What is the metaverse?

By Elias Rosell, Political Editor for Norrtelje Tidning

The pandemic years were a bad time for live-music lovers and artists. But when concerts in the physical world were no longer possible, some artists went virtual. The American rapper Travis Scott held a concert inside the online video game Fortnite, reaching 45 million views

The German carmaker BMW has created a virtual replica of its factory floor in the hopes that this will help increase productivity and safety among the factory employees. 

On August 31st, 2022, the government of Seoul released a beta version of its virtual municipal world, Metaverse Seoul. The aim is to complete a metaverse environment with all administrative services by 2026. 

Through augmented reality technology, the social media service Pinterest has created a feature allowing users to see how furniture would fit in a room before deciding what to buy.  

These four examples, all mentioned in the consulting company McKinsey’s report, Value creation in the metaverse, show how the metaverse is already being used today. 

So, what is the metaverse? There does not seem to be a universally accepted definition. Still, it is often agreed to be a 3D world, made available through devices like virtual reality (VR) headsets, where users interact through an avatar. 

The exact definition may be up for discussion – but there is no doubt that a lot of money is being invested in the metaverse as the next big thing. In 2021, venture capital and private equity funding into the metaverse reached $13 billion

But there are some clouds on the horizon. Since Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg changed the company’s name to Meta, they have invested billions of dollars in realising Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse. But the company’s main bet, the virtual reality game Horizon World, has struggled to attract players so far. At Meta, the project has been jokingly called MMH (make Mark happy), employees told the New York Times

However, we should neither dismiss the company Meta nor the Metaverse as a concept. Even if these investments turn out badly in the short term, it does not have to exclude technology from being successful in the longer term. The dot-com bubble around the turn of the millennium did not stop the internet from changing the world, as several analysts have pointed out. 

Enormous possibilities 

There are, therefore, good reasons to consider how the metaverse operates now and what ways it could be used in the future. Let’s, therefore, take a closer look at the four sectors representing the examples from the beginning of this article: entertainment, manufacturing, governance, and retail. 

Let’s start with entertainment. 

Considering the great interest in metaverse concerts, it is no wild guess that this trend should grow even after the coronavirus pandemic. For example, the MTV Video Music Awards have already added a Best Metaverse Performance prize

Theme parks are another obvious candidate for the metaverse. In 2005, the physical amusement park Astro World in Houston closed down. But now the park will be resurrected, and visitors will once again be able to ride their roller coasters – only in the metaverse. 

From there, it is not far-fetched to say that other historical environments could also be recreated. For example, through virtual reality, some companies already allow visitors to see ancient Rome.  

Regarding manufacturing and the metaverse, it is not unlikely that more companies will create virtual replicas of their factories in order to make production more efficient. They could also be used during the ongoing construction of a building to discuss solutions and optimise the process. 

A consumer buying a car can test the car first in the metaverse, for example, to try different gadgets and, in that way, get the car properly equipped from the start. In addition, the metaverse can be used to train employees more efficiently and safely. The airline JetBlue uses this for training its technicians. An advantage of such preparation is that mistakes in the virtual world do not have real-world consequences, as the Association for Advancing Automation writes. 

If we look at the public sector and politics, they have a long way to go. 

“You’re always going to get these outlier cities who want to be seen as leading edge, but many cities are just beginning to embrace social media; they have pretty bad websites”, says Jonathan Reichental, former CIO for the City of Palo Alto, to Cities Today

But Seoul is not alone in the metaverse. Barbados announced that it would open an embassy in the virtual world of Decentraland, although it is unclear exactly what this entails. 

Political campaigns have moved from the streets and squares to social media in just a few decades. It would not be illogical if political campaigns’ next move were into the metaverse. People may use their avatars to spread political messages in different virtual worlds. We have already begun to see glimpses of such a future. Already around 2007-2008, several politicians, including Barack Obama, set up campaign offices in the virtual world of Second Life. However, this was not an exclusively successful endeavor – the Democratic presidential nominee John Edwards had his office in Second Life attacked and plastered with Marxist/Leninist slogans.  

There is more. In combination with smart contracts, blockchain could be used to create an e-voting system, enabling virtual worlds within the metaverse to be governed by direct democracy. 

Looking at the fourth example from our introduction – retail – we can see several trends that should prove to be good growth opportunities. In a decade or so, it may be as obvious for retailers to have a virtual store that customers can experience in 3D as it is today to conduct sales on the website. Another possible development is for retail in the virtual and physical worlds to increasingly merge. Several famous manufacturers have started selling clothes in the metaverse – but trends can also emerge from the virtual world into the physical world, like a popular hat from the online game platform Roblox appearing on store shelves

These are just a few examples of metaverse uses that are already or could soon be underway, not to mention how the metaverse could make education more fun, offer new financial services, personalise healthcare, enhance teamwork and collaboration and more. 

The possibilities for innovations are boundless. 

But not all of these will be realised. For the metaverse to become the next big thing, companies, consumers, developers, and organisations need the freedom to experiment with different technologies and applications. 

Politicians should not interfere with creative pursuits or those things which entrepreneurs do better on their own; they do need to create much-needed laws protecting users in the metaverse. 

There is no reason to be naive and believe that the crime and problems we see on the internet today will not also be mirrored in the metaverse. Both new and old problems will exist there, too. What if someone murders another person’s avatar, which the person in question has used and identified with for years, for example? Could popular virtual worlds turn into monopoly markets? There are many issues for the EU to address when the Commission presents its initiative on virtual worlds in 2023. Otherwise, technology will move faster than legislation. 

If we are alert to the risks, there are great opportunities in the metaverse. 

Author bio

Elias Rosell

Elias Rosell is an Earth Scientist who is working as a journalist. He often writes about environmental and energy issues. He now works as a political editor at Norrtelje Tidning and has previously worked as a research coordinator at the European Liberal Forum.

DISCLAIMER: Published by the European Liberal Forum. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the European Liberal Forum. 

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