When Facebook rebranded itself as Meta in October, CEO Mark Zuckerberg described his vision for the “next chapter of the internet.” People would work, socialize, shop, and live much of their lives in an immersive digital world called the Metaverse.
Other tech giants, including Microsoft, Google and Apple, alongside video game companies, fashion brands, entertainment companies and numerous startups, have also invested billions in metaverse technology and apps.
In an effort to better understand what the next evolution of the internet might be, “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal explored a virtual world with Rabindra “Robby” Ratan, associate professor in the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University.
Using a Quest 2 virtual reality headset purchased from Meta for $299, Ryssdal met with Ratan in a simulated conference room.
“Little moves,” Ratan said when explaining how to navigate. “You don’t want to vomit.”
This virtual conference room was created by a company called Engage, which bills itself as a “metaverse platform” for immersive meetings and events. “It’s one of many,” Ratan said.
“I think that’s an ill-informed question,” Ryssdal said. “How many metaverses are there? »
“I would say there aren’t any right now,” said Ratan, who has been studying virtual worlds for about two decades. “It’s kind of like the question, how many internets are there?” he said. “In 1988, there were zero. Maybe in 1992 you would say, ‘OK, there are internets’. There is an Internet forming. So it’s like a little oasis in the internet in three dimensions.
Ratan regularly uses Engage to meet with undergraduates for his VR classes. For Ryssdal, Ratan demonstrated drawing on a whiteboard and “creating” virtual objects, such as a dinosaur skull.
In the screenshot on the left, a virtual Tyrannosaurus rex skull chews on a participant in a computer-generated meeting. On the right, the avatar of Ryssdal draws on a whiteboard in virtual reality.
“I often ask my students to create virtual objects like this, and we bring them up as part of our discussion,” he said. “For example, if it’s a course related to architecture, we could talk about buildings. People could bring things they design, we can look at them from different angles.
Some observers say the “metaverse” is basically a marketing term used by companies that build anything related to virtual and augmented reality or immersive digital environments. “One day we can just easily switch between virtual platforms, [but] right now you have to install it as an app on your phone,” Ratan said.
In the Engage app, Ratan took Ryssdal to another, much larger virtual space with multiple levels, seating, and a stage.
Screenshots of a simulated “exhibition hall” on the immersive meeting and education platform Engage.
“It’s actually one of my favorite places to hold classes,” Ratan said. “I’m going to install the students in different booths and prepare a small presentation. And then in class, we move around and we hear them present, but we can also imagine that for business meetings, of course. For congresses, all types of event conventions.
Ratan helped Ryssdal “create” a life-size virtual helicopter.
“Let’s say we sell helicopters,” Ratan said. “I could, as you can see, very easily create a helicopter for you to see…and make pieces of gear based on custom commands that people actually experience in a virtual space like this.”
Between hardware, software, events and advertising opportunities in virtual environments, Bloomberg Intelligence estimated that the metaverse could represent an $800 billion market by 2024.
But Ratan said part of the economic potential of the metaverse is that platforms become more interoperable or easier to move around. Currently, it is difficult to transfer digital assets from one platform to another.
“Do you think the challenge is the technology, or is the scale of the challenge in getting wider adoption? asked Ryssdal.
“Typically when we look at mass media, historically technology is the scale issue,” Ratan said. “We need to be able to standardize the different technologies in order to produce at a low enough cost…and we also need them to be less of a walled garden.”
Ryssdal explores a simulated underwater environment in virtual reality with Rabindra Ratan, associate professor of media and information at Michigan State University.
In another virtual environment – meant to resemble the bottom of the ocean – Ratan and Ryssdal discussed the concept of avatar identities, or visual representations of people in digital spaces.
“There’s this phenomenon called the Proteus effect, which is one of the main theories I’ve studied as a media researcher,” Ratan said. “It’s the idea that when you use an avatar that has certain characteristics, it influences your behavior.”
For example, “If you use a bigger avatar, you will trade more aggressively. If you use a more attractive avatar, you will have more social trust,” he said. “My personal favorite: If you use an avatar that looks like an ‘inventor’ versus a street-wearing avatar, you’ll actually get more creative ideas while brainstorming.”
Ratan’s own avatar, the one he used to speak with Ryssdal, is called Hiro Protagonist. It’s a reference to the 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash,” in which author Neal Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” to describe a virtual 3D world.
Ratan said he has been using this name for about two decades. “I was so inspired early on by these technologies.”
While a 3D Internet that seamlessly blends virtual and digital life is still science fiction in many ways, companies are already hosting virtual concerts, buying virtual real estate, and creating merchandise specifically for the metaverse, which they often call the metaverse.
Ryssdal pointed to similarities to the film adaptation of another sci-fi novel, “Ready Player One,” which is largely set in an immersive virtual reality video game. In terms of technology, Ratan said, “many elements of this vision of the future are likely to be true.”
There’s a lot going on in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is there for you.
You rely on Marketplace to break down world events and tell you how it affects you in a factual and accessible way. We count on your financial support to continue to make this possible.
Your donation today fuels the independent journalism you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help maintain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.