Metaverse: What if they create a parallel digital universe and no one gets in? | Technology
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The metaverse is the great bet for the future of Meta. Other big technology companies, such as Microsoft, Intel or Nvidia, have supported the initiative with strong investments apparently aimed at building the project. The motivation of companies in developing a kind of immersive virtual world is clear: if they manage to get us to spend several hours a day in it, they will be able to extract (and then monetize) more data about users than they already collect by browsing the Internet. They even want to make money selling products and services to improve their stay in that kind of total video game that will be the metaverse.
The great unknown is whether or not users will embrace this proposal. What incentives can someone have to decide to move part of their life time to a completely artificial environment? Many companies say they are already working on the metaverse, but nobody really knows what it will be like (if it even exists at all). Mark Zuckerberg himself, founder of Facebook and great supporter of the idea, estimated the time it will take to be ready in years or decades.
Some analysts have appreciated a possible root error in the very conception of this supposed revolution. It is true that in the last two years we have spent more time than ever connected to the internet, and that we have learned to do almost everything on-line, but that is largely due to the context of the pandemic. When this subsides completely, will we really prefer a virtual encounter with the avatars of our friends to hang out with them in a bar? Will we be more interested in seeing a giant doll in the image and likeness of our favorite artist than hearing him sing live in a stadium?
The success of Meta, they say from the company, will be based on the fact that they will be able to create a fascinating environment that will seduce us thanks to its audiovisual richness and its graphic perfection. We will be able to touch things, move them, talk to people. “The defining quality of the metaverse will be a sense of presence, as if we are right there with another person or in another place,” Zuckerberg described when he introduced the project in October last year. “But for everything to work, we will need to be home bored for the foreseeable future,” Gian M. Volpicelli responded skeptically in an article in wired.
Meta’s new toy may conquer our lives. Or it may be a colossal failure. There are arguments to defend both conclusions. The key will be if you are able to seduce people. And it is not clear that it will happen. These are some of the questions raised by the idea.
1. A not so perfect world
Zuckerberg understands the metaverse as a natural evolution of the internet. It is not enough to see the Network: you have to live in it. We will enter to play and entertain ourselves, but also to work, study, shop, play sports or socialize with our friends. Until now, browsing the internet was like watching a movie: that reality turns off when we take our eyes off the screen. The metaverse proposes us to get into the film, to be one of its characters.
Is that possible? To what extent can we converse with a friend in the metaverse without feeling out of place? The answer is resounding: a face-to-face dialogue is, for the moment, irreplaceable. “It is scientifically known that the patterns of synchrony in behavior when you are interacting with a person are enormously complex and fast. They require an extraordinary processing capacity”, explains José Miguel Fernández Dols, Professor of Social Psychology at the Autonomous University of Madrid and an expert in social norms and emotions. “The brain is interpreting what it hears and at the same time it sends a series of instructions to the body to generate a synchrony that, for example, transmits to the other person that you are going to take the turn to speak. All this is done with very brief non-verbal signs that require sensitivity on both sides; if that sensitivity does not exist, the interaction is never perfect”.
Or put another way: communication through avatars will always seem artificial to us. With the rise of video calls, we have already seen that a slight desynchronization in response times turns an experience as routine as talking into something unpleasant.
However, there is the option that we get used to this new way of relating, just as instant messaging has been turning off phone calls among young people. “It scares me that we will end up choosing virtual interactions because they are easier and faster without realizing that we are missing out on something much more valuable,” says philosopher Carissa Véliz, professor at the Institute for Ethics in AI at the University of Oxford.
2. Usability and generational change
At the beginning of this century there was already a first attempt to institutionalize the metaverse: it was called Second Life and it didn’t catch on, among other things, because the internet wasn’t as fast as it is now and virtual reality was less developed. Will he succeed this time? “The key to whether or not a new technology succeeds is normally in the dragging capacity that the influencers”, explains Rubén Blanco, professor of sociology at the Complutense University of Madrid.
How do you get that call effect? There is not a magic formula. “Its appeal will lie in the experimentation and emotion it generates,” says Blanco. Another thing is that this is enough to catch the influencers. Because there is another key point in the equation: the generational component. The metaverse drinks from dynamics already present in video games that have been enjoyed by millennials and centennial. Facebook users, by contrast, are getting older. With WhatsApp and Instagram the same thing is starting to happen. “Zuckerberg has seen in the metaverse the way to generate new needs in other potential users, especially young people,” highlights the sociologist.
Managing in the metaverse will not be easy for those who have not sucked technology since childhood. One of the keys to the success of smartphones is that they are very easy to use. Most features are activated by tapping the screen once or twice. We take it out and put it away in a matter of seconds. To enter the metaverse, however, it is necessary to put on glasses that do not allow us to see what surrounds us. We will have to learn not to literally crash into the walls.
3. The self-fulfilling prophecy
We do not know if the metaverse will come into existence, but what is certain is that it will never do so if the gear does not start moving. It is necessary to attract investors and create expectation. “The metaverse for now is just a discourse that tries to form a reality before it arrives. Until then we will see how the same logics or business models of Silicon Valley firms are reinforced”, says Ekaitz Cancela, a researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) of the Open University of Catalonia.
Meta is signing patents for systems to track eye movement, to extract biometric data from video selfies or to extract data from the experience on-line more accurately than ever before. In this sense, the metaverse is the refinement of some dynamics of extracting information from consumers that already existed.
But even if the background doesn’t change, the form must. “Meta needs to stay on the front lines somehow. You can’t lose market share without reacting. What can you offer today as a novelty that is attractive?” Blanco asks. “You have to announce the plan to get the necessary attention. People have to get soaked, and then it develops. The ball is generated and in the end, in a few years, we will talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy: do you see how the metaverse was the future?
4. The ghost of addiction
The rise of video games on-line It has been causing problems among minors for some time. “Children and young people who come to the consultation have emotional, affective and cognitive alterations that we are seeing in adults with a long time of coca or alcohol consumption. We talk about loss of attention, lack of interest in reality, deterioration of attachment and social bonding or a high incidence of loneliness problems, because their friends are the ones from the game and in real life they run out of people”, describes Marian García, psychologist and director of the addiction treatment center Orbium Development.
The great fear of García and other professionals in his field is that the metaverse could exacerbate these types of trends already present on the internet today. “It seems that amplified experiences will be offered, so a priori it will have a brutal capacity for adherence. It is going to pose immediate problems for a lot of people, ”he stresses. “If I find a place in the metaverse where I can create an avatar that I like and makes me feel good, I will use it more and more. And it is possible that one day he will have withdrawal symptoms: irritability when he is not inside, disinterest in everything that is not that. Then I’ll be addicted.”
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