The Metaverse Opportunity

The technology to create the metaverse is at the stage where it could well become a reality. However, unlike the internet that was created by patient capital, the metaverse will be created by big tech. We need to develop open standards and regulations so that we can ensure that there are no walled gardens in the metaverse. India has already built interoperable infrastructure to address essential aspects of the metaverse like payments. It has the opportunity to be a leader in its development.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

Over the past few months, there’s been growing excitement about the ‘metaverse’. Microsoft was the first major tech company to point to the increasing convergence between the virtual and the physical worlds when its chief Satya Nadella suggested that simulated environments and mixed reality were evolving into an entirely new platform technology. Shortly after that, Facebook Inc’s Mark Zuckerberg devoted a significant portion of the company’s July earnings call to it, describing it as “one of the most exciting projects that we’re going to get to work on in our lifetimes". Even though we tend to think of the metaverse as a form of virtual reality, Zuckerberg vision is much grander:

You’re going to be able to access the metaverse from all different devices in different levels of fidelity – from apps on phones and PCs to immersive virtual and augmented reality devices. Within the metaverse, you’re going to be able to hang out, play games with friends, work, create, and more. You’re basically going to be able to do everything that you can on the internet today as well as some things that don’t make sense on the internet today, like dancing.

Ever since then, there have been a flurry of discussions, as op-ed writers, podcast hosts and Clubhouse rooms have tried to get to the bottom of what the fuss is all about.

What is the Metaverse?

Simply put, the metaverse is the next stage of the internet’s evolution that will allow us—not just to access it, as we do now—but also immerse ourselves in it, in a shared virtual experience where everyone is simultaneously present. It is the realization of virtual worlds like those described in such science-fiction classics as Snow Crash and Ready Player One.

But the metaverse is not just an immersive world you can escape to by putting on a virtual-reality headset. When fully realized, it will be an entirely new way of interacting with the world around us, that could transform every aspect of our lives in much the same way as the mobile internet did.

Why Now?

Matthew Bell, whose website - the Primer on the Metaverse is the go to resource for anyone trying to understand it, describes how so much of the metaverse infrastructure—from hardware and the networking set-up to computational power—has come together over just the past decade. As a result, the shared virtual environment that science fiction has been promising us for so long might actually become a reality within our lifetimes.

Games like Fortnite and Minecraft operate virtual game environments within which large groups of players simultaneously engage in pitched multiplayer battles. The improvements in network bandwidth and latency that have made this possible will be critical to enable the metaverse. The hardware of our phones has improved so much that these devices are capable of carrying out facial recognition accurately enough for our digital avatars to accurately mimic our changing facial expressions in real time - as can be seen below when iPhone Facial Capture is integrated with the Unreal Engine:

Improvements in edge computing—driven by the likes of Tesla whose vehicles use onboard artificial intelligence to detect obstacles and avert collisions before their drivers can—has meant that we can use hybrid solutions that dynamically optimize the computing power of the cloud and the device to meet the enormous computational demands of the metaverse.

The Challenges

However, despite all this optimism, there is cause for concern. Unlike the internet, which was built using patient capital, the metaverse will most likely be created by big tech companies, giving rise to concerns of walled gardens and cartelization. That said, it is clear that if the metaverse is to become as ubiquitous as the internet, it needs to remain open so that everyone can participate in it.

To achieve this, we will need to agree on a set of open standards that govern its essential aspects, ensuring interoperability across environments. We may ultimately need to pass regulation to ensure that other aspects of the metaverse—the devices we use to interface with it, the payment systems that drive its economy and the portals that connect the virtual world to the physical—comply with open protocols framed to ensure that we are not locked into any single device or service provider.

The Opportunity

India needs to recognize that the metaverse is almost upon us. We need to put in place regulations that encourage the development of these new virtual environments while ensuring that they can still function in an open, interoperable manner. If this is the next evolution of internet technology, we should ensure that the many features it is likely to offer are deployed to our advantage.

One of the key features of the metaverse will be its ability to replicate the physical world within its virtual environment. The creation of these mirror-worlds will call for mega-scans of our physical surroundings—enormous centimetre-resolution images of the physical world that we can render within the metaverse to faithfully recreate our physical environs in a virtual space. As part of India’s map reforms last year, domestic companies were given the exclusive right to map terrain at resolutions lower than one metre, giving them a significant advantage in creating mega-scans of the Indian landmass. As companies look to acquire megascan databases so that they can create mirror-worlds, this regulation will likely offer Indian companies a significant strategic advantage.

Another element of the metaverse that is still being worked out is its payment rails. While cryptocurrencies are widely touted as the ideal payment system of the metaverse, it is unlikely that they will be able to operate at the velocity at which transactions are likely to occur in these virtual environments. India’s digital payments platforms, on the other hand, have demonstrated that they can operate at population scale—processing 4 billion transactions a month without breaking a sweat. Why should this not be our payments framework of the metaverse?

India was a relatively late adopter of the internet, and, as a result, was unable to take advantage of its many features until much later. We have an extraordinary opportunity now to actively participate in the development of the metaverse.

We would do well to dive right in.