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Welcome to the Metaverse, Part 2: How I See It

Brien breaks down how our metaverse future will change how we interact with technology in the coming years.

In the first blog post in this series, I defined the metaverse as essentially being a computer generated world that you can explore with a VR headset. I went on to say that while the definition was accurate, it was also inadequate. In all honesty, I am still trying to wrap my head around the metaverse, what it is, and all of its various implications (just as I'm sure many other people are). But let me explain the metaverse as I see it.

Although the metaverse is based squarely on the use of virtual reality and augmented reality, I tend to think of VR and AR as having more to do with the way that you interact with the metaverse rather than defining all that the metaverse is. Here are four key aspects to understanding what the metaverse truly is.

It's a Blending of the Physical and Digital World
The first characteristic that defines the metaverse is that it is a blending of the physical and digital worlds. In some ways, this is something that has been a long time coming.

At the risk of showing my age, I was in college at the time when the Internet was only just beginning to become a mainstream technology. Somewhere around 1996, one of my professors wanted to illustrate the fact that it was possible to use the Internet to interact with the real world. He went online and placed in order for a pizza, which was delivered about half an hour later.

By today's standards, that seems ridiculous. After all, who hasn't placed a food order online? At the time though, using the Internet to order a pizza was almost unheard of and it represented a very primitive blending of the physical and digital worlds. Fast-forward to today and the metaverse seeks to blend the physical and the digital in a much more meaningful way, even to the point that it may eventually become difficult to figure out where the physical ends and the digital begins.

It's a Progression of Technology
Another way that I view the metaverse is that it is a natural progression of technology. Last year with the onset of the pandemic, online collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom saw massive increases in their usage because everyone was suddenly working remotely. Even so, videoconferencing is anything but new.

Believe it or not, AT&T actually sold videophones back in 1992. They were ridiculously expensive and the video quality wasn't very good, but that doesn't change the fact that videoconferencing technology existed thirty years ago.

Even though Microsoft Teams and the primitive AT&T video phones from the nineties could both be described as videoconferencing platforms, it is almost impossible to compare the two. Teams offers features that were inconceivable in the nineties. Even so, I think that we are probably beginning to reach the limits of what is possible through traditional collaborative platforms such as Teams and Zoom. The metaverse will likely act as a next generation collaborative platform. In fact, that seems to be Microsoft's preferred use case for the technology. Rather than simply looking at someone on a screen, you will be able to step into a virtual room with a 3D representation of that person and interact with them in a much more meaningful way.

It's a Tool for Rendering Data
The third way that I tend to think of the metaverse is that it is a new way of rendering complex data. Throughout the history of IT, we have had certain tried-and-true methods of looking at data, but those methods are starting to break down a little bit.

Imagine for a moment that I wanted to know how much money I made last year. The best way of getting that information would probably be to open a PDF of last year's tax return. But what if I wanted to know how much I made over the last ten years, and how my income change from year to year? That type of information might be better represented on a graph.

The reason why the graph is a better choice is because it displays the information visually. You can see a graphical representation of the sum total amounts and you can use the graph to spot trends at a glance, rather than having to sift through a stack of documents. Even so, there is a limit to the volume and the types of information that can be displayed on a graph.

As computing and as data models become far more complex we are going to need different ways of visualizing and interacting with the data than what we have used in the past. Because the metaverse is a fully immersive, spatial environment it gives us the ability to interact with data in ways that would have been completely impractical on a flat screen.

It's Natural Machine Interaction
Finally, I also think of the metaverse as being a progression of natural machine interaction. Historically, we've all interacted with computers using a keyboard and a mouse. While these interfaces got the job done, they weren't exactly natural. In recent years however, alternative machine interfaces have matured. Today it's the norm to interact with computers using nontraditional interfaces such as touch screens, digital pens, voice, and even gestures. While none of these technologies are perfect for every single situation, they collectively illustrate that there are more natural ways of interacting with the computer than to use a keyboard and mouse.

The metaverse will inevitably build on natural machine interaction technologies. Even some of the current generation VR and AR headsets perform hand tracking, which means that they can be used without the aid of a controller. Eventually, I think that the metaverse and related technologies will make machine interaction effortless. You'll be able to pick up and interact with digital objects in exactly the same way that you would interact with physical objects.

Personally, I think that the metaverse holds enormous potential, but I think it will be a while before that potential is fully realized. Just as there is not yet one single, concise definition of what the metaverse is I think that the industry is still trying to figure out what the meta-versus true capabilities are and how the metaverse can best be used, both for business and personal use.

While it is possible that the metaverse will function as a tool used for escaping a dystopian reality, it's equally possible that the metaverse will benefit humans in ways that we cannot yet imagine. Ultimately, the metaverse is a technology and like any other technology it is neither good nor bad. It's how that technology is used that ultimately matters.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 20-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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