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Metaverse: hopes, promises and unknowns

Metaverse: what does cognitive science say?

Jean Zeid, Journalist
On July 6th, 2022 |
4 min reading time
Clément Merville
Clément Merville
Computer scientist and President of Manzalab
Key takeaways
  • The concept of the metaverse is nothing new and has been around long before Mark Zuckerberg started working on it. It dates back to 1992, to a piece by writer Neal Stephenson.
  • The definition of the metaverse is much simpler in reality. It is a persistent virtual universe, permanently open, where each individual/avatar can go to be in the company of other people.
  • The metaverse is based on what is known in cognitive science as “virtual presence”. It must recreate a feeling of real presence in a virtual environment.
  • This feeling is based on 3 pillars. The first is the feeling of presence of oneself in the universe; the second, the feeling of spatial presence; and third, it consists of creating an impression of the presence of others, a feeling of community.

If the meta­verse has been all the rage for less than a year, it’s because Mark Zucker­berg, the founder and Pres­i­dent of Face­book, has been talk­ing about it all the time. In real­i­ty, the con­cept dates back to 1992, when the Amer­i­can writer Neal Stephen­son drew the out­lines of it in a sci­ence fic­tion nov­el enti­tled The Vir­tu­al Samu­rai. Meta­verse comes from “meta”, which means “beyond” in Greek, and “verse” cor­re­spond­ing to “uni­verse”.

Facebook and its metaverse

A meta­verse, then, is what encom­pass­es all vir­tu­al uni­vers­es. When Mark Zucker­berg men­tions the sub­ject, he is obvi­ous­ly pre­sent­ing his vision, a direc­tion in which all vir­tu­al uni­vers­es, includ­ing exist­ing meta­verse, would be includ­ed in his own. This is a prospect that may nev­er mate­ri­alise, as such com­pat­i­bil­i­ty between all meta­verse mod­els will take years to achieve – if it is achieved at all. There is lit­tle chance that the Chi­nese inter­net will become com­pat­i­ble with a sin­gle vir­tu­al uni­verse, that of Facebook/Meta.

In my view, there are two main bias­es in the future Mark Zucker­berg has out­lined. The first con­cerns the foun­da­tions of a project based on audi­ence, adver­tis­ing, NFTs and video games. Before being a film by direc­tor Steven Spiel­berg, Ready Play­er One was a social sci­ence fic­tion nov­el by author Ernest Cline. A few months before pub­lish­ing his book, the author want­ed to com­pare his vision of the meta­verse with that of the Cal­i­forn­ian start-up world. He went to meet both Mark Zucker­berg and Palmer Luck­ey, the young cre­ator of the Ocu­lus com­pa­ny, which had just brought vir­tu­al real­i­ty head­set tech­nol­o­gy up to date with the com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy of the time. Ernest Cline adjust­ed the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the meta­verse described in his nov­el after these two meet­ings. The fol­low­ing year, Face­book bought the com­pa­ny Ocu­lus for $2bn. The plan to cre­ate a fun and prof­itable meta­verse had already been in the works at the Amer­i­can com­pa­ny for a long time.

The sec­ond way in which this vision is biased is appar­ent in Mark Zucker­berg’s speech, when he gives the impres­sion that you absolute­ly need a vir­tu­al real­i­ty head­set to enter the meta­verse. We can under­stand why since he now has VR head­sets to sell. But, in real­i­ty, there are no pre­req­ui­sites in this respect. To enter a meta­verse, all you need is a con­nect­ed flat screen (PC or Mac web access, mobile, etc.), a sim­ple inte­grat­ed cam­era and an avatar. More­over, the video game indus­try did not wait for vir­tu­al real­i­ty head­sets to cre­ate immer­sive experiences.

Just a virtual world

The def­i­n­i­tion of the meta­verse is much sim­pler in real­i­ty. It is a per­sis­tent vir­tu­al uni­verse, per­ma­nent­ly open, where each individual/avatar can go to be in the com­pa­ny of oth­er peo­ple who are them­selves dis­tant from each oth­er. This is the promise of the meta­verse. To keep it, there is no need for hel­mets, but for cog­ni­tive sci­ences. The meta­verse relies on what is known in cog­ni­tive sci­ence as “vir­tu­al pres­ence”. It must recre­ate a feel­ing of real pres­ence in a vir­tu­al envi­ron­ment. This feel­ing is based on three pillars.

The first is the feel­ing of being present in this uni­verse. Sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies prove that the more the avatar resem­bles us, the eas­i­er and faster we become inte­grat­ed into this vir­tu­al world. With Man­za­l­ab, we cre­at­ed the Teemew plat­form, a cor­po­rate meta­verse spe­cialised in the world of busi­ness and train­ing. In Teemew, we have inte­grat­ed a mod­ule where you can, from a sim­ple self­ie, cre­ate a pho­to­re­al­is­tic 3D avatar very quick­ly and eas­i­ly, a guar­an­tee of suc­cess in this search for self-presence.

© Teemew, Manzalab

The sec­ond pil­lar of the meta­verse is the sense of spa­tial pres­ence, i.e. the envi­ron­ment in which the avatar is locat­ed. What cog­ni­tive sci­ence still advo­cates is that it should be real­is­tic, as cred­i­ble as pos­si­ble. This some­times requires work­ing with real archi­tects to estab­lish some resem­blance with the real world. Of course, it is quite pos­si­ble to gath­er avatars on the ground of Mars, but this would be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, as the par­tic­i­pants’ atten­tion would then be divert­ed by this dis­so­nant environment.

Final­ly, the third and last pil­lar is to cre­ate the impres­sion of the pres­ence of oth­ers, the feel­ing of com­mu­ni­ty, and it is based on the means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion avail­able to the par­tic­i­pants. How­ev­er, we must be clear: we can nev­er achieve the inten­si­ty of the feel­ing of pres­ence of the real world. But we can come close by mak­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion as nat­ur­al as pos­si­ble and by regain­ing a sense of infor­mal­i­ty. For exam­ple, when a video meet­ing on Zoom or Teams with six to eight peo­ple ends, every­one usu­al­ly tele­ports to anoth­er meet­ing. In the real world, there is always an exchange of a few words between the par­tic­i­pants. It is this infor­mal­i­ty that we recre­ate in the meta­verse. And cog­ni­tive sci­ence has been work­ing on this for a long time.

Virtual world, real fatigue

These video con­fer­enc­ing tools were first used wide­ly fol­low­ing the Covid-19 cri­sis. The pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive con­se­quences have been numer­ous. For exam­ple, cog­ni­tive sci­ences are close­ly study­ing Zoom-fatigue syn­drome, the feel­ing of exhaus­tion that can be felt after mak­ing a large num­ber of video calls. Apart from the fatigue, the brain also retains infor­ma­tion less well than it does in face-to-face work, which in my view noth­ing can com­pete with. But in this new world that is emerg­ing, we will undoubt­ed­ly trav­el less, and we will have to adapt. The meta­verse is a solu­tion for recre­at­ing pres­ence, one’s own and that of oth­ers, thanks to vir­tu­al worlds. Final­ly, this meta­verse pro­duces ten times less green­house gas­es than tra­di­tion­al video­con­fer­enc­ing solu­tions. The rea­son is sim­ple: all the images need­ed to cre­ate the envi­ron­ments in the meta­verse are cal­cu­lat­ed local­ly, direct­ly on the user’s machine. The only infor­ma­tion that pass­es through the net­work, the heart of the pro­duc­tion of green­house gas emis­sions, is there­fore min­imised. This gives the emerg­ing meta­verse oth­er char­ac­ter­is­tics than adver­tis­ing or NFTs.

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