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From real-world heroes to virtual rabbit houses: How New Zealand is embracing the metaverse

Newshub logo Newshub 26/11/2021 Mike Kilpatrick
"There's lots of exciting possibilities." © Supplied / Antarctic Heritage Trust "There's lots of exciting possibilities."

The metaverse has been attracting headlines both positive and negative since Facebook announced its pivot to embrace the concept and changed its name to Meta.

While some see it as the next step in the evolution of the internet, others are more cautious - particularly when it comes to the involvement of Meta.

The company has been criticised by some early adopters for capitalising on a concept it did not create, with one saying it was doing so "to essentially secure the new trademark legally as soon as possible as more brands become interested".

But the company has also announced it will employ up to 10,000 people in the European Union to help drive its ambitions in a signal it's taking the metaverse seriously.

That level of investment is perhaps why there's some confusion about the metaverse. It's not something the world needs to wait for Meta to deliver - it's already here in various shapes and sizes.

'Metaverse', which was first coined in Neal Stephenson's science fiction novel Snow Crash, is a broad term used to refer to virtual worlds which people can access via the internet using virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR).

Games like Roblox and Fortnite are already part of the metaverse and it should be of no surprise that there are New Zealand organisations already embracing the technology that underpins the concept.

Those uses cover everything from gaming to ensuring young New Zealanders embrace our adventurous past and care for the future.

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Embracing the past

Caring for our history is incredibly important to Francesca Eathorne, the chief operations officer for the Antarctic Heritage Trust. The organisation created its first VR experience, an exploration of Sir Edmund Hillary's Hut, in partnership with Staples VR and AUT.

The idea behind it was to bring Antarctica to New Zealanders, Eathorne told Newshub.

"We loved this idea because we know that [the Antarctic huts are] incredibly difficult to get to, it's expensive to go, and it's logistically almost impossible for the average person," said Eathorne.

"By being able to take people there virtually, we thought that it would be a really great way to share some of these incredible stories and to get people thinking about Antarctica as a place and obviously the work that we do down there."

Ultimately, the hope is Kiwis who otherwise don't know or care about the continent might become more invested in the future of Antarctica if they understand Aotearoa's links to it.

The VR experience allows the Trust to start "positive conversations" about its importance, Eathorne said.

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"Scott and Shackleton and those expeditions travelled through New Zealand ports. There were Kiwis on those expeditions, there is a long history," she said.

"The huts that we care for are actually the birthplace of science in Antarctica. And some of that science continues today - climate change is the obvious one."

Done right, the experience can really make you feel like you've been there, which may help form a connection.

"We've been overwhelmed by the amount of people who have taken the headset off and are literally like, 'Oh my goodness, I feel like I've just been to Antarctica'. It was so incredibly powerful just to hear that over and over again," she told Newshub.

From virtual to reality

Importantly, however, the VR side is only part of it. The metaverse can give a sense of belonging and make you feel like you've been to Antarctica - but maintaining those huts in perpetuity requires real world action.

"I think there's lots of exciting possibilities," Eathorne said.

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"One of the things that we do at the Trust is run physical expeditions and programmes for young people to get out and to learn about being explorers and developing an explorer mindset.

"So we often use some of the technology that we've developed with VR and AR as a pipeline into those programs, because we're all about getting people off their devices."

It has also led to some interesting findings as the Trust toured the experience around New Zealand, giving many Kiwis their first opportunity to try VR.

"One of the things we weren't prepared for was how many students who have learning or neurological disabilities where VR ends up being a very powerful experience for them."

That included "numerous" teachers and caregivers saying they didn't think those students would be able to sit for the time required to be immersed in the experience. And it's something that is now very important to the Trust.

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"As we keep developing virtual reality, we're really keen to keep connecting with those communities and finding out how we can create experiences that are meaningful for young people who might have a learning or a neurological disability," Eathorne told Newshub.

"Obviously physical disability can come into that too, because all of our experiences are done seated as well. That means there's an opportunity for someone with a physical disability to take part too and we really like that in terms of inclusivity."

Metaverse for fun

While preserving the past to get people excited about exploring the real world is one way to embrace the metaverse, another is being done by VR gaming company Beyond.

The company was one of the winners of Spark's 5G Starter Fund earlier this year, designed to showcase how important 5G will be across Aotearoa and the world.

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The Wellington-based game studio developed a world first: the ability for mobile gamers to join and assist VR players in free-roam game Oddball, allowing those without a headset to participate from anywhere via their 5G mobile phone.

It's now working on virtual 'burrows' to support Kiwi NFT project Fluf World, where owners of unique virtual rabbits can interact and hang out with other Flufs.

Beyond co-founder Anton Mitchell has spent the last 5 years leading VR games and experiences development teams at the company and he told Newshub the metaverse was going to be "massive" for gaming and a "really exciting thing for everyone".

He says it's an interesting concept to bring gaming, social experiences and work together online, particularly as it's still in its early stages.

"It's probably going to be a 10-year journey until we really get a true sort of metaverse that everybody really envisages in their head," he said.

"But I think we're only a few short years away from hyper-reality avatars where you are an exact representation of yourself in the metaverse, if that's what you want to be."

While Beyond and the Antarctic Heritage Trust have very different aims, they do have one thing in common: Their belief that the metaverse isn't something that becomes all-consuming and something people live in, but an add-on to real life.

"I guess there's gonna be people who are in the metaverse and those that aren't," Mitchell told Newhsub.

"I personally see it as another space where, after work, you put on a headset and go and join some other people to do an activity or watch a movie together.

"That's how I would like to see it, an add-on to everybody's life connecting those people that can't connect. I think that's going to be really vital."

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A money maker

Part of the attraction to the metaverse is the ability to make real money from it, whether that's artists selling their work as NFTs or people setting up a shop to sell their own goods, both virtual and tangible.

That's very much a part of Beyond's future, as it develops Fluf World further, building out a bigger world where people can even own plots of virtual land.

But to be built correctly, the metaverse has to be a platform that no single entity owns or controls, Mitchell said.

"One of the core tenets of the metaverse is that it will be decentralised. It should be self-governing and the economy should be self-sustaining so people can be creating wealth there without the use of banks."

Another Kiwi company that's already eyeing the idea of selling goods online is wine company Invivo, founded by Kiwis Tim Lightbourne and Rob Cameron.

Lightbourne told Newshub earlier this month about the potential of the metaverse for the company and how that may even see a virtual avatar of chat-show host Graham Norton, who partners with the company to make wines, serving customers a glass of virtual wine in a virtual mall.

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"It's kind of what we do at Invivo in terms of just trying to do things a little bit differently and how we've approached the wine market over the years," he said.

"If [the customers] are going to be part of this digital world, we want to be there as well.

 "If you have our NFT code, you'll be able to shop in that virtual wine shop and choose a bottle of wine which would be then physically delivered to your house anywhere in the world."

So whether the metaverse is all-consuming and driven by Meta, a place to just hang out with virtual rabbits or be served a glass of wine by a famous person, or indeed a place where the next Sir Edmund Hillary finds their passion, it's not yet certain.

What we do know, however, is that it's not just coming. It's already here, whether we like it or not.

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