Could the Coming ‘Metaverse’ Help Accelerate Sustainable Urban Development?

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By Sarbuland Khan

The first thing to note about ‘Metaverse’ is that it has yet to be created or even well-understood. The term ‘metaverse’ itself has been around for a long time. It was first coined as far back as 1992 by Neal Stephenson, in his science fiction novel “Snow Crash” in which he presented his vision of a computer created universe with programmable humans interacting in a virtual world. The first iteration of such a virtual space called “Second Life” was created in 2003, where your avatars could interact with each other and buy land in virtual space to build whatever they wished. 

Since then, ‘metaverse’ has been used as an esoteric buzz word in technology circles to describe the potential coming together of various elements of technologies involving social interactions, virtual environments and assets embedded in such platforms as interactive, massive, multi-player on-line games, virtual reality headsets and other gadgets. More recently, however, the term has spread to mainstream media where it has garnered serious attention especially in the months after Facebook changed its name to Meta last October. 

The idea of creating a metaverse realm gained fresh momentum recently when Meta (Facebook) committed to invest $10 billion in its Metaverse project this year and even larger amounts in the following years and Microsoft gave metaverse technology development as the rationale for its $ 68 billion bid to acquire Activision Blizzard, a gaming company. 

Apart from Facebook and Microsoft, the goal of building a metaverse is also being pursued by other big tech companies such as Apple, Google, Nvidia, AMD and others, who are investing heavily in developing devices, services, and software for what is being called a new 3D iteration of the Internet. 

Mark Zuckerberg has described the coming metaverse as “a virtual reality world where you can go to school, play games, watch concerts, browse store shelves and much more, without leaving your physical home. If the internet is two-dimensional with text and images on a flat screen, think of the metaverse as three-dimensional and multi-sensory, including touch.” 

Mathew Ball, a tech guru, who has written a lot on this topic, calls it ambient computing, meaning that rather than having access to the computer and its online world, you will be inside the virtual world and be able to interact with other users, its assets, and the virtual economy. 

Metaverse has also been described as “a fully realized digital world” which facilitates social experiences in virtual environments and provides assets and services that exist in virtual space. It combines virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality to create a digital world that can be seamlessly traversed. 

But what is the current state of play in creating a metaverse? 

Ball says that although the narrative is a little ahead of the reality of these technologies, this is in response to the enormity of the opportunity. The current market for metaverse technologies embedded in on-line interactive games, virtual reality headsets and other gadgets as well as on-line services and software, is estimated to be around $ 50 billion and is expected to grow 40 percent a year. If the vision of metaverse as a fully formed virtual world pans out, Ball foresees in it a growth opportunity of between $10 trillion (about $31,000 per person in the US) to $30 trillion (about $92,000 per person in the US) in the next 10 to 15 years. 

It is clear, however, that despite all the hype around metaverse, many challenges and questions remain to be resolved before it becomes a reality with billions of users and hundreds of billions of revenues. Even Mark Zuckerberg has referred to metaverse as a five-to-ten-year project. 

Current meta headsets which enable entry into virtual reality platforms are big, heavy and cumbersome. Much lighter and easily wearable glasses will need to be developed to make metaverse widely accessible and useable for extended periods. 

May be one day, with quantum computing coming into its own, we may even develop meta eyes by using meta lenses and turn into metazens: citizens of the metaverse! 

About the author: Sarbuland Khan is the former Executive Coordinator of the UN Global Alliance for ICT and Development, a prolific author in economics and an Advisory Board Member of CSU. He dedicated his career at the United Nations to development and technology issues, establishing the UN ICT Task Force and was a diplomat for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Pakistan.