Pew Research Center assembled experts to discuss "What Will the Metaverse Look Like in 2040?" (Gremlin via Getty Images)

Five Takeaways From ‘What Will the Metaverse Look Like in 2040?’

On September 15, 2022, Pew Research Center posted a discussion on Twitter Spaces about “What Will the Metaverse Look Like in 2040?” The panel included Isaac Mei and Lee Raine of Pew Research Center, Janna Anderson of Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, Avi Bar-Zeev of XR Guild, Kelly Bates, Esq., of Interaction Institute for Social Change, Louis Rosenberg of Unanimous A.I., André Brock of Georgia Tech, Toby Shulruff of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and Fred Kaufmann of Twelve Gates Foundation. Here are five takeaways that illustrate the enthusiasm, skepticism and caution about a more immersive web.

1. Pew Survey Finds Even Split on Whether Metaverse Will Be Widely Adopted

Janna Anderson said, “There were four big themes expressed by those who said they do expect a well functioning and much more broadly adopted Metaverse to be a key part of daily life by 2040. First, they said profit motives will drive huge investment in the rapid development of extended reality spaces, access, and tools due to commercial possibilities. They said the technology, the software, hardware, user interfaces and network capability to create an immersive universe is possible by 2040. They said the COVID-19 pandemic gave XR development a boost as more people became more accustomed to immersing themselves in online interaction. And, they said that the Metaverse will be developed enough to be a truly useful place in people’s lives in many new settings by 2040.

“Now among the major themes expressed by those who think a widely adopted and well functioning Metaverse will not emerge by 2040, well, they don’t expect that people will find it to be useful in daily life and they think it will remain a niche space for a limited number of activities much as it is now. They expect that the necessary software, hardware, user interface and network improvements and capacity will not be available or affordable by 2040. They said that humans generally will continue to prefer to live their lives in real reality, thus, they’ll stick to using augmented or mixed reality layers rather than full immersion in VR. They said that fully immersive spaces will magnify all of the problems already arising out of digital life today. They also predicted that people may avoid engaging in spaces that are operated in the service of surveillance capitalism and open to abuse by authoritarian regimes.”

2. AR and VR Together in the Metaverse

Avi Bar-Zeev said, “When people say the Metaverse is the fusion of the digital and the physical world, they’re mainly talking about AR. Snow Crash’s original Metaverse when [Neal Stephenson] coined the term was 99% VR. The headset could actually do AR, but nobody used it because reality was really bad. So everybody spent their time in VR because reality was so horrible even though they could have done AR. But what AR is really about, and what’s important about it and why it’s relevant to us, is that it’s really about how we interact with computers, reality, and other people all at the same time. It’s just this interface between all three. VR is still important, it’s valuable, but it’s about anything else. It’s about anything other than the here and now … The reality is I think we’re gonna live fluidly between them. We’re gonna see devices coming out even next month that can switch between AR and VR, so it’s never all one thing.”

3. Who’s Going to Build It?

Kelly Bates said, “Who’s going to be building this? Is it going to be built with people who don’t have resources and are thinking about how to design for the margins? Right now, we have a society built on profit motive and capital, but sometimes there is deep limitation to what that can do and provide for people in these spaces. If we don’t design for people who are most impacted in times of crisis, or who are at the margins, they won’t be able to fully participate in this, or worse, might even be hurt by it. I’m thinking about low income communities, communities of color who don’t have access to technology at the same rates, and frankly, in their culture, want to be in physical proximity. I think about people with disabilities who are both helped by technology, but may be hurt if it’s not appropriately accommodated for them. People for whom English and technology are not their first or most comfortable language, I think those are things to think about.”

4. The Augmented Metaverse Is Already Happening

Louis Rosenberg said, “I don’t believe people will spend their daily lives in the virtual Metaverse. I mean, maybe hardcore gamers, maybe small sets of people, but not the majority of the people. On the other hand, the augmented Metaverse, that’s going to be the real world embellished with virtual content. I believe this will be the Metaverse where we spend our daily lives. It requires lightweight and stylish eyewear, which is a little bit harder than VR headsets, but it will happen. I believe it will replace the mobile phone as the item we use to access digital content throughout our day. And I do think that transition will be fully realized by 2040.

“And so I do think the Metaverse is happening. I think it’s happening faster than most people think because I think it will first appear primarily as the augmented Metaverse. I think whether it’s virtual or augmented, the one important thing that spans both of these issues is that we need to start considering regulation. I’m not talking about regulation of content. I’m not talking about regulation of users. I’m talking about regulation of platforms and platform providers. That’s because the transition from flat media to immersive experiences, by its very nature, will give Metaverse platforms unprecedented power to monitor our lives and to alter the surroundings around users.

5. More Segmented Society, More Surveillance?

André Brock said, “There are multiple Metaverses in the book that Stevenson wrote back in the ’90s. One of them was the one that a lot of technologists love. The one where entities such as corporations, banks and other institutions were represented by abstract shapes in a virtual space connected by a monorail that would take you around the entire information sphere. But there was another one that was more banal that speaks to where we are today. That was the role of the government employee who was surveilled on multiple levels by her employer to determine whether or not she had her eyeballs on the screen at appropriate moments, how many bathroom breaks she took, the length of her communications with her superiors and other coworkers, the content of her communication, and to me, that’s what the promises about the Metaverse are leading us toward as opposed to some sort of communicative utopia where everyone will be able to have more immersive experiences. What I see instead is a more segmented, more extractive set of environments and institutions that will be asked, I mean forced, to participate in as a matter of course.

While these five takeaways touch on key themes, you can listen to the entire conversation here: “What will the Metaverse Look Like in 2040?”