The Metaverse. To hear technology CEOs like Meta’s (previously known as Facebook) Mark Zuckerberg or Microsoft’s Satya Nadella talk about it, the metaverse is the future of the Internet. But what exactly is it? Lots of mumbo-jumbo is being thrown around without a very clear message. Let’s try to make some sense out of this and see what it can mean for conservation.
What Does “Metaverse” Mean?
Getting a definition of the term “Metaverse” is easily done. Getting a common definition is near impossible. That’s because the term doesn’t really refer to any one specific type of technology, but rather a broad (and often speculative) shift in how we interact with technology.
One definition is offered by Matthew Ball, in his excellent book The Metaverse: “A massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.”
Now some of you are saying “of course,” but I am guessing that most of you are probably saying “what?” So, let’s not try to define the term, and, for our purposes, go with a broad understanding about technological aspects of it. What the technologies companies refer to when they talk about “the metaverse” almost always include virtual reality (VR) – characterized by persistent virtual worlds that continue to exist even when you’re not playing – as well as augmented reality (AR) that combines aspects of the digital and physical worlds. I often make a distinction between AR and VR by saying that AR involves you physically being in the space you are experiencing, and VR does not.
How can you experience the Metaverse?
You can experience the Metaverse (or at least VR) via games. Today, there are gaming platforms like Roblox that allow users to create, share, and play interactive 3D experiences. Players can explore their creativity in a safe environment where they can interact with other players in a virtual world. It also provides players with the opportunity to earn virtual currency which they can use on the Roblox Platform or spend on various games available on Roblox.
And these experiences do not require VR headsets. These games (or virtual worlds) can be accessed through PCs, game consoles, and even phones. Your experience may not be as immersive as that of using VR headsets, but many aspects of the Metaverse such as multi-player and real-time responsiveness will still be present. Despite all the hype, do not expect holograms to be commercially available anytime soon. Below is a picture of me in the Roblox Forest Conservation Experience ready to enter a forest that includes animals and lessons on conservation.
Probably the most notable AR usage is the US Army getting Microsoft AR Goggles for soldiers. The devices, using what is called the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS), will allow soldiers to see through smoke and around corners, use holographic imagery for training, and have 3D terrain maps projected onto their field of vision at the click of a button. Below is a picture of a US Army soldier wearing goggles. At some point, this technology will be used by regular citizens – and certainly with more style, though they will never be mistaken for Gucci.
Like artificial intelligence and other technologies, the Metaverse can be used for many purposes such as business, education, military, farming, and conservation.
How can the Metaverse be used for Conservation?
Although the ultimate vision of the Metaverse may take many decades to be fulfilled, there is much that can be used today for conservation. Four areas that hold promise are education, virtual NatureRx, fundraising, and enhanced experience. All these efforts are centered around real-time rendered 2D and 3D virtual worlds (rendering is the process of generating a 2D and 3D object or environment using a computer program) and can be done with technology available today or soon.
Education for conservation is already being done. As previously discussed, there are experiences that provide insight into conservation and its benefits. Some people believe the immersive nature of metaverse experiences even helps overcome behavioral barriers to climate action. Conservation experiences could inspire people by what is or what could be or what could happen. The Conservation Foundation could even have its own experience with a President/CEO Brook McDonald avatar as the tour guide.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the metaverse for sustainability will be the ability to leverage technology to better identify and implement conservation plans. Not just visit somewhere but initiate change or not. For example, one could simulate and investigate the results of building a wind turbine, saving a wetland, or removing a dam.
One limiting factor to the effectiveness of experiences is many of the experiences lack very realistic graphics. A virtual tree often looks like a virtual tree and not like a real one. But there are companies like Planet Labs that can help elevate the visuals. Planet Labs (or just Planet) has a fleet of 200 earth imaging satellites which image the whole Earth land mass daily. I personally feel that it will be a game-changer once conservation experiences start taking advantage of this type of real-time imaging.
For Nature Rx, one could pick a location to travel virtually through. It could be somewhere local or somewhere on another continent. It could be used during inclement weather that prohibits going outside. It can also be a good alternative for those who physically cannot get outside or have a disability. VR Goggles would allow you to physically move while staying indoors.
Fundraising could be done by auctioning off experiences. Perhaps The Conservation Foundation could offer virtual walks of Belrose Farm or Baker Woods. The Conservation Foundation could have a Farm Experience where players could compete to run the McDonald Farm or Dickson-Murst Farm. There could be a leaderboard based on crop yield or carbon footprint or whatever. The Conservation Foundation could raise funds by selling seeds, supplies, etc., or even sell clothing for the player’s Avatars (Louis Vuitton already sells accessories for Avatars). When I visited a Farming experience, I was run over by a truck that could not be controlled by another participant – however I survived and eventually started driving a tractor (one advantage of being virtual).
And AR has potential to enhance the experience of being outdoors. Like military use, one could see the temperature and other weather/climate details. One could identify a bird by its song, immediately know the species and height of a tree, analyze the chemicals in a body of water, determine the distance and name of a mountain, identify rocks, recognize an invasive species. I envision a “You Are Here” feature that can tell people where they are in relationship to their surroundings – find out things to see and places to get a bite to eat after taking a vigorous walk. And all of this could be done with special AR sunglasses!
For me, the Metaverse will never replace a walk in the woods with my wonderful wife. But it has the potential to help with conservation efforts today and certainly in the future.
Ready to expand the thinking for land and water conservation? For more than 50 years, The Conservation Foundation has been a thought leader providing education on new and exciting ways of doing conservation and applying them to everyday life. The Conservation Foundation is also a forum for folks to push the envelope and challenge people in their thinking. We are always looking for creative, hard-working people – become a member today!
Feel free to comment on this blog with additional ideas you have on how the metaverse can improve land and water conservation efforts.
By Steve Stawarz, Oak Brook
DuPage County Advisory Council Member