Welcome to the real-unreal: Life in the Metaverse

It’s getting harder to know what reality is – because we are entering the Age of the Metaverse.

 Visitors are pictured in front of an art installation titled 'Machine Hallucinations - Space: Metaverse' by media artist Refik Anadol (photo credit: TYRONE SIU/ REUTERS)
Visitors are pictured in front of an art installation titled 'Machine Hallucinations - Space: Metaverse' by media artist Refik Anadol
(photo credit: TYRONE SIU/ REUTERS)

Get real! 

That is what we say to someone when they seem detached from reality.

But today? It’s getting harder to know what reality is – because we are entering the Age of the Metaverse. Welcome to real/unreal. Welcome to virtual reality. Welcome to augmented reality. Welcome to The Matrix, the real-life version.

What are virtual reality and augmented reality?

Virtual reality (VR) is an artificial environment created with software, designed to persuade the viewer that the sights and sounds showed are real. It is generally presented through headset goggles.

The Metaverse  will allow a new computing experience based on virtual reality. (credit: INTEL)The Metaverse will allow a new computing experience based on virtual reality. (credit: INTEL)

What you see looks real. Very real. But it is simply pixels – though the pixels could be generated from real scenes and places.

Augmented reality (AR) overlays sight and sound onto the real world in order to enhance one’s experience. Unlike virtual reality, which creates its own cyber world, augmented reality adds to the existing world as it is.

There is a mixture of VR and AR called ‘mixed reality’ (MR). It enables people to interact with both the real and the digital world. For instance, MR lets you take a virtual object from your real bedstand, e.g. a package, open it and peek inside. M-m-m-m – chocolate doughnuts. Click – and it’s on its way to you by messenger.

What is this Metaverse people are talking about? 

The Metaverse is a virtual reality space where users interact with a computer-generated environment – for instance, within a city street with shops and shoppers – and with other users.

There are numerous versions of the Metaverse. The most famous is that of Facebook. Founder Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has bet his company on it and even changed his company’s name to Meta.

The Metaverse is important because it could be the next Internet where users all over the world meet, engage, buy, sell, play, compete, date and work. It is emerging as a successor to social media, and may even swallow the World Wide Web as we experience it today. The Metaverse will shape every aspect of our lives, just as the Internet does today.

Give me examples of how we might use the Metaverse.

Wired magazine is a good source for explaining futuristic technologies. 

Wired explains: “The Metaverse translates to a digital economy, where users can create, buy, and sell goods…it allows you to take virtual items like clothes or cars from one platform to another.

“In the real world, you can buy a shirt from the mall and then wear it to a movie theater. Right now, most VR platforms have virtual identities, avatars, and inventories that are tied to just one platform. A metaverse might allow you to create a persona that you can take everywhere as easily as you can copy your profile picture from one social network to another. Facebook – sorry, Meta – thinks it will include fake houses where you can invite all your friends to hang out. Microsoft seems to think it could involve virtual meeting rooms to train new hires or chat with your remote coworkers.

“In Meta’s presentation on the metaverse, the company showed a scenario in which a young woman is sitting on her couch scrolling through Instagram when she sees a video that a friend posted of a concert that’s happening halfway across the world. The video then cuts to the concert, where the woman appears in an Avengers-style hologram. She’s able to make eye contact with her friend who is physically there, they’re both able to hear the concert, and they can see floating text hovering above the stage.”

How do we enter this Metaverse?

With headset goggles. For example, Oculus (now called Meta) headsets. Four US entrepreneurs founded Oculus in 2012 and developed a VR headset for video games. Facebook acquired Oculus for $2.3 billion in cash in March 2014.

VR sales totaled $300 m. in 2020 – 10 times more than in 2017 – and half of that went to Oculus headsets. These headsets may soon be as ubiquitous as cell phones, laptops, and earbuds. They cost about 1,300 shekels ($400). Facebook now dominates the enabling VR headsets and software market and strives under Zuckerberg to dominate the Metaverse as well.

Whoa! We just heard evidence Facebook does real harm! Do we really want Facebook to dominate? 

Last September, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook’s internal research showed how its Instagram application makes body image issues worse for teenage girls. Facebook kept this finding secret for two years. A former senior executive confirmed this in detail in testimony before the US Congress. Since at least 2019, staff at the company have known that their product is harmful for a large proportion of young users, particularly teenage girls.

Last June, Zuckerberg said Facebook would strive to build a maximalist, interconnected Metaverse. The company’s divisions are focused on products for communities, creators, and commerce, he noted, and virtual reality would increasingly work to realize this vision.

“We will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company, to being a Metaverse company,” Zuckerberg said. To show he is serious, he changed Facebook’s corporate name to Meta. The market value of Meta’s stock today is close to $1 trillion. 

“What I think is most interesting is how these themes will come together into a bigger idea,” Zuckerberg said. “Our overarching goal across all of these initiatives is to help bring the Metaverse to life.”

Uh oh! Listen to this warning from Andrew Hutchinson, writing in socialmediatoday.com: “Zuckerberg’s announced intention is to build a more maximalist version of Facebook, spanning social presence, office work, and entertainment. This comes at a time when the US government is attempting to break his current company up.”

Zuckerberg’s vision is that “no one company will run the metaverse — it will be an embodied Internet, operated by many different players in a decentralized way.”

Experts claim the Metaverse will be built by creators and developers making new experiences and digital items that are interoperable (i.e. work on many platforms). But in fact, someone will have to establish the platform to make this possible.

Facebook? Really? Do we trust Zuckerberg to control the new Internet? So far, the score is, government regulators zero, social media giants 10. And it is not even halftime.

I am dubious. Facebook earns about $10b. every three months, or $40b. yearly. It does not do this by being Mother Teresa. It is profit-driven. 

Google made $19b. in net income in the third quarter of 2021. Its ad revenue is based on knowing more about us than we know about ourselves. Do no harm? That was once Google’s mantra. It has long since disappeared. It does good. And it also does harm. Shall we place our trust in them? 

How will the Metaverse enable people to make money? Will ‘monetizing’ it work like Facebook and Google, selling ads shaped by our personal online clicks?

Probably not. Just as you can rent a real store in a shopping center, you may be able to rent a Metaverse store or buy a Metaverse home. Maybe, with cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin. For some, the Metaverse may eventually be more real than Allenby St. in Tel Aviv.

Who gets the rent? Facebook. Microsoft. Google. Other tech giants.

Is Israel involved in the Metaverse?

For sure. Here is how:

The Metaverse is built on a highly realistic, accurate portrayal of real things, with pixels – dots on a screen. This in turn requires powerful GPUs – graphics processing units. This is a processor designed to accelerate graphics rendering of sharp, clear realistic images. 

The world leader in GPUs is a company called Nvidia, a US company founded 28 years ago by a visionary Taiwan-born entrepreneur named Jensen Huang and friends.

On March 11, 2019, Nvidia acquired an Israeli tech company Mellanox Technologies for $6.9b. Mellanox was launched in 1999 by founder and CEO Eyal Waldman and friends, a group that left Intel and Galileo. Mellanox grew to become a global tech giant specializing in high-performance computing.

Nvidia has left Mellanox largely intact, reaping Mellanox innovations that have strengthened and broadened its line of products. The advent of the Metaverse has shifted computing technology’s focus from CPUs – central processing units, like Intel’s CORE processors – to GPUs, which enable the creation of highly realistic VR images. Nvidia is a key player in the burgeoning Metaverse, and Mellanox is a key addition to Nvidia’s competencies. 

So, is the Metaverse good for humanity – or bad? Or both?

Let’s start with the optimistic view, á la Jensen Huang. Here is what he told TIME magazine in September, in an interview for the cover story about him:

“In the future, the digital world or the virtual world will be thousands of times bigger than the physical world. There will be a new New York City. There’ll be a new Shanghai. Every single factory and every single building will have a digital twin that will simulate and track the physical version of it. Always.

“By doing so, engineers and software programmers could simulate new software that will ultimately run in the physical version of the car, the physical version of the robot, the physical version of the airport, the physical version of the building. All of the software that’s going to be running in these physical things will be simulated in the digital twin first, and then it will be downloaded into the physical version. And as a result, the product keeps getting better at an exponential rate.

“The second thing is, you’re going to be able to go in and out of the two worlds through wormholes. We’ll go into the virtual world using virtual reality, and the objects in the virtual world, in the digital world, will come into the physical world, using augmented reality. 

So what’s going to happen is, pieces of the digital world will be temporarily or even semi-permanently augmenting our physical world. It’s ultimately about the fusion of the virtual world and the physical world.”

And now, the pessimistic view.

Early this morning, I walked our little mixed-breed Yorkie, Pixie. We heard the birds singing to greet the dawn and watched the sun fill the eastern sky with glowing orange. 

Pixie sniffed the flowers, bushes, and rocks, and marked her territory as ancestral wolves once did. We both love and enjoy the real world, daily.

One day, an avatar me will walk an avatar dog in the Metaverse. It too will sniff the rocks and bushes. It will all seem very real. There may even be smell-o-vision – smells to accompany the sights and sounds.

But it just won’t be the same. 

Will it, Pixie? 

The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion, and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com