Metaverse explained for University Leaders:
 A simple guide to the immersive future (1/4)

Two VR individuals

University Leaders will doubtless come away from the latest round of late summer conferences with ideas about how to seize some real estate in Metaverse. With some caveats, I would suggest it is worthwhile that Universities start thinking now about how to harness the potential.


If you are looking to review institutional strategies in light of the challenges and opportunities presented by the Metaverse, please feel free to get in touch.


In four separate postings I want to outline:

  1. What the Metaverse is and is not.
  2. What is currently possible within the Metaverse
  3. Where are the challenges for universities in journeying into the Metaverse
  4. The opportunities likely to emerge over the next few years within the Metaverse.

What the Metaverse is and is not.

It is not yet here. The Metaverse is conceived as a series of intertwined digital experiences, from the presentation of personalised content based on physical proximity to the fully immersive virtual reality experience. The Metaverse is not a single ‘place’, it is rather an experience. It is envisaged as being an experience in which you, the individual, spend time between the virtual world and your flesh-and-blood existence.

Definitions are as varied as they are numerous as the label ‘Metaverse’ has some commercial cachet. Existing technologies, immersive gaming and virtual worlds have adopted the label of Metaverse. Even some commercial teleconferencing companies have chosen to use the label to describe their all-walls solutions.

Whilst several technologies play a part in building the Metaverse, including headsets, graphics platforms, blockchain encryption and so on, these individual technologies do not in themselves represent the Metaverse (Gillis, 2022). They are all pieces. They are yet to come together as a complete pattern. We are some years away from sufficiently integrated experiences that would warrant the label of Metaverse. The two experiences underpinned by this array of technologies are Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), both covered by the term Extended Reality (XR). AR could be defined as overlaying elements of digital representations on top of what we experience in the real world. AR is largely synonymous with Multiple Realities (MR). VR could be defined as the creation of immersive alternate reality. Big Think has a more detailed series of definitions (see here)

Definitions

Most commercial definitions of the Metaverse emphasise the connectivity between different digital experiences. They recognise already that no one wants to have to create multiple digital selves to participate in different experiences. How commercial realities will affect this aspiration is uncertain. Anyone who has signed up for multiple streaming services, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, etc, will tell you, it can be frustrating.

My working definition for Vice-Chancellors of the Metaverse is:

A series of experiences of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), grouped under the banner of extended reality (XR) facilitated by technologies (headsets, touch-sensitive haptic clothing, etc). Participation in the Metaverse allows individuals to create a digital version of themselves (digital-twin) and immerse themselves ‘inside’ the internet, as a representation of the digital world.

A shorter version is:

Metaverse is the intertwining of increasingly immersive digital spaces, experienced through XR technologies by you as your digital twin.

Implications

What this will look like in practice is open to question. At one extreme, a favourite film plot for the dystopia, individuals will spend most of their time ‘plugged in’ to a virtual ‘Matrix’, experiencing less and less human contact. More positive perceptions suggest a reality where working at home does not mean you cannot participate in person at a stand-up. Simply pop on the virtual reality headset and hyper-real representations of your team members appear in the space chosen for the meeting. Wearing a touch-sensitive technology suit (a haptic suit) would mean you can shake the hands of a new member and feel the pressure of their handshake. In its most utopian representation, it could be equated to the holodeck from the Star Trek franchise, a fully immersive hyper-real experience.

It is worth remembering that the concept of the Metaverse is not a new one. It has been around for at least 30 years. The term Metaverse is frequently attributed Neal Stephenson, in his 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash (1992). Star Trek’s own holodeck television representation began in 1988. Its conceptualisation within education was explored in 1995 when John Tiffin and Lalita Rajasingham described virtual learning experiences that were fully immersive in their work In Search of the Virtual Class (1995). An inspiring read, all the more so because it is now 26 years old.

The challenge for university leadership is to know whether to invest and get ahead of the wave, uncertain as to the regulatory frameworks that are likely to be imposed, lack of clarity about the implications for personal privacy, and doubt as to which of the big players will set the technological standards that will allow for interoperability.

In summary

The Metaverse IS coming, will be complex, untidy, multispeed, digitally divisive, and fragmented in its realisation and implementation. The Metaverse IS NOT a product or service you can buy for your students.

Next time: What is currently possible within the Metaverse


If you are looking to review institutional strategies in light of the challenges and opportunities presented by the Metaverse, please feel free to get in touch.


Gillis, M. (2022, August). Emerging Technologies Ushering the Life Sciences Industry into the Metaverse, according to Accenture Report [August 2022]. Newsroom Accenture. https://newsroom.accenture.com/news/emerging-technologies-ushering-the-life-sciences-industry-into-the-metaverse-according-to-accenture-report.htm
Stephenson, N. (1992). Snow crash (Reissued). Penguin Books.
Tiffin, J., & Rajasingham, L. (1995). In search of the virtual class: Education in an information society. Routledge.

Author: Simon Paul Atkinson

30 years as an educational strategist, academic practitioner and developer, educational developer, educational technologist, and e-learning researcher. Simon is now an Educational Strategic Consultant. An experienced presenter and workshop facilitator. Previous roles include Head of Learning Design at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning (BPP University), Academic Developer (London School of Economics), Director of Teaching and Learning (Massey University - College of Education), Head of Centre for Learning Development (University of Hull), Academic Developer (Open University UK)

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