What The Matrix tells us about the Metaverse

The Metaverse will be everything we ever imagined in our games, books, and movies where reality and fantasy blend

By Shalini Verma

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Published: Mon 30 May 2022, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 17 Jun 2022, 3:58 PM

"What is the Matrix?” asks Neo, Keanu Reeves’ character in the sci-fi movie, The Matrix. Today everyone is asking a similar question about the Metaverse. Most people understand that the Metaverse is a virtual space for socialising, playing, working. But then, how exactly does the idea of a Metaverse differ from social media today.

The metaverse is conceptualised as an immersive virtual world with access to 3D virtual spaces using Augmented Reality / Virtual Reality (AR/VR) headsets. Such virtual spaces are developing like Meta’s Horizon Worlds. Parallels can be easily drawn between the current social media platforms and the Metaverse. It took a few years for smartphones to become mainstream. This is currently true for AR/VR headsets. While they are the star attraction at tech events, they are yet to hit the sweet spot. According to the popular gaming platform Steam, less than 3% of its users own a VR headset.

Led by Meta’s Reality Labs that makes products for the Metaverse, tech companies are drumming up momentum for such products. Yet even Mark Zuckerberg admits that it will take ‘longer for Reality Labs than for a lot of the traditional software’ that his company built. In the meantime, they will make Horizon Worlds accessible without VR on mobile and web.

Several factors are converging to shape the Metaverse. In the past several years, the gaming and entertainment industries have been trying to craft the virtual reality experience. The VR headsets have struggled to get the experience right. Earlier users who attended VR conferences wearing Meta’s Oculus complained of strain in the eyes. But there have been continuous iterations such as sleeker designs, more lightweight, higher resolution, a wider field of view, better 3D rendering, improved hand and eye tracking and so forth. The headsets will need to become more affordable. 3D design tools are improving for content creation. The Metaverse is possibly one cool VR headset and a killer app away from mainstream usage. It will therefore boil down to experiences, beyond the vibes we create on social media today.

“Ever had that feeling where you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming?” Neo ponders in The Matrix. Likewise, the Metaverse will mediate the virtual and real as tech companies will experiment with several realities. Whether it is Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality or Mixed Reality, the physical world will gradually cease to be the only reality. Morpheus explains to Neo, “What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” This relates to any experience, even those provided by online games and entertainment parks.

I remember my maiden 4D experience at Warner Bros. Movie World in Australia. When a 3D snake came within inches of my nose and withdrew, I felt it slither around my ankle. That tactile sensation stayed with me for days. Inside the Metaverse, you can escape the mundane and be anything you imagine yourself to be. You can have a sense of purpose like building a home and hanging out with friends from anywhere, which may be difficult in the real world.

Where does that leave us as sentient intelligent beings? Perhaps, we will not be able to distinguish between the physical and the virtual. Perhaps, it won’t matter anymore.

The Metaverse will be everything we ever imagined in our games, books, and movies where reality and fantasy blend. We could be socializing with hobbits or falling down a rabbit hole along with Alice in Wonderland. We could also be The One in The Matrix, the hero of our own Metaverse experience, armed with superhero abilities. Our lives would be a lot like the literary genre of magical realism portrayed in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Fantasy will seep into our everyday life in the most vivid manner. The Metaverse experience will become more vivid over time, replete with digital twins of things of everyday use.

When asked why games like Roblox appealed so much, a millennial explained that that the gaming world felt better than the real world. Unnerving as it sounds, the Metaverse platform providers would be hoping for precisely this.

Will we develop physical and mental health problems because of our extended time in the virtual world? If companies cash in on engagement, they would be less inclined to kick us out after excessive use. Content moderation will be needed to prevent transgressions and misdemeanours. Would it be possible to archive the content and go back in time, for law enforcement agencies to review conduct? Would that be open to misuse by organizations and individuals? The consumers are asking lots of questions about the Metaverse as they wait for that transformational experience.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT Technologies and Co-founder of NurtureAI. She tweets at @shaliniverma1

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