Picture this: you put on a pair of glasses, and you’re transported to a sprawling golf course. You play a few rounds before your first meeting at 10 a.m., when you switch to your work avatar and enter your virtual office. At lunch, you decide to try on some new clothes for the dinner you’re attending next Friday, and settle on a dress you’ve been eyeing for a while. You’re excited to wrap up work early so you can attend that concert that’s happening 6,000 km away. All of this, and you haven’t ventured outside of your home once.

Sounds a little far-fetched? Out of a sci-fi movie? It isn’t. Welcome to the metaverse.

Are we there yet?

Not really. Many of these activities require technology — dependent primarily on augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) platforms — that still hasn’t materialised, and is perhaps a decade or more into the future before we can access it. But that’s closer than we’ve ever been before. 2021 has been a phenomenal year for this burgeoning metaverse. South Korea established a government-led metaverse alliance that boasts membership of 200+ companies. Microsoft launched a “holoportation” mixed-reality platform called Microsoft Mesh that could revolutionise remote work. Facebook, of course, transformed its identity from a social media company to a metaverse ecosystem.

Infinite world, use-cases

At the heart of it, the metaverse is an exercise in democratising access to experiences that would otherwise be unreachable. Like the Internet and smartphones, the metaverse has the potential to transform beyond recognition how we communicate and interact with one another and with businesses across the world.

It allows people who live in smaller towns and rural or remote areas — by choice or by circumstance — to access opportunities that would otherwise only be available in urban centres, helping ease the migration burden in big cities and bolster local economies. It’s also likely to completely disrupt healthcare, not only in terms of delivery and caregiving, but also innovative medical practices like hologram-based cross-continent collaboration to execute a complex surgical procedure.

The metaverse is not only the next frontier that we’re looking to conquer. It is also inevitable.

A new regulatory regime?

But who will regulate the metaverse? How will it be governed? How will content be moderated? How will crime be tackled? What about regulatory compliance and tax reporting for companies headquartered in the metaverse?

The other set of interrelated questions are about security and privacy in the virtual world, particularly because advertisers will have much more personal information about users than ever before. There’s also a question of whether it requires a legal system of its own — either way, these policies and regulations are critical to lend legitimacy to the metaverse to attract investments and users that will expedite its ubiquity.

The largely unregulated universe of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and virtual currencies has nestled comfortably within the metaverse.

But such interoperable currencies and assets pose a host of complications that we currently do not have answers for. In a metaverse environment, for instance, how and to what extent will financial regulation apply to NFTs? How will intellectual property be authenticated and traded?

Any epoch-defining innovation will disrupt the status quo in unfathomable ways and produce challenges that we’ve likely never confronted before.

The writer is a policy consultant and advisor to former minister for IT and Communications