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The metaverse beckons: Time to step up the virtual reality game?

Metaverse is offering futuristic experiences to users and bringing imagination to life.

Just picture this for your wedding. You have an idyllic beach as the venue for your big day, the decision for which was made at ‘Hogwarts Castle’. You also get to wear your favourite luxury brand as wedding wear, and even go for a special post-dinner walk around the moon.

Now, imagine attending a concert, visiting an art gallery, expo or theatre, shopping for the kids, buying a plot of land, hanging out with friends, collaborating with colleagues to create content, or having a meeting, or even visiting government offices to do paperwork—all sitting right in the comfort of your home.

Metaverse is allowing people to be transported into spaces that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible to experience in the real world. Experts are calling it a ‘gamification’ of life, which could result in an escape from the real, physical world. However, it could also possibly change the real human experience or even threaten to infringe upon personal spaces and disassociate people from what we are in the real world. Yet, we are ready to take the plunge.

“Metaverse as a concept is largely drawn from dystopian science fiction films like Ready Player One. For a bunch of people, it is pure entertainment and an escape from reality, especially for youngsters who are already into gaming. But for others, this is going to be as much a social as well as business marketplace with immense disruptive possibilities. We will have to face it and master it to survive,” says CB Arun Kumar, a national award-winning animation director and the academic director of Edge by Pearl Academy, an institute that imparts next-gen training in the animation, visual effects, gaming, and comics (AVGC) sector.

More than an escapism

While the metaverse envisages a future where one will be able to teleport instantly, it’s much more than a social interaction. “Over 20 million people play games like Free Fire for over 2-3 hours a day and spend 90 minutes on social media. It’s not about escapism from the real world but a natural arc of progress in the Internet space. From slow forms of communication like telegram and telefax, we have moved to mobile phones with voice and video calls, VR, 3D…  all these are the closest to meeting someone in person,” says Mumbai-based Sameer Pitalwala, former territory head for ASEAN and South Asia at Epic Games, an interactive entertainment company and provider of 3D engine technology.

From a consumer point of view, it can be an immersive experience to engage with brands they like or support. However, to get away from the real world, such spaces need to create meaningful and engaging conversations. “The real world has its attractions and experiences, but metaverse promises to bring in that little extra—gaming, virtual meetups, meeting strangers, and the ease of trying products without leaving home. It’s about the newness that individuals may want to experience in the future,” says Manish Chowdhary, co-founder, WOW Skin Science, a health, wellness and fitness brand headquartered in Bengaluru.

More than the escape, it’s also about the safety protocols and fantasising the unreal. For instance, fintech entrepreneur Abhijeet Goyal (33) and Dr Sansrati Jain (34) opted for a physical as well as a metaverse wedding via Yug Metaverse, a virtual metaverse platform, in February this year. The scenic beachside wedding in metaverse coincided with the physical lakeside event in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.

“We had the best of both worlds—a set-up where friends and family members across the globe could attend an intimate, interactive theme as well as cover the gap of physical and local constraints and visualise an experiential, beach destination with jazz music, a fusion of European and Indian rituals. In the normal world, this was not possible,” says Goyal, the founder of BahiKhata, a collective of start-ups and business owners, and owner of Ninja Monk, a mobile and app development services firm.

That’s because avatars help people connect to a world which is not possible offline or even via zoom calls. Goyal feels it’s easier to organise fun, interactive festival meets like Holi for friends and family abroad on metaverse. This culture is apt in the Indian fabric of life, to live memories in a collaborative user experience.

Similarly, Tamil Nadu-based couple Dinesh Kshatriya and Janaganandhini Ramaswamy, who opted for a metaverse marriage, chose a Hogwarts theme for the reception as both are Harry Potter fans. “Special-edition NFTs were launched by GuardianLink, including artwork with backgrounds and attires from the Harry Potter and cyberpunk era—in addition to the traditional digital wedding attire featuring us and my wife’s father,” says Kshatriya, who decided to solemnise his marriage in the presence of a small group of people in Sivalingapuram and hold a reception virtually due to the pandemic.

Unique and creative as it may sound, the option to understand the virtual world and to meet people who they cannot meet in person due to the pandemic has led to creation of Kshatriya’s metaverse avatars. “We created avatars of the bride, the groom and the bride’s late father for the virtual reception,” says Ramkumar Subramaniam, co-founder & CEO of GuardianLink, an NFT ecosystem technology framework.

Boon or bane?

Virtual spaces like metaverse serve as a platform to live a second life online, meet, greet, entertain, interact, or shower blessings, without compromising on safety measures. It’s a progressive path to blur the boundaries between the physical and virtual world, and more people like to create experiences such as marriages, exhibitions, hangout zones, business meetings, shopping and conferences.

Abhijeet Goyal and Dr Sansrati Jain’s metaverse wedding had more than 500 registrations. Guests could change their avatars, walk through the event, and enjoy on the dance floor like any other event. But what’s different was the social experience.

“In a game, you can’t create a new level since the creative design is set. In the metaverse, you can create life-like experiences: walk, eat and talk like in the real world. Most people feel it is convenient to socialise in this manner, who may otherwise feel shy or not do so in the real world. Metaverse, as opposed to the fad or buzz word, has immense scope to scale up other sectors,” shares Mumbai-based Utkarsh Shukla, creator of Yug Metaverse, who plans to launch metaverse in sectors like travel and e-commerce. He also plans to build a city where one can buy land or shop in virtual space. “There is no replacement for the traditional market, but it adds a layer to how e-commerce exists,” he says.

There are numerous companies working towards defining different aspects of the metaverse—Meta, Microsoft, Epic Games, Nvidia, etc. But for the metaverse to become a reality, there will have to be a set of worldwide, formal, non-proprietary standards which define the hardware / software infrastructure, user interface / experience, and other technical specifications, shares Mumbai-based Pratik Muraka, chief product officer of an immersive tech start-up called GatewayVR that enables product design studios. He is also a board member of the India Game Developers’ Conference (IGDC), a keystone for the Indian gaming universe.

On the other hand, metaverse could also threaten to infringe upon personal spaces which are sacrosanct. A wedding on a public platform or engaging with strangers can prove to be delusional or addictive. Within digital technology, social media and online shopping are recognised as addictive, offer escapism and at times foster delusion, but that doesn’t stop one from using these platforms, because of the vast benefits they have brought to many lives. “As long as any technology is used within measure, it is a value-add to your life. The same will apply to the metaverse. It may take over five to 10 years before the core features of the true metaverse become mainstream,” adds Muraka.

The same applies to gaming, which is addictive and may have some negatives, but it hasn’t stopped gamers from playing more and more. “The problem arises when there is ambiguity, when we don’t know if the person is real or an AI agent provocateur,” says Kumar of Edge by Pearl Academy.

As the virtual space is a 3D, multi-sensory experience, the possibilities are changing and continuously growing, perhaps not even fully known to the creators just yet. Concerns and challenges over making VR platforms safe from sexual predators have been reported in cases, including London-based Nina Jane Patel, who was sexually harassed by a gang of three-four avatars.

Experts also feel disconnecting from the real world by assuming avatars in the virtual world is a good way of giving yourself a mental break. “Daily life experiences lead to levels of stress, and many cannot cope. Individuals seek ways to manage worries; so, virtual spaces allow individuals to be able to assume roles that they otherwise may not have opportunities to play in real life and can become a source of satisfaction and building of competence and confidence,” says Dr Samir Parikh, director of mental health and behavioural sciences at Fortis Healthcare, Delhi.

However, Parikh warns of excessive indulgence. “It can often be at the cost of tasks, roles and responsibilities in real life. Striking the right balance can become a challenge. This can compromise on the professional and personal relationships and lead to greater levels of stress and relational issues,” he says.

According to Shreya Suri, partner, Induslaw, a multi-speciality Indian law firm, the technology, while ground-breaking, is latently intrusive and could have a negative effect if such intrusions are left unchecked and manifest into unwelcome conduct. “A few cases of misconduct in the metaverse have been reported across different real-world simulations, involving racism and sexual offences. With more focus of the creators on providing a deeply immersive and interactive experience for human engagement to simulate the real world, especially through haptic technology (which will incorporate ‘touch’ as an additional sensation), the virtual reality world is effectively being designed to augment a user’s real-life surroundings with virtual elements. Any unwelcome conduct in the virtual starts to then feel very ‘real’ based on how each user interprets his or her ‘extended reality’. India falls within a small category of countries to recognise certain offences that could potentially be applied to virtual world scenarios as well,” says Suri.

All personal offences and the virtual identity of the person in the metaverse (where the user is usually not identifiable) will need to be recognised. “In a seemingly real world where often user identities remain unknown, it becomes the responsibility of the creator to act as an enforcer for creating a safe environment. A trusted ecosystem is the key to cracking the metaverse in a big way,” adds Suri.

The space is still evolving. And before it stabilises into a world that can be seen as productive, offers entertainment, economic value and a space that defies the logic of the physical world, the arguments around metaverse to be speculative and addictive cannot be looked at in isolation. “It is a route to escapism, but probably also see it as a behavioural or attitudinal change of a generation. NFTs will bring in more seriousness to the helm, develop skills and create economic value. It becomes an alternative mechanism to channelise skills and talent that no other channels had showcased because of limitations of time, space, or reach. Tik-Tok has opened up the opportunity to showcase creativity but has not been able to monetise it. That’s where NFTs can make a telling difference,” says KC Reddy, director and chief architect, Jupiter Meta, an NFT marketplace start-up based in Hyderabad and Chennai that focuses on verticals like music, film, gaming and creating singular experiences. The brand, in collaboration with RubiX, a blockchain service and security solutions company, allows users to buy, sell, and trade NFTs with a built-in metaverse.

Fast forward

By 2026, 25% of people will spend at least an hour a day in the metaverse for work, shopping, education, social and/or entertainment, according to research firm Gartner. “Vendors are already building ways for users to replicate their lives in digital worlds,” says Marty Resnick, research vice president at Gartner.

“From attending virtual classrooms to buying digital land and constructing virtual homes, these activities are currently being conducted in separate environments. Eventually, they will take place in a single environment—the metaverse—with multiple destinations across technologies and experiences.”

Because no single vendor will own the metaverse, Gartner expects it to have a virtual economy enabled by digital currencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). The metaverse will impact every business that consumers interact with every day.

It will also impact how work gets done. Enterprises will provide better engagement, collaboration and connection to their employees through immersive workspaces in virtual offices. Businesses will not need to create their own infrastructure to do so because the metaverse will provide the framework. In addition, virtual events that have gained popularity will offer more collaborative and immersive networking opportunities and workshops.

Global giants like Microsoft, Google, Apple and others are working to create the best metaverse world and introduce avatars who can do everything—play games, do shopping, attend gym classes and work meetings. In fact, in October last year, Facebook’s founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said he believed so much in the metaverse that he would invest billions in the effort. Zuckerberg also rebranded Facebook as Meta and unveiled a virtual tour of the metaverse which had experiential art, a spaceship meeting and a fitter version of him in a cartoon representation as part of the tour.

Brands, too, have started to focus on metaverse. Gucci entered the metaverse with a Gucci Garden virtual art installation experience on Roblox, an online gaming platform. Second Life, an online multimedia marketplace to create an avatar where one can discover millions of items including virtual fashion and home decor, this year unveiled designer Jonathan Simkhai’s Fall/Winter 2022 runway show during the New York Fashion Week.

Apollo Hospitals Group has collaborated with 8chili Inc for patient counselling pre/post-operation in VR. Similarly, United Colors of Benetton has transformed its Corso Vittorio Emanuele store during the Milan Fashion Week into an immersive experience by creating the same emotional ecosystem in physical retail as available in the new virtual store in the metaverse. Visitors will not buy clothes, instead participate in gaming experiences that allow them to accumulate QR codes, which can then be used to make purchases in physical shops.

Digital wearables by Nike-owned fashion brand RTFKT include the $3.1 million worth of NFT sneakers that were sold in six minutes last year. Cadbury Dairy Milk Silk used AR in a new ad, inviting couples for dinner dates in a Valentine’s Day campaign, conceptualised by Mondelez & Team WPP (Ogilvy + Wavemaker).“For starters, it isn’t an escape. It’s a generation born into devices and the Internet. For them it’s an extension of themselves. So, it’s not something some choose to do over hanging out in reality. This is a space they want to visit, customise and make their own, flaunt their purchases and their avatars,” say Harshad Rajyadaksha and Kainaz Karmarkar, chief creative officers at Ogilvy India.

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