What is the metaverse?

By Jessica Werb

The metaverse with images of computer text and a VR virtual reality headset with the words "loading" superimposed over a person.
The metaverse is about connecting our online and virtual platforms into one overarching digital space. Photo illustration: Pexels/UBC

The metaverse is fuzzy, but it will likely centre on having a consistent digital identity across connected online and virtual platforms

If you’re confused by all the talk of the “metaverse” and wondering what, exactly, it means, you’re not alone.

“I’m not actually convinced that anyone, even at Meta, really has a complete understanding of what the metaverse is, will be, or could be,” notes Dr. Robert Xiao, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at UBC.

That said, Dr. Xiao says he believes that the metaverse is about connecting our online and virtual platforms into one overarching digital space. “The intended trajectory seems to be to take these individual siloed platforms and environments and systems, and eventually link them together,” he says.

The internet today, he explains, is really “just a bunch of computers connected together. There’s no sense of you as a person kind of browsing the internet. Fundamentally, you are represented by your computer and whatever your computer sends to the network.” Advertisers, for example, have “no shared sense of who you are, as a person, online.” 

In the metaverse, you would maintain the same identity wherever you go. “I think one of the goals of the metaverse will be to explicitly tie a notion of identity, your identity, as you traverse these different networks and points and interconnections, and have a unified digital avatar,” he observes.

So, whether you’re on social media, shopping online, gaming or taking part in virtual business meetings, your digital footprint would remain the same. “There are obviously benefits to doing this for users,” he points out. “They get a consistent login experience, they get a consistent digital identity. Wherever they go, they don’t have to worry about this complicated network of different identities and logins.”

Hands typing over a computer with eyes watching to illustrate the metaverse VR.
There are huge privacy implications for the metaverse as every action is sent to a server somewhere. Photo: iStock/UBC

The catch? “There are obviously huge privacy implications for this as well. Even if you’re using an avatar in a virtual environment, how you control that avatar could tell a lot about who you are.” In the physical world, he points out, you can be reasonably assured that you’re not being followed all the time. In the metaverse, things could be very different.

“In the metaverse, literally every action I ever perform is going to be sent to a server somewhere,” he says, explaining that this is why regulations and policies surrounding privacy are crucial to our future technological development. As he notes, “Once you lose privacy, it’s a hard thing to get back.”

Learn more about how artificial intelligence is affecting privacy.

Jessica Werb is a freelance writer for UBC Brand and Marketing. This article was published on June 20, 2022. Feel free to republish the text of this article, but please follow our guidelines for attribution and seek any necessary permissions before doing so. Please note that images are not included in this blanket licence.

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