The European Commission is already setting out to tackle Web 4.0. There’s quite a bit to unpack here, including the EC approach, the 4-point plan that they recently published, and – of course – what they mean by Web 4.0.
What Is Web 4.0?
It’s not a typo and you’re not asleep at the wheel. While most of us haven’t gotten the hang of Web 3.0 yet, Europe is already setting the table for Web 4.0. Don’t worry, this is just a new terminology for something that’s already on your radar.
“Beyond the currently developing third generation of the internet, Web 3.0, whose main features are openness, decentralization, and user empowerment, the next generation, Web 4.0, will allow an integration between digital and real objects and environments and enhanced interactions between humans and machines,” reads the EC’s report.
So, essentially, “Web 4.0” is the metaverse. But, why not just call it that?
Webs and the Metaverse
The metaverse discussion at least started out as being largely a conversation within the world of immersive technology, with discussions of Web3 largely being topics within the blockchain and crypto spaces. (“Web3” and “Web 3.0” aren’t exactly the same concept, but both largely revolve around decentralization, so they’re more-or-less interchangeable for most levels of discussion.)
As voices from the cryptocurrency and blockchain communities promised that these technologies would be the future of a cross-platform, self-owned online future, Web3 and the metaverse were increasingly mentioned in the same breath with both being apparently convergent visions of the future.
A short-lived explosion of interest in the metaverse was so short-lived largely because – while the pieces are certainly falling into place – one connected metaverse hasn’t fully realized. While there are more-or-less realized metaverse spaces or use cases, the all-encompassing digital layer of reality isn’t here yet. Web3, while struggling with adoption, is largely functional today.
While some may groan at the introduction of yet another idealistic tech concept, “Web 4.0” does offer some clarity at least with regard to what the EC is talking about. First, it respects that the metaverse is still a thing of the (near?) future. Second, it ties in the themes of openness and decentralization that were lacking in many metaverse discussions.
Finally, it ties in “interactions between humans and machines.” While some technologists have long included this aspect in their discussions of the metaverse, recent developments in AI have led to increased interest in this field even since blockchain and the metaverse had their moments in the media over the last few years.
Bracing for Web 4.0
While it’s easy to feel like much of the world is still catching up with the previous generation of the internet, how is Europe planning to get ahead of the next generation of the internet? A lot of it has to do with knowing where current experts are and creating pathways for future builders.
To make that happen, the report outlines four “Key Strategy Pillars”:
- Empowering people and reinforcing skills to foster awareness, access to trustworthy information, and building a talent pool of virtual world specialists.
- Supporting a European Web 4.0 industrial ecosystem to scale up excellence and address fragmentation.
- Supporting local progress and virtual public services to leverage the opportunities virtual worlds can offer.
- Shaping global standards for open and interoperable virtual worlds and Web 4.0, ensuring they will not be dominated by a few big players.
One of the reasons that so much of the strategy has to do with ideas like “empowering people” and “leveraging opportunities” might be that much of the document was distilled from an earlier workshop of 150 randomly selected European citizens. The average person is likely feeling left behind Web 2.0 and out of the loop on Web 3.0.
The European Perspective
“Ensuring that [virtual worlds] will not be dominated by a few big players” may not be a uniquely European feeling, but it’s interesting to note. Meta, in particular, has gotten into trouble in EU member countries like Germany for the equivalent of antitrust concerns, which has opened the way for Pico to make headway in European markets free from its US political struggles.
At the most recent Augmented World Expo – just before Apple announced their first XR headset – some speakers even expressed concern that Apple will be able to throw its weight around the industry in a way that not even Meta enjoys.
“Apple currently holds so much power that they could say ‘This is the way we’re going to go.’ and the Metaverse Standards Forum could stand up and say ‘No.’,” XRSI founder and CEO Kavya Pearlman said during a panel discussion at this year’s AWE.
Standards are a concern everywhere, but this is another area where the approach is somewhat different across the Atlantic. A number of standards groups have formed in the US, but all of them are independent groups rather than governmental initiatives – though some groups are calling for regulators to step into the space over concerns like privacy.
Thinking Globally About Web 4.0
“Europe is, in many ways, a first mover on metaverse policy, and it is putting forward a positive vision for the future of immersive technology,” the XRA’s VP of Public Policy Joan O’Hara said in an email to ARPost. “We very much appreciate the [European Commission’s] approach to balancing user protection and wellbeing with the desire to support innovation and adoption.”
The headquarters of Web 3.0 and Web 4.0 companies might be in one country or another, but most of them are offering international services. Unless they want to have different (and potentially incompatible) versions of those services available for different countries, it behooves those companies to have services that fit all national standards.
So, in the absence of officially codified US standards for immersive worlds, it is likely that the services offered to American audiences might fit into the shape described by groups like the European Commission. Fortunately, most of the organizations already looking at these problems are also international in nature and work with and between national governments.
“This will serve as a model going forward,” said O’Hara. “The XRA has been actively engaged with both European and British colleagues on these issues, and we believe the US interests are largely aligned with those of our friends across the Atlantic.”
US discussions of Web 3.0 have largely spiraled around the nation’s failure to prepare for or recover from Web 2.0. The fact that Europe is already looking forward to Web 4.0 is definitely something to consider. In emerging tech, looking backward instead of forward is a dangerous strategy.