Thursday, January 20 2022

Dive In


I've been in a car when one of our songs has come on the radio, and I've been the color of—as we say in Dublin—scarlet. I'm just embarrassed.

That’s U2 lead singer Bono being a bit harsh on his band’s music during a podcast interview. No, he didn’t like his voice in the early songs—finding “the voice very strained and kind of not macho.” And no one in the band seems to be fond of its name either. Well, whether they like their stuff or not, U2 will always be what we’ve been looking for.


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Stuff to check out: On the latest episode of the splainer podcast ‘Press Decode’, the splainer team looks at change, or lack thereof—a Catholic Church that refuses to embrace progress and a purani Dilli that is not so purani any more. Be sure to head over to the IVM website, Spotify or Apple Podcasts to listen to it.

Big Story

A guide to metaverse: Should you be excited/worried?

The TLDR: It's one of the hottest tech buzzwords—and is being touted as the future of the internet, especially by Mark Zuckerberg. But no one really knows what it means. And there are already reasons to worry about navigating this virtual universe. One big reason: Meta, formerly known as Facebook.


Editor’s note: Our big story today is free to read. So if you liked it be sure to share the link widely! And it’s a great way to introduce folks to splainer:)


Researched by: Vagda Galhotra & Sara Varghese


So what is metaverse?

The big picture: The term was first coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 dystopian novel ‘Snow Crash’—and the idea of 3D computing has been around for decades. In sum, it envisions the transformation of a 2D internet—which you interact with on a flat screen—being turned into a 3D, immersive universe. Slap on your headsets/glasses and your personalised avatar can do everything in this world that you can in the real one—shop, work, hang out with friends or strangers, play, watch concerts or plays etc. 


How real is this world? Here’s a quick example. Meta (aka Facebook) is patenting an “avatar personalisation engine” that can create three dimensional avatars based on your photos. According to one expert:


“Meta aims to be able to simulate you down to every skin pore, every strand of hair, every micromovement… The objective is to create 3D replicas of people, places and things, so hyper-realistic and tactile that they’re indistinguishable from what’s real, and then to intermediate any range of services . . . in truth, they’re undertaking a global human-cloning programme.” 


Another key difference: other than the 3D bit is that the metaverse will be synchronous—”which makes it feel more like real life than today's feed-based social media. Instead of catching up on what others have been up to, you'll meet with them in real time.” Also this: “Those spaces are shared and always available; they don't disappear when you've finished using them, like a Zoom call.”


AR vs VR: We are not going to magically find ourselves in a virtual universe overnight—a la Toto in Oz. Early iterations will be some combination of Augmented and Virtual Reality—or what some call Extended Reality. VR creates a fully immersive 360-degree experience in a virtual world—and needs headsets. AR is a digital overlay projected on the real world—kinda like Pokemon Go. It will likely require special glasses like Facebook’s Ray-Ban Stories or Snapchat Spectacles. 


Point to note: Metaverse encompasses AR and VR—and everything in the middle. As per the full-blown version: “It's not something that you dip in and out of for half an hour at a time, but something that accompanies you throughout the day: on your phone, your VR headset and eventually consumer-ready AR glasses.”


About those NFTs: It may seem hilarious that folks are paying stupid money to virtually own art, sneakers or even a tweet these days. But NFTs—which are secure, digital tokens that authenticate ownership—are key to the metaverse. It is how you will buy stuff in the virtual world. So companies or individuals would use NFTs to buy property. You would use them to buy clothes and accessories to dress your metaverse avatar etc. 


Will there be one metaverse or many? 

Many experts argue that to qualify as a true metaverse, there should be only one—just as we only have one internet. It should be just as seamless to navigate from one company’s “world” to another as browsing websites today. 


But, but, but: it is inevitable that the big tech companies will be in a race to control it. And for decades, they have done so by making their devices incompatible with others. For example, Apple software never worked on Microsoft computers in the early days. One way to exert dominance is to develop exclusive Augmented or Virtual Reality (AR/VR) technology—and make it hard to use them in another company’s virtual world. Cnet, for example, is sceptical about big tech changing its ways: 


“Meta, which plans to spend $10 billion on its metaverse projects this year, says interoperability is crucial. If you have an avatar on Facebook, you should be able to use it on a Microsoft platform. That sounds pretty straightforward and suggests a single metaverse. But we're far from that vision. Try moving a skin or dance move you've bought to personalize your Fortnite avatar to another platform and you'll quickly find those add-ons are stuck in the battle royale game.”


In other words, “too much money will be on the line for companies to allow customers to pick up and move.”


Big point to note: Just as Google and Apple now control access to apps via their stores, the companies that make the AR and VR headsets of the future will make the most money and impose their rules on the metaverse. That’s why Zuckerberg is in a hurry to get there first. That said, governments around the world—including India—are stepping up efforts to curb the monopoly power of Big Tech. Much of that upcoming regulation will shape the future of the metaverse.


Where will I experience the metaverse first?

In the social sphere—any space where people do stuff together. 


Gaming: is the most obvious choice, as Recode notes:


“If any version of the metaverse or virtual reality future we’ve been hearing about for the past couple years comes to pass, it will almost certainly be grounded in games. Maybe Future You won’t want to strap on face goggles throughout your day. But putting on a device to shoot at virtual strangers is less of a stretch.”


Games like Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft—called MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games)—have already built virtual worlds where people play games, build stuff and even attend concerts. Meta is working on its gaming universe called Horizon Worlds—which is in beta testing. Microsoft just bought Activision Blizzard which owns World of Warcraft etc.—and combined with its own XBox console, it is now the third largest gaming company in the world. 


Shopping: CEO Satya Nadella sees the potential of turning the gaming worlds into huge marketplaces—“as games evolve into metaverse economies.” With 3 billion gamers in the world today, that’s a huge opportunity. And some of Meta’s recently filed patents focus on a “virtual store” where users can buy goods sponsored by brands. Global giant Walmart took the big leap just this week—announcing plans to sell virtual electronics, home decorations, children's toys and games, sporting goods, personal care products—and even AR/VR services like fitness training and health and nutrition classes. That doesn’t include all the fashion and sneaker brands that are developing NFT versions of their wares.


The workplace: Microsoft is bullish on what it calls an “enterprise metaverse.” In this virtual world, companies can build “a complete digital twin” to their real-world infrastructure to better track products from the manufacturing stage to delivery. Also: work meetings could go virtual soon. Meta’s Horizon Workrooms is the VR version of Zoom—meetings you attend as an avatar sitting around a virtual table. Microsoft’s Mesh cloud service helps app developers build VR software so people can share holograms, speak with one another, make doodles and appear as virtual avatars. And it plans to integrate VR conferencing into its Teams app. 


Sounds exciting! So what’s the problem? 

The same problems that Big Tech has always had:


Privacy: A recent Financial Times scoop revealed patents filed by Meta—and they signal a company wedded to its bad ways. Where Facebook made money by tracking your online behaviour—and selling that data to brands—the metaverse allows it to amp up the level of cyber-stalking—making it potentially creepier and more invasive:


“Research shows that eye gaze direction and pupil activity may implicitly contain information about a user’s interests and emotional state, for example, if a user’s eyes linger over an image, this may indicate they like it...


Brittan Heller, a technology lawyer at Foley Hoag, said: ‘My nightmare scenario is that targeted advertising based on our involuntary biological reactions to stimuli is going to start showing up in the metaverse . . . most people don’t realise how valuable that could be. Right now there are no legal constraints on that.’” 


Safety: Social media companies have already taught us that vast numbers of strangers sharing the same platform tend to behave very poorly online. Now imagine being trolled in 3D. And a truly immersive world has the potential for digital versions of real-world crimes. Example: verbal sexual abuse or assault. 


An early beta tester of Meta’s Horizon Worlds app recently reported being assaulted by a fellow user. And it wasn’t the first such instance of virtual sexual harassment. As legal experts point out, “The challenge with harassment in VR is its presence. It feels real, like a person is stepping next to you and saying and doing things that violate your personal space."

The bottomline: Whether the metaverse will be a 3D version of the same old nightmare or a brand new world depends on how it will make money. Web2 is built around giant platforms that sell “free” products and services—and make money by selling your data to brands. Web3 promises to be a decentralised utopia where you own your own information (explained here). But will Zuckerberg and others allow that to happen? If so, how will any of them turn a profit?


Reading list

Cnet and Protocol have the best explainers on the metaverse—while Quartz has a guide to the jargon. Also on Cnet: A well-reported piece on sexual harassment in the virtual world. Reuters has an excellent report on why young Koreans are increasingly turning to virtual worlds—to fulfill ambitions that are impossible in the real one. The Financial Times scoop on Meta’s patents is sadly behind a paywall. You can also read our previous explainers on cryptocurrency+NFTs and Web3. We greatly enjoyed watching this video of senior citizens exploring virtual reality. Also check out the splainer team’s discussion of the metaverse in this episode of the Press Decode podcast.


Headlines that matter

Ashneer Grover takes a break

The BharatPe founder—now best known for threatening to kill a Kotak Mahindra bank employee—has taken “voluntary leave” until the end of March. He was furious because Kotak did not give him a loan to buy a haul of Nykaa’s IPO shares—which is something banks do for high net worth clients. The audio clip went viral, and stories of Grover’s previous bad behaviour also started to leak into the press. What’s most striking: the icy-cold statement issued by the company:


“For now, the board has accepted Ashneer’s decision which we agree is in the best interests of the company, our employees and investors, and the millions of merchants we support each day.”

Economic Times has more.


Shaadi.com courts queer folks

The matrimonial website has leaped into the 21st century and will now help LGBTQ+ folks find their soulmate. Nope, no Grindr-style hook ups allowed, as founder Anupam Mittal made clear:


“Anything we do, we have to do with serious dating, finding a companion or finding a life partner. Not for finding a date tonight or finding the right partner. That’s not a business we are in or we want to be in.”


In today’s edition

Sanity Break

  • The perfect cure for ‘when will this week ever end’ day: ‘Tu Jhoom’ by Naseebo Lal and Abida Parveen


Reading Habit

  • Supriya Nair, co-founder of All Things Small and editor of FiftyTwo takes our Book Addict’s Quiz

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