Metaverse is derived from the phrase ‘meta’ and ‘universe’. The prefix meta originated from Greek and means "beyond’’, "more comprehensive" or "transformative". The second half of the word, ‘verse’, stems from the word "universe" and describes either a specific sphere or area. Other names for the Metaverse includes ‘mirror world’, or the ‘spacial internet’, or even the ‘AR cloud’. In a nutshell, metaverse is basically a 3D version of the internet created with the help of innovations such Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (VR), social media, and Internet of Things (IoT). Though trendy, metaverse is actually a new word for an old construct. In 1992, sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson reportedly coined the term 'metaverse' in his popular 1994 novel Snow Crash to describe a persistent 3D virtual world navigated by the aptly-named protagonist Hiro Protagonist. Metaverse prognosticates an evolution that will transform the way people, communities, products, solutions, creators, entertainment, workspaces, commerce, interact with each other on the internet as previously only thought possible in science fiction. With the metaverse, rather than just viewing digital content like we currently do, users will be able to immerse themselves via connected headsets or glasses, hence blurring the fine line between the digital and the physical worlds. According to cybersecurity expert Baggili, ‘’the structure of the metaverse is currently akin to that of the Apple App Store. At this point, you have multiple platforms that offer experiences in virtual reality, augmented reality (AR) and extended reality (ER), which are like the different apps you could download from the App Store. But there isn’t a single portal that people can use to access it...”
Big Tech Companies Betting on The Metaverse Gold rush
It’s not a coincidence that two global multinational investment banks and financial services companies, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, agrees that the nascent metaverse market could be worth $8 trillion in the future.
In its latest Technology Vision 2022 report, titled Meet me in the metaverse, multinational information technology services company, Accenture surveyed more than 4,600 business and technology leaders across 23 industries in 35 countries. 71% of executives believe the metaverse will have a positive impact on their organisation and 42% believe it will be “breakthrough” or “transformational”.
Like an arms race, futuristic big tech companies Microsoft, Facebook (FB now Meta), and Apple Inc, Google (now Alphabet) amongst others, are scrambling to sweep up the metaverse.
Meta (Facebook’s) Metaverse
Facebook (now Meta) describes the metaverse as "a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren't in the same physical space as you". CEO Mark Zuckerberg says Meta is working on egocentric data, which involves seeing worlds from a first-person perspective. Mark believes augmented reality glasses will eventually be as widespread as smartphones. This explains why Meta (Facebook) earmarked spending at least $10 billion in 2021 on Facebook Reality Labs, its metaverse division tasked with creating AR and VR hardware, software, and content.
Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella was quoted as saying that gaming “will play a key role in the development of metaverse platforms.” This explains why Microsoft bought game developer, Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion saying the deal would provide “building blocks for the metaverse’’. Similarly, regulators – The US Justice Department, The EU, and UK’s Competition and Markets Authority, recently cleared Microsoft’s acquisition of speech recognition company, Nuance Inc, ushering in new era of Conversational Artificial Intelligence.
Enter Microsoft's Azure Digital Twins, a platform as a service (PaaS) offering that enables the creation of twin graphs based on digital models of entire environments, which could be buildings, factories, farms, energy networks, railways, stadiums, and more—even entire cities. Once modeled, it can be brought to life and synchronized with the physical world using two-way internet-of-things (IoT) connections. For instance, AB InBev used Azure Digital Twins to create a comprehensive digital model of their breweries and supply chain. A report by Grand View Research suggests that the digital twin market is anticipated to reach $86.09 billion by 2028.
Microsoft is also said to be developing a range of technologies and metaverse apps, that will help converge the physical and digital worlds. Such solutions include Azure Maps, Azure Digital Twins, Azure IoT, AltspaceVR, HoloLens 3.0, Visual Studio, Microsoft Mesh, MetaOS, amongst others.
Apple Inc’s Metaverse
If the report on Apple leak site - MacRumors is anything to go by, Apple could replace the iPhone with virtual reality contact lenses that let users immerse in the metaverse - make calls, browse the web and even play games without the need for a handheld device. The high-tech 'contact lenses' or ‘Apple Lens’ as it is christened, would integrate virtual reality into someone's daily life likely using an internally-developed Apple software called 'realityOS'. Perhaps this indicates why Apple CEO Tim Cook opined that Apple is "exploring new and emerging technologies" and that the metaverse is "very interesting to us" when asked about the company's thoughts on the metaverse tech trend.
With Apple’s iPhones, iPads, and wearables used by a huge installed base of users across the globe -- roughly 1.8 billion, means Apple can introduce a metaverse device and cross-sell the same to its large existing ecosystem. Such a pioneering innovation could herald the end of smartphones.
The Booming Real Estate Market in the Metaverse
Prices for pixelated plots of land in the metaverse surged this year, some selling for millions of dollars. An analytics company, Metametric Solutions, projects that real estate sales in the metaverse could double this year, reaching nearly $1 billion in 2022. For sure, there’s just one metaverse but several platforms which can be likened to different land masses on the same planet. Like countries, the size of these metaverse platforms is finite. In essence, once someone buys a plot of land on a metaverse platform, nobody else can use that space unless they are ready to rent or buy it off the original owner. If lots of people are interested in that land, the price will shoot up. Currently, The Sandbox, Decentraland, Cryptovoxels and Somnium Space, are some of the most common platforms selling virtual real estate with a combined total of 268,645 parcels of land.
While some people are cynical about booming real estate prices in the metaverse, others are already investing. Republic Realm reportedly splashed out $4.3 million on land in The Sandbox metaverse while Tokens.com, a publicly traded company that invests in Web 3 assets linked to the Metaverse, purchased land worth $2.4 million in Decentraland. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Hong Kong recently doled out US$10,000 on a virtual plot in The Sandbox. J.P Morgan, a global leader in financial services became the first bank to enter the metaverse, opening a lounge in Decentraland. Barbados is said to be the first sovereign state to develop a diplomatic embassy within the metaverse on a plot of land in Decentraland.
Sandbox reports that American rapper, Snoop Dogg built a digital recreation of his real-life Diamond Bar, California mansion, where he will throw exclusive, members-only parties. There will also be a music venue for concerts – and residents, who buy a plot in Snoopverse, will be able to create their own games and experiences. Someone already paid $450,000 for land next Snoop Dogg’s house, to be his neighbour.
Saudi Arabia's futuristic $500-billion new city - Neom - announced that its key subsidiary - Neom Tech & Digital Company, launched a 3D cognitive digital twin metaverse platform envisioned to enable a ground-breaking ‘mixed-reality’ urban living model. The city's digital twin in the metaverse will allow citizens to experience the city even before it is launched.
Traditional banks are not known to embrace innovation swiftly but not to be outdone, global financial services provider, HSBC, joined a growing list of notable brands that have acquire a piece of virtual real estate in The Sandbox metaverse. According to HSBC, “When you think about the economics of the metaverse — or metanomics — there are opportunities in almost every market area.”
In Africa, it appears only telecoms firm, MTN came early to the party with the 144 plots of virtual land it purchased in Africarare metaverse - Ubuntuland, for an undisclosed sum. Where are Nigeria’s technologically-driven new generation banks, the GTBank (GTCO), Access bank, Zenith Bank, and Fidelity banks of this world?
The Metaverse Naysayers
While some companies and futurists, including renowned financial institutions such as Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs et al. are betting on the prospect of the metaverse, there are those who reckon metaverse to be dystopian, a bad idea. For instance, tech leaders SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Twitter founder, Jack Dorsey are not fans of metaverse, or Web3. They are not alone. A critique argues that fans of the metaverse are creating artificial scarcity and a fear of missing out (FOMO). In fact, a survey conducted in February 2022 involving 1,000 people in the United States, found that a whopping 49 percent of the participants were ignorant about the metaverse. Even among the other half of respondents who had actually heard about metaverse, most were skeptical about how it would proceed, with 78 percent calling it a hype.
It is not only in the United States that people are oblivious of the metaverse. In a similar survey amongst 1,000 respondents in the United Kingdom a month earlier, 96 percent of respondents aged between 25 and 54 said they would not shop in the metaverse. If this notion obtains in the Western world, I can bet that tenably 80 percent of Africans, nay, Nigerians are not aware of the metaverse.
Predicting technological evolution is not a precise science
In 1995, Robert Metcalfe, who invented Ethernet, declared that ‘’the Internet was totally screwed’’. He reportedly predicted that ‘’the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse'’. In 1946, leading figures in the movie industry had their doubts about the prospect of the television. They argued that ’Television won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night’’. In a now infamous piece of editorial protesting the rise of electronic reading devices published in February 1995’s issue of Newsweek, Clifford Stoll said, “no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.”
Time will tell if Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey’s prognosis of the metaverse pans out.
Possible ways the metaverse will be a game changer
1. Education and learning – According to the UNICEF, approximately 1.6 billion students from 192 countries, or 91 per cent of the world’s student population, experienced educational disruptions sequel to the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns. Kwang Hyung Lee, president of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) believes that going forward, ''universities best equipped with digital infrastructure and savvy human resources will emerge as the new leaders − no matter where they are''. In his writeup on phys.org, John Preston posits that, ''ultimately, the metaverse might result in the end of some traditional forms of university education. Rather than attending a single bricks-and-mortar institution, students might flock to the cyber-physical realm instead. In the metaverse, they could learn from virtual experiences provided by a range of global universities. Academics might become edutainers, working with developers to create experiences for students. The future for university lecturers might lie in self-employment, providing tailor-made learning experiences for a range of customers''. In Nigeria, EON Reality is partnering with the University of Lagos to build a knowledge metaverse hub. Dan Lejerskar, Founder of EON Reality affirmed that cutting-edge technology like EON-XR will enable University of Lagos’ educators to offer “hands-on” training to their students without the usual logistical restrictions in many forms of engineering and vocational studies.
2. Defence or Military: According to a commentary by United States Defense and National Security’s Jennifer McArdle and Caitlin Dohrman published on War on the Rocks, titled, ''the Full Potential Of A Military Metaverse'', they foresee several applications of the metaverse to the armed forces to include: Military training simulations to measure battlefield effectiveness, education and virtual learning opportunities through the use of augmented-reality. Others include recruitment - use of video games alongside traditional tools to attract talent into the armed forces, experimentation - wargame data capture, storage, and analysis tooling, acquisitions, personnel placement, and promotion - ensure interoperability across disparate personnel records and social interactions. For instance, the US Air Force Gaming community is connecting distributed airmen in a digital environment through video games, providing opportunities for leadership development, teamwork, morale building, and support for the mental health of servicemembers, particularly those in the 18 to 30 age range who grew up as avid gamers. A military metaverse could serve as an extension to this community, bringing in other non-gaming activities and connectivity.
3. The future of work and workplace training – According to a research by the University of Maryland, users retain information more effectively when presented in virtual reality (VR) rather than on a computer screen. Mark Zuckerberg said in a March podcast that, ‘’by 2030, the new generations of Oculus will allow users to teleport from one place to another without moving from their couch — not only for gaming and entertainment but also for work''. Meta (Facebook) is introducing Horizon Workrooms for remote working and collaboration. Workrooms will boast of features such as mixed-reality desk and keyboard tracking, hand tracking, remote desktop streaming, video conferencing integration, spatial audio, and the new Oculus Avatars. Hyundai reportedly deployed metaverse to train new employees, while Samsung held a virtual recruitment career fair in September, 2021. Research commissioned by Lenovo reveals that close to half of employees (44%) are willing to work in the metaverse and believe that it can deliver benefits like productivity to the workplace. A PricewaterhouseCoopers report asserts that employees can be trained four times faster in soft skills using VR than traditional in-person classroom or online training. The metaverse can supercharge corporate skills development and training. Instead of gathering employees and training them on actual pieces of machinery, organizations could set up virtual plants where trainees could learn to perform all essential operations from startup to shutdown. They could also use the virtual environment to simulate accidents/emergencies and train workers on safety response measures more effectively. Currently, organizations have to rely on repetitious training manuals or videos for such tasks.
4. Remote conferences, and meetings - The pandemic entails remote working is the new normal and full teleworking or flexible work option will continue to be the trend. Microsoft Mesh is the future of Microsoft Teams meetings. Microsoft is building in features like ‘Together Mode’, ‘Holoportation’ 3D avatars, which will make meetings more interactive, immersive, and photorealistic.
5. Engineering and architecting - Metaverse digital twins would help with engineering and development efforts. For instance, Airbus partnered with Microsoft to use Azure Mixed Reality and Hololens to reduce design validation time by 80% and accelerate complex aircraft assembly tasks by 30%.
6. Job opportunities in the metaverse – Metaverse content creators, user experience (UX) writers and designers, research scientists, data scientists can expect booming career opportunities in the metaverse enterprise. In the words of Falon Fatemi, ‘’the metaverse will not only enable content creators to develop more interactive and immersive content, but it will also enable them to develop more intelligent content, thanks to new developments in Artificial intelligence’’. Meta’s head of content design, Elisabeth Carr asserted that content designers are embedded in every product team across Meta—we work on Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, Meta Quest, Portal and within teams working on integrity, social impact, privacy, business products, advertiser tools, as well as within Reality Labs, which is pioneering a lot of our work in the metaverse. As a matter of fact, in October 2021, Facebook announced plans to create 10,000 new high-skilled jobs in the European Union (EU) to help shape the metaverse.
7. Healthcare: A United Kingdom’s National Health Service study established that 92% of Virtual Reality participants trained in infection control measures were found to have an adequate understanding, compared to only 16 percent of the control group. Post-training performance increased by more than 230 percent for the VR group, compared to 16.75 percent for the control group.
8. Customer support and experience – In a blog post Nancy Pekala, Vice President for content marketing and strategy at HGS Digital, says, ‘’organizations that rely on telephone calls and digital-first channels (automated chats) for customer service will be able to leverage the metaverse to pivot to an absolute virtual-first experience’’.
9. Sales and marketing – Forbes reports that the metaverse is marketing’s next big thing because it offers new ways to engage your audience and provide a richer, fuller and more immersive content experience.
10. Advertising - Organizations, especially those in the retail industry, will also be able to leverage the metaverse for product placement and advertising. Fashion giants Balenciaga, Burberry, Gucci, amongst others, set up their metaverse division to make the most of this opportunity.
Metaverse Cybersafety, Cybersecurity And National Security Risks
The metaverse will not be immune from cybersafety, cybersecurity, national security, and privacy challenges. NBC News reports that crypto exchanges keep getting hacked, and there's little anyone can do. Lately, two individuals were arrested in Manhattan, United States of America for allegedly conspiring to launder cryptocurrency that was stolen during the 2016 hack of Bitfinex, a virtual currency exchange, presently valued at approximately $4.5 billion. A similar report claims that hackers stole almost $400m worth of digital assets in at least seven attacks on cryptocurrency platforms in 2021. Below are some of the security concerns that the metaverse will contend with:
1. Virtual reality sexual assault and harassment - According to a report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s, MIT Technology Review, a woman was sexually harassed on Meta’s virtual-reality social media platform, Horizon Worlds. She’s not the first—and won’t be the last. In a recent BBC news investigation, a reporter posing as a 13-year-old girl on VRChat, a virtual reality (VR) app was exposed to sexual content, racist insults, and a rape threat. Professor Carla Gannis of the New York University Tandon School of Engineering advocates that people will need to be held accountable for their behavior in the metaverse.
2. Mental health issues – There are potential mental health issues from long-term immersion in virtual worlds. Pearlman, who was formerly the head of security at Linden Lab, said she experienced a feeling called "phantom timeline syndrome" where the lines between the virtual world and physical world became blurred, while working at VR platform Sansar.
3. Human errors: According to IBM’s Cybersecurity Intelligence Index Report, human error plays the largest role in 95% of security breaches.
4. Social engineering attacks - Hackers can trick people into revealing their personal information by using social engineering techniques or identity theft tricks.
5. Identity Theft - VR technologies powering the metaverse could serve as a vulnerable target for identity theft. Imagine unwittingly having a spy from a competitor in the room or having an imposter replacing the boss during a business meeting.
6. Credential theft – Hackers or cybercriminals can compromise the network credentials of users through wearable gadgets. Theft of network credentials can also compromise the financial and personal information of users stored in their user profiles on the metaverse.
7. Denial of service (DDoS) attacks – occurs when legitimate users are unable to access information systems, devices, or other network resources due to the actions of a malicious cyber threat actor.
8. Ransomware attacks – Ransomware is a type of malware that can either encrypt all of your data or lock you out of your computer. Once ransomware infects a computer, it will ask for a ransom — usually in cryptocurrency — in exchange for decrypting your data or unlocking your computer. Ransomware cost the world $20 billion in 2021. That number is expected to rise to $265 billion by 2031.
9. Lack of metaverse regulatory and legal framework: There are currently no laws or legislations regulating the virtual landscape. Who resolves AI-intellectual property, piracy, and patent disputes in the metaverse?
10. National security risks - radicalization or extremism: A Chinese state-run think tank, Institute of Contemporary International Relation which is affiliated with China’s Ministry of State Security warns of national security risks involved with the metaverse. Other potential risks involved with the metaverse include “technological hegemony,” where developing countries increasingly rely on developed countries’ technologies as the gap in the metaverse’s development expands. Similarly, terrorism researchers at the University of Nebraska Omaha, say metaverse could become a new domain for terrorist activity vis a vis online recruitment, engagement coordination, identification of new targets and execution of terrorist acts. Imagine having the avatar of a resurrected bin Laden meeting would-be followers in a virtual lecture hall. The emerging metaverse affords extremist leaders a new ability to forge and maintain virtual ideological and social communities and powerful, difficult-to-disrupt ways of expanding their ranks and spheres of influence.
A report published by Credit Suisse, a leading financial services company reveals that metaverse revolution will hike the average internet data usage to 20 times around the globe by 2032. While 5G network will support metaverse, 6G will have broader metaverse application. Currently, many African countries are yet to embrace 5G, let alone 6G. It behooves on them to up their game if they are to teleport to the metaverse seamlessly. Metaverse will be revolutionary, but it won’t be immune from cybersecurity and national security threats such as ransomware, hacking, social engineering, denial of service (DDoS) attacks, mental health issues, online radicalization, amongst others.
© Don OKEREKE,
A tech-savvy security thought leader, analyst, researcher, content creator, UX writer, military veteran.
March 20, 2022
Follow me on Twitter: @DonOkereke