Visitors walk through the Beijing E-town Metaverse Experience display at the China International Fair for Trade in Services on September 3. Photo: AP
Dennis Lee
Dennis Lee

Metaverse must offer more than escapism before being called true innovation

  • There is a great deal of interest and investment going into the metaverse’s long-term development, but its usefulness remains unclear
  • If innovation is meant to improve lives, the metaverse must show it can help solve real-world problems

Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “Buy land, they’re not making it any more.” If only Twain could have lived until the Web3 era, because they are now.

If you buy into the concept of the metaverse, there are endless supplies of “land” in the virtual world that are selling like hot cakes. For example, a parcel in Decentraland that is 16m x 16m – if one believes measurement units apply to the virtual world – could fetch up to US$5,800 at the time of writing.
In the physical world, real estate is valuable because of its scarcity. Why would virtual land have that kind of worth when availability is infinite and restricted only by the creators’ self-imposed rules, and locations do not matter when a user’s avatar can teleport from one place to another?

There is a lot we do not understand as the metaverse is being defined and moulded. In a nutshell, it offers an immersive 3D internet where users can interact with others, conduct business and perform transactions in cryptocurrency.

Matthew Ball described the metaverse in a recent Time magazine article as “a persistent and living virtual world that is not a window into our life (such as Instagram) nor a place where we communicate (such as Gmail) but one in which we also exist in 3D (hence the focus on immersive VR headsets and avatars).”


Baidu unveils China's first metaverse platform ‘Xi Rang’

Baidu unveils China's first metaverse platform ‘Xi Rang’
The metaverse might be mostly hype, but one cannot deny the interest and investment going into its long-term development. Its market size is projected to grow from US$62 billion this year to US$427 billion in five years, according to one recent report.
It seems too early to decide whether metaverse platforms will revolutionise the world or pass judgment on how Generation Z wants to experience life. The world has changed dramatically in how we communicate and interact in both social and professional settings.

Populism and other social movements have accelerated the mass adoption of digital identities, decentralised platforms and carefully crafted self-presentation. Nonetheless, we need to dissect an innovation claim based on whether it is built for the common good or merely for experimental and sensory stimulation.

Gaming remains the biggest draw for the metaverse, but creators are developing educational and training tools to capture wider applications. Immersive simulated environments are particularly fitting when dealing with life-threatening scenarios such as in military, aviation and healthcare training when the stakes of real-world mistakes are high.


Fans recreate kung fu star Bruce Lee’s demolished Hong Kong mansion in metaverse

Fans recreate kung fu star Bruce Lee’s demolished Hong Kong mansion in metaverse

In the construction world, architects are exploring seamless integration of building information model digital twins and mixed reality devices. However, a metaverse sceptic might argue that offline and local uses can provide the same experience and training without necessarily tapping into larger metaverse platforms.

In a recent interview, Animoca Brands founder Yat Siu – a proud son of Hong Kong – said our digital life was already more important than our physical one, and when we unplug we become lesser humans. As much as we should support a local hero, we must question this claim.
While modern lives are already highly connected and will become even more so, we should not expect an identity crisis when we are not in the digital realm. Psychotherapist Whitney Goodman warns in Toxic Positivity that people could develop mental health issues when how they appear on social media contradicts what they feel inside. Imagine social media in overdrive, which seems to be what the metaverse is creating.

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Perhaps someday we will be able to upload our consciousness and continue to “live on” as avatars in the metaverse after our bodies disintegrate. But for now, we live in the physical world and need healthy food, clean water, fresh air and safe shelter. The inconvenient truth is that the world is filled with political, social, cultural and environmental problems.

If we believe innovation should improve our lives, we should strive for ideas that confront our shared problems head-on, resolve issues such as extreme poverty, wealth inequality and discrimination, discover new energy sources, minimise waste and protect the environment.

Real-world crises are many and awaiting great minds to solve them. Former head of Greenpeace Paul Gilding once said, “How we respond now will decide the future of human civilisation. We are the people we’ve been waiting for. There is no one else. There is no other time. It’s us and it is now.”

Genuine innovations should offer more than an experiential platform to escape. In this regard, the metaverse has a lot to prove before it should be considered one of them.

Dennis Lee is a Hong Kong-born, America-licensed architect with 22 years of design experience in the US and China