Science & Tech

VR headset. Image: Unsplash/Stock
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Recently, Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook would be changing its name to “Meta” and rebranding itself to focus on one topic: the metaverse. Since then, the metaverse has become a hot topic — countless news platforms, private companies, and even the government of South Korea have hopped on the train to discuss the creation of a metaverse.

With all the attention the metaverse is getting, the potential seems endless. But will the metaverse live up to its hype? The Fulcrum sat down with U of O professor Wonsook Lee from the faculty of engineering, to discuss the different applications of an immersive digital space. 

What is the metaverse?

Generally, the term refers to a virtual world which combines aspects of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), social media, online gaming, and cryptocurrencies to allow users to interact virtually. Some video games have tried to create places similar to this conceit, such as VRChat

However, no current product has come as close to the real deal as the Oasis, a fictional virtual world described in the novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Set in the future, the book describes the real world as having become abysmal and practically post-apocalyptic due to an energy crisis and global warming. As a result, the population uses the Oasis metaverse for everything including school, work, gaming, movies, and even just hanging out with friends. The only thing the real world is left for is eating and sleeping. 

When asked about her opinion on the Oasis and if it could become a reality in the future, Lee explained, “a digital twin world will get stronger and stronger, and the metaverse is the door to this digital twin world.”

Factors that can make the metaverse a reality now

Lee pointed out that although virtual reality itself is nothing new, as it has been in development for over fifty years, it didn’t start to attract attention and interest until recent years, when the Oculus Rift and other VR headsets became available to mass consumers. Artificial intelligence (AI) had a similar path, as it went through many years of uninterest — known colloquially as the “AI winter.” 

Lee stated that in 2012, Geoffrey Hinton, a professor from the University of Toronto created a program that could conduct object and image recognition and classification. He and his students participated in a competition and won the second prize, but many were extremely curious as to how he got such a big jump in performance. It turns out the team was using deep learning, a subfield of artificial intelligence, to create a neural network which more efficiently recognizes these images. Lee described this as a pivotal point in time for deep learning and AI, and interest began to climb again.

“Deep learning is very good for image recognition and natural language processing. For augmented reality, we need to have an understanding of the real world so that we can superimpose images, unlike virtual reality which can just be created with computer animation,” she said.

Lee explained now might be the pivotal time that many aspects of technology, including computing power and the internet, have caught up to the point where the metaverse can become a real creation. 

“So, now we are talking about 5G internet, where we can have a lot more data transmitted in real time. This, along with deep learning, image understanding, virtual reality, and augmented reality are the basic technologies needed for the metaverse.” 

Much of the technology that is already here is fairly accessible as well. Our cell phones can scan the world around us to create AR, simple cameras can track body movements, and there are even cardboard VR headsets that work with cell phones. 

COVID-19 and moving forward

It goes without saying that COVID-19 has pushed us all into a world of remote work and schooling. It is also pushing us further away from real interactions and increases the acceptance of virtual social interactions, such as seeing friends through computer games rather than in person. Lee added that because “being connected with one another is becoming more difficult, the metaverse can be very useful in simulating real world 3D connectivity.” 

She continued, “I think with COVID-19, a lot of things will lose human interaction. But I think with the metaverse, maybe we can have a different kind of interaction, and maybe one that can become more fun as well.” 

When asked what the next major breakthrough technology supporting the metaverse will be, Lee responded, “there is VR, AR, but there is also XR — extended reality. [XR] can contain anything, including wearable computers. If [the metaverse] goes to the next level, it will be more like wearable computers — more portable but equipped to experience the metaverse everywhere.”

Lee emphasized an important note about mental health and the future: “Human emotion comes from the stone ages. Our bodies still have habits from those times. As we move toward the virtual world, there will be mismatches between a metaverse world and our old stone age habits. If we don’t have a balance, people will have problems. We need to pay attention to our mental and physical health and maintain interactions with the people beside us, not just connecting virtually.”

“If people want to be happy, they’ll need to have good relationships in the real world as well.”