Imagine a world where you could sit on the same couch as a friend who lives thousands of miles away, or conjure up a virtual version of your workplace while at the beach.
Welcome to the metaverse: a vision of the future that sounds fantastical, but which tech titans like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg are betting on as the next great leap in the evolution of the internet.
The metaverse is, in fact, the stuff of science-fiction: the term was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel "Snow Crash", in which people don virtual reality headsets to interact inside a game-like digital world.
The book has long enjoyed cult status among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs -- but in recent months the metaverse has become one of the tech sector's hottest buzzwords, with companies pouring millions of dollars into its development.
Facebook fueled the excitement further Monday by announcing the creation of a new team to work on Zuckerberg's vision of the metaverse.
"This is going to be a really big part of the next chapter for the technology industry," Zuckerberg told tech website The Verge last week. Over the next five years, he predicted, Facebook would transition from "primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company".
As with many tech buzzwords, the definition of the metaverse depends on whom you ask. But broadly, it involves blending the physical world with the digital one.
With the help of augmented reality glasses, it might allow you to see information whizz before your eyes as you walk around a city, from traffic and pollution updates to local history.
But metaverse enthusiasts are dreaming of a future in which the idea could be extended much further, allowing us to be transported to digital settings that feel real, such as a nightclub or a mountaintop.
As workers have grown weary of video-conferences during the pandemic, Zuckerberg is particularly excited about the idea that co-workers could be brought together in a virtual room that feels like they are face-to-face.
- Digital casinos and Gucci handbags -
Games in which players enter immersive digital worlds offer a glimpse into what the metaverse could eventually look like, blurring virtual entertainment with the real-world economy.
As far back as the early 2000s, the game Second Life allowed people to create digital avatars that could interact and shop with real money.
More recently, plots of land in Decentraland -- a virtual world where visitors can watch concerts, visit art galleries, and gamble in casinos -- have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars in MANA, a cryptocurrency.
The hugely popular video game Fortnite has also expanded into other forms of entertainment, with 12.3 million people logging in to watch rapper Travis Scott perform last year. Fortnite's owners Epic Games said in April that $1 billion of funding raised recently would be used to support its "vision for the metaverse".
And on Roblox, a gaming platform popular with children, a digital version of a Gucci bag sold in May for more than $4,100 -- more than the physical version would have cost.
Cathy Hackl, a tech consultant who advises companies on the metaverse, said the next generation was more comfortable with the idea of attaching real meaning to virtual experiences and objects.
"My first concert was in a stadium. My son's first concert was (American rapper) Lil Nas X on Roblox. Just because it happened in Roblox, it didn't make it less real for him," she said.
- Exhilarating, or dystopian? -
Hackl rejects the dystopian vision presented in "Snow Crash" of a virtual world where people go to escape the horrors of reality, an idea that emerged again two decades later in the novel and Steven Spielberg movie "Ready Player One".
Nor does she think the metaverse would necessarily involve everyone shutting out their neighbors with virtual reality headsets around the clock.
Facebook has invested heavily in technology that allows people to feel like they are physically somewhere else, such as its Portal video-calling devices, Oculus headsets and its Horizon virtual reality platform.
But even Zuckerberg has admitted that existing virtual reality headsets are "a bit clunky", requiring far greater development for the kind of experiences he has described.
Wedbush tech analyst Michael Pachter said it was hard to predict whether Facebook could truly transform into a "metaverse company" in five years.
"But they certainly have a huge advantage of having one billion people log on every day," he said. "If they offer entertainment options, it's likely they will succeed."
© 2021 AFP
'Blistering' new ads target Sen. Kyrsten Sinema for 'lacking the political courage to do what's right'
A progressive group isn't pulling any punches in going after Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema over her opposition to ending the filibuster — which has effectively blocked some of her own party's top legislative priorities, including the For the People voting act.
"The ads, seen first by The Daily Beast, are so blistering that a viewer might momentarily forget that Sinema is not up for re-election until 2024—and that the ads are paid for by Democrats, not Republicans," the Daily Beast reported Wednesday.
In one of the ads from Just Democracy, a coalition of advocacy groups run by progressive Black and brown organizers, a Navy veteran tells Sinema, "You don't have the political courage to do what's right for Arizona!"
In another, a Phoenix pastor named Reginald Walton says to Sinema from the pews, "Since going to Congress, you've become the problem."
"Instead of getting things done, your defense of the filibuster is causing more gridlock," Walton says.
"Beyond voting rights and the filibuster, the attacks also capitalize on a pair of high-profile moments where Sinema broke with many liberals or just straight-up angered them," the Daily Beast reports. "One ad makes use of the footage of Sinema giving a now-viral thumbs-down to legislation raising the federal minimum wage to $15 in February. Another ad highlights her absence from a vote to create an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol."
It marks Just Democracy's second ad campaign in as many months targeting Sinema, after a $1.5 million spend in June. And polls show the ads may be working, with Sinema's approval rating dropping from 41 percent to 34 percent from May to July, while her disapproval rating rose from 27 percent to 31 percent.
Watch an ad from the previous campaign below, and read the full story here.
The arrest of a man accused of failing to tell a partner that he had HIV has sparked fresh controversy about a Mexican law that campaigners say is outdated and discriminatory.
Prosecutors in the capital drew criticism for releasing images of the man, identified as Juan "N," after his detention in June at a time when the country was celebrating sexual diversity and inclusion.
In Mexico, knowingly putting someone in danger of infection with a sexually transmitted or serious disease is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.
"What the crime does is criminalize people who live with any health condition, be it HIV or any other," said Geraldina Gonzalez de la Vega, president of the Mexico City authorities' Council to Prevent and Eliminate Discrimination.
Alleged breaches of the law have escalated amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
In 2020, prosecutors in the capital opened 78 investigations into accusations of people putting others in danger of infection.
Another 52 have been launched this year, according to official data that does not specify the diseases involved.
But compared with the nine such complaints in 2018 and 12 in 2019, the impact of the coronavirus is evident.
- 'Stigmatizing' -
Although there are no reports of new detentions, Gonzalez de la Vega considers it "deeply stigmatizing" to criminally investigate a Covid-19 patient.
With 2.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 238,000 deaths, Mexico is one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic.
The law was prompted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which led to a toughening of the capital's penal code in the 1990s.
But it is unnecessary because someone who fraudulently infects another can be prosecuted under other laws used to deal with inflicting injuries, Gonzalez de la Vega said.
Academic studies have argued that the law reflects decades-old moralisms in the Catholic-majority country, such as punishing promiscuous behavior.
Jaime Morales, director of sexual diversity for the capital government, now works to train and sensitize the personnel who revealed the man's identity.
"It is illegal," Morales said.
The man's detention, which lasted a week, followed a complaint by his ex-partner who, lawyers allege, was deceived and put at risk.
The prosecution said Juan "N" was arrested for failing to respond to subpoenas.
The judge granted him release pending trial.
AFP contacted Juan "N" and his defense team, but they declined to comment while legal proceedings are underway.
- 'Intervention by the state' -
The crime of which the man is accused is also anachronistic from a medical perspective, campaigners say.
For two decades, antiretroviral drugs have successfully reduced HIV until it is undetectable and therefore non-communicable, while prevention methods including condoms can also significantly reduce the risk of infection.
"A person who has it totally under control does not transmit the virus to their partners," said Sergio Montalvo, a doctor at a public clinic in the capital specializing in HIV.
Any person with HIV has the choice whether to share their diagnosis, he said.
In 2020, 342 new cases of HIV were diagnosed in Mexico City, out of 9,220 throughout the country, according to official figures.
The case of Juan "N" has opened the door to the possible repeal of the contentious law.
Temistocles Villanueva, a lawmaker for the ruling Morena party, plans to present such a proposal in the capital's legislature in August.
"It is an intervention by the state in people's private life, in their sexual relations," said Villanueva, who does not believe criminalization reduces infection.
"What it does is make people hide their state of health so as not to risk being accused," he said.
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