David Minicucci has a sentimental connection to The Famous Cosmo’s in Montreal.
As a teenager, Minicucci would hang out at the diner after school with friends. To this day, it’s still a place for locals to gather around the small counter to check in or even debate issues.
The diner, which Minicucci became the owner of in August 2020, has been a staple in Montreal’s NDG community since it was opened in 1967 by the original owner, Tony Koulakis.
“Tony was the king of the neighbourhood. Everybody loved him. He was (a) very warm person (who) would bring anybody in and serve them a meal, even if they couldn’t afford it. He would always make sure that everyone was fed,” Minicucci said.
Now the proud owner, Minicucci wants to grow the Cosmo’s brand but not with another brick-and-mortar location. Instead, Minicucci decided to expand Cosmo’s into the metaverse.
What is the metaverse?
The metaverse is one of the biggest ideas in tech right now. As the next evolution of the internet, the metaverse is the concept of a more immersive, digital future where users can use avatars to explore different online, 3D worlds, with the help of virtual reality.
Arun Maini, also known as Mrwhosetheboss with a following of more than 10 million subscribers, is a tech YouTuber based in the U.K.
Maini told Global’s The New Reality the metaverse isn’t an internet you look at through a screen, but an internet you’re inside of.
“One of the coolest things in the metaverse is this idea of being able to feel close to people who are further away. So imagine a world where we’re perfectly connected. You can almost snap your fingers and feel like you’re in the same room as someone who’s on a different continent, and you’ll be able to kind of see everything from their facial expressions to their emotions through their virtual avatar,” said Maini.
“That’s kind of the promise of the metaverse.”
There are several platforms that offer metaverse experiences, including Decentraland, Sandbox, Horizon Worlds and Spatial. Some are owned by companies, while others are community-driven.
The idea of the metaverse is to enhance our social connections and make our online experiences so immersive that it’s mimicking reality.
Currently in the metaverse, even though it’s still in its infancy, you can do almost anything – work, shop, attend events or just explore.
“The way I like to think about the metaverse now is kind of how people thought about the internet in the 1980s where no one had any idea what it was going to become,” Maini told Global News.
“No one knew there was going to be Google Maps or Instagram or all the crazy apps that we use in our lives today. It was very, very basic. And so that’s kind of where our understanding of the metaverse is: We know it’s the next stage. We know we’re moving towards it very slowly, very gradually. But we don’t know what it’s going to become.”
In March, Decentraland hosted its first fashion show with designers like Dolce & Gabbana, Philipp Plein and Tommy Hilfiger.
“There is a lot of money washing around,” tech writer Mark Fielding told Global News, “and you have to move quickly and people are moving very quickly, investing in these new platforms, investing in these new technologies because time is of the essence.”
It’s the potential of what the metaverse may become that is generating all the buzz.
In October 2021, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerburg announced the company was changing from a social media company to a metaverse company, including a name change to Meta, signalling Facebook’s shift to a metaverse-first company, investing $10 billion into its platform. Facebook isn’t alone.
In addition to Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Google are all investing in the metaverse, including Microsoft’s proposed acquisition of gaming company Activision Blizzard, worth close to US$69 billion. Also, well-known brands and institutions including Walmart, KFC, Barbie, Fidelity, SpaceX, Sotheby’s and Acura have all entered the metaverse as well.
A report issued by investment bank Citi in April said the metaverse represents a potential $8-trillion to $13-trillion opportunity, leading to a “boom in virtual real estate” with some investors spending thousands to millions of dollars to acquire digital property.
“If you think about the value of internet-based companies now, then the potential of the metaverse … like, the total potential net worth of that market is phenomenal. It’s almost like every company, digital or not, now needs to be a part of it,” said Maini.
Building the virtual diner
Even though the metaverse is still in its infancy, Minicucci said he’s willing to take the risk.
In January, Minicucci bought a plot of virtual land in the metaverse Decentraland. Minicucci purchased one plot of virtual land that cost 47 MANA — a type of cryptocurrency used in Decentraland — which was the equivalent of $15,000.
“Like any entrepreneurial venture, you’ve got to be comfortable with the fact that it may not work out in that it could be a bust. (But) it might be a risk that pays off in the end,” he said.
“I want to grow the business just like anybody else would want to do. But at the same time, I truly have an emotional attachment to this place … so the metaverse was sort of like an opportunity where we can do stuff without even changing stuff.”
The only requirement Minicucci had when building the virtual Cosmo’s was making sure it was, as close as possible, an exact replica of the real world Cosmo’s. This included the kitchen area, the number of seats at the counter, the collage of photos on the wall near the entrance, and even a photo of the original owner, Tony.
To help Minicucci replicate his restaurant into Decentraland, he reached out to his childhood friend, and fellow loyal Cosmo’s customer, Philip Tabah.
Tabah is the co-owner and creative director at Field Office, a digital agency in Montreal. Alongside Tabah was Jean Philippe Lauzone, known as J.P., fellow co-owner and head of tech.
Together, Tabah and Lauzone used videos and photos of the real Cosmo’s, and 3D software, to create the virtual Cosmo’s.
“Being able to walk into a store is a lot better than viewing a store on your phone. You’ve never run into someone when you’re on your phone in a store, but you can in this, you can actually speak to someone if you walk into a store in the metaverse,” said Tabah.
“In the future, you could imagine the internet being a much more interactive and fun place to be.”
Potential concerns with the metaverse
Like any new technology that has the potential to change how we live and work, the metaverse raises new concerns including a user’s privacy, security and data.
Imran Ahmad is one of the leading privacy and cybersecurity lawyers in Canada. He’s a senior partner with Norton Rose Fulbright in Toronto.
He told Global’s The New Reality the metaverse could collect an additional type of data.
“The metaverse actually captures two types of information. The first one is all the stuff that you’re doing in the metaverse itself, the virtual world — you know, your transactions, your interactions, and so on. But the other piece … is your physiological or biometric data,” Ahmad said.
Currently, social media platforms ask for your name, location and email address, but biometric data can be more intrusive, collecting physical and behavioural features such as facial recognition, retinal scans or even your heart rate, according to Ahmad.
“Biometric data is the next generation of security when we talk about privacy.”
“The risk, however … is that the data that they’re collecting – your biometric data – is then encoded into zeros and ones, so there’s a code that goes along with it. If that code ever gets stolen or taken, somebody could pretend to be you on that very unique identifier that you now do not have the ability to change or to correct over time.”
Ahmad adds that there could be “significant implications in the real world” if a person’s biometric data is stolen or retrieved.
“Coupled with real what we call tombstone information: social insurance address, date of birth and so on, there’s a risk to build a profile on that person…. We’re not just talking about identity fraud. We’re talking about reputational harm,” he says.
Different metaverse platforms say they are undertaking steps to minimize the amount of data collected in the metaverse, and to ensure data is stored securely.
Ahmad advises that before anyone joins a metaverse community or platform, they research what data they are being asked to share. One tip he gives is for users to look at the request that’s being made of their information and ask themselves if it’s worth handing over their data to access that platform or service.
“And if it does, fine. As long as you know what you’re getting yourself into. The second piece I would even add is you have the ability as a consumer to say, ‘No, you know what? I disagree.’ You may not have the ability to get that service at the end, but you definitely have the ability to walk away from a service provider who is asking too much information.”
Ahmad also says that laws, both in Canada and globally, are generally designed to be evergreen, meaning that when a new piece of technology arises — like the metaverse, for example — that law will not only apply to the new technology itself, but also the issues that may arise from them.
Another issue that has arisen from the metaverse is who will own this new 3D, digital space and the role of tech companies, since a lot of tech giants are shifting gears to this new virtual world.
“Right now we kind of have governments regulating things, right?” said Maini. “Governments whose main incentive is really to make the population happy. But when the new authority effectively becomes a company who’s profit-maximizing, can you trust that they’re going to do the jobs? Can you trust that they’re going to do all the same jobs as well as someone who might have your interests at heart more?”
Problems plaguing social media
On top of that, the problems currently plaguing social media could possibly transfer to the metaverse and even become worse, according to experts.
“And it also takes the downside of social media, the kind of harassment side of it, it takes that to the next level as well, because in the metaverse, it can be brought closer to you,” said Maini.
Fielding says that in order to build the future of tech, social media companies have to study past mistakes.
“And if the people, the companies, building the metaverse don’t learn from the mistakes of our current iterations of social media, there’s a big downside to the future of the internet, to the metaverse … the downsides that we currently experience: bullying, harassment, isolation, anxiety, embarrassment, pornography, cybercrime, scams — all of that is and will be part of it.”
Already, there have been reports by some users of racism, hate speech and sexual assault.
Various metaverse platforms say they offer security and safety features – including the option to report inappropriate behaviour and block other users, as well as standards participants have to abide by.
Experts recommend that users educate themselves about their rights and the platform’s security features before using the service.
The potential of the metaverse
The metaverse also holds promise and potential. For example, the metaverse can change the way health care is delivered and how the next generation of health-care workers are trained. It also has the potential to help people overcome phobias or body dysmorphia, and it can even help with someone’s mental health, according to experts.
Maini says that technology is always evolving, and the metaverse is just the next step in the evolution.
“I feel like a lot of what technology aspires to do is to make us more technically efficient. And the metaverse is the next step of that. Like in the same way that Googling something now is far easier than going to a library, picking out a book and scrolling to the right page. In the metaverse, you could almost learn things in an even more real way.”
For example, if you wanted to learn about space, you could simply head into the metaverse and experience the planets and stars in a 3D, virtual way.
And for Minicucci, he hopes the love and community Montreal locals experience at Cosmo’s will translate to the virtual one.
“Are people going to interact in the same way? Are they going to interact with our employees in the same way? The customers in the same way, like, ‘Oh, is that social aspect going to translate? Or is it going to fall flat?’”
Although Minicucci knows not everyone will understand his decision to expand the Famous Cosmo’s brand into the metaverse, what he does want his customers to know is that the diner they’ve come to know and love won’t change.
In fact, he wants to share Cosmo’s with as many people as possible whether in real life, or in the metaverse.