• Jaime González Gasque

The Metaverse in 2040

Hype? Hope? Hell? Maybe all three. Experts are split about the likely evolution of a truly immersive ‘metaverse.’ They expect that augmented- and mixed-reality enhancements will become more useful in people’s daily lives. Many worry that current online problems may be magnified if Web3 development is led by those who built today’s dominant web platforms

Interest in the idea of the metaverse leaped in 2021-2022, prompted in part by Facebook’s decision to rebrand itself as “Meta.” The word was coined by sci-fi author Neal Stephenson in 1992 in his novel “Snow Crash.” In today’s terms, the metaverse is the realm of computer-generated, networked extended reality, or XR, an acronym that embraces all aspects of augmented reality, mixed reality and virtual reality (AR, MR and VR). At this point in time, the metaverse is generally made up of somewhat- immersive XR spaces in which interactions take place among humans and automated entities. Some are daily interactions with augmented-reality apps that people have on their computers and phones. Some are interactions taking place in more-immersive domains in gaming or fantasy worlds. Some occur in “mirror worlds” that duplicate real-life environments.

While extended-reality gaming and social spaces have been in existence for decades, early 2020s technological advances and societal transformations brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have pushed the development of the metaverse to the forefront, inspiring tens of billions of dollars in new investments and prompting predictions that the metaverse is “the future of the internet” or “the next internet battleground.”

Proponents of XR and the development of more-advanced and immersive, 3D, online worlds say its rapid evolution is likely to benefit all aspects of society – education, health care, gaming and entertainment, the arts, social and civic life and other activities. They believe the infusion of more data into people’s experiences, progress in artificial intelligence (AI) assistive systems and the creation of entirely new spaces and experiences for tech users could enrich and expand their lives. Of course, as with all digital tech, there are concerns about the health, safety, security, privacy and economic implications of these new spaces. This has spurred a great deal of speculation about what the maturing of XR and the metaverse will look like and what that means for society.

This heightened interest and investment in extended reality prompted Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center to ask hundreds of technology experts to share their insights on the topic. In all, 624 technology innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers and activists provided open-ended responses to a question seeking their predictions about the trajectory and impact of the metaverse by 2040. The results of this nonscientific canvassing:

  • 54% of these experts said that they expect by 2040 the metaverse WILL be a much-more-refined and truly fully-immersive, well-functioning aspect of daily life for a half billion or more people globally.

  • 46% said that they expect by 2040 the metaverse WILL NOT be a much-more-refined and truly fully-immersive, well-functioning aspect of daily life for a half billion or more people globally.

These experts were asked to elaborate on their multiple-choice answers in an open-ended question that invited their views about both the positive and negative aspects of the digital world to come. Two broad themes emerged in those written remarks. First, a notable share of these experts argued that the embrace of extended reality in people’s daily lives by 2040 will be centered around augmented-reality and mixed-reality tools, not in the more-fully-immersive virtual reality worlds many people define today as being “the metaverse.” Second, they warned that these new worlds could dramatically magnify every human trait and tendency – both the bad and the good. They especially focused their concerns on the ability of those in control of these systems to redirect, restrain or thwart human agency and stifle people’s ability to self-actualize through exercise of free will, and they worried over the future freedom of humans to expand their native capacities.

Some of the most sweeping answers written by these respondents took the long view. These experts wrote that “virtual” spaces have for millennia arisen in the human imagination and that it doesn’t take special technological features or gadgetry to create vivid places beyond “real life.” At the same time, some argued that even the most far-out versions of virtual reality will still anchor in basic human sensory “interfaces” of eyes, ears, taste, smell, motion, balance and speech.

Still, none of these experts doubt major changes are nigh in the way reality is supplemented by technology or even reimagined in tech-enabled ways. As XR pioneer Avi Bar-Zeev, a co-creator of Google Earth, HoloLens and more, wrote, “VR fundamentally strips away the most common constraints of reality: location and travel, physics, even sometimes time, where hours can often seem like minutes, and we can travel to the historical past or imagined futures.”

Many were not sure what the timeline for all this change will be, but did their best to imagine where the evolution of today’s XR tech trends might take society. Some of the answers reflecting that thought:

Laurence Lannom, vice president at the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, offered an compact prediction, writing, “The metaverse will, at its core, be a collection of new and extended technologies. It is easy to imagine that both the best and the worst aspects of our online lives will be extended by being able to tap into a more-complete immersive experience, by being inside a digital space instead of looking at one from the outside. At the good end of the continuum are things like the ability of people to interact with others as though they were all in the same physical space without having spent hours burning dinosaur bones to get there; practicing difficult physical tasks (e.g., surgery) on virtual entities; and elevated educational and research opportunities of all kinds as we learn to leverage the built-in advantages of the new environments. The other end is also not hard to imagine – easier addiction to all-absorbing games and fantasy experiences resulting in increased isolation for many; further breakdown of social cohesion as the virtual offers an easy alternative to the hard task of learning to live with each other; and increased political turmoil as the prophets of fear and grievance acquire the ability to command rallies with millions of attendees.”

Edward Baig, freelance columnist and longtime technology reporter for USA Today, wrote, “Even the smartest folks today have difficulty articulating the metaverse so that regular people understand it beyond it being this vague thing emerging out of augmented reality, virtual reality, 3D and mixed reality. Of course, measured in tech years, 2040 is a lifetime away and, when you factor in the sheer magnitude of the financial and intellectual investments already being plowed into the metaverse, how could this thing possibly not morph into something likely to have a profound impact on our everyday lives? Whatever it is that draws all of us into the metaverse, it must provide – or at least promise to provide – experiences and benefits that are otherwise impractical if not impossible to achieve in (for lack of a better way of putting it) the real world.”

Elizabeth Hyman, CEO for the XR Association, which was founded by Meta, Google, HTC Vive, Microsoft and Sony Interactive Entertainment to convene stakeholders for the development and adoption of XR, shared a number of vital use cases already proven as useful in the XR realm: “Virtual, augmented and mixed reality are the gateway to phenomenal applications in medicine, education, manufacturing, retail, workforce training and more, and it is the gateway to deeply social and immersive interactions – the metaverse. Each day we’re taking strides to make the technology better and ensure that the opportunities are limitless – because they are. The XR industry is focused on responsible innovation and it has built a strong repository of resources that lay the foundation for the industry’s continued growth. While widespread adoption does take time and challenges will no doubt arise, we believe XR technology will become the next major computing platform. Already, colleges and universities are teaching students in the metaverse. Human Resources professionals at companies like Walmart, SAP, Delta and many others are using the tool to train workers – some of the fastest-growing job categories in the U.S. are in industries that are rapidly adopting XR technologies. Uses of XR include warehousing and inventory management, product engineering and design, immersive job training and upskilling and virtual health care patient monitoring. Particularly in the health care setting, we’re seeing XR use with children. For example, the Children’s Hospital Colorado is using XR to help to change the pediatric hospital experience for the better – for instance, for distraction and pain management reducing the need for anesthesia and physical therapy.”

Daniel D. Bryant, Wales-based VR educator, co-founder of Educators in VR and a leader in the Virtual World Society, predicted, “By 2040 the internet that you now access on a screen will be a place you can enter, visit and explore. Currently we are looking in through windows (literally), but we are soon going to be starting to climb through the windows and into the internet. The word website implies a location. Currently this is mostly in 2D. What if these sites are in 3D and you can get in and interact directly, rather than with a keyboard and a mouse? Think how creative people already get with creating and monetizing content on the 2D internet. Now add a third dimension to this and you have just created what Charlie Fink has referred to as the ‘largest wealth-and-value-creation experience humankind has ever witnessed.’ I can’t imagine the momentum heading anywhere else. When young people can truly get their heads and hands into the ‘metaverse,’ just stand back and watch in wonder. And that is even before AI [artificial intelligence] gets into the mix. AI will soon be able to generate virtual worlds and useful and very convincing AI bots to populate it. It’s a wild ride already. Better get strapped in.”

Jon Radoff, author of the Building the Metaverse blog and CEO of Beamable, a metaverse consultancy, predicted the influence of gameplay in the evolution of XR. “The metaverse will be important for at least half a billion people in 2040 because it is already important for several billion,” he said, referring to a general estimate of the number of people who have used popular game and social spaces, not the number of daily users. “The metaverse exists. The most-common definitions of the ‘metaverse’ are: 1) an embodied virtual-reality experience; 2) a Web3 framework for economic interoperability; 3) a creative platform for experiences (e.g., Roblox). Some current versions may be a hybrid of these. I think all of these ‘product-centric’ definitions fail to look at the underlying culture and social change. The fundamental shift is toward thinking of virtual property and virtual identity as ‘real’ and/or important. One can trace the origin of the metaverse back to Dungeons & Dragons before it was digitized and look at it as an imaginary, creative space of social interaction and storytelling. Everything since then is simply technologies that have digitized, dematerialized and democratized access to this category of experience.”

About half of the respondents to this canvassing do not expect the VR aspect of the XR realm to be significantly more popular by 2040. Kevin Werbach, professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “The Blockchain and the New Architecture of Trust,” commented, “There is not a straight evolutionary path forward in maturity and importance for this collection of technologies. Virtual worlds and immersive online spaces will continue to develop in significance, but 500 million people won’t be living in ‘the metaverse’ in any more meaningful way in 2040 than 2022. Perhaps immersive games, social spaces and work tools will merge into a coherent industry sector at that point, which perhaps we’ll still call ‘metaverse.’”

Eric Burger, who recently worked in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and as the chief technology officer at the Federal Communications Commission, now on the computer science faculty at Georgetown University, responded, “The metaverse will pan out like remote-controlled self-driving cars or roadable aircraft: almost here for decades yet structurally unlikely for decades. The use cases for fully immersive experiences have a small niche that, for economic reasons, is unlikely to grow into a global phenomenon for decades to come.”

Jerry Michalski, respected technology consultant and founder of Sociate.com and ReX, predicted, “An XR metaverse will be more like 3D TV than the web. It will be more expensive, uncomfortable and disorienting, even as it is less informative and connective. XR is transformative in specific domains and cumbersome in general. I don’t see how 20 years of development will fix that.”

Micheal Kleeman, a senior fellow at the University of California, San Diego, who previously worked for Boston Consulting and Sprint, responded, “Unless we see a large-scale desire to escape from reality, the virtual space will not add much to human experience. The virtual world does not satisfy real interpersonal dynamics, it is expensive in terms of bandwidth unless you are just gaming and it adds little to experiential value.”

Many people pointed to Facebook’s corporate pivot to name itself Meta as a catalyst for the uptick in metaverse buzz over the past year. Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Initiative on Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, wrote, “Smart people have spent lots of time on different approaches to building immersive, 3D, collaborative online spaces using a wide range of technologies. Some have achieved more success than others, but none have expanded beyond audiences of 1 million or so users. Those users can be extremely passionate and are willing to learn the complexities of interacting in a virtual world. Some of them are willing to put in the work of learning to build and create in these environments, but thus far we’ve not seen evidence that mainstream users see a good reason to jump through these hoops.

Facebook became Meta for two simple and obvious reasons. First, its brand as a social media platform has been badly muddied by years of mismanagement and irresponsibility. If it could be associated with anything other than angry dialogs online, it would benefit. Second, Facebook wants to own the entire stack from hardware to content, much as Apple does. It has a good hardware product in Oculus [a VR headset] and thus is positioned to argue that VR is the future. But does anyone really want VR to be the future? Those of us who’ve been down this road before remember Second Life declaring that its metaverse would be the future and we should all rush in to buy a piece of it. That community never achieved mainstream success and has hovered at 1 million users (overall, most were not daily users). Yes, the tech’s better now. But in 2040 I expect VR to be popular for gaming and some simulations. It will not catch on for routine office work, standard online interaction and so on.”

Jacquelyn Ford Morie, VR pioneer and chief scientist at All These Worlds, co-editor of “The Handbook of Research on the Global Impacts and Roles of Immersive Media,” argued there is much to be accomplished before fully–immersive tech will be viewed as worthy of broad adoption. “To be so successful by 2040,” she said, “it must be many things to many people, enrich or make better their everyday lives. It must go beyond games and entertainment to provide what each and every person needs. The first, and the biggest, step will be to instantiate and regulate the metaverse as a public benefit/utility, so the greatest number of people can access and benefit from it. It must offer value to its participants and not simply treat them as money sources. If it has to make tons of money for companies and the top 10%, it is doomed to be niche-driven and not a true evolution of humanity.”

A notable share of these expert respondents said they expect that augmented reality applications will be far more widely used in people’s daily lives than immersive VR, which they expect will remain a niche realm.

Louis Rosenberg, is CEO of Unanimous AI. His doctoral work at Stanford University resulted in the virtual fixtures system for the U.S. Air Force – an immersive augmented-reality system built in 1992. He predicted: “By 2035 people will laugh at images of the 2020s that show people walking down the street staring down at a phone, necks bent, thinking it looks awkward and primitive. The metaverse will evolve in two directions at once – the virtual metaverse (fully simulated worlds) and the augmented metaverse (layers of rich virtual content overlaid upon the real world with precise spatial registration). The virtual metaverse will increase in popularity but will always be restricted to short-duration applications – mostly for gaming, socializing, shopping and entertainment, and it will have powerful business and education uses as well. The augmented metaverse, on the other hand, will replace mobile phones as our primary gateway to digital content. The transition from mobile phones to AR hardware will begin the middle of the 2020s and will be complete by 2035, possibly sooner. It will fundamentally change society, altering our world into a merged reality of real and virtual. People will use AR eyewear from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to sleep, much like they keep mobile phones with them today. Blockchain will be used to assign ownership of virtual objects within the metaverse. There are many other potential uses, but it’s too early to know if those will happen or not. But assigning ownership is a natural fit. To see a vision of the augmented metaverse at the end of this decade, you can check out my fun narrative, ‘Metaverse 2030.’”Many respondents who expect the AR/VR metaverse to be well developed by 2040 warned that this will significantly magnify societal challenges already present in the digital sphere.

Justin Reich, associate professor of digital media at MIT and director of the Teaching Systems Lab, expressed a view shared by respondents who expect big tech companies will further exploit users, writing, “The term metaverse was coined to describe a corporate, dystopian hellscape where a completely financialized world is stripped of any culture and value. Advocates of the metaverse are currently trying to bring that vision into reality in the hopes of creating new digital surfaces that can be covered in new advertising and made as addictive as possible. As the physical world encounters saturation of existing advertising surfaces and data collection, augmented reality is the new frontier of surveillance capitalism. If it does come to fruition, it will be as terrible as social media is today. Questions that I’ve not seen journalists ask of Mark Zuckerberg or other folks at Meta: ‘How many hours a day are you currently spending in the metaverse?’ ‘How many hours a day do you encourage your children to spend in the metaverse?’ My hunch is that the typical Meta employee spends very little time in the metaverse, because it’s terrible. And they don’t want their children there, because it’s terrible.”

Davi Ottenheimer, vice president for trust and digital ethics at Inrupt, a company applying the new Solid data protocol (a method for building decentralized social applications that was created by web inventor Tim Berners-Lee), responded, “We should declare metaverse to only be a success if it augments the human in a decentralized human-centric model of data ownership. It is currently in danger of being co-opted into overly centralized platforms and constraints, a regression to slavery models in the guise of a proprietary ‘digital twin’ to be abused by giant companies looking to operate selfishly and above the law and deny social good. Those caught up in this abuse of rights, like industrial-era workers suffering the daily grind of soulless factory jobs and homes and vehicles, will long for an escape from the intentionally limiting artifice of metaverse. The utopianism and mysticism that drive cultural waves of ‘escape’ during times of technological upheaval and displacement are here again. There is a fundamental difference between the highly controversial technological augmentation and the politically driven escapism that metaverse development will predictably fall into.”

Keram Malicki-Sanchez, a prominent expert and activist who runs conferences about VR, AR and XR and is founding president of the Constant Change Media Group, advised, “There is no way to put the genie back in the bottle of immersive technologies. There is no future without 3D realities as part of it. Will it be called the ‘metaverse’? God, I hope not if that means the MAANG companies – Meta (formerly Facebook) Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google – appropriate and commandeer it to funnel us into a homogeneous, highly trackable somatosensory collection of walled gardens. An alternative path for these technologies is that they will be built using open-source solutions, improved and expanded holistically, organically by a global community who will create an estuary for systems that allow people to seamlessly transition between 3D worlds where they can embody whatever they want and share whatever experiences they choose. These are also media that can communicate new perspectives and afford us new angles of insight via dimensional contexts. They can provide scaffolding to test our analytical reasoning and processes to potentially escape our cognitive biases, develop greater plasticity, or even test new forms of embodiment. We must always take account of how these new media can and will be manipulated and weaponized and consider the rights of our future selves as we become subsumed in data. In addition, there are important digital divides to consider here. These cannot be worlds accessible only to the privileged. VR needs to be built so that anyone should feel they have the tools and access available to them.”

Sean McGregor, technical lead for the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE and machine learning architect at Syntiant, observed, “With every great (and terrible) technological revolution comes great (and terrible) revolutions of social systems. Without a healthy sense of skepticism for adopting software for our new reality and working collectively against our worst imaginings, we will fail to realize social benefits exceeding the costs. The transition will be very difficult and potentially dangerous, but so, too, have been most human advancements.”

Toby Shulruff, senior technology safety specialist at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, predicted, “The ‘online’ will increasingly extend into daily life through interfaces with our cities, homes and bodies. The varieties of both self-expression and connection across distance will expand, and this means that we urgently need to reconfigure how we establish and maintain trust in others, in information, and perhaps even in ourselves. Online life so far has mirrored and accelerated real-life trends, and – absent a major shift in priorities and design – this will be true with XR as well. The rules of the game have so far been written by the very few for the very many. Like other technologies, XR does not solve human problems like bias, fear or violence. It accelerates and amplifies what is already present in society. Therefore, we stand to see an exacerbation of isolation, echo chambers and a dissociation from our bodies and communities. We are already seeing sexual violence from earlier online spaces and real life crossing into more-immersive XR environments. This is likely to extend into and intersect with other targeted violence, or even mass violence or terrorism. There is a real possibility that those who are ‘plugged in’ will become increasingly untethered from the world around them. Future waves of pandemic disease and the effects of climate change will allow those with means to spend more time in virtual worlds. Will we become more willing to let conditions worsen around us because we can escape to an alternate reality? Meanwhile, those on the other side of the digital divide will struggle to access resources, connections and opportunities. As we go from ‘always on’ to ‘always in,’ the constant immersion may cause physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual effects including stress reactions, headaches, disturbed sleep and detachment. Paradoxically, while virtual worlds can be an escape from our bodies and our limitations, many users describe an intensification of sensation, emotion and response from virtual experiences. Another concern is that the more-immersive environment will expand surveillance by governments and corporations, and even within families. The boundaries between our work lives and our personal lives, between the public and the private, will continue to dissolve. Coercive trends in technology design such as dark patterns will drive users to make choices they might not otherwise make. Technology this complex defies precise predictions, but we can find hints from previous examples. If we don’t shift course, we will weave our failures of empathy and justice into the very fabric of XR, as we have in other digital technologies.”

By Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie

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