Roaming the metaverse

Catherine Pushnaya 5 January 2022
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Trying virtual reality technology for the first time is an otherworldly experience. Quite literally. My first taster was Half-Life Alyx and Beat Saber, and it made me forget the outside world; I played for hours, giving myself a headache and being asked by its owner to maybe socialise more next time I visit their home. But it was worth it for the glimpse into a new reality.

Despite the bugginess of the technology, still in its embryonic phase, it does not surprise me that so many companies are interested in VR. Facebook donning the name Meta is not just hopping on the bandwagon – it is an astute reading of the important role technology will play in the future. Many of us have heard of VRChat, the virtual social network; it is expected that in the future, when VR headsets become more widespread, platforms like this might expand and steal user attention from Facebook, becoming its biggest competitor. Not too long ago, churches and schools would be the only places for new social contacts – in the modern world, we have put ourselves under endless surveillance for the purpose of being noticeable to our virtual peers; soon enough, this will be further strengthened with the social pressure to appear in VR.

What else can one do in the digital worlds? Fashion and game companies are becoming closer, too. It is not uncommon for fashion designers to allow their outfits to be used in video games; it happened with League of Legends, Sims 3, and many other titles. Keen to exploit the potential of fashion shows on virtual platform, fashion giants like Dolce & Gabbana are investing heavily into virtual reality. World of Warcraft users holds regular character fashion shows, and other similar competitions are taking place.

Virtual learning and working is not a novelty, either, and it has the potential to become a part of the metaverse. All drawbacks of online learning may be eradicated in virtual realities: one can have access to blackboards, a convincing illusion of personal presence, and, if needed, even a 1-to-1 replica of the usual study environment. Of course, we are already familiar with Google maps and even Minecraft servers replicating familiar landscapes, including Cambridge colleges, but with the expansion of VR and supporting technologies, we would be able to enter increasingly convincing environments. With the panoply of design opportunities available in the virtual space, will spending money on physical home decorations become a quaint throwback?

Sitting in a dark room while experiencing bright magical worlds seems rather dystopian, but are we not halfway there already? Aren’t books, board and computer games, hobbies, social media, and the entirety of human art merely acts of escapism? We have tried to make our dreams manifest for centuries, and virtual worlds provide means of creating them swiftly and impressively. It is much harder to build a castle in reality than in 3D – which is partially why I believe in the power of virtual worlds, and why I learned 3D modelling. Just as with Robin Williams’ character in “What Dreams May Come”, we may construct wonderful heavenly gardens at a whim; and although implementing these designs in reality is often frustrated by the limits of technological progress, one could imagine a future where we could scan our 3D modelling ideas directly from the brain into the virtual world around us, achieving our artistic goals in seconds. This power comes at the price of letting a company read from our brain, of course.

As a person who had been in a long-distance relationship for over four years, I can’t deny having dreamt of a platform for meeting virtually and creating the most convincing illusion of presence. Virtual reality is an answer to that, too.

This is why the prospect of VR is so powerful and promising. The new worlds are useful, they appeal to our fantasies, they let us become more creative. Yet this magical virtual forest harbours a monster more terrifying than the surveillance and intrusion of large tech companies: this monster has the capability to destroy us through converging goals or the human error of those who own it; it can barely survive outside of this virtual world, and yet it will be omnipresent in our world. Yes, it is our gifted, nefarious child, the super AI – the AI which would have learned a variety of tasks in which even most humans do not exceed.

But in my eyes, the chthonic horror of such virtual forests only makes them more appealing. We have never encountered monsters like AI, whose intellect will soon surpass ours, and to tame them – as we float in electric dreams – will be a feat humanity has never accomplished.