How These Combine

The Metaverse contains elements of all four scenarios. At the same time, their technologies broadly overlap, as in the use of a mirror world map inside a virtual world, or a heads-up display AR system or object or user lifelog inside a mirror or virtual world. There are also more general ways the scenarios overlap.

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The Metaverse contains elements of all four scenarios. At the same time, their technologies broadly overlap, as in the use of a mirror world map inside a virtual world, or a heads-up display AR system or object or user lifelog inside a mirror or virtual world. There are also more general ways the scenarios overlap.

One link between the virtual worlds and mirror worlds scenarios is the refinement of digital models of environments, and the sense of immersion that results from good models. At present, virtual worlds for games, education, or socializing have rudimentary physics models, and little if any emergent or evolved phenomena—they're scripted, static, or entirely dependent upon user creation. Conversely, today's best mirror worlds have little sense of place or immersion, limited real-time shared content (where the actions of one user changes what other users see), and restrictions on what users can do within the environment. Improvements in either version of simulated worlds will come from lessons learned by examining the alternative.


Google Map of World of Warcraft

A link between the mirror worlds and augmented reality scenarios is the proliferation of sensors, networked devices, and intelligent materials. Both scenarios are heavily dependent upon the deployment of a multitude of systems able to monitor and influence properties of the physical world—the primary difference is the interface used to access this data. The two scenarios overlap yet have their unique strengths, with mirror worlds effective as tools of large-system monitoring and control, and augmented reality systems effective as mediators of personal interaction and point control.

A link between the augmented reality and lifelogging scenarios is the development of a sophisticated interface for experiencing an enhanced awareness of one's physical and social environment, and sufficient network capacity to support full-time personal use. As described in the scenarios, the most effective AR and user lifelogging systems are likely to be unobtrusive wearable devices, which hand off most of their computation-intensive tasks to the network. Again, an augmented reality future will have some elements of lifelogging, and vice-versa, because the tools for one are enablers for the other.

A link between the lifelogging and the virtual worlds scenarios is the emergence of a consistent digital identity allowing for seamless interaction between in-person and virtual representations of other people. This requires the development of an infrastructure that is open across multiple platforms, secure against spoofing, and able to recognize that you are you, regardless of how or where you're connecting. Advanced identity, trust and reputation may be slowest to emerge in virtual space, where part of the allure is to recreate oneself outside of one’s social history. But the growing public transparency that will accompany advances in the other three scenarios is likely to impact virtual worlds as well, though perhaps to a lesser degree.


Facebook Profile

Cross-Scenario Issues

Given that our four scenarios are not mutually-exclusive—and in fact often mutually-reinforcing—it makes sense to address their social and business benefits, challenges and questions from a cross-scenario perspective.

Social Benefits and Challenges

Relationships and Identity

Metaverse technologies are intensely social. As a result, the most widely-felt impacts coming from the development of these tools will be in personal and social relationships. Not all of these impacts will be good.

At the community level, the proliferation of sensory and analysis tools, either worn or embedded in the world, arguably makes deception or abuse of others more difficult. Public misbehavior or duplicity becomes part of the public record, and the development of reputation networks would make it hard to live down past misdeeds or mistakes. If this "mutual assured transparency" is equivalent across social divisions, the technology could have a leveling effect, reducing the opportunities for abuses of power; if the transparency is effectively one-way, where the rich and powerful could limit their information shadows but still see those of everyone else, these technologies would be ripe for abuse.

Such transparency and reputation issues have already started to arise in virtual communities, places where many participants experiment with social rules under alternative identities. The ability within these spaces to have status, capabilities and recognition far greater than the physical world has proven a highly attractive feature. Like the physical world, virtual environments provide benefits based on skills, social networks and personality, but because (in principle) everyone starts with more-or-less a blank slate, that fame and fortune isn't contingent upon fame or fortune elsewhere.

Yet as interoperability and commercialization move into the VW space, the experimental and anonymous feel of today’s most popular virtual worlds (e.g., Second Life) may subside. Better digital identity and reputation, and the entry of major physical world brands, celebrities, and interests into social VWs may convert the majority of them into more mundane and restrictive varieties of social relationship and identity. Perhaps only the theme-based game worlds, and less popular social VWs will remain havens for identity privacy (even as true anonymity disappears), and identity and relationship experimentation.

Information and Education

Information access is a recurring theme across the four scenarios, whether about the world or about oneself. Certainly access is no panacea; for much of the world, the problem isn't the lack of information, but the lack of ability to find the right information. Filters, metadata, tags and search systems may be the most important infrastructure technology for the Metaverse.

That said, the vision of what our world could look like once these problems are sufficiently solved is generally appealing. Both augmented reality and mirror worlds offer context-aware versions of Google or Wikipedia available simply at a glance, while lifelogging and virtual worlds, being more intrinsically personal, offer tools for a more detailed understanding of one's own life and relationships. Whether this means an improved understanding, especially in the early years of these technologies, is another question. And while the high-profile, edge-case uses of these tools may garner the most attention, their everyday, prosaic uses (for personal commerce, for casual communication, for education) will be far more important in effect.

The particular benefits and challenges accruing to future education are worth calling out. Unlike today, where even participatory platforms like Wikipedia try to limit their entries to people and events generally considered “notable,” in the Metaverse future we’ll have at our fingertips the biographies, personal trajectories and intimate glimpses into the lives and behaviors of ordinary individuals, organizations and locations around the world. At the same time, we'll run the risk of building overly-subjective appraisals of the world, relying too heavily upon individual observations, and insufficiently upon considered, detached analysis.

Transparency and Political Power

The rise of the Metaverse underscores already-extant, serious social, political, and economic questions about information. Who decides what sources of information should be visible, and what should be obscure? Are there only a few central sources for descriptions of "locations, events and communities of interest" (creating a serious potential for bias and inaccuracy), or is such information pluralistic and emergent from the individual contributions of participants, (making self-promotion, vandalism and other petty abuses likely)? What happens when filters create a distorted view of a topic or location? Who decides what's correct? Who pays for abuses?

Simply choosing to opt out is little help. If these technologies become as commonplace and important as we believe they will, people who choose not to participate may end up as left out of commercial and civic discourse as Web-ignorant people are today. If lifelogging and augmented reality technologies becomes commonplace, those who have access to complete records and fee-based databases may have a big advantage over those who can only access the free data, or worse yet, still rely exclusively on their faulty "meat" memories. In the long-term future, the choice of operating without personal memory technology may even render one unemployable for many professional tasks.

Most ominously, Metaverse technologies could be used by large institutions, particularly major corporations and governments, to maintain and worsen social, political, and economic inequalities in today’s only partially democratic societies. There are myriad control and access issues ahead in both the near- and longer-term. If network neutrality is compromised, if walled gardens are allowed unfair competitive advantage, if internet monopolies aren’t aggressively countered, in the coming generation Metaverse developments could concentrate power into a limited set of hands, and create transparency only for the “underclass.” Monitoring the populace would be simple, and with the wrong application of "everyware" technologies, so too would be the manipulation and limitation of choice.

In addition to enlightened “top-down” leadership, continued “bottom-up” activism, to ensure increasingly democratic and pluralistic access to and control of these technologies, seems fundamentally important to responsible global development.


Jeff Han's multi-touch screen

Business Benefits and Challenges

Information Shadows

Increasingly, businesses talk about the "information shadow" of the products and services they provide: the records of contacts, sources, deliveries, versions and so on that offer a complete history of a business offering. In coming years, the richness of information shadows in virtual space promises even the smallest Metaverse-using retailer the current logistics power of a Wal*Mart, the analysis power of an Accenture, and the research power of an IBM.

For specialized businesses, the Metaverse will be of substantial benefit to those seeking a better understanding of the more subtle global systems. Transnational companies will love the Metaverse, as will academics and activists trying to better understand globalization and sustainability in the new era. Transportation, product data and responses to customer needs can be made much more efficient. For designers and corporations, such information access will make "mass customization" production and niche marketing cost-effective.

For businesses producing or selling commodity goods, the abundant information will continue eroding margins and rewarding automation on “commodity” products and services, and at the same time creating demand for innovative new dimensions to products and services. Price, product and service comparisons will be available at a glance, undermining the power of brand as differentiator, unless tied to Metaverse metrics.

This is a world where “big box” retailers may extend their services to “little box” subsidiaries (eg., Wal*Mart, Vons, etc. taking over many of the local liquor/sundries stores). Monopolies of convenience (e.g., uncompetitive local choices for basic goods and services) will be an ongoing risk and regulatory challenge.

Where local convenience is not a factor, businesses will need to offer buyer-specific services to hold onto regular customers; fortunately, the information shadows about people will make that task simpler, and herald a whole new level of consumer behavior modeling and predictive marketing. For that reason, privacy (as discussed below) will be a heightened concern in the world of the Metaverse.


Google Map pin edited into physical space

Leadership and Competition

The social dimensions of the Metaverse have business implications as well. Many MVR participants noted that the leadership and collaboration skills required in virtual environments are increasingly well-suited to excelling in the business world. In coming years, quest management in virtual worlds, or winning entrepreneurial serious games may be as valid as sports team leadership or other traditional experience for executive training.

Questions about leadership are particularly important in a world seeing a major economic and technological transformation. The challenges facing businesses moving into the Metaverse will be analogous to those that faced in building a web presence, or globalizing operations to stay competitive.

Early adopters will try to figure out how to best use the new medium at each stage of its development, not always successfully. Business models for the use of Metaverse tools may be non-obvious, and new competitive environments are always rife with experimentation which eventually dies away. It's possible that many of the for-profit groups currently exploring Second Life, for example, won't stick it out long enough to make it profitable.

Skillful use of the emerging medium in its earliest stages requires ongoing employee education, low-risk experimentation, and the desire to “learn a new language” of information design. Those companies that get it first may have a significant competitive advantage over the laggards—both in business categories that reward first movers, and in those that reward “fast followers,” companies that use a new medium primarily to watch and learn from the early adopters, and then step in quickly later as prices drop, markets mature, and experience mounts.


Mixed-reality event in Second Life

Early adoption benefits individuals in today’s social virtual worlds like Second Life, which currently has 2 million active users (logged in last 60 days) and $1.5M of daily economic transactions. It also benefits companies serving those users, and may soon apply to virtual companies inside such worlds.

Early adoption benefits are also proven in mirror worlds, which already have a large GIS user community, and where competitive advantages can be built around GIS awareness as new global systems and processes come into simulation. In developed countries with good digital networks, augmented reality and object lifelogging may not be far behind MWs and VW’s as innovation spaces and competencies worth exploring for today’s global virtual businesses.

Transparency and Reputation

The important questions about transparency apply to the world of business as readily as they do to the world of politics. The generation growing up on blogs, MySpace and Flickr will likely embrace Metaverse tools as a means of operating in as transparent a fashion as possible.

Customers who are well-served will be public with their happiness; customers who feel cheated will be all the more vocal in their unhappiness. Moreover, it will be easy for customers to discover that they have been cheated, simply because of the ease with which they can uncover information regarding competitors, suppliers, and other customers.

This is true even if reputation network technologies don't emerge. If they do, the benefits and challenges for business are further multiplied. In a reputation network version of the Metaverse, good actions are easily rewarded and misbehavior is only slowly forgotten. For many businesses, this will be akin to having a collaborative, always-available version of Consumer Reports tracking their every step.


Xbox Live marketplace

Even more than other media that have come before it, we can expect the Metaverse to amplify our individual, corporate and institutional winners and losers, both economically and in the theatre of public opinion, across a bewildering variety of attributes and values, and for a growing network of cultures and subcultures.

Big Questions

Privacy and Control


Hitachi’s Mu Chip, an RFID “powder” small enough to put in paper currency.

In many respects, the biggest question about the emergence of the Metaverse concerns privacy.

 Abuse of privacy fears have already slowed the growth of the RFID tag industry, and remain a common response to both the expansion of official surveillance capabilities and the growing presence of camera phones; it's highly likely that "everyware" and lifelogging technologies will elicit a similar reaction. Early versions of mirror world, AR, and lifelogging technologies could be caricatured as "Total Information Access" revisited. Depending upon who is building and has access to those tools, such a characterization may not be too far off the mark.

Even if the technology works well, it may emerge in a culture where social trends point away from ubiquitous observation and relentless transparency. If people in the developed world begin to believe that their privacy has been too easily undermined by commonly-available technologies, they will be more likely to push for restrictions on those technologies rather than expansion. We could get a similar outcome if the form of social transparency that seems to be emerging is one where scrutiny doesn't cross class boundaries.

Some would say that present-day levels of social transparency in democratic societies put the lives of the rich and powerful under a far more intense public lens than that applied to ordinary citizens. Whether this is sufficiently effective to reduce corruption at the top is another question. It has been argued that it is more practical to aim accountability reforms at mid- and low-level government and business positions in the process of reform (Singapore, as one example), at least in the early stages of transparency development.

One of the more subtle engines for both centralization of power and public backlash may be intellectual property (IP) concerns. Existing IP laws are almost certain to blunt the capabilities of any technologies that record or access copyrighted content, at least in the near-term. Any but the simplest and weakest digital rights management (DRM) systems are likely to be both ineffective and obtrusive, reducing the attractiveness of many Metaverse technologies.

Integration and Acceptance

The degree to which Metaverse technologies can be integrated into existing social, economic and political behaviors is one factor influencing the overall public acceptance of these systems.

Of the four aspects of the Metaverse we have outlined, the augmentation scenarios (augmented reality and lifelogging) seem the most like our current world, at least in their early forms: many more portable devices populating wireless networks; abundant information (if we can get to it); increasing surveillance by commercial and official entities, yet a growing gap between technologies employed in private vs. the slower government sectors. Examined more closely, however, it is clear that the networked portions of these scenarios are quite dependent upon the presence of common protocols and interfaces connecting the various information sources and points of access. They are also dependent upon public interest in abundant information clouds. Do people really want to know “everything” going on around them? If so, how rapidly will they develop a social, political, and legal consensus? In which domains will consensus emerge first, and in which will it be delayed?


Simplified 3D Creation in Will Wright's Spore

The virtual worlds scenario is more complicated. The various existing virtual world-type systems, multiplayer games and social environments, have been around in some form for decades, and their partisans are the most likely to embrace the overarching concept of a "Metaverse." Some of the most important developments in large-group remote interaction, identity creation, and object design have taken place in virtual worlds settings, and the likely near-future advances in these systems, particularly with regards to persistent identity, should lay the groundwork for even more advanced interfaces and capabilities.

At the same time, the vision presented in the virtual worlds scenario is one of a fairly substantive set of changes to everyday behavior, requiring adjustments to how we conceive of work, economic status, communities, and relationships. Such changes would experience strong social resistance in some sectors. Similarly, questions remain as to the viability of the virtual world format outside current niches. In multiplayer games, only fantasy-based environments (dragons, wizards and superheroes) have seen lasting success; with social virtual worlds, their influence and media visibility have yet to be matched by actual participation numbers. Neither form of VW has yet had the kind of breakthrough success that would broadly attract non-youth, non-early adopter communities, though either may “tip” in that direction soon.

The dark horse scenario is mirror worlds. Although it seems the least flashy of the four, as it continues to develop it might remain the most important to existing organizations even in the longer term, as a tool for learning about and an interface for competitively managing the physical world. While the underlying technologies (supercomputing, simulations, virtual Earth software, sensors, etc.) are all currently available in rudimentary form, the particular combination is ambitious in scope, and the largest professional community, the GIS community, is currently behind the development of this scenario.

No discussion of social integration and acceptance of the Metaverse would be complete without considering the mass collaborations now beginning to occur on our current “Web 2.0” version of the Participatory Web. To better understand today’s early versions of 2D and 3D Internet collaboration we recommend Wikinomics by Don Tapscott (2006), Infotopia by Cass Sunstein (2006), and Synthetic Worlds, by Edward Castronova (2006).

 

As each of these books remind us, even in these early days the Metaverse offers unique new ways to form social groups, to model our environment (both physical and abstract), to test out possibilities and explore our options, and, ultimately, to practice safer and more positive-sum experiments with the future.

Technological Viability

In conclusion, all our scenarios assume that Metaverse technologies will work as expected.

The software aspects of the lifelogging world are a major challenge. Developing the tagging, indexing and search software necessary for a widely-usable user lifelogging system—including systems for recognizing faces and locations in images, correlating ambiguous connections for searches, and making it all accessible for non-technical users—is a sufficiently-hard problem that most MVR participants expected only rudimentary versions of these technologies during the next decade.

Similarly, the mirror worlds and augmented reality scenarios depend upon a functional array of sensor technologies distributed widely and densely enough to provide both useful details and meaningful context. Power sources, networking protocols, and universal access vs. proprietary control remain unanswered questions.


Exergames: virtual fighting with the Nintendo Wii

And both virtual worlds and mirror worlds, at least in their early stages, depend upon a popular willingness to engage with 3D information using a 2D interface. While this is fine for narrow types of work and casual entertainment, it's unclear whether such “psuedo-3D” offers a sufficiently immersive experience to trigger the necessary economic and social changes that would make our Metaverse scenarios a reality in the near or longer term. At the same time, full-immersion 3D, aka virtual reality, has its own drawbacks and technical challenges, and is likely to remain only a niche application for entertainment and training for the foreseeable future.

For more on issues and questions ahead, please see Issues and Choices (Sec. 14), Ideas and Proposals (Sec. 15) and Key Uncertainties (Sec. 16) in the MVR Inputs.

The Metaverse Scenario

Despite many open questions, it's clear that the technologies of the Metaverse are likely to change how we live, work and play over the near-term, possibly in transformative ways in the longer-term. Improving foresight in this space is both a wise business strategy and a broad social good.

While we have considered the Metaverse in four separate scenarios, the future will combine elements of each, as well as many others not mentioned here. Some near-term developments, such as cellular phone technologies, have such broad utility and extensive capital investments they must be key elements in any story of tomorrow. Other aspects, such as the use of virtual worlds for significant amounts of work and commerce, are more tentative, but serve today as useful provocations. Recurring themes such as security and crime, transparency, information access and equity, privacy, liberty, and control reflect ancient competing interests on what is simply the latest stage of technical capabilities. Social conflicts will shape the path of Metaverse development in uncertain and divergent ways, culture by culture, even while the global advance of these technologies appears to have a number of predictable and universal aspects.

Our scenarios will be influenced by all of the broader concerns facing the planet. Ethnic strife, political instability and war, energy, water, and other resource issues, trade, globalization, economic growth and poverty, environmental degradation and sustainability initiatives, migration, scientific and engineering advances, education and the media, ancient drives for intimacy, individuation, and spirituality, our emerging digital and participatory culture, unknown surprises and catastrophes, all of these and more will shape the technology development and adoption choices in tomorrow’s Metaverse.

Most importantly for each of us, at this pivotal moment in human history, there are unique opportunities for enlightened corporate, political, and social leadership in Metaverse exploration and development. We propose that the best use of the Metaverse Scenarios and Inputs in this inaugural roadmap is not simply to consider them for near-term economic potential, but to ask how these technologies might help or hinder our ability to manage humanity’s larger concerns, both now and in the future. How might we use the various forms of the Metaverse to guide our response to global warming, and the emergence of “climate neutral” energy and transportation? How might we use these systems to avert a war, improve an election, reduce crime and poverty, or put an end to human rights abuses? How might we use the Metaverse, in the words of Jonas Salk, to become "good ancestors" to our descendants?

The potential is there. In just ten years (1996-2006), global Internet use has gone from 36 million to 1 billion, or from 1% to 16% of the world’s population (Inputs 8Ba). Nevertheless, this is still only a fraction of the talented and passionate human beings who are patiently waiting for affordable access to tomorrow’s Participatory Web. In the meantime, there are many clever examples of mass online creativity, collaboration and innovation that we can champion today, and sound strategies guiding our growing transparency and accelerating information base into useful context and social value.

For inspiring and practical statements of the 3D and virtual promise ahead, please see the Vision Statements (Sec. 5) of the MVR Inputs, provided by MVR participants. We hope you have enjoyed this Overview, and look forward to your feedback at roadmap@accelerating.org to help us prepare for the next roadmap. Please join our mailing list if you would like to be informed of upcoming MVR activities, and we wish you the best in the extraordinary journey ahead.

John Smart
Editor; Co-Author
Bridget C. Agabra
Project Manager
Jerry Paffendorf
Community Director; Co-Author
Jamais Cascio
Scenario Foresight Specialist; Co-Author

 


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Citation: Smart, J.M., Cascio, J. and Paffendorf, J., Metaverse Roadmap Overview, 2007.
2007. Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.

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