“The step towards the Metaverse is still big”

“We believe the Metaverse is the successor to the mobile internet. We’ll feel present – like we’re with people, no matter how far apart we are,” the Facebook founder said a year ago. Mark Zuckerberg, his idea of ​​the next one. internet revolution. After the vision comes the great disappointment: the meta group has already invested several billion US dollars in the development of its Metaverse platform, but has only reached a few users with it. And even in the tech industry, there’s disagreement over whether the Metaverse is just a buzzword or an innovation. Computer scientist Johanna Pirker works as an assistant professor at TU Graz and ETH Munich and since November as a professor at the Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich with virtual reality and games. The expert sees a lot of hype around the Metaverse, but also a lot of potential for society.

There are many different definitions and understandings of the metaverse, what is yours?

Johanna Pirker

The term is often confused with others such as virtual worlds or augmented reality. Virtual worlds, which I have been researching since 2010, are worlds in which avatars meet in 3D rooms, for example. But the Metaverse wants to go further: namely, to bring together different spaces through interoperability, in which one can meet up with friends, play or work. This can be supported by technologies such as virtual reality glasses or augmented reality, i.e. extended reality, in order to merge the digital and real worlds. The idea of ​​Metaverse is to bring it all together.

Why is there so much discussion about the metaverse now? These virtual rooms have been around for a long time.

pirker

There are several reasons for this. On the one hand, we are technologically advanced. In a research project years ago, we tried to set up virtual learning rooms on the “Second Life” platform. However, they were not accepted because very few people had the technical requirements such as a strong enough internet connection or the necessary graphics card. In the meantime, the technology has become so accessible that virtual worlds can be called up via a web browser. Second, with virtual reality, we now have cheaper glasses on the market than before. And the third reason is the social aspect. Due to the pandemic and the time spent in the home office, we noticed what works well with tools like Zoom and what lacks. Making a Zoom call for a funeral doesn’t do any good. But in a virtual world, I can create digital co-presence – it’s a very different way to spend time together digitally than just seeing each other on a call. The game “Animal Crossing”, for example, has already been used for birthday parties. Additionally, big companies like Microsoft are turning their attention to gaming technology. A world like “World of Warcraft” has been running for more than ten years, the know-how for designing 3D worlds is already there. These gaming industry experiences are now making their way into the global market.

Where are we on metaverse acceptance? Is the status comparable to the early days of social media platforms?

pirker

I’m a little critical of the Metaverse because the term has become fashionable and many companies are trying to jump on the trend. Where we have made great progress is in the area of ​​virtual reality. In Austria we can learn a lot from the American or Asian markets. The technology is already being used there for medical and industrial applications. We are skeptical of new technologies, and it is the same with virtual worlds.

The Facebook Meta group is a company that invests heavily in Metaverse applications. Will the Metaverse once again be dominated by a few big players, or will the Internet actually become more decentralized, as the idea of ​​Web3 would like?

pirker

I don’t think there will be a big internet revolution now. There are also no plans to make major changes to the basic structure. But I find it positive that many companies are pushing into the metaverse and investing in technology. There are of course the big ones, but also a lot of small ones. You have to see it with a critical eye, but it’s good that there are a lot of different points of view.

You treat the game on a scientific level. Why is this area shaping the development of Metaverse?

pirker

Historically, the gaming industry has often had a major impact on the mass market, the advancement of graphics cards, for example, comes from there. The network structure behind big games like “World of Warcraft” or tools like so-called content engines also have a lot of potential for other virtual spaces. Yet there is some reluctance when the term game comes up. Society needs to be more open-minded as there are many other possible uses.

How do you use this approach in your research projects?

pirker

In one project, we virtually recreated the premises of the TU Graz in order to be able to describe the energy balance there. We want to use it to simulate the impact of measures on energy consumption. With projects like this, we want to show the influence of certain decisions. Rooms have been implemented with game development tools, but have nothing to do with a game.

We have to be careful not to bring the difficulties of the real world into the virtual world.

Johanna Pirker

Virtual reality specialist

You mentioned that acceptance of virtual worlds is still manageable here. How will the Metaverse evolve in the next few years?

pirker

I believe that the step towards the metaverse that many have in mind is still very important. I hope virtual reality will become mainstream because there is a lot of potential there for the majority of society: you can support people with dementia or take children to Mayan sites as history progresses. A lot will also depend on the number of cheap VR glasses and apps available on the market. In Austria there are many great ideas and start-ups that deal with this. Overall, we have a good structure for these developments, we are well positioned both artistically and technologically. But more funding in this area would be desirable.

Should you already deal with the metaverse, both as a private person and from a company perspective?

pirker

It would be good to familiarize yourself with the basic technology. Tools like Gather.town are a great way to enter the metaverse through the browser. There is also the possibility of testing virtual reality in many museums. In companies, we see how important digitalization is, and that’s why I advise you to try it here too. As an entrepreneur, I could then have my own application ideas. From a technology perspective, we live in very exciting times. And we, as a society, can still help shape a lot. Many fear that the Metaverse will become a copycat of classic social media, which has also brought its problems. That’s why it’s so important for society to get involved. We have to be careful not to bring the difficulties of the real world into the virtual world. We can include people who were previously excluded. But issues like racism or sexism should not be part of it.

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