What is the metaverse?

Philosophical, psychological and anthropological analysis of the Metaverse

Gualtiero and Roberto Carraro

The announcement of the construction of the Metaverse by the protagonists of the digital industry destines this concept to become the new paradigm of the Internet and social media in the twenties of the XXI century.

After the web and social, will the Metaverse succeed in imposing itself in the daily lives of billions of people?

In this article we address a number of preliminary and foundational questions:

What is the Metaverse?

How can the Metaverse affect human existence?

Will there be one Metaverse, or multiple Metaverse?

What are the ethical and psychological risks of the Metaverse?

Is the Metaverse a game or a serious matter?

The anthropological impact of the web is so profound in the information society that the anticipated shift from web 2.0 to web 3.0 - the technological context of the Metaverse - requires philosophical reflection and cultural debate.

Metaverse definitions

By method, the first question concerns what the Metaverse is.

Who are we asking to define the Metaverse? To those who have claimed to want to build it.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook (now Meta)
The Metaverse is a set of virtual spaces that you can explore with other people who are not in the same physical space as you.

Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games
It's clear that none of us know exactly what the Metaverse will be. There are various suggestions... The Metaverse may be a real-time 3D social media where you don't exchange messages asynchronously, but you find yourself in a virtual world where you can do basically anything

We can therefore identify at least two characteristic components of the Metaverse:

  1. A virtual, three-dimensional, On Line environment.
  2. The simultaneous presence of people who meet virtually

In other contexts, the Metaverse refers to the next dimension of the Internet, the 3.0, or even what will happen online beyond the Internet.

A Brief History of the Metaverse

The term Metaverse is coined by Neal Stephenson in the science fiction book Snow Crash (1992), and refers to a virtual world shared via the Internet, where users introduce themselves and communicate through their avatar.

The most famous application of Metaverse is Second Life, born in 2003 and grown to a peak in 2013 with 1 million regular users and in the form of a three-dimensional chat. Based on avatars and 3D environments, it is gradually being abandoned. The MUVE (Multi-User Virtual Environment) model of Second Life has been followed by other Virtual Reality and videogame players.

In particular, several video games of the MMORPG category (acronym for Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) can be associated with the idea of Metaverse.

Starting in 2014 Virtual Reality viewers are launched (which, however, in 2020 have not yet gathered mass success), new formats for immersive experience such as 360 video, facial and environmental tracking and photogrammetry, while with the pandemic we witness the Boom of video meetings On Line. In 2021 Facebook announces the development of the Metaverse and changes its name to "Meta".

In this documentary a visual synthesis of the Metaverse so far appeared in the forefront of the digital ecosystem.

It should be considered that the present and future of the Metaverse is not easily predictable. The ephemeral success of Second Life calls us to a critical sense of the existing models of Metaverse, and requires us to take an open attitude towards further possibilities.

Fake news, fake people, fake world

Analyzing Second Life, we realize that it is a fake world where users assume false personalities. Falsehood has become a recurrent risk in digital communities; just think of the issue of fake news in Social Media, one of the most critical evolutions of the very platforms that today would like to become protagonists of the Metaverse. The Metaverse risks to be a fake world where fake users exchange fake news. Where is the limit between theatrical fiction and guilelessly constructed falsehood? What attracts people to an overtly fake world where identities are blatantly false?

"Semel in anno licet insanire": the anthropological need for carnival

The Latin motto "once a year it is licit to do insanity" manifests an ambiguous wisdom: it recalls on the one hand the human need to escape from reality, and on the other the need to limit this escape into madness to limited moments.

The ritualization of madness has historically taken the form of the carnival, but also that of the Greek Dionysian or Roman saturnalia. Also in other ancient civilizations we find similar forms, studied by the historian of religion Mircea Eliade as ceremonies of purification and regeneration. The masking, the exchange of identity and sex, the abandonment to behaviors normally unacceptable are a common element in the various forms of carnival.

The first version of the Metaverse, Second Life, can be interpreted as a permanent virtual carnival. Its gradual failure could be linked to a healthy reaction of users, who implemented the motto "a good game lasts a short time", recognizing in this form of Metaverse a form of exaggeration and reversal of the sensible proportions between normality and madness.

Metaverse as exhibitions and works of art

The Metaverse is undoubtedly a creative opportunity for artists. Even in Second Life, there were many exhibitions, installations and virtual works of art. In this context the ethical, social and psychological issues are definitely limited: the figure of art makes clear in an emblematic way the purely intellectual and creative function of the developed environment.

We should therefore expect an important development of the Metaverse in the artistic sphere.

The art installation Codexart realized by Carraro LAB in Second Life

The art installation Codexart realized by Carraro LAB in Second Life

Ethical worlds: Dante and the effectiveness of Inferno and Paradiso

How can an imaginary world affect real life?

If we place ourselves from the point of view of scientific and historicist rationality, we can analyze various examples of imaginary meta-worlds that have conditioned the existence of billions of people. Just think of the underworld, a world parallel to the real one, which has inspired literary journeys such as those of Dante, Virgil and Homer. The punishment of Hell and the reward of Paradise, emotionally represented in medieval cathedrals, have deeply affected the real lives of communities of Christian believers, but also in the sacrifices of Islamic fighters, in search of a "paradise in the shadow of swords".

Millennia before Second Life, the fear and hope of a "second existence", vividly imagined and represented, has exerted a strong psychological and behavioral influence in many social and cultural contexts.

Utopia and Dystopia: how the future world conditions the present

The "operational myth" is an imaginary narrative that manages to operationally condition the development of society and culture. An example of parallel worlds capable of becoming operative myths is that of utopias, ideal models of reality. The classic dimension of utopia is the future: man imagines a better world as an evolution of the present one. Historically, utopia was born in the Renaissance philosophy with Thomas More and was developed in the following centuries by utopian socialism, to the point of generating the construction of ideal cities in different places in the world. We can also consider Marx's vision of Communism as utopian, and no one can deny the impact of this utopia in the dramatic history of the twentieth century, through revolutions and totalitarian regimes engaged in the construction and imposition of an ideal world that has remained virtual.

The Metaverse can certainly take the form of an ideal city, where people can abandon the limitations and miseries of real existence, and rise to ideal identities and living conditions.

It is also fair to consider the genre of dystopias, anti-utopian visions of the future, such as the one imagined by Orwell in "1984". The Metaverse is at the center of the film "Ready Player One," which arrived in theaters in 2018, directed by Steven Spielberg. In a world now torn apart by social and environmental degradation, the "Oasis" Metaverse offers the virtual possibility of an escape from dystopian reality.

We really hope not to have to assist to the birth of Metaverses with the function of virtual utopias where to escape from the real world by now compromised.

Illustration for the Utopia of Thomas More, an imagined Metaverse ante litteram

Illustration for the Utopia of Thomas More, an imagined Metaverse ante litteram

Virtual archaeology and metaverse of the past

In addition to the dimension of the future, also that of the past can become an application area of the Metaverse. Some videogames already allow playful experiences in virtual environments of the past. However, another even more interesting field is that of virtual archaeology, which has a scientific and ontological depth far more developed than videogames. We can therefore imagine metaverses that allow users to visit eras and places of the past, sharing experiences and content.

Virtual reality and supersenses in the metaverse

What is the predominant feeling in the virtual experience of the Metaverse? The user, particularly the child, experiences augmented perceptions. He becomes almost an X-Men with sensory superpowers:

  1. Teleports to another place (remote locations, the ocean, planets...).
  2. Travels through time, past and future (to ancient civilizations, future projects...)
  3. Sees through walls or objects (sees seeds in the ground, internal organs of the human body...)
  4. Can fly (over landscapes and cities...)
  5. Changes size (small as a bee, tall as a skyscraper...)
  6. Has super-vision (activates with hyperzoom eyes of microorganisms...)
  7. This super sensory power can have a major impact on cognitive development.
Metaverse, simulation and training

Can the Metaverse have a declination and training function? In reality, there are already some experiments in this sense, such as the "Edmondo" solution by Indire in Italy. Virtual reality makes it possible to create interactive multisensory stimulation. With high realism, combined with a control of the stimuli provided, and of the levels of perceptual intensity and difficulty.

In Virtual Reality, the virtual is perceived as real.

"Virtual reality activates the motor cortex in the same way that real experiences do. The brain adapts immediately and perceives virtual reality as real." (Teresa Farroni, University of Padua)

The ability to simulate realities with considerable realism (visual, acoustic, dynamic) allows virtual reality to make the brain believe artificial information. Virtual reality can therefore "trick" the brain, and even to push it beyond its limits. We can induce perceptions, environments, experiences, also modulating the different sensory channels. These virtual experiences are transferred into people's everyday behavior.

From the educational point of view, it should be considered that virtual reality is an exogenous impulse, artificially created and potentially aimed at learning, able to manage controlled stimulations and a gradual sequence of impulses (see the LearnInVR methodology).

Furthermore, it should be considered that virtual training takes place in a safe context. This makes virtual reality also ideal for safety courses. But it is also ideal for weak, socially handicapped and disabled people. For people with motor difficulties Virtual Reality is an application of great impact. It allows to live virtually experiences that are not accessible.

Avatar and alter ego

Virtual reality allows you to put yourself in the condition of others, to assume other identities. In addition to the current playful declination of Avatars as masks of a permanent carnival, you can enable interesting applications in the educational field:

  • motor re-education
  • relationship between generations
  • relations between ethnic groups
  • bullying

A high level of empathy is created.

This changes people's attitudes toward the problem they have experienced, even virtually.

How virtual tele-presence works in the metaverse

Virtual reality allows you to create an intense perception of presence. But in OTHER PLACES than the Hic et Nunc. Therefore a Tele-presence.

This sensation of presence, typical of the metaverses, is obtained through:

  • 360 degree vision
  • Directional audio
  • Vestibular system, balance
  • touch, also simulated with servomechanisms
  • proprioception of movement (exploration of space at 360 degrees)
Coins and virtual wealth - NFT

What is currency? How will the economy develop in the metaverse?

Philosophically, currency can be defined as a "universal equivalent", a real or symbolic entity that by convention assumes a socially shared value.

Metaverse people mint and exchange virtual currencies, since the Linden Dollar of Second Life. The personalized avatar allows to give value to digital content, in the form of NFT (Not Fungible Token) that, through blockchain technology, allow to make unique digital assets, otherwise reproducible in an uncontrolled way. NFTs can be purchased and resold through special platforms. An example of NFTs are the digital clothes of The Fabricant, a young company of Dutch fashion designers, who use NFTs to generate new business opportunities in virtual environments that did not exist before.

Anthropologist Johan Huizinga provides us with some interesting keys to the relationship between economics and games, interesting insofar as the Metaverse are now configured as games:

The game has its own stake. Which can be symbolic, material or of pure spiritual value. The Greek name for the prize is "Athlon."

The element of passion, of risk, is inherent in both the economic enterprise and the game.

One plays roulette and one plays "the stock market."

Gambling can have a sacred meaning, signifying and determining divine effects.

One metaverse or many metaverses?

Mark Zuckerberg has embraced the utopian idea of a single Multiverse capable of encompassing the multitude of individual Metaverse. In reality, to realize this great monad it would be necessary to define a common consortium, as happened in 1994 with the W3C to manage the regulation of Internet services. A super partes body should define standards, communication protocols and all aspects useful to ensure the proper interoperability of the services themselves, allowing users to access the web and developers to create sites accessible from all over the world and from all browsers.

In any case, even if we arrive at a standard for Web 3.0, we will see the development of different Metaverse, developed and customized by many companies and institutions, with different graphics, functionality and logic. Or we will even see the development of separate and non-communicating APPs.

The Magic Circle: Game and Metaverse

In the essay "Homo Ludens", anthropologist Johan Huizinga addresses the theme of play in human society in a deep and reflective key. Since the first forms of Metaverse appeared under the form of play, it is appropriate to share some interesting insights of Huizinga. A first aspect that brings the game and the Metaverse together is the following: Play isolates itself from ordinary life in a place and duration; it is a turning away from real life and entering a sphere of impermanence with a purpose all its own.

The game creates a "magic circle" in which the players isolate themselves from everyday life and respect its rules, which are absolutely compulsory and irrefutable.

The game establishes itself as a form of culture. Culture arises in ludic form, "sub specie ludi": it is first played.

"Children's games, so he called human opinions" (so it was said of Heraclitus).

Played once, it lingers in memory as a creation and treasure of the spirit (in the case of the Metaverse, it persists in the digital ecosystem).

The game is situated outside the binomial wisdom-foolishness, but also truth-falsehood, of good and evil.

Play is a free act, commanded play is no longer play.

The child and the animal play because they enjoy it, and in this lies their freedom.

Play is superfluous. The need for it is urgent only when it is desired.

The community that plays tends to become lasting.

When the game gives rise to beauty, its value for culture is implicit.

The virtual game of politics

The impact of the "virtual" on politics has been the subject of a lively debate, especially after the American elections and the attack on Capitol Hill, anticipated and fueled by tumultuous information flows in Social Media.

Metaverse will have an impact on the political sphere. It must be said that the play factor affects parliamentary politics for several factors: the debates really respond to the rules of a game. In a sense, politics is a permanent competition with a heated spirit of camaraderie. In the American political system, the two-party system takes the form of the two teams. Electoral propaganda becomes a great national game, expressed in blind loyalty to the party, and in childish mania for outward symbols.

War with all that arouses and accompanies it always appears caught in the demonic laces of the game. Challenging, exasperating, insulting, threatening the adversary are expressions of the human psyche that will also find space in the Metaverse.

Aureole and augmented AppARitions: the Metaverse in Mixed Reality

Can the Metaverse interact with the real world?

Augmented reality technology implemented on the web is able to superimpose layers of information on reality, connecting it to the Metaverse. Let's think, for example, to physical meetings in which a 3D object appears in the middle of the table and allows a shared interaction among the participating people, or to augmented paths arranged in the environment.

A noteworthy element is the informational aura of things and people, which transfers information taken from the network into the real world. For example, visiting a real fair, I could see superimposed on people their professional characteristics acquired from the Linkedin profile, or during a trip I can get in overlay to the urban landscape geolocalized information labels, 3D reconstructions of the past, or other elements transferred from the Metaverse to the real world. Among these, even 3D Avatars (this is the case of the famous game Pokemon GO) that appear in the real world. Augmented appearances will be able to power many features, from tour guides to technical support. We just have to imagine the endless possibilities of these Metaverse in Mixed Reality.

Digital Twins: replicas of the world

An alternative model of Metaverse, compared to the imaginative and playful one of Videogames, is the Digital Twin. It is the digital reproduction of the world. Google Earth and Google Maps for example represent the largest project of virtual replication of the Earth, built with an investment of over 10 billion dollars, and able to evolve in the form of a Metaverse. At the moment Google Maps is an extraordinary three-dimensional atlas on a 1:1 scale, with high-impact features such as Street View (a solution conceived in Italy), the navigator, the augmented "Live view". However, Google has not yet declined its Digital Twin of the world in the form of a cohabitable Metaverse, even if thanks to a virtual reality application you can already make virtual trips in Google Earth.

The Korean capital Seoul has announced that it wants to become the first Smart City in the form of an urban Metaverse, in which citizens and tourists will be able to access services and content. But this serious version of the Metaverse doesn't yet exist, and for now we've seen a succession of versions linked to gaming and entertainment.

The big bet of the next few years is the construction of a Metaverse able to welcome people not only to have fun, but also to carry out working, cultural and social activities. But will it be an evolution of videogames, Digital Twins, Video Chat or social media?

Meta Reality: real people share real worlds

Carraro LAB is developing a line of research that will lead to the release of a new form of Metaverse, which we define "Meta Reality".

The real revolution introduced by the lockdown has been the video communication, which has impacted especially on work (smart working), marketing and learning (distance learning). Meta Reality enhances the user experience - now a mass one - of video meetings, integrating it into virtual reality.

Collaboration, marketing and distance learning expand their potential by adding immersive environments to video.

Meta Reality integrates the technologies of VR, 360-degree filming, and online video meeting, to develop a distinctive approach to the Metaverse, based on real immersive images and videos of real people: real people in real worlds.