Berlin – The real world is experiencing a dramatic development: war in Ukraine, possible threat of world war, plus the changing climate in many parts of the world. Some would like to flee from these threats into a parallel world. As early as 1992, science fiction author Neal Stephenson described a futuristic world in his novel "Snow Crash" in which the protagonists live in a so-called metaverse, a virtual and augmented reality that is connected to the physical. What sounded like abstract dreams of the future at the time is soon to become reality. But how far along is the development?
In October last year, the Facebook group, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, renamed itself Meta. The new name of the Californian tech giant is intended to focus on the planned digital world Metaverse. "From our point of view, the Metaversum is nothing less than the next evolutionary stage of the Internet," says Constanze Osei, who is Meta's Manager for Society & Innovation Policy for Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
The virtual world will increasingly merge with the physical world
So the metaverse is not entirely new, but rather an extension of modern technological innovations. The primary technology of the metaverse is called Extended Reality (XR). It consists of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). The metaverse is essentially a product of current technology.
With VR you are isolated from the environment, usually by glasses. One sees therefore only an artificial world. With AR glasses, digital objects are shown directly in the field of view via a transparent display. If you want to enter the metaverse, you need the necessary technological gadgets, i.e. VR or AR glasses. The Facebook group had already bought the Oculus company in 2014, a pioneer in glasses for displaying virtual reality. The brand name on the glasses will now be phased out and replaced with Meta.
But that's not the only investment facing users. The virtual world should operate according to the principles of the free market economy. In mid-April, the tech group announced that it would soon start testing tools for selling digital assets and experiences within the virtual reality platform "Horizon Worlds". The move is an important part of the company's plan to create a metaverse. Virtual assets mean, for example, NFTs, the non-fungible tokens. This is a certificate of authenticity based on the architecture of the blockchain.
People should do what they can't do in real life
The development of the three-dimensional digital world is still in its infancy, says Meta manager Constanze Osei. "It will take at least another 10 to 15 years before the technical requirements are so far that the vision we have of the metaverse can become reality." In addition, the group is not managing the project alone, but in cooperation with many companies , developers and organizations.
The aim of the massive project is to create "virtual accessibility and let people go where they may not be able to go in real life," says the spokeswoman for the tech giant. "People can meet up with friends, work, play, learn, shop, be creative and much more." Application scenarios could look like this: Instead of just watching a team on a screen, users can be there virtually at the game. At the same time you can do sports. For example, humans can stand in a boxing ring to face off against a generated opponent.
Not only the entertainment industry could benefit from the metaverse. There are also interesting options for other sectors such as healthcare, says Petra Dahm, board member at XR Bavaria, a professional association for virtual reality and augmented reality. For everyday clinical or outpatient work, for example, there could be relief with digital assistance on the tablet or the assistance glasses.
The metaverse should offer many new jobs and accelerate innovations
At the same time, the virtual online world has great opportunities with regard to VR-supported e-learning, for example for training nursing staff, training on standards or cooperation between interdisciplinary teams. "International studies show the positive effect of learning by doing in VR, and the first use of VR training shows that there is great potential here," says Dahm.
According to Philipp Rauschnabel, Professor of Digital Marketing and Media Innovation at the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich, the new dimension offers "a lot of new jobs and new jobs – many of which we don't even know about today". He also sees the metaverse primarily as an accelerator of innovations. In addition to the emergence of new business models, technologies would be improved.
"The vision is a 3D Internet without monitors, which has a lot in common with society," says the meta-researcher. Consequently, people can interact with digital content like with products through glasses or contact lenses. AR glasses could be used to maneuver the Netflix window next to the stovetop.
Dangers of crime, addiction and escaping reality
But this type of augmented reality also entails major risks in terms of privacy and data protection. "AR uses scanners that create a 3D model of the environment in real time and, thanks to artificial intelligence, can also interpret it," explains the meta-expert. The data is often sent to a cloud for processing. This enables completely new forms of espionage. After all, this would result in 3D data from a number of apartments, for example.
Can the vision of a peaceful tech society exist alongside the real world? A look into the past is enough to see that criminal audiences could be attracted. The idea of an online world is not new, it already exists – at least in 2D. After the turn of the millennium, “Second Life” started a virtual universe in which users can participate via so-called avatars, i.e. virtual representative figures. With success came problems. Pornographic content, gambling and betting casinos spread in the online world. Finally even the FBI looked around in the virtual casinos.
In addition, the psychological component should not be underestimated. So you don't know how it affects society, "if you constantly see things that don't exist, i.e. intentional hallucinations," says innovation expert Philipp Rauschnabel. Olga Geisel, Head of the Addiction Research Section at the Psychiatric Clinic at the Charité Berlin, warns of addictions. "In the early stages of 'Metaverse', reality augmentations could potentially lead to even greater potential for addiction or real-life avoidance," she says. Nevertheless, she also sees the platform's opportunities, especially with regard to education.
How do you face real dangers like wars and climate change?
The Innsbruck psychologist Armin Kaser, who specializes in internet addiction, is more relaxed about the question of the addiction factor for young people: “It would have to be even more exciting than TikTok, YouTube and Fortnite.” This is currently not foreseeable.
However, should the metaverse become a real part of life for many people, other sciences will also have to deal with it: in addition to psychology and medicine, sociology, philosophy, political science and cultural studies. For what does it matter to societies and cultures when mixed worlds exist? Will people without technological access be excluded in the future? Can you really face real dangers – such as war, the energy crisis and climate change – by fleeing to parallel worlds? Does something like this even hinder the search for real solutions? Or maybe even new opportunities to meet and communicate – which could also have consequences for problems that threaten physical life? Basically, the merging of the virtual with the physical world creates a completely new reality. (dpa/fwt, BLZ)