September 27, 2022
ISLAMABAD – It feels wrong to mention Pakistan and the Metaverse in the same sentence. The latter is the oncoming pinnacle of human technology, while the former is a developing country, stuck in what seems to be a perpetual cycle of economic and geopolitical turmoil. It seems Pakistan will be the last country to enter the Metaverse in any shape or form.
However, Pakistan’s troubles are already a known quantity. This article is an attempt to chart a better future, not wail about the past or the present.
What is the Metaverse?
The Metaverse is the successor to today’s Internet. Think of the Metaverse as a universe of inter-connected virtual words. And just like smartphone users jump between apps on mobile devices, Metaverse users will jump from one world to another without needing to return to real life.
So who is building this Metaverse?
Many companies. Our state of technology is naturally advancing in such a direction that the Metaverse is emerging ipso facto. It’s like how the Internet emerged in the 1990s, through the interplay of rising consumer expectations, and the confluence of various technological advances in the decades before. Those same demand and supply forces are at work now. And while we’re beginning to sense traces of the Metaverse, our children will see it in full bloom.
Don’t think of the Metaverse as merely a virtual twin of your existing life. Instead, consider it an array of alternative realities with unexpected possibilities and psychological effects. The Metaverse will change how humans interact with technology, with one another, and with the world. Ultimately, it will even upend the concept of what a world is.
Why does the Metaverse matter?
It matters because of the economic value up for grabs. I’ll illustrate with a comparison.
The advent of the Internet made most industries go “digital”. And now, 30 years later, about 15 per cent of the world economy is purely digital, while the remaining 85pc is digitally enhanced. So the Internet’s footprint is everywhere.
Expect the Metaverse to take over the global economy at a comparable rate and in a similar timeframe.
Moreover, if going digital was a big shift, this next one would be even bigger due to the increasing criticality of technology to economic activity. Some expect the Metaverse will generate more than 10 trillion dollars in value and tens of millions of new jobs.
The economic pie up for grabs is so enormous that the advent of the Metaverse will probably reshuffle the world order — among both the corporate world and governments. Amid this reshuffle will arise an opportunity for a developing country like Pakistan.
Pakistan’s entry into the Metaverse
Whenever something has a strong demand, those best positioned to supply it get rewarded handsomely. So it pays to position yourself for a future that is approaching. This fundamental principle turned around the fortunes of many countries during the digital revolution — India and China being two notable examples from Pakistan’s neighbourhood.
Many years ago, I proposed a menu of ambitious tech-related suggestions to Pakistani decision-makers. But my proposal was too expansive, requiring a lot of bandwidth and resources. Pakistan was not ready for it (nor is it ready yet). So taking note of that, I’ve tweaked my doctrine. I now believe Pakistan should consciously pull back and refocus exclusively on technologies shaping the future. Otherwise, it will be spreading itself too thin. In essence, being lightweight and focused is the need of the hour.
So in light of that, here are some suggestions for the Pakistani state:
- Create a think tank: The state must understand more about the Metaverse before it can make effective policies. So first up, a dedicated think tank is needed. It will enable the government to consult relevant experts without exhaustive red tape. The think tank’s research and recommendations will help the state thoughtfully formulate an official policy.
- Formulate a Metaverse policy: Why is this policy needed? Firstly, to take advantage of the upcoming Metaverse economy. Secondly, to regulate virtual experiences that could have harmful psychosomatic effects (for example, porn in virtual reality). And thirdly, to address data collection, usage, rights, and penalties. The Metaverse will capture much more user data than social media. Cameras, microphones, and sensors will record nearly every movement, every word, every expression, and much more in the Metaverse. Pakistan needs a Metaverse policy right away, before tech giants swoop in and goad government officials into signing contracts that enslave Pakistan’s virtual future on the pretext of globalisation.
- Incentivise service providers: Pakistan has a growing community of tech service providers. Their primary bread and butter is building websites and apps for foreign clients. Through sweeteners, the state can incentivise this developer community to start compiling a portfolio of Metaverse projects. This way, a critical mass of Pakistani service providers will ultimately attune themselves to the Metaverse tech stack, helping the country build a competitive advantage over time.
- Align academia: Huge advances in computational resources, blockchains, bandwidth, networking, and AI-based optimisations are needed to make the Metaverse possible. Likewise, expertise in 3D and VR modelling, animations, and using APIs to create immersive 3D experiences is also growing in demand. Pakistani university curriculum and research should nurture these competencies among scholars. Accordingly, technology universities can be mandated to offer relevant courses, or at least one ‘Metaverse 101’ course. In case of a shortage of competent professors, a suitable online course or seminar can be made compulsory (for example, Stanford’s). A small start like this can someday snowball into a more meaningful curriculum upgrade as the Metaverse matures in the future.
I’ve deliberately kept these recommendations simple and low-fidelity. Expecting costly overhauls is unrealistic, given Pakistan’s economic travails. So let’s take baby steps first and delay significant strides for later.
Metaverse use cases for Pakistan
So which industries in Pakistan can benefit the most from Metaverse-related technology? An obvious answer is game development startups from Pakistan’s tech sector. But what about beyond the obvious? Let’s explore:
- Education: Covid-19 enforced ‘Zoom School’ on the world, but we soon realised it couldn’t replace presence in the classroom. That’s where the Metaverse shines. Immersive virtual reality transcends video calls, making your dominant senses feel you are present in the virtual experience. I’ve seen jaws drop when people experience this for the first time. So making use of this effect, top-tier Pakistani universities can introduce a course or two taught directly in VR. For example, it could be a course with guest lecturers from around the world, giving unforgettably immersive, interactive lectures to scholars. Note that entry-level VR devices cost roughly as much as mid-range smartphones. So it isn’t unthinkable for top-tier Pakistani universities, colleges, or schools to procure a dozen VR devices for learning. In the short run, this move will differentiate these institutions from their competition. But in the long run, this will lay the foundation for such institutions to leverage the Metaverse in unforeseen ways.
- Real estate: The best way to illustrate this is via an example. In July, UAE’s largest real estate company Damac declared a $100 million investment in Metaverse technology. Damac’s GM explained the rationale behind this investment: “we sell AED 100 million monthly over Zoom calls without any immersive technology. With the Metaverse, we can sell AED 700-800 million a month to customers in California, New York, or Miami”. This rationale also partly applies to Pakistan, given how hungry Pakistan’s real estate sector is for overseas investment.
- Fashion and apparel: As the Metaverse takes off, so will virtual fashion. We’re already seeing virtual fashion brands like ‘dressx’ making a mark and virtual influencers like ‘lilmiquela’ playing muse to fashion houses on Instagram. Pakistan has a burgeoning fashion scene, with designers gaining international traction over the years. Expanding into virtual fashion and influencers will open up new revenue streams for such designers, helping create a reputation for innovation among their international clientele.
- Defence and security: Pakistan has an established combat aircraft programme with a growing export market that virtual reality simulators will further stimulate. Equally, engineers at organisations such as the Institute of Optronics would do well to integrate augmented reality (AR) capabilities in the night and thermal vision gear they’re developing. There’s also massive potential for AR-enriched training systems, ranging from traditional combat training to anti-terrorism exercises. The tech created will eventually have export potential, apart from virtuously spilling over to the local economy. I realise that military research is classified; perhaps the Pakistani defence sector is already working on these concepts.
- Tourism: Imagine 3D videos and immersive VR that depict flying like a bird over valleys in Gilgit-Baltistan, virtually climbing Himalayan peaks, or experiencing the best camping sites in Pakistan. Such technology will let anyone in the world experience a slice of Pakistan’s natural beauty from the comfort of their home. Marketing like that will naturally pique a lot of interest and vigorously feed Pakistan’s tourism. Remember that tourism promotion is usually tax-funded, so the government must take the lead and engage private sector solution providers for such Metaverse projects.
- Crisis relief: Pakistan is no stranger to natural disasters and humanitarian crises. Donations are critical in such cases; however, donor fatigue is increasing by the day. The Metaverse can help with this. It can allow potential donors experience the horrors of the calamity firsthand as if they are there. Grab a VR headset and experience life in a Syrian refugee camp via Clouds over Sidra to see what I mean. There is currently a growing body of academic work and psychology experiments that verify the empathy-inducing effects of this technology. Pakistani disaster relief operators should take note.
- Skills training: Be it professional sportsmen, medical staff, machine operators, or health and safety professionals, high-quality training is a vital ingredient for productivity and excellence. The Metaverse can facilitate such training effectively while offering substantial time and cost savings. For instance, imagine virtual training for handling rare but costly scenarios in factories or facing a thousand virtual bouncers from the world’s fastest bowler to perfect your hook shot. Through such immersive training, PSL franchises, manufacturing plants, hospitals, and retail corporations can all level up. The tech is available now. It’s not science fiction.
The above isn’t an exhaustive list of suggestions; it’s more intended to stimulate minds and get the ball rolling.
Forming a consensus
This article means nothing if it cannot spur action. Yet, pessimism has so overtaken the zeitgeist that the Metaverse sounds like a distant dream for affluent times.
However, we must realise that the world always tends to gravitate toward chaos. It’s a law of nature. There will never be a “perfect time”. Instead, Pakistan will need to consciously, effortfully turn the tide, one step at a time. The tide won’t turn automagically.
“We can’t even make bicycles”. That sounds like a Pakistani quote, but it was in fact muttered by a prominent Israeli parliamentarian in 1951, who used the faltering bicycle industry to criticise a proposal to establish a futuristic Israeli aerospace company. Although it was deemed unrealistic, the proposal somehow went through.
As a result, the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) was born. Today, IAI is one of Israel’s biggest employers. It has helped the country evolve from a land that could not manufacture bicycles to being one of the largest exporters of technology in the world. Big things have small beginnings.
Pakistan itself is no stranger to humble origins. The evolution of its nuclear programme is a testament to Pakistanis innovating when pushed against the wall.
Internally, Pakistan’s nuclear programme mostly had broad support, cutting through egos, party lines, and civil-military friction. Key stakeholders wanted to get it done by hook or crook, no matter what it took. Why? Because the existential threats they faced brought them clarity. This clarity enabled them to act in unison. And that, in turn, created results greater than the sum of the parts. It’s akin to the physics principle of resonance but played out in the arena of human decision-making.
So far, innovative technology (such as the Metaverse) is a politically neutral subject in Pakistan. Hence, it can potentially enjoy broad support across the spectrum, like the country’s nuclear programme.
However, let’s also be pragmatic. Pakistan remains a patronage economy, where it’s about who you know, not what you know. Cronyism is the name of the game. And the problem with cronyism is that even well-intentioned cronies get caught up in turf wars. The result is politics, not progress.
While it remains largely unblemished to date, the adoption of innovative technology in Pakistan can still be toxified by factors such as those mentioned above. If that happens, the country’s technology aspirations will suffer a paralysing deadlock for decades, with another generation or two wasted like cannon fodder. Once humans dive into the rabbit hole of factionalism, common sense evaporates and nightmares come true. Case in point: Covid-19 was politicised in the US, leading to Americans taking their vaccine denialism to the next level, despite suffering the world’s largest tally of Covid deaths. It would be comical if it weren’t so tragic.
In short, Pakistan must adopt guardrails that ensure innovative technologies like the Metaverse remain insulated from unnecessary politicking and cronyism. It must also wilfully drive an internal consensus on the matter to catch the global trend early. As I said, big things have small beginnings. Such a consensus will pay massive, massive dividends in the future. Time to act now.
You can stop reading now. But for those curious about the technical specifications of the Metaverse, I’ll indulge some more.
Matthew Ball, a prominent Metaverse thinker and venture capitalist, has formulated perhaps the best definition of the Metaverse. His definition is roughly: “the Metaverse is a collection of 3D virtual worlds that are interoperable and massively scaled, have high concurrency, are synchronous and persistent, and render in real-time”.
Let me explain some of those concepts.
- Interoperable: Virtual worlds in the Metaverse will all speak to one another. Practically that means items, progression, and the rules from each world will be recognisable in all other worlds. Without such interoperability, the Metaverse will reduce to a collection of walled gardens without synergies. Although opinions vary, I believe blockchains will play a pivotal role in enabling interoperability.
- Massively scaled: Virtual worlds comprising the Metaverse will exist at a massive scale, being able to track millions of entities or more.
- High concurrency: These worlds will have the ability to let tens of thousands of people interact with one another at the same time concurrently.
- Synchronous: These worlds will continually exchange information like living, breathing, and reacting organisms.
- Persistence: What people do in these worlds will leave a permanent mark. For example, if you disconnected while constructing a building, you won’t start from scratch upon returning. Or if you made a dent in some corner of the world, that dent would stay in perpetuity.
- Real-time: These worlds and the people in them will react to inputs without perceptible lag.
Our civilisation has advanced to the point where the above specifications don’t seem outlandish science fiction. Indeed we are already seeing glimpses of these capabilities in much of the current technology. That is why the leading technology thinkers of our age can now sense the Metaverse coming.
Given the exaggerated hype the term ‘Metaverse’ is seeing in the media, it’s easy to ignore it as another marketing ploy for milking attention. Perhaps the word ‘Metaverse’ will get rebranded in the coming years. But its underlying thesis won’t change. Look under the hood; there’s a ton of substance.
Believe the hype, prepare yourself, and bide your time. It’s now a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’. The world our children see will be very different from what we see and Pakistan would do well to be a major part of it.