“Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality”
- Freddie Mercury, Queen (Bohemian Rhapsody).
As we trudge into 2022, terms like ‘Meta’/ ‘Metaverse’/ ‘Augmented Reality’/ ‘Occulus’ are on the tips of every tongue, the words seemingly flowing through social media and news platforms in an endless stream of information.
As such, a crash course on this much talked about ‘Metaverse’, a Metaverse 101 if you will, is warranted before exploring the innumerable legal issues and challenges surrounding the concept.
As noted by many researchers as well as the Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the term ‘Metaverse’ was coined by the famed author Neal Stephenson, in his 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash. ‘Metaverse’ may be construed as to allude to a “world or conception that requires the “real” world in order to move beyond it and acknowledge another realm.”
Rather simplistically, Oxford defines ‘Metaverse’ as “A slang term used to describe a virtual representation of reality implemented by means of virtual reality software.” However, while simplistic, the above definition is also surprisingly helpful in visualizing what exactly a Metaverse is, although it may lack the depth which is now associated with the term. To begin with exploring the concept, the above Oxford definition is as good as any a place to begin with.
While the current hype and media (social as well as conventional) would have one believe that the Metaverse is the present and the future, the same is quite a fallacy. The origins of not only the ‘concept’ of the Metaverse, but also its execution, is one which goes back as far back as the late 90s, although one of the most recognizable examples of the Metaverse only came into being in 2003. A trip down memory lane would enable one to better understand the future of the Metaverse, as and when it may unfold.
Many tech savvy readers would undoubtedly recall the viral virtual world of Linden Labs’ Second Life, which took the world by storm in the mid-2000s, and till date, remains relevant and popular. For beginners to the modern interpretation of Metaverse, the much revered (and much reviled also by quite a few) Second Life is a great frame of reference. Second Life is essentially a digital world on its own, a plane of existence which can be accessed by creating your own ‘avatar’ (or digital representation of yourself) on the online platform, and entering the world. Second Life comprises ‘worlds’ where people lead parallel/concurrent lives and do what all they would do in real lives – have a job, shop, socialize, have romantic relationships, get married, attend classes, go to office meetings, take your pets out for walks, etc. While the above sounds eerily similar to something like a more advanced or immersive version of EA’s (Electronic Arts) famous SIMS series of games, the creators of Second Life have over the years reiterated that it is not a game – there are no goals, no missions, and importantly, there is no manufactured conflict, and it is a completely open-ended experience.
However, this virtual world also involves a sophisticated monetary aspect as well – to such an extent that ‘users’ (or residents) can make ‘actual’ money while living their Second Life. The Second Life world has its own economic system as well as its own currency or virtual token, called the Linden Dollar. While the Linden Dollar cannot be redeemed for actual currency from Linden Labs, users/residents can trade Linden Dollars amongst themselves, and also exchange the same for US Dollars on an exchange called the ‘Lindex’. Beyond economics, Second Life also has a robust IP aspect, which CFO of the company John Zdanowski in an interview by the MIT Technology Review in 2007, specifically stated,
“The fundamental difference is that in World of Warcraft, the company, Blizzard Entertainment, makes all the content in world. In Second Life, our users make substantially all the content. And World of Warcraft is a game. If you buy something that advances your powers, you’re sort of circumventing the rules of the game. Second Life isn’t a game: it’s a platform for collaboration and interaction. When people build something, it has value, and they have intellectual-property rights to it. It’s those intellectual-property rights that other games specifically restrict and Second Life specifically allows.”
As such, the above mentioned Second Life digital world, which still exists and has millions of active users, can be thought of as a ‘base’ about what the Metaverse is all about. Except, the new conception of the Metaverse has a capitalistic aspect to it, and there is far more emphasis on economics and marketplaces. Nevertheless, there are significant overlaps between how we perceive the Metaverse, and the gaming concept of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs).
At present, there is no single Metaverse; rather, as per the definition and conventional notions about the term, many Metaverses already exist in the form of various platforms such as Second Life, Microsoft Mesh, Facebook’s Horizon Worlds, etc. These are essentially ‘centralized’ expressions of the Metaverse, with the creators essentially at the end of the day, having ultimate control over the worlds they have created. In this context of the Metaverse, the context of a centralized system versus a decentralized one, is one that merits an in-depth analysis.
Further, while an existing Metaverse certainly has the tools to elevate social media and marketplaces to the next level, one wonders just how far mankind can push its digital boundaries.
Thus, using the above frame of reference of what an existing Metaverse is, we now look towards what the Metaverse is at present, and what it can be.
Time to move forward and deeper into the Matrix!
The change of name of Facebook to Meta is likely the most ringing endorsement of the notion that the tech world is now gearing up towards the next big paradigm shift, perhaps leaving the world of conventional internet behind.
This notion is further reinforced by the fact that Facebook, or rather Meta, has committed to invest 10 billion US Dollars this year on its Metaverse division (Facebook Reality Labs). The company has stated that it sees Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) as the core of this future of the Metaverse. This in itself hints at the two directions that the winds of the Metaverse are blowing in: social media and marketplaces.
Coupled with what a marketplace is in an existing digital world like Second Life, and with ground-breaking developments in the last few years, especially in the realm of AR and VR, the possibilities of a paradigm shift in how we perceive the above two most popular online activities are endless. For instance, imagine browsing a super-store from the comfort of your home, while being fully immersed in a 3D representation of the same via AR/VR and being able to ‘shop’ in a manner reminiscent to how one would in an actual store!
That said, the application and creative reach of the Metaverse is not in the slightest limited to the above two overarching fields. Hyundai Motors, for instance, aims to expand human reach and fulfil unlimited freedom of mobility by utilizing robotics and integrating it with the Metaverse.
However, while the future is seemingly bright for the Metaverse, the same is beset with innumerable questions and dilemmas, including but not limited to legal, social, economic, moral ones. As such, the same also opens up a Pandora’s Box of Intellectual Property related questions.
Over the coming weeks and months, we hope to explore many of these questions.
Vikrant Rana is Managing Partner and Pranit Biswas is a Senior Associate at SS Rana & Co.
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