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The Metaverse: What is it good for?

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“See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”
—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

“I wonder, he wondered, if any human has ever felt this way before about an android.”
—Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)

“Yes, I’m paranoid—but am I paranoid enough?”
—David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996)

Since the premiere of Wachowski and Wachowski’s sci-fi action film, The Matrix, in 1999, many have contemplated the idea of virtual worlds—which are ostensibly real for all intents and purposes, aside from the fact that the are the creation of a supercomputer.

More avid readers of science-fiction literature, such as the works mentioned in the beginning of this this article, have been wondering about the same question and its ramifications since at least the 1950s.

It was in 2021-2022, however, that a similar concept named the Metaverse took off in a big way, creating unprecedented media hype. Metaverse turned into a buzzword of choice in IT circles toward the end of 2021.

The listed company, Facebook, renamed itself “Meta Platforms,” after its chairman, Mark Zuckerberg, decided to focus on this emerging concept. Microsoft, too, launched several products with Metaverse features, including the virtual business communication solution, Microsoft Teams.

Meta Platforms is currently the biggest market player, spending up to USD10 billion in its ambitious Metaverse project so far, which the Financial Times’ Madhumita Murgia and Tim Bradshaw described as “unprofitable,” and an “avatar-filled world,” in an article in February, 2022.

Despite the frequent use of the buzzword, there is little agreement even among industry insiders about what a Metaverse really is.

For the sake of clarification, a Metaverse is essentially a unified, visual, three-dimensional (3D) world created by powerful graphics cards on computers which are linked together with high-speed internet connections.

People can be present in this virtual 3D universe, interacting with the environment and other individuals using augmented reality or VR headsets, which are becoming increasingly ubiquitous and affordable.

Some proponents of Metaverse have gone so far as to suggest that it can soon have an economy of its own, and even integrate with or supersede the physical world.

Chances are that the distance-working culture using digital technologies, that became the norm during the pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns, has rekindled the public’s interest in the possibility of virtual worlds.

Many, however, remain highly skeptical about this not-so-new hypothetical world marketed as a new idea by some media outlets.

Whether or not the Metaverse is a new idea, however, certainly comes with its limitations.

As any physicist will tell you, there are around 10^80 atoms in the entire known universe. If one were to build a supercomputer capable of conceiving 10^80 particles and keeping track of them, that computer would naturally be built of more than 10^80 particles—which unfortunately are not available!

Creating a flawless computerized simulation of the real world is a fundamental, logical, and mathematical impossibility regardless of the sophistication of our technology and the computing power at our disposal.

Without wishing to go into technical nuances, our world is an analog system, whereas our computers are digital (discrete point) machines. Based on theorems beyond the scope of this article, digital machines can never simulate analog values. Even the best digital approximations will always fall short of absolute perfection.

The Metaverse, in plain words, can never really be, well, real. Any hypothetical Metaverse needs to significantly compromise its visual details and its size.

When you put on your augmented reality headset, therefore, do not expect to materialize in an impeccable new world, as if from another dimension.

Instead, you will enter a world visually reminiscent of online strategy games such Clash of Clans, EVE Online, or—if you are of a combatant disposition—Battle Dawn. These games are technically referred to as persistent state world (PSW) games and unfold in a limited universe.

Ironically, it is the limited nature of the product that means the Metaverse is not a completely useless concept. Anything considered useful by some and which is limited in supply is highly likely to achieve value. Just consider cryptocurrencies…

This is not to say that the Metaverse is pointless. It can be useful in distance-learning, marketing, advertising, entertainment business negotiations, and dozens more areas. It is by no means worthless, though its capabilities have been greatly exaggerated recently.

For example, you can use the Metaverse to step in a showroom and have a look around, spend time in close quarters with others in an almost believable manner, or virtually go to places that you normally cannot.

Thus, the Metaverse has both intrinsic value, because of its applications, and an economic value due to its limited size. It is, however, unlikely to become a truly real world-within-our-world anytime soon.

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