Politics

The Future of Virtual and Augmented Reality Technology and the Metaverse

Executive Summary 

  •  Building off the well-established infrastructure and economy of the gaming industry, tech companies are looking to make the jump to the next chapter of the internet based in Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) technology.  
  • Implementation of VR/AR technology within the metaverse will come with social and ethical implications, necessitating an attentive eye to how it is changing society and a commitment to developing appropriate policy actions. 
  • The long-term salience of this discussion will be determined by the practicality of this product in consumers’ everyday life and the economic success it can achieve. 

Introduction 

With the announcement of Facebook’s new brand Meta, and their goals for the dawn of the metaverse (a term coined by science fiction novelist Neal Stephenson) include elements from futuristic sci-fi novels and could be coming to fruition in the next decade. As the adoption of VR/AR technology increases, promises of everyday implementation of these tools become more feasible for the average American. While the technology and infrastructure are still being developed for these experiences, Meta has chosen to bring this concept to the forefront of the tech industry. The timing is no coincidence as consumers have been acclimated to many virtual substitutions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With a clear gap in the market, Meta sees an opportunity to welcome innovation and investment into, what could be, the next generation of the technological experience.  

Borrowing from the Gaming Industry 

The technology that will bring the metaverse to life will draw inspiration from some of the gaming-related products we see today. Undoubtedly the gaming industry has had an unprecedented level of success in the 21st century, which is only compounded when considered within the context of the current pandemic. As of 2020, the gaming industry hit $165 billion in revenue which easily surpasses that of the music and movie industries. At the current rate of growth, experts estimate this number is likely to almost double by 2025, topping $300 billion annually. Meta will be interested in capitalizing on the many successful models tested and perfected by the gaming industry. With slight modification and development, these technologies could be practical implementations for daily life.  

One Small Step for Meta, One Giant Leap for Life as We Know It 

As described by Meta Co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in his Connect 2021 Keynote presentation, Facebook is rebranding to be Meta and has announced that it will be dedicating much of its energy to the development of an immersive virtual experience. Early conceptualizations using headwear as a means of superimposition of digital interface promise to achieve the goal of the metaverse: to drastically change the way we interact with the world and each other. From the workplace and education to the gym and live (virtual) concerts, the possibilities for the implementation of this new platform are limitless.  

If the metaverse reaches maturity, we should be prepared for a serious social shift and the ethical implications that come with it, similar to what we have seen with the dawn of social media. Protecting our data privacy and ensuring personal information is secure will be integral to the long-term success of the metaverse. For example, Zuckerberg explicitly outlined the need to ensure avatars and personal accounts are secured to prevent individuals from stealing someone else’s identity. Groups like the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation also emphasize the need to prevent the “reality-altering capabilities” of this technology from harming the mental well-being of children. These are just two of the many factors that should be in the forefront of the innovators’ minds. Developing the technology with safeguards against these issues will make the metaverse more secure long-term and less of a risk for users. At this point, all we can do is begin to think about the long-term ramifications of this technology and attempt to build substantive responses to issues that arise with the technology. 

Throughout the keynote, Zuckerberg mentions the economic benefits the metaverse will have. Zuckerberg encourages investment by other leading tech companies and notes that it will take a considerable amount of time and capital to build the metaverse to its fully realized goal. . With larger companies like Meta developing the infrastructure, the door will be open for smaller companies and innovators to develop the applications and services that run over the top. Ultimately, these smaller companies will bring life to the service and shape what the experience actually feels like for consumers. Barriers to entry are relatively low at this point because there is so much opportunity for investment and development. The metaverse economy, dubbed “metanomics” by some, already has some transactions taking place. Video games like Second Life and Fortnite have been extremely successful in establishing virtual worlds that resemble a metaverse. Fortnite made over $5 billion in 2020 off their in-app purchases. The metaverse will likely take on a similar business model to create a free interface, with options to enhance experiences through optional purchases.  

Policy Implications 

Creating proactive and appropriate policies will be important for the long-term success of this technology. One important aspect will be increasing research on the impacts of this technology on our mental, physical, and emotional health. We also should be vigilant in our pursuit of security. If biometric and environmental information is being stored in the greater metaverse, we will need effective ways to encrypt and secure this information. Finally, any policy that is made should take into account user protections while still allowing for more innovation and development. This tech will be changing rapidly in its first stages and creating policy that stalls or completely halts this could be detrimental to its success overall.  

Conclusion 

While we may still be years away from seeing the full implementation of a metaverse, we can see elements developing through our modern technology. With these developments may come a significant economic boon from a rich investment in the technology, creating more jobs and wealth for the global economy. We should be vigilant in understanding how it impacts our society and ensure that we are prioritizing personal security and mental health. The metaverse is an exciting opportunity for humankind and will certainly have a host of policy questions into the future.  

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