Meta-morphosis: how do we reach a metaverse state of mind?

Right now, the metaverse is no more than a lot of speculation – and that’s great! With nothing off the table, creators are free to show us what might be.
A concept of a neural network of soft illuminated lines in shades of green and white, criss-crossing against a black background.

Written by Sarah Vloothuis

Senior Manager External Communications

Do you have hefty bout of Metaverse fatigue yet? *yawns*. It’s a thing.

If you do, it’s entirely understandable. There are millions of column inches already devoted to pretty much every aspect of the metaverse you can possibly think of, such are the hopes and fears pinned to the consequences of virtual worlds. But don’t worry, this isn’t the beginning of a Matrix-esque dissection of the nature of reality. Nor is it a thumping fanfare, hailing the dawn of a new world. Instead, over the course of five articles, we’re simply going to take a look at how the metaverse might shape itself around us every day. To begin, we’re going to think about how we might adapt to, accept and embrace the initial glimmers of the metaverse – before it even presents itself.

But first, we must settle on a definition of what the metaverse is and has the potential to be. Because, at this stage, there are near limitless trains of thought on where we currently sit on the zero-to-metaverse timeline. Some feel that our current hyper-digital world is a kind of metaverse ground zero, where the ‘real’ and the ‘online’ sort of melt into each other as we dip in and out of each. And while that is quite true, it’s not exactly the transcendent experience that’s promised by the name. After all, ‘metaverse’ combines the Greek word for ‘beyond’ with ‘universe’ – which is a lot to live up to. By comparison, where we currently sit is vaguely discomforting because, yes, we’re used to it, but we also still have a lot of complaints. At the very most it’s a kind of clunky ‘meta-beta-verse’, if you will.

Others pin their colours to Web3 as the metaverse we are looking for. And, yes, Web3 (sometimes called ‘the decentralized internet’ or Web 3.0) will no doubt have a huge role to play, as it promises to put the control of data into the hands of users rather than businesses and uses technologies (such as blockchain) to do so. But even though Web3 goes hand in hand with the development of a metaverse, it certainly cannot be the metaverse. I guess one might say that it’s an operational layer that will help us to reach it.

So… what will the metaverse be? Right now, it’s impossible to know for sure. But we know that across the world, people and organisations are working towards the model of a network of 3D virtual worlds that can be used by everyone, which has foundational financial and legal parameters that are not dissimilar to real life. The assumption is that it will look and feel like a single space, but in fact we’re likely to experience it as lots of different places, just as we move from one online – or real life – space to another. Because let’s be clear, the metaverse is not a monolith. Like the internet we currently live by, we travel from owner to owner, experiencing how they present their worlds to us. If we’re lucky, they care enough about user experience to make this a smooth and pleasing journey. If not (and we’ve all been there), it’s frustrating at best, intolerable at worst. Change, as they say, is the only constant.

On the left, a dark-haired woman in red leggings and a matching red vest top wears a white VR headset. She raises one hand in a ‘high five’ gesture. It is met by a virtual version of herself – a cartoon-like figure in identical clothing but without the VR headset. They both stand against a bland grey/yellow background.

Right now, no one really knows what the metaverse will look like, but it’s no accident that technology leaders are seeking to paint pictures of how we might see ourselves in virtual environments.

It’s not always about technology, even when it’s about technology.

If this sounds strange, then let’s put it into context. Change can be scary, and that’s ok. In fact, it’s part of what makes us human. Feelings of fear exist to protect us, and they pop up in any number of circumstances, including adopting new ways of doing things or simply trying something for the first time. For example, there’s a great bit of internet legend that says the first iPhone did not actually need to have a home button – the technology certainly existed to render a physical button unnecessary. But one was included anyway because the iPhone itself was so new and bewildering to users that it provided a place of safety for them. Hit the home button and everything goes back to the beginning – phew. It took until the iPhone X for the home button to disappear, by which time users were tired of the space it took up and the clunkiness of clicking because they had adapted to haptic feedback (the little vibrations you get when you use a touch screen). Even haptics themselves are something of a psychological user experience safety net, providing real life familiarity in a digital space. So, with this in mind, it stands to reason that a concept as huge as the metaverse might take a bit of getting used to – even for gamers, who routinely enter virtual spaces. At this stage, you’ll notice that technology leaders with any level of connection to the metaverse are framing the future less in terms of technology and more in regard to the way we will perhaps see ourselves within a virtual environment. That’s no accident.

Now is the time for selling the idea of the metaverse

Consider for a moment the way that we currently use the internet. When you put it under the microscope, it’s not intuitive at all. We are humans and our very being – physical and mental – is designed for a three-dimensional world. In this respect, it seems somewhat amusing that we spend so much of our time tapping keyboards and swiping screens, firing out emojis and acronyms in lieu of actually pulling faces and laughing. Even the opening line of this article is an example of how we naturally want to bring our whole selves to the table. Every tool we have ever used to interact with the world has its limitations, (from phones to smartphones, PCs to laptops to tablets) but each was settled upon as we increasingly saw the benefits, they became easier to use, more desirable and gained associated status. We are already following the same pattern and eagerly await glimpses of the technology we will use to access the metaverse, as well as an idea of what we’ll see when we use it. At this point, the approaches of tech leaders are more hypothetical and less about making sales, but nonetheless, it is a point of gently easing change into the mindsets of future users.

A quote that reads, “Content creators can use VR to break down some barriers for people who don’t want to see the metaverse through the eyes of an avatar. Our VR lens can enable them to create the best possible content they can.” This is attributed to Alex Thurgood, Canon EMEA Strategic Planning & Digital Operations Director.

Of course, there are future users and future users. “If you talk to anyone in the gaming environment, the concept of avatars, virtual money, non-physical items for purchase, internet communities, and the concept of interaction in real-time in a virtual space is just… there,” says Alex Thurgood, Canon EMEA Strategic Planning & Digital Operations Director. “For others, there’s going to be a natural maturity of tolerance and exposure to the metaverse.” That said, the very nature of gaming is immersive, but content realism is enjoyably variable and there still exists a space between user and avatar. Simply speaking, gamers are sat in front of a screen.

Moving from screen to Virtual Reality interface is going to be an ask. Introducing VR content to the mainstream, outside of a metaverse context, is just one way of warming the world to the concept. Take Canon USA’s Kokomo, for example. It’s a technology currently in development that brings VR to video calling. Using Canon cameras to create real life avatars, Kokomo can fully mirror our true physical appearance – even facial expressions – inside what is effectively a 3D video call. Not only that, but it can transport you to a choice of beautiful, virtual locations to do so. Want to speak to your parents who live on the other side of the world? Meet them in Paris for a coffee. It’s a liminal space that is both unreal enough to be a marvel and real enough to be emotionally powerful. The metaverse precursor sweet spot, perhaps?

But why do we need what we’ve already got?

“The real question is: do people want to have an experience that is as close to real world as possible?” asks Alex. “Do they want pure escapism or absolute immersion?” Well, this largely depends on the context. Kokomo, for example, is absolutely a positive use of mirroring the real world in a virtual one. Conversely, Minecraft and Roblox are about as far from hyperreal as it’s possible to be – and they are globally adored. Metaverse theorists believe both will exist and it’s down to user choice as to where to visit based on their level of comfort within that space. That comfort will be in the hands of the creators, some of which will be large organisations, but plenty will be smaller, independent studios. This is because creating VR content is not the money pit that it once was. Tools like the Canon Dual Fisheye lens can shoot 180° VR content at a significantly lower price than has previously been possible and has become a content creator’s go-to in the space on a global level.

It is these creators who will build the bridges to take users to new, unthought of places. They already have the power to give people what is familiar but has been inaccessible through normal means. Scenario-driven surgical and emergency services training are increasingly being delivered by VR, and these kinds of applications will filter more and more into the mainstream. The art world has embraced VR as a means to reach wider audiences, as well as to create new artworks. With Google Earth VR, you can already travel the world. Alex is firm that it’s about setting the bar high now. He believes that in the hands of the right creators, “the metaverse could be entirely different to anything we might imagine. It could be better. Certainly, better than we have now.”

A woman with long blonde hair sits on a couch. She wears a patterned green blouse and grey trousers, and a VR headset. In front of her is a coffee table, upon which is a camera on a tripod, a smartphone, some books and a small plant. Behind her is a white bookcase, two curtained windows and a bicycle.

Kokomo software by Canon lets you present your real self in virtual reality.

We create, and we wait…

VR, of course, is far from a new technology, but as plenty of tech giants will tell you, the world simply hasn’t been ready for it. That said, it seems that the time for Virtual Reality may finally be upon us, as we eagerly await the imminent launches of headsets from Apple, Meta and others. This alone, of course, will not hail the impending arrival of a brave new virtual world. Time is by far the biggest factor in realising a metaverse of any maturity, as it will need a convergence in huge advances in hardware, processing power, infrastructure, technology and culture for the lights to go on in any real way. In the meantime, we are presented with a golden opportunity to understand what kind of experiences we are looking for in the metaverse, to create content and understand how it sits with users. If you like, it’s the time to use the tech that may drive the metaverse to examine what the best possible ‘face’ of the metaverse will be. How meta is that?

Organisations like Canon are already working with creators who are modelling all kinds of exciting, clever and responsible VR experiences. We’re ready to see inside a world that can be both familiar and unfamiliar, completely fantastical or even inconceivable. It’s work that is essential in helping us all to understand what it might mean to occupy a plane of existence that has the potential to give us the superpowers we lack in the real world. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring just a few of the ways that the metaverse will reach us, through everything from our sense of self and health, to how we work and learn.

Sarah Vloothuis Senior Manager External Communications

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