When people talk about the metaverse, it is hard to say whether it is here or it is simply the future of the internet. It is the new lingo in tech circles.
Every techie or executive throws in the word whenever a conversation about the future of the internet and digital technologies arises. But little has been offered about what it is and why people should care about it. Kenyans are not even sure whether it exists in their midst.
That confusion stems from the fact that even advocates of the metaverse are also not speaking in one voice. In the ensuing chaos, it has become hard for the average Kenyan to definitively tell whether the technology is already here, will be released soon or it might take a while to bring the promised befits to society. To most observers, the confusion is similar to days back when the internet was being developed.
Simply put, metaverse is a virtual-reality space in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users.
“Techies sometimes use big terms to confuse people but the metaverse has always been with us only that it is now becoming more pronounced,” says Dr Shikoh Gitau, founder of Qhala, a digital transformation and innovation company.
“If you were there in the early days of Facebook, then you remember a game called Farmville where people could buy things in the virtual form. This was a form of the metaverse,” she explains.
Dr Gitau, who is also the former head of innovation at Safaricom, says the future is digital solutions that improve user experience and bring down costs for consumers and companies.
But the current confusion among the masses has not constrained investments. Top tech companies including Facebook (now Meta ), Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon have pumped billions of shillings into initiatives that will bring the technology to the masses.
Apple and Meta are already planning to launch mixed-reality headsets, which will enable users to experience virtual reality.
Local techies say that investors and companies are not holding back from investing in Kenya either when it comes to preparing for the promised future.
“In my view, Metaverse will enhance interactions and change how we do certain things like marketing or online meetings,” says Solomon Otieno, a software developer based in Nairobi and metaverse enthusiast.
Several Kenyan companies are also working on a presence in the metaverse, but most of it is quiet for now. BlackRhino VR and African Meta Club are some start-ups that have developed programmes for entrepreneurs and enthusiasts to understand the metaverse and how it works.
For years, the vision of the metaverse was mostly concentrated in the gaming world but the adoption is now moving to digital commerce and corporate offices. Now experts are certain that in the future metaverse will create a virtual experience that can control the physical world, that is if it is already not happening.
“The metaverse is a replica of what you do in the physical environment but in the virtual. We are at a point where we have a physical life and a virtual life, and so the metaverse combines the two using technologies such are Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), blockchain and Artificial Intelligence (AI),” says Lynn Gitau, an entrepreneur and the founder of Metaversation.
A picture of the metaverse painted in most cases is of VR and AR glasses that experts say will only mean accessing or experiencing the metaverse.
The global metaverse market will hit about $400 billion in the next two years driven by non-fungible token (NFTs) and hardware sales, according to Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Companies that have joined the metaverse say that users will be able to create things and shop; it will present a new frontier for e-commerce.
“In the near future, people will work in the metaverse, be able to meet and even play in this virtual world. Some of this is already happening,” says Mr Otieno.
There is a unanimous agreement among metaverse advocates that it is a work in progress and users are yet to test its limits, including companies that are developing the technology.
The experience is also out of reach for most people and companies because the investments needed for research and development are high. Ms Gitau however believes that increased investments will bring the costs down and make it affordable, a position Mr Otieno shares.
“The technology that can give people the immersive experience of the metaverse is still expensive and unavailable to the masses. But increased investments from tech companies will make it affordable,” says Mr Otieno.
He adds that the metaverse should not be treated as an alien idea, but further development of ideas that have been built by humans since the onset of the internet.
“The metaverse is an improvement and a test on the limits of a new world that was created by the internet. It will define new behaviours and see the emergence of new technologies,” says Mr Otieno.