Lik Hang (Paul) Lee is an assistant professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). His work focuses on the metaverse, including the technology that will enable it, such as VR, AR, and XR. Recently, alongside his colleagues, Paul released the scholarly piece “All one needs to know about the metaverse.” This academic piece highlights a 3-stage development roadmap for the metaverse, outlining its evolution. We had the pleasure of interviewing Paul about this report in part one of this research in the metaverse series on the Metaverse Insider.
Hi Paul, you tell us a bit about your background and your work?
Hello, Jack. I am an assistant professor with the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and the Director of Augmented Reality and Media Lab. My work primarily focuses on virtual environments, including augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and the metaverse. Since 2015, I have built and designed various human-centric computing solutions on AR and VR headsets. I also founded an AR company that plays a pioneering role in bringing AR into education. Remarkably, our AR products serve students and teachers from more than 120 schools in Hong Kong SAR, China.
How did you get involved with writing the “All one needs to know about the Metaverse.”
First of all, I would like to emphasize that this publication is a collaborative effort contributed by all the authors due to the interdisciplinary nature of the metaverse. As the first author of this work, I first defined the development roadmap of the metaverse outlined the framework of constructing the metaverse, and accordingly discussed the prospect of the metaverse with the guru of the domain, Prof Hui. Then, I invited Dr. Braud, Dr. Zhou, and Dr. Wang for their expertises related to advanced networking, edge and cloud computing, and computer vision. On the other hand, Prof. Hui’s students (Mr. Xu and Mr. Kumar) and a postdoc researcher in his team (Dr. Bermejo) were responsible for the content related to AI, Blockchain, Social Acceptability, and Privacy. Additionally, I invited my research student (Mr. Lin) for the section on Metaverse Economy.
Can you give us a brief overview of the report?
The report first reveals the 3-stage development roadmap for the metaverse, including digital twins, digital natives, and the co-existence between physical and digital entities (i.e., the surreality as described by the well-known sci-fiction book named “Snow Crash”). Next, the report highlights a metaverse framework, including eight technology enablers and six ecosystem issues. Accordingly, the main body of the report focuses on these enablers and issues to illustrate that the fundamentals of the metaverse already exist. We also highlight the agenda of building the metaverse in the following decades.
What were your objectives when writing it?
We wanted to understand how far we are from the ultimate stage of the metaverse, and what are missing in the current stage.
What did you learn from the study?
We learned that the existing technology can allow us to enter the metaverse, albeit it is a preliminary one. Nevertheless, we should not wait till the maturity of the metaverse. Like what we have witnessed since the popularization of the Internet in the 1900s, we should invite the public, as the critical mass, to join the metaverse and hence trigger the technological singularity. On the other hand, the metaverse ecosystem, reflected by the user-centric issues, still poses a lot of uncertainty. At the same time, our physical world is not made ready for such a blended reality.
Your report coins the phrase, the digital big bang, what do you mean by this?
We believe that the metaverse will be the next generation of the Internet. We speculate the metaverse will become an endless and gigantic `virtual-physical blended cyberspace.’ We borrowed the cosmology term `Big Bang’ that describes how the physical space expanded from an initial state. As such, our proposed term `Digital Big Bang’ describes the second `Big Bang’ driven by this novel cyberspace in which virtual objects will surround us ubiquitously in our physical world.
What technologies are enablers of the metaverse? Do you think some will be more prominent than others in realizing the metaverse?
As mentioned, we highlight eight technologies — Extended Reality, User Interactivity (Human-Computer Interaction), Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, Computer Vision, IoT and Robotics, Edge and Cloud computing, and Future Mobile Networks. The Extended Reality and User Interactivity will be more prominent than the rest, as they serve as the output and input interfaces for the end-users. The contact point between the users and the metaverse will significantly impact the user experience.
What do you mean by user-centric factors used in the study? What are these?
The user-centric factors imply the necessary drivers to promote the sustainability of the metaverse. The users can play and work in the metaverse in a self-contained and self-sustained society. We foresee that people will spend a significant amount of their spare time in the metaverse and create new content through their avatar. Their activities can be regarded as a virtual community. Such factors will promote a virtual yet immersive community, including Avatar, Content Creation, Virtual Economy, Social Acceptability, Security and Privacy, and Trust and Accountability.
The metaverse is rapidly evolving and incredibly complex; how difficult do you think it will be to study it in the future?
The metaverse will represent the many virtual spaces and overlap with our physical world. Therefore, studying the users in the metaverse will be more challenging than in the current cyberspace. For example, in the existing forums like Twitter and Reddit, we collect user engagement, such as comments, likes, and posts, and hence interpret user communication and behaviors. However, we lack tools for metaverse studies, and unfortunately, we know very little about human behaviors related to online activities impacting the offline counterpart. We speculate the advent of the metaverse will facilitate such online-offline activities as of recent online activism, like Hong Kong Anti-ELAB, WallstreetBet and Donation through Airbnb, for Ukraine shows some clues.
From a social science perspective, do you think the decentralized nature of the metaverse is a good thing for society?
In Web 2.0, we are aware that the business owners of social networks control every rights and data ownership, while you do not want a company to have control over them.
Decentralization is going to be critical to the success of the metaverse. As long as a single entity has complete control over it, it can be easily abused or taken down. Also, having a decentralized metaverse will allow people with enough technical knowledge to contribute by creating and hosting virtual worlds independently from larger companies, giving users ownership over the medium. If we compare to the Web, we can see that the Web took off by having more and more websites added every year, with each entity behind it managing its websites entirely independently.
Nowadays, exerting complete control over the Web is very difficult as new resources can get added anytime, and censoring authorities need to keep track of them. Technically, exerting such control requires either creating a “separate” Web with controlled access points to the Web, or deep data filtering at a massive scale. Similarly, a decentralized metaverse will lead to a robust platform owned by the users to share and contribute content under new forms.
Would you say we are already in the metaverse? If not, then what would be the major turning point into web3?
Yes. The era of the metaverse just began, and we are already in the preliminary stage of the metaverse, although it mainly operates as the virtual worlds and nft-supported activities. We will soon see the technological enablers will work together. And we do not expect to see a sharp turning point from the current cyberspace to the metaverse. It is the same way we did not have an obvious turning point from Web 1 and Web 2. All technologies require user adoption, and this process is usually gradually done. That is, new technologies get developed, and they progressively get adopted.
What excites you most about the metaverse?
Within the next decade, virtual entities will enrich our physical world. As a result, the way we work and play will be very surreal. We can barely distinguish between the virtual and physical objects in such seamlessly blended environments. Also, people with digital overlays will become more intelligent — better socializing skills and enhanced knowledge and memory for various user contexts. Thus, after ‘Snow Crash,’ the next book we need to read should be `Quantum Thief.’
Any future reports on the metaverse that you will be involved in?
In recent months, I have focused on putting empathy in the metaverse through conducting a meta-analysis of related literature. Recent advances in extended reality (XR) technologies have enabled new and increasingly realistic empathy tools and experiences. In XR, all interactions take place in different spatial contexts, all with different features, affordances, and constraints. As reported in our latest work, my colleagues and I coined the term `Empathic Reality (ER)’ under the continuum of XR. Bringing empathic elements into the many virtual-physical blended spaces (i.e., the metaverse) will serve as a strong justification for integrating every aspect of our daily lives with the metaverse. The full report is available at https://arxiv.org/abs/2203.01375.