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Understanding the metaverse: How will it affect life, business in UAE?

Dubai and the UAE are taking a leap into the future, leading the way in terms of shaping a new reality with Web 3.0. An expert explains how residents and businesses can benefit from it



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Joydeep Sengupta

Published: Wed 11 May 2022, 12:59 AM

Steve Bambury, a British national who moved to Dubai in 2008, has worked in the field of education and training for 20 years. In 2016, he became the first Head of Digital Learning and Innovation across the Jumeirah English Speaking School group before moving on to work as a consultant in 2019. This included an extended engagement within New Media Academy where, amongst other projects, he coordinated the deployment of the first virtual reality (VR) campus in the Middle East.

Bambury has been exploring the use of immersive technology since 2012 and his work with VR has earned him awards from GESS, BETT and EdTech Digest amongst others.

Now, Bambury primarily works as a consultant in the field of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), Web 3.0 and the metaverse.

Khaleej Times spoke with Bambury to understand the growing interest about the metaverse and how Dubai and the UAE are in sync with the global technological trend. Here are edited excerpts from the interview:

Is it correct to assume that the metaverse is a three-dimensional (3D) version of the Internet and computing at large? If so, why, and how?

Kind of yes. Spatial computing… extended reality (XR) … the metaverse — there’s a whole host of terms that have become almost interchangeable at this point. But the core concept of ‘the metaverse’ has remained mostly unchanged in the last 20 years — a persistent, interoperable, multi-user virtual world, where people can interact and engage with each other and various forms of digital media.

The metaverse is increasingly being perceived as being an integral part of ‘Web 3.0’. This is the evolution of the world wide web from its initial form (Web 1.0,where you passively accessed content online) through its current form (Web 2.0 – where we became content creators via social media platforms) to something new that is built on a foundation of blockchain technology. The key difference is how blockchain facilitates ownership of digital assets, which can include “virtual land” inside this ethereal concept of the metaverse.

Over the last five years this is something I have been asked about more and more frequently: “Is VR a gimmick?” The truth is that VR, and by extension the metaverse, is no gimmick — it genuinely is the natural evolution of computing. As humans, we exist in a 3D world. So, it makes sense for us to engage with digital content in 3D, too.

Here are a few facts about this extended reality:

How do NFTs relate to the metaverse?

Even just a couple of years ago, most people hadn’t even heard of the term NFT, and they definitely weren’t something that people in the VR space were focusing on. 2021 was a landmark year for NFTs and blockchain technology as the Covid-19 pandemic meant that people were at home more. And suddenly, NFTs found their moment to shine (despite projects like Cryptopunks having existed for several years). The insane profits people started making led to a rapid boom. While digital art and collectibles like digital trading cards formed the initial wave, virtual land from projects like The Sandbox, Decentraland and Somnium Space soon became seen as an asset class with longer-term appeal.

Using blockchain technology, people are essentially able to own a part of the metaverse, with the land plots being sold as NFTs alongside other virtual assets like avatar skins and clothing. You buy a plot of land in The Sandbox — then you can build whatever you like on it (within reason…and probably with the help of a skilled developer). And because it’s held on chain, that asset is yours forever unless you opt to sell it. Many of these platforms also have their own currency that can be bought, sold, and even earned as cryptocurrency tokens. In time, the logic is that these tokens create a thriving economy within these worlds. Will this happen? Possibly. Ultimately “the metaverse” is held up as the pinnacle of what is possible with VR and, as such, the visceral sense of presence that it affords users is pivotal. For many, their idea of the metaverse has been shaped by films like The Matrix or the world of Ernie Cline’s Ready Player One.

How can the metaverse act as a virtual social network?

There’s a reason why technology leaders like Mark Zuckerberg are shifting towards VR and the metaverse. He recognised the potential of the medium. Being able to build your own virtual home space has so much more to offer than having a simple social profile page. You can mould the world in your image based on your likes and dislikes and then invite friends old and new into that space. Don’t get me wrong — there will still be room for the integration of traditional voice over internet protocol (VOIP) services, too, but the social networking paradigm will shift towards something more experiential.

Less show-and-tell and more experience-and-share.

Here's an example of a digital twin:

Why do you think so many people have conflicting ideas of what the metaverse actually is?

It’s common with nascent forms of technology and when it comes to VR, spatial computing and the metaverse, we are looking at a seismic shift rather than a slight modification in the way that we will engage with both the hardware and software elements. The leap from desktop to tablet was a much smaller leap than from tablet to wearable interfaces like a VR headset. Similarly, the jump towards digital assets and ownership on the blockchain is quite a leap for many. Fear and confusion lead to misinformation and misconceptions. Different sectors of the tech industry are approaching the concept with different goals and purposes in mind.

What do you see as the future of the metaverse?

Is it inevitable? Yes, I truly believe that it is. Alvin Graylin, who is the China president of HTC Vive, once told me that the biggest friction point of VR adoption was that “people don’t know what they don’t know”. The silver lining of the Covid-19 pandemic was that people had more time and motivation to explore these new forms of technology — hence the massive spike in headset sales we saw in 2020.

Don’t get me wrong — we are still easily five to 10 years away from true mass adoption. This is still the Nokia 3210 stage of VR hardware, not the iPhone and the current iteration of the metaverse is probably more in line with the AOL days of Web 1.0 or the MySpace days of Web 2.0.

How is Dubai trying to create a virtual city in the metaverse?

While this is not a project I’m involved in directly, it’s one I will be watching closely. One Human Reality is a digital twin of Dubai inside a virtual world. It’s interesting because in other countries, we are starting to see companies and even universities look more rigorously into the idea of building a persistent digital twin, yet Dubai is planning a digital twin of the entire emirate, it seems! The UAE always likes to go big though and be at the forefront of innovation.

How will the evolution of Web 3.0 and the metaverse help businesses in the UAE?

I’ve been asked to answer this recently from people in the tourism industry, the media and many other sectors. Everyone wants to know “where do we fit in all this?” And of course, underlying this question is their fear of being left behind or becoming obsolete.

The fact is that every company in every industry will ultimately find their place in the metaverse and whilst, for example, a shipping company would always need to operate in the real world, they will still evolve to incorporate meetings inside virtual spaces, avail of marketing opportunities inside the metaverse, and explore new ways to engage and interact both internally and with new and existing customers.

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The other aspect of Web 3.0 is that it will be particularly disruptive in several sectors — such as the integration of digital assets and the use of blockchain to store and track ownership through smart contracts and NFTs. Now, we are seeing more and more fashion brands — from Gucci to Diesel to homegrown Splash — leverage these tools to engage with their fans and customers in new ways.

The possibilities are endless, and the more forward-thinking companies are actively researching and developing ideas for this revolutionary new world to ensure that they are future-proofed.

Is the UAE future ready as far as the metaverse is concerned?

I think the UAE has shown time and time again that it is a true hub of innovation not only in the Middle East but the entire world. Recent announcements such as the One Human Reality project, the formation of the Virtual Asset Regulatory Authority (Vara) and the welcoming of multiple blockchain-focused companies to the country have shown not only a willingness to be open to these game-changing technologies but a desire to lead the way in terms of their development and adoption.

I feel incredibly positive about the virtual future in the UAE and in the metaverse.


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