Metaverse for Dummies

Metaverse for Dummies. photo credit: Motley Fool

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Can you help me make sense of what is going on with all these headlines about the metaverse, say the metaverse for Dummies? This week the company Microsoft jumped in, but I was confused before then. I am middle-aged, a fan of Twitter and Facebook, and keep up with technology on my folding Samsung Z phone. A long time ago, I built a SimCity and then I played Minecraft with my kids. But I still don’t understand what is going on.  Is the metaverse another name for games?  Keach, Sausalito

Dear Keach: This coming week I am teaching on Zoom and the students and I both know there Is room for improvement.  While games and avatars grab our imagination today, we know there should be a better interactive tool for future online education, telemedicine, etc. So, here goes my own version of the metaverse for Dummies!

A working definition, still vague, is that the metaverse will emerge as a Web 3.0. The first commercial public phase, Web 1.0, circa (1989-1995) facilitated the transmission of information and emails. Then, Web 2.0 connected people, creating the sharing economy dominated by companies like Amazon and Facebook. For a more formal timeline, visit here. The metaverse, Web 3.0 will connect people, locations and things- sometimes in a fully virtual, 3D, synthetic environment. Metaverse will not be a single platform or a single technology, although Microsoft and Facebook are angling for that.

The devices we use to connect to this metaverse will not be handheld, like today’s phones. Sensors, special glasses, or implants on our body and clothing are more likely. And, given the history of many new devices and technology, it’s not surprising that they make an entry through less serious pursuits like games.  

Creating Scarcity:

The business model for the metaverse is still under development, but I want to sound a note of caution. When the Internet began, pioneer listserv users expected that it would democratize people and bring them together. Over the past ten years we have seen the Internet become factional and fractional. The tools of the metaverse- e.g. buying virtual clothing, real estate, and NFTs,  supersize that division IMHO. The graphic for today’s column comes from a Motley Fool article, which is titled, 3 Ways Metaverse Mortgages Will Affect Virtual Real Estate.” They encourage prescient investors to jump in today.

The Internet is boundless but new products, particularly NFTs, have a business model to create scarcity.  Those early adopters setting up the metaverse  hope to barter and sell these like physical assets. There is an interesting dynamic going on here: we all want more sustainable products, and they can sell us virtual products that reduce consumption and the need for physical resources. 

But, to answer your question more- why the metaverse? Why has Microsoft followed suit after Facebook? 

External Games:

First, you mentioned that you were an ex-gamer. Did you play a few videogames during Covid? Multitudes did. According to MarketWatch, videogames grew to $180 billion in revenue, and this remains larger than revenue from the global film industry ($100 billion) and from North American sports industries ($75 billion).  Even if the full metaverse is meta-years in the making, the seeds sprout today in the gaming industry. 

A second push for the metaverse comes from 5G networks and its faster, speedier communications. It is a frontier for programmers that lets them transfer more data at the same time, or in a shorter time and get prompter feedback. So the code they write, particularly for mobile devices, can be pushed in directions previously unimagined. Thinking forward, we need these metaverse innovations to have truly useful at-home robots, and safe, predictable out-of-home autonomous vehicles. 

Internal States:

A third reason the metaverse pushes forward has less to do with the world outside and more to do with our mental state and health. There has been a recent spate of concern, linking social media like Facebook with teen stress, anxiety, and addiction. A metaverse avatar has the potential to release the user from physical realities. Again, I am speculating, but will communications in the metaverse allow people with these challenges to step outside themselves, and experiment with different roles?  Erving Goffman, the famed sociologist, wrote that our everyday encounters are akin to a stage, where we don pretend masks to try-out impression management.  Today’s  avatars on iPhone messaging are a tiny creep into a future arena where we better manage or manipulate our time and interactions with strangers. 

As for the future of the metaverse, I will surely need to revise many points made here. Right now it seems like the metaverse is the playground of gamers and techies, but when it moves into the territory of DearSmartphone, you can be sure this will evolve, perhaps slouch, to DearSmartverse!

 Meanwhile, I stand ground that the infinite resources of the Internet should not be greedily divvied into coveted things that can then be bought and sold like physical assets. Thanks for your curiosity and question.

Digital Passport on Smartphone?

Are Smartphones the New Requirement for International Travel?

Digital Passport on Phone or just Covid Record? the NHS

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I just helped my grandmother get ready for a plane trip to the U.K.  I am frankly worried when she has to return home next month. Most of the documents she needed to board the airplane and clear immigration got stored on her phone. We convinced her to carry a new smartphone instead of an old flip phone. But it took a lot of leg work and she said that a digital passport on a smartphone is just for nerds! I am not sure that she will be able to complete the document trail to get home! Chris, Mill Valley

Dear Chris:  I fully understand your question as my husband and I recently took a trip to Canada and experienced similar issues. We could print the boarding passes anywhere, but most of the other documentation had to reside on our smartphones. The traveler information/customs forms were initiated through emails and accessed by barcodes.  I think readers may be interested in the details, so I am going to get into the weeds of trip taking.

To travel internationally, say to the UK or Canada, you must show proof of a negative Covid test, often a PCR. For Canada, this test must be scheduled no sooner than 72 hours in advance of travel, so it involves an extensive search of available and fast testing sites. You probably had to help your Grandmother find a similar testing site. Scheduling both testing and  vaccination sites online became one of the first digital divides of Covid.   

Once you  secure a testing site, and prayers that it goes well, you need an email address or text for receiving the outcome. That might have been an electronic hurdle for your grandmother, but I hope not. 

Digital Declarations:

Now many countries, including the UK and Canda, require a digital declaration or a  passenger location form to enter. Canada asks that the named traveler set up an online account with a password, and then populate it prior to travel with the Covid test results, an image of the passport, and flight information. This means that your grandmother must be conversant not only with digital email, but also with taking and forwarding jpegs, and remembering those pesky passwords! 

These forms get reviewed by the authorities before you enter the country,  but to clear immigration at the airport the details will need to be retrieved by a barcode, or completely re-entered  into a machine. That’s where it could get tricky for Grandma if she tries to  retrieve them on her phone. Hopefully there will be staff standing by to help her.  By the way, if you remind her to  save these as images then she will not need to face the added complexity of  accessing WiFi at the airport. I find that lots of people don’t understand the differences when they travel of keeping the phone on local cellular service, using roaming, or jumping on local WiFi. The WiFi can unwittingly open up security vulnerabilities. 

Leaning on Others:

During my recent trip, I had a chat with the U.S. customs/immigration official who cleared my return. He agreed that smartphones were becoming as necessary as passports for international travelers. He anticipated that people who were less familiar with the technology like your Grandma would lean on a family member or aide to help them.  In a similar vein, my best friends travels with her spouse who is confined to a wheelchair. Because the disability network is incomplete and the travel accommodations for a wheelchair user are spotty she continually jumps in and does the heavy lifting (literally).  More and more younger people, like you, will need to do the digital lifting for those who are not so tech savvy.

Using phones for travel documentation has been growing for some time beginning with the online boarding pass. However, Covid greatly accelerated the trend because of the need for additional documentation. Several columns back @dearsmartphone had a discussion of the pros and cons of real-time online Covid passes. In this U.K. article there is a thoughtful discussion of whether the National Health Service Covid passport will induce digital creep and further surveillance. 

 And, on that topic, if your Grandma is using her new  smartphone in the UK this month, she probably has the GPS/location settings turned on. Through  that local authorities can follow her path and know if she comes in contact with any Covid-infected people. She will also have to figure out how to get a Covid test on short notice in the UK before she hops on her flight back home. Hopefully, by then, she will become a ‘digital passport smartphone’ pro user or find a willing accomplice.

Safe to Bike Post Covid?

A sign that says bikes can use full lane, but the street is full of potholes and construction debris. This is a photo from Cambridge, Mass.
Safe to Bike Post Covid? Image Credit: DearSmartphone

Dear Ms. Smartphone, I was getting my bike fixed, and they showed me a copy of the op-ed you wrote during Covid about commuters and ebikes. I know there are rules about driving and bikes- what about ebikes and phones?! Do you still think it is safe to bike post Covid? I am worried about taking my bike on the road these days because the drivers are running through stop signs and red lights, etc. They also seem to be on their phones more. Brian, Corte Madera

Dear Brian: Accident data reveals that we are at greater risk even though people are driving less. There is evidence that drivers are indeed running through stop signs and red lights more. And with fewer cars on the road, vehicle speeds have increased. You might have less worry about phones- drivers in cars have already reached peak talk!

But, to answer your question, are we safe to bike post-Covid? The dangers you mention are less so about phones, and more so about a cultural shift in how we treat driving and what we do when we get behind the wheel. 

Impaired:

The National Highway Safety Institute gathers statistics on fatal and severe accidents from  trauma centers. These are where ambulance drivers deliver severely injured patients. What they observed in 2020 at the height of Covid is somewhat startling.  Nearly two thirds of drivers tested positive for at least one active drug, including alcohol, marijuana, or opioids. Prior to Covid, about half of the drivers (50%) tested positive for alcohol or drugs but during Covid all substance use increased. The percentage with THC in their bloodstream doubled.  Interestingly, pedestrians and motorcycle drivers had similar levels. There was not enough data on bike riders.

My takeaway is that these accidents on the road are not  “accidents” as much as  “impairments”.

When it comes to assessing phones and driver error, researchers continue to lack adequate data. That’s because people don’t end up in a trauma center clutching their mobile phones. The phones usually fly out the windshield or lie under the seat. Unless law enforcement officials requisition phone or text logs from the telecom company and since that is seldom done, there is no reliable way to measure distraction rates from phones.  That said, key loggers may begin to tell a different story.

Imperiled:

Sadly, we know that traveling at 55 mph, it takes about five seconds to stop the vehicle, or a football field length. Answering a text while driving takes attention off the road for roughly the same period. Yet we can’t quantify the rate of cell phone caused accidents. And, these days, distraction in the car takes new directions- like fumbling with the complex navigation system, thumbing knobs  up and down to tune the speakers, and, on some cars, glancing at the oversized digital screen in the middle for the blind spot cameras. 

Since you are on a bike and hopefully will continue to be, what can you personally do to stay safe? The obvious ones are to wear a helmet and tuck your phone out of sight. It’s not illegal to use a phone while riding but it defies common sense. It’s an irony that when you ask bikers why they bring their phones along with them they answer, “in case something happens.” Hopefully never.

ILLUSION:

With that in mind, at this time of the year when it gets dark early, the majority of  bike accidents take place in late afternoon and after dark. So, it would be a good idea to limit your ride during these hours, or travel them on a grade- divided  path.  Of course, that could limit the usefulness of an e-bike for commute trips. Meanwhile, remember that motorcycle drivers and pedestrians out there are also impaired, so tread cautiously.

In closing, a nod to humility. While smartphones seem to be at the core of so many modern issues and problems, here they are not the driver.