When Dinesh S P and Janaganandhini Ramaswamy decided to get married in early 2022, they had one regret: the bride’s father had passed away nine months earlier and would not be around for his daughter’s nuptials.
Dinesh, a project associate at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, remembered seeing a YouTube video about metaverse, an emerging technology that seemed to merge real and virtual worlds in a new and exciting way. He turned to a Chennai startup — TardiVerse — with a suggestion.
Soon, he told his girlfriend that her father would be there at the wedding ceremony in Sivalingapuram village — virtually — appearing in a 3D avatar to bless the couple.
What’s more, the engineers at the startup created a streaming video of the marriage ceremony, with a twist: guests who logged in could choose their own avatars and could even ‘interact’ with the couple and other guests.
On 11 January 2022, it went live to become India’s first wedding reception in the metaverse.
Just days later, on 22 January, Punjabi pop maestro, Daler Mehndi, became the first Indian to perform live in the metaverse. The performance, where Mehndi assumed multiple avatars, drew 20 million spectators from around the world, making it one of the world’s largest concerts performed in the new medium.
What Is Metaverse?
Millennials — those born between 1980 and 1995 — and Generation-Z — those born from 1996 to the mid-2010s — today make up half of all consumers in Asia and are already bored with the early internet of static pages (Web 1.0) as well as the internet of social media, blogging, and YouTube (Web 2.0).
They have tasted things like virtual reality (VR), which offered a computer-simulated three-dimensional virtual environment with which they could interact. Or augmented reality (AR), which superimposes such a computer-created world on the user’s real-world view.
And, like Oliver Twist, they are ‘asking for more’ — without the hassle of donning weighty headsets or installing special softwares.
They demand a new environment, one in which they can’t — and don’t need to — distinguish between what is physical and what is digital, in which they can connect virtually with all their friends and share experiences. This always-live, interconnected, and virtual universe is being called metaverse: ‘meta’ meaning ‘beyond’ and ‘verse’ is short for ‘universe’.
This is the likely future form of the internet, consisting of shared three-dimensional virtual spaces, all linked together in a new virtual world. For this reason, the metaverse is used loosely and, alternatively, with the term Web 3.0.
Think of it as a simulated virtual environment that can be accessed simultaneously and independently by many users by making use of avatars. In this world, the real actions and communications of users, including their movements, are seamlessly morphed into the avatars they choose to assume.
Or think of it as a digital Mayabazar, where a real S V Ranga Rao as Ghatotkacha swallows all those virtual laddoos in the vivaha bhojanambu or wedding feast (it was N T Rama Rao polishing off the kalyana samayal sadham in the Tamil version).
Come to think of it, the great Telugu film maker B Nagi Reddy conceived of a metaverse-like melange of the real and the virtual a full six decades ago, albeit with the cruder animation tools of his day.
Metaverse takes elements of VR, AR, and mixed reality (MR), and spins it together into a combo of real and virtual worlds where the user smoothly transits from one world to the other.
Work In Progress
Right now, this integrated mixed-reality internet is work in progress. But canny developers at home and abroad are already carving out their own niche in what investment banking firm Goldman Sachs predicts will be a $8 trillion opportunity before 2024.
Top of the heap in the global maidan is Facebook, which was so sure that this is the way of the future that it changed its own name to “Meta.” Microsoft is hard at Meta’s heels, hoping to repurpose its VR gaming headset, Oculus, and has recently acquired the video gaming giant Activision Blizzard, creator of such blockbuster games as Call of Duty and World of Warcraft.
Indeed, so many of today’s top-selling console games are already so rich in VR and AR that gaming is widely seen to be a conduit for corporates to achieve metaverse nirvana.
Other big international players investing heavily in metaverse technologies are Google’s parent company Alphabet, Apple, graphics processing king Nvidia, phone chip leader Qualcomm, semiconductor giant Intel, and, interestingly, the two top sports goods players Nike and Adidas.
India is expected to carve out a good chunk of the expected metaverse business. The biggies are already in: “It’s an emerging area and something we’ve been piloting and investing in a lot… Metaverse combined with 5G and 6G is going to revolutionise the way we do business”, TCS executive director N Ganapathy Subramanian told Business Today.
Infosys is not far behind and at HCL they are talking about the next iteration: XR or eXtended reality.
India, home to one of the largest startup ecosystems in the world, is already seeing an estimated 1,00,000 Indians involved in metaverse projects, with two cities, Mumbai and New Delhi, seeing the most creative activity.
Some startups were formed specifically to leverage metaverse. “The next paradigm shift in the digital world is clearly evident. Metaverse will directly impact our lives, bringing deep technology integration and creating a world of endless possibilities,” says Mo Akiram, co-founder and “ideator” of one such company, MetaSpace.
Many Indian startups are competing fiercely in the outer orbits of metaverse, like blockchain, crypto currency, and NFTs or Non Fungible Tokens.
NFTs, unique and non-interchangeable units of data that identify a digital rather than a physical asset, have been seized by India’s glitterati to market themselves in unimaginably profitable ways. And somewhere along this lucrative line, the NFT of a Raja Ravi Varma painting or a recording of Amitabh Bachchan reading a poem written by his father or a cricketer’s winning wearables lead, by digital alleys and byways, to the brave new world of metaverse.
A good example is Yuvraj Singh. He recently created his very own digital avatar in the metaverse, then launched NFTs dedicated to his fans, allowing them to “witness” some great moments in his career (while offering 3D models of the bat with which he scored his first century at a cool $40 or Rs 3,000 a go).
Elements Of Metaverse
Buying digital art or sports memorabilia with NFT is just one of the activities currently taking place in separate silos, which will eventually merge into the single web-based metaverse. Technology watcher Gartner suggests that other activities that will migrate to this new world include:
- Buying digital land and constructing virtual homes
- Participating in a virtual social experience
- Shopping in virtual malls via immersive commerce
- Using virtual classrooms to experience immersive learning
- Purchasing outfits and accessories for online avatars
- Interacting with digital humans for onboarding employees, customer service, sales, and other business interactions
Gartner’s Ashutosh Gupta warns: “There is a lot of excitement around metaverse, much of it driven by technology companies pre-emptively claiming to be metaverse companies.”
These companies, unsurprisingly, see metaverse as the next big commercial opportunity rather than the next iteration in making the internet a people’s place.
The word metaverse was first used in a 1992 science-fiction novel by Neal Stephenson titled “Snow Crush.” The word was his concept of a VR-based internet of the future that looks like a massive multiplayer online (MMO) game. It is played by user-controlled avatars. But within the game are many demons.
Who won? Stephenson’s book doesn’t say.
And 40 years later, when his vision of a metaverse internet is on the cusp of realisation, we don’t know as yet who will win: billions like us who use the internet or the many thousands who profit from it.
Read other Swasti 22 submissions.
Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.
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