Metaverse – The Start of a New Era of Government Services
In February 2022, a couple from Tamilnadu hosted their wedding reception in a digital, virtual world. Joined by 6000 odd guests attired in “Digital Avatars”, this has been termed as the first “Metaverse wedding reception” in Asia.
The Metaverse has been a trendy topic in the recent past. It is an immersive virtual world that lets individuals, to build solutions that challenge the present use of technologies. This article delves as to why society in general and Government in particular should take cognizance of Metaverse. Towards this, it is imperative to understand how the Metaverse is likely to influence Government services in the near future.
Where did the name Metaverse come from? Well, Neal Stephenson coined this in “Snow Crash”, a 1992 novel in which the main character hangs-out in an online virtual imaginary world. In simple words, Metaverse is a digital avatar-based virtual world, featuring avatars (digital representatives of individuals), digital objects, functioning economies, where technology is not just a tool, but something that is all-encompassing. So, in essence, Metaverse is a space parallel to the physical world, where one leads a digital life. A place where all people have an avatar, an alter-ego and interact with each other through their alternative personalities. The Metaverse is conceptually in line with the Web 3.0 and so is aided by blockchain technology (like NFTs and Cryptos). Writer Dave Shapton aptly describes the Metaverse as “the convergence point of most, if not all, media, computing and communication technologies… a shared 3D space where users can see other people and share experiences. It can mirror the real world or can be a total fantasy”. No wonder then that experts opine that Metaverse as the next big thing in the crypto world.
Metaverse will have many elements as follows:
- Digital currency
- Online shopping
- Workplace automation
- Social media
- Digital Humans
- Natural Language Processing
- Device independence
The Metaverse is the system in which the Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) applications come together. Individuals once enter into this virtual world can interact with each other, work, transact business, learn, and even play games to entertain themselves, experience things or activities as they would in the real world. However, Governments world over need to step up their efforts in embracing this new technology. It would be no exaggeration to say that pretty soon individuals in this strongly inter-connected world will be meeting, working, learning, entertaining themselves, and possibly using citizen services and applications in the Metaverse. The future Metaverse would be akin to the real world we live in, and even substitute a few real-world activities (like working or socializing).
The Government can take advantage of these opportunities which Metaverse offers in aplenty. The Metaverse has a knack to make available services and applications to citizens through avatars that will be available 365/24/7 anywhere, and anytime. With the pandemic playing hide and seek, it is a harsh reality that the mobility of people is kind of restricted which poses a direct challenge to citizens use of services and applications. The Metaverse could be a platform to seamlessly offer services and applications to citizens using a technology that mimics the 3-Dimensional world we live in.
Likely Applications of Metaverse may include but not limited to the following (listed not necessarily in any order):
- Environment Protection
- Smart Cities
- RFID to Avatars
- Social and Political Engagement
- Local Self Government
- Libraries and Museums
Governments across the world (e.g. Maldives, Sweden, Estonia, Serbia, Kazakhstan) have established virtual embassies. Many Governments have embarked on simulations of voting, interactive learning and even conferences, all in virtual mode. There are very prominent and elaborate examples on the US Federal, State level and Local Government. One of these local examples is MuniGov. MuniGov is a coalition of federal/state /municipal and international Governments focused on exploring the use and principles of Web 2.0 in an effort to improve citizen services and communication via technology.
A Virtual Polling station was set up in Alameda County, California state of USA to explain voting procedures to people.
The Metaverse could therefore be re-imagined as a vehicle of choice for delivery of services and applications to citizens. Moreover, it also enables enhanced communication and engagement between the Government and its people. Furthermore, the Metaverse can be a means by which Government can speed-up its efforts to revive trade and commerce which have been adversely affected by the pandemic.
Right now, the Metaverse is in its infancy. Since it is an online-enabled space, the Metaverse may be prone to new issues in security and privacy for individuals as well as institutions. Thus, privacy and security risks are major problems, a few seem to be worried about their health on account of excessive exposure to 5G. Also, this technology is an energy-guzzler and a high-cost proposition; this by itself may isolate vast majority of the world’s population residing in developing countries.
South Korea is deploying huge financial and human capital towards building the Metaverse to enable services and applications to its citizens. This could be possible because South Korea is among the world’s technologically superior and digitally connected countries, where its citizens have access to free and fast WiFi on public transportation as well as in public buildings and streets.
This example tosses a daunting challenge to surmount, primarily for developing countries, in their attempt to be an early adopter of Metaverse. The Government needs to have the necessary wherewithal in terms of high-budgets and huge energy required for the implementation of the Metaverse in order to make the services and applications available to all of its citizens. Governments ought to develop the network, financial and technical capabilities to make Metaverse for citizens, a reality. The Governments should be ready to address data protection, cyber security, digital identity, and other digital policy issues. These issues need to be addressed in a way that strikes the right balance between Physical and Virtual worlds.
Quite a few say that the Metaverse is a fad and is bound to die down soon. In fact, it is more likely to be a long-term, tectonic, and paradigm-shifting trend that has just about began. However, the requirements to sustain the same are humongous. 5G networks and other cutting-edge technologies like AR/VR, AI & ML, Blockchain will be required for the transition of Citizen centric services and applications to Metaverse. The legal frameworks and regulatory rules to protect users in this virtual world have to be strengthened accordingly. Renewable energy resources that will power the Metaverse is a requirement too. All these and more have to be put in place to be able to offer innovative services at a fraction of the cost to the vast populace in developing countries.
Although Governments may have to recognize the importance and kickstart Metaverse, it will have to be developed and sustained with the help of 5G enterprises that are mostly in private sector. This puts a huge responsibility jointly upon the Government and private sector; perhaps public-private partnership is a sustainable option.
India could have a key role to play in building the Citizen-Centric Metaverse. Governments are usually criticized for acting too late in addressing emerging technologies and their implications on nation’s growth and development, its people’s progress, business, in particular and society at large. In this context, Metaverse ought to be a development that should be welcomed. One thing is for certain, the Indian technology governance and regulatory policy landscape is an evolving one, as global best practices are bound to influence strategic decisions to be taken by policymakers.
Ultimately, all people, irrespective of their socio-economic status, require access to the Metaverse to take part in the digital revolution.
So, let us vividly visualize the newly-weds from Tamilnadu in their “Digital Avatars” appearing before the authority (again in his Digital Avatar) for the marriage registration formality!