Sang-gyun Kim / Cognitive Scientist and Professor at Kangwon National University
In 2045, people seek to escape from the dark reality filled with poverty, food crisis and social polarization through the virtual reality entertainment universe called the OASIS created by James Halliday and in this universe, people can find meaning of their lives and do whatever they can imagine. People put on a VR headset, earn coins working in the OASIS and the businesses runs ads in the OASIS. Everyone is indulged in this universe. This is the plot of Steven Spielberg’s science fiction action-adventure film, “Ready Player One” released in 2018. It is based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel of the same name and in Korea, Acorn Publishing Co. released the translated version.
We all want OASIS.
They’re not exactly like the OASIS in Ready Player One, but in this pandemic, we’ve experiences few services that are quite similar to the OASIS. More than 200 million people around the world have created their avatars in Zepeto, a platform developed by Naver Z, and generated profit by creating and trading digital currencies. In Zepeto, people create schools, cafes, subway stations and amusement parks and, interact with each other. In a global platform called Roblox, 160 million users have created and are sharing more than 50 million virtual worlds which are run with a currency called Robux. 100,000 robux can be exchanged to about KRW 400,000. (According to Rec Room), Facebook also sold about 3 million Oculus Quest 2 headsets in the 4th quarter of 2020. Considering that 140,000 Oculus Rift and 430,000 million Oculus Quest 1 have been sold in the same periods in the past, Oculus Quest 2’s success is remarkable. I also have had virtual meetings for a consulting project at the opposite side of the world and had year-end get-togethers using my Oculus Quest 2. In the past few months, I’ve had people tell me that we will soon be living in a metaverse like the OASIS more than a hundred times.
Escaping COVID-19 through metaverse.
The term “Metaverse” was coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash. It’s pretty much similar to the OASIS I’ve mentioned earlier. This fictitious concept that appeared in a 1992 novel has become, after 28 years, a concept that is widely gaining interest across the world. Metaverse has been discussed by various businesses and media like NVIDIA, UNREAL, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal. They probably thought various terms and new ways of life like contactless, untact, remote working and virtual world that are emerging in this pandemic are very much linked to the Metaverse in that 1992 novel. Metaverse is a digital world that we can live in as avatars. The OASIS, Zepeto, Roblox, us remotely working with a shirt and tie and, pajama pants and those numerous virtual educational platforms out there are all metaverses. Even before 2020 and before this pandemic, we’ve already experienced metaverses through social media and online games. But we are being increasingly more exposed to different types of metaverses because of the pandemic and now we’re seriously starting to discuss what this metaverse really means.
Will VR be the standard of metaverses?
Why is social networking company Facebook investing in VR headsets? Why did Apple announced their plan to release a VR headset that costs more than $3,000? VR headsets have been regarded as just some expensive equipment gamers used but now they’re targeted by many leading social media and smartphone companies around the world. The answer is in metaverse. In a metaverse, we dream of a life that is different from ours. We want a better version of ourselves, we want to communicate more safely and conveniently and we want more beautiful and diverse spaces. While want the virtual realities to be so different, we want the presence of experience to be as real as possible. And VR headsets are one of the solutions that can fulfill this desire. Of course, like what we see in the movie series The Matrix, invasive and noninvasive ways to connect a device to human neurons are being studied and neurotechnology company Neuralink founded by Elon Musk unveiled a pig with a computer chip in her brain last August. But considering technological implementability, ethical acceptability and commercial feasibility, there is a high chance that VR headsets are going to be the dominant design (the design that wins the allegiance of the marketplace in technology lifecycle theories) that can improve the immersiveness and presence of VR.
What do people do with VR headsets? The list of top-selling experiences at Facebook’s Oculus website include games, exercises, movies, work-related (meetings and virtual office) content. Games are digital content and VR headsets can enhance the experience of the game content. Exercises, watching movies and work are what we do in our physical, real-life world. This shows that increasingly more areas of our life are being recreated in the metaverse.
Could a metaverse replace real life?
Oculus Quest 2 headsets are cheaper than the latest smartphones and, are much more advanced and lighter than the previous versions. I know a person who’s used Oculus Quest 2 6 hours in a row but I personally have a hard time using them more than an hour at a time. Facebook are currently in the process of developing VR glasses that are quite different from their VR headsets and Apple and Samsung will also launch much lighter devices with minimum sensory mismatch (issues that occur when the information the brain is receiving from its sensory systems i.e. vision system (eyes), vestibular system and proprioceptive system do not match). We cannot predict when but in just a few years, I’m sure we’ll have VR headsets that are pretty similar to those we saw in the film Ready Player One. When that day comes, will everyone be wearing those headsets and working and spending most of their time in a metaverse? Will it be okay to keep living in that world?
I’m nervous about the presence of metaverses that is so radically evolving. It’s amazing to see that metaverses can enable use to explore more, communicate more widely and deeply and achieve many things, but I’m not sure about living in a metaverse wearing headsets 12 hours out of those 16 hours we’re awake in day. I’m not sure whether that is the true value or the end goal of metaverses we’re experiencing while going through this pandemic. Too realistic “presence” of a metaverse can bring a strange future where reality only exists for the life in a metaverse. It’s not going to happen in the immediate future but I feel anxious because I can see it happening in our world. Also, the OASIS in Ready Player One didn’t look like a particularly beautiful world. I’m not sure whether this uncertainty will be solved by technology-push or market-pull or by both. Instead of leaving the future to the technological desires and demands, we as key players living a reality must rationally set the direction ourselves. In addition to developing technologies and making commercial investments, societies must also actively promtoe social dialogue on the future of metaverses. What metaverses did Ernest Cline and Neil Stephenson tried to show us?