The Metaverse isn't New - So Why is Big Tech Acting Like it is?by@KiraLeigh
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The Metaverse isn't New - So Why is Big Tech Acting Like it is?

by Kira LeighJanuary 7th, 2022
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We need to make sure the future of Virtual Reality puts people first. If we don't, we're heading for a digital world of trouble.

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I don't understand The Metaverse. It seems like a lot of excitement for an idea that big brands can't seem to pin down. Moreover, when they do define it, The Metaverse looks like nothing I haven't heard of before.

It's just that this time around, tech giants have taken notice. As a gamer who's been wishing for a real VR Renaissance for over a decade, I'm excited. As a tech-creative, I'm baffled it took this long.

As an artist? I'm immediately skeptical and for good reason.

What is the Metaverse, exactly?

Well, nobody can say. Except they can, because it's old.

The first wave of VR happened in the 1960s, but it wasn't until the 1980s that computer scientist Jaron Lanier coined the term "metaverse" to describe a future virtual reality-based universe of avatars and spaces. Suffice to say, the term itself is as old as the modern internet. But it wasn't until the 2000s that the technology finally caught up.

Second Life—a game every ancient very-online nerd should know of—came out in 2003. It positioned itself as a cyber-life primed on wish-fulfillment, and it was.

People redefined themselves with custom avatars. They sold 3D objects, clothes and art. They even had long-distance relationships in virtual worlds 😱.

It was a cyberspace hot-spot, one that I was just a little too young to play. It was, and still is, an early incarnation of The Metaverse.

When I think of the Metaverse, I think of the Kinect—Microsoft's abandoned (lovely) piece of hardware—which could've ushered in the days of VRChat 10 years early. I think of MMORPGs, especially the early ones that were simple to make private servers for, because it meant you could customize anything.

I waited eagerly after the Kinect's release for full-body mo-cap, easy 3D animation tools and customizable MMORPGs. As this concept failed to launch when it could've, my interest faded.

Finally, it seems like Tech Giants have caught on. Facebook—newly dubbed Meta—is obviously on board, VTubers are all the rage, and Microsoft Mesh is aiming to make meetings less Zoom and more VRChat.

I should be excited, and on one hand, I am.

What's so great about the Metaverse?

Artistically? It's the stuff of dreams.

The last few years have brought about a flurry of breakthroughs. We're finally at widespread VR adoption. Oculus is already on its second headset—the Quest 2—which was designed for advanced VR experiences with 360-degree tracking. This means it's easier than ever before for nerds like me to breakdance-fight in cyberspace. It's exciting.

Not only that, but the company has their own Animation suite for creating VR experiences, while Google opened up the WebVR API to allow developers to bring VR to web browsers. I'm hopeful that, with every "new" stride, we'll get closer to artist-focused 3D pipelines. Lord knows current endeavors aren't built for hobbyist-artists like me.

Lastly, Epic Games released its Unreal Studio toolset which allows designers to build virtual worlds using the same tools they use in the real world. Using these cutting-edge technologies, companies like HTC and others aim to deliver VR to more people than ever before.

As an artist trying to cobble together an anime-inspired multimedia science fiction property, a new VR Renaissance means I get to dabble in something that wasn't accessible for a long time. I'm obviously hype.

With who's calling the shots, skepticism turns my grin into a grimace. Big tech will undoubtedly shirk safety for "move fast, break stuff" and position profit above creativity and community. It's inevitable.

In fact, it's already happening.

What's so bad about the Metaverse?

Virtual world-building is excellent—but only in the right hands.

When I think about the Metaverse, fun, games, community and art-making all come to mind. I'd argue that's what most people are looking for. We're looking for experiences, not a new way to drain our wallets.

Sadly, "experiences" aren't what big tech sells. Artists aren't at the forefront of this conversation, neither are the tech ethicists. It's the big brands and reckless NFT enthusiasts that get to shape this not-really-new frontier of cyberspace.

That spells trouble for tech that first lived in the land of gaming.

On December 25th, 2021, a 13-year old received an Oculus Quest 2 for Christmas. He had an allergic reaction to the headset and was admitted to the hospital. His parents claim the warnings for allergens weren't prominently displayed. Not only that, but Oculus has a very recent history of recalls and over 5000 complaints of allergic reactions.

To address this, Oculus added a separate silicon protector. That doesn't tackle the Quest 2's unsafe lining: It's merely a Band-Aid. Which is what big brands are known for when their products don't pass the sniff test.

They're also known for wringing out what little joy can be found in creative spaces and turning them into profit engines.

Just the other day, ONE Sotheby’s International Realty, Voxel Architects, and NFT collector Gabe Sierra, introduced the first ‘MetaReal’ mansion that includes a real-world home and a virtual Metaverse counterpart.

We've gone from 3D lands built by excited nerds, to real estate titans vying to dominate yet another plot of land. This time, it's cyberspace that's under threat, which truly isn't as dire as real-life land colonization.

But for people like me...this was meant to be our playground.

We create art and make friends with technology. Many of us wish every day that tech moved towards real social good. We're the Star Trek idealists looking for a Holodeck. Always at odds with Silicon Valley—though they say they're with us. They aren't.

It's not unlike watching a lush digital tree get pumped full of intrusive Walmart ads the minute it bears its AI-generated fruit. It's sad, honestly.

We need to make sure the future of Virtual Reality puts people first

If we don't, we're heading for a digital world of trouble

The metaverse isn't new, but it will soon be more accessible than ever before. As tech catches up with the ideas of yesteryear, we may finally see a thriving VR Renaissance that outpaces all of our wildest dreams.

One thing I hope tech keeps in mind is that real people occupy virtual spaces. Real people, with real dreams, real creativity and a real desire to expand beyond the physical.

Virtual Reality can open up new landscapes for disabled people, for example. It can give them the ability to experience new things, or re-experience what they used to love doing, but can't anymore (like rollercoaster rides). It already has.

Virtual Reality can open up new landscapes for telehealth and mental health, as well. It can be the bridge between countries, cultures, people and dreams. Virtual Reality can set artists free in brilliant collaborative ways. I truly believe that.

Only time will tell what this "new" Metaverse incarnation holds. I, for one, hope it's less NFT MetaMansions and more Transhumanism 1.0.

What do you think?

K. Leigh is a bi trans guy, author of LGBTQ+ stories, gamer, anime nerdsometimes-freelancer and artist. Score CONSTELIS VOSS for some swag sci-fi eBooks, check out cool cyberpunk gear, or connect on LinkedIn for business stuff. TTYS, nerds 😘