address the question that is on everyone’s mind, what do these technologies actually mean for our own lives, and how will Meta’s vision affect social interaction, work and play? Meta proposes numerous answers to these questions, not least of which is how its technology will impact remote working. The pandemic shift in the workplace has persisted to this day, and a large number of workers still prefer remote work to making a trip to the office — and why wouldn’t they? But while a majority of people are returning to work, that same majority says that they would prefer some form of hybridized schedules to the full-time in person commitment. While people are fine working from their laptop or iPad, as Zuckerberg proposes, a VR or AR experience might enhance the ability for most people to work from home. 

In terms of the social and gaming landscapes, as described earlier, Meta imagines constructing a network of virtual realms through which people can hop with relative ease. You could go from a VR chat sandbox to a video game with friends to even collaborating in a conference room from your desk in a matter of minutes. The possibilities are endless — at least until full-dive comes out and we all turn into vegetables. 

Jokes aside, though, Meta’s vision, should it be implemented, marks a major turning point in our short, technology-addicted lives. What happens when office buildings are abandoned only to be reconstructed in a virtual plot of land bought with Ethereum? Or when what’s left of our banks decide to move to digital hubs with real tellers using virtual avatars? When you get right down to it, a digitally-oriented world is not far from our reach, and it could have a massive impact on real-estate. Businesses just might abandon brick-and-mortar and take to the cloud, leaving only supermarkets and homes to line our streets. But, that’s enough sci-fi speculation for now. 

It’s exciting, but also terrifying. Zuckerberg’s video, whether you like him or not, is enough to convince anyone that the world as we know it is on the verge of enormous technological change, again. And it doesn’t matter whether Facebook is the one who implements this change or not, word’s already out. It’s only a matter of time before other tech companies start picking up the pace to compete. Even Google, which not long ago abandoned its plans for VR, might bring them back to life. I wouldn’t be surprised. And while it would be difficult for other companies and developers to create their own Metaverses, considering Facebook owns the hardware, you can be sure that third parties will be scrambling to integrate their own worlds and functions into Meta’s collective body. 

People often say to embrace change, but this is a particularly big change to embrace. Especially in the midst of overlapping concerns regarding our current consumption of technology. That said, concerning doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad. Digital connectivity is usually a good thing, but it can also come with the cost of disassociating from our immediate surroundings. And VR and AR capabilities have the power to improve upon, but also worsen these concerns: attention span, eyestrain, muscle atrophy, anxiety, depression and all the other voodoo tech use issues that old people conjure. But what happens when “in real life” starts to describe not just the glass coffee table, but also the holo-chess set that rests on top of it, flickering ever so slightly as light passes through? It seems that the future is always moving closer toward us, and while it is important to be concerned about what progress drops at our door, we should also consider how we can use it to our benefit.  After all, technology is here to stay — and it’s only getting better.

Matthew Kassorla is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]