The worst from the best Sci-Fi novels is being prepared for the human race – the Metaverse, an alternate world that we can use once we destroy the current one.
Facebook is dealing with a number of pressing issues, ranging from proposed antitrust legislation to allegations that the company is contributing to vaccine misinformation. However, when CEO Mark Zuckerberg joined a recent conference call with analysts to discuss the company’s latest quarterly results, much of the focus was on something entirely different: the metaverse. The metaverse was mentioned nearly two dozen times during the hour-long call.
The metaverse was originally envisioned as the setting for dystopian science fiction novels in which virtual universes serve as a refuge from crumbling societies. Now, the concept has evolved into a moonshot goal for Silicon Valley, and it has become a popular topic of discussion among startups, venture capitalists, and tech titans.
The goal is to create a space similar to the internet in which users (via digital avatars) can walk around and interact with one another in real time. In theory, you could sit around a virtual meeting table with colleagues from all over the world — rather than staring at their 2D faces on Zoom — and then walk over to a virtual Starbucks to meet up with your mother, who lives across the country.
In recent weeks, Zuckerberg has been extolling his vision for transforming Facebook (FB) into a “metaverse company,” claiming that he first considered the idea in middle school. The company recently announced the formation of a new metaverse product group, and Zuckerberg has stated that he sees the technology as the “successor to mobile internet.”
Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft (MSFT), stated last week that his company is working on creating the “enterprise metaverse.” In April, Epic Games announced a $1 billion funding round to support its metaverse ambitions, bringing the Fortnite creator’s valuation to nearly $30 billion. In June, venture capitalist Matthew Ball assisted in the launch of an exchange traded fund to allow people to invest in the metaverse space, which includes companies such as graphics chipmaker Nvidia (NVDA) and gaming platform Roblox (RBLX).
Despite the current hype cycle, the concept remains hazy, and a fully functional metaverse is likely years and billions of dollars away — if it ever happens at all. Big companies joining the conversation now may simply want to reassure investors that they will not miss out on what could be the next big thing, or that their investments in VR, which has yet to gain widespread commercial appeal, will pay off in the long run. And, particularly in Facebook’s case, exaggerating the metaverse’s long-term potential could be a useful way of diverting attention away from growing scrutiny in the here and now.
Whatever the motivations, big questions remain, such as how tech companies will handle safety and privacy issues in the metaverse, as well as whether people want to spend so much of their lives inside an immersive virtual simulation.
“My main concern about the metaverse is: Are we prepared?” Avi Bar-Zeev, the founder of the AR and VR consultancy RealityPrime and a former employee of Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft, where he worked on the HoloLens, agreed.
“Are we emotionally evolved enough yet to move beyond the safe division of screens between us and typing words?” he wondered. “Are we safe to start interacting on a more personal level, or will the a**holes ruin it for everyone?”
The term “metaverse” was coined in the cyberpunk novel “Snow Crash” in 1992. In the novel, the main character Hiro Protagonist — a hacker and, for a short time, pizza deliveryman — uses the metaverse to escape his life, in which he lives with a roommate in a 20-by-30-foot storage container in a bleak world where corrupt corporations have replaced the government.
In that story, the metaverse serves as a platform for virtual creation, but it is also plagued by issues such as technology addiction, discrimination, harassment, and violence, which occasionally spill over into the real world.
That’s a far cry from the rosy prospects presented by Zuckerberg and others. However, one sign that the metaverse is still a long way off is that no one can agree on a clear definition of what it is or could be.
Experts in the field generally agree on a few key aspects of the metaverse, such as the notion that users will feel a sense of “embodiment” or “presence.” That is, they will feel as if they are inside a virtual space with other people, seeing things in first-person and, most likely, 3D. It will also be able to host a large number of users who will be able to interact with one another in real time.
“You can think of [the metaverse] as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at,” Zuckerberg said during the conference call.
The metaverse, like the internet today, will not be a single technology that is activated all at once, but rather an ecosystem built over time by many different companies using a variety of technologies. According to Jesse Alton, a leader at Open Metaverse, a group developing open source metaverse standards, the various parts of the ecosystem should be interconnected and interoperable.
“Someone playing a video game on Xbox could win a flaming sword, put it in their inventory, and later in VR, they can show it to their friend and their friend can hold it,” said Alton, who is also the founder of extended reality firm AngellXR. “It’s the ability to move [information] from one world to another, regardless of platform.”
Some parts of the metaverse are already in existence. Services such as Fortnite, an online game in which users compete, socialize, and build virtual worlds with millions of other players, can provide users with an early sense of how it will function. Some people have already spent thousands of dollars on virtual homes in order to secure their piece of metaverse real estate.
The metaverse is a relatively new concept that appears to gain traction every few years, only to fade from the discussion in favor of more immediate opportunities. Those working on this technology, perhaps predictably, see signs that this time may be different.
“A lot of the people who were working on it before… are still involved; we’ve just been waiting for certain technological advances,” Alton explained.
Mobile device processors, gaming systems, internet infrastructure, virtual reality headsets, and cryptocurrency are all critical building blocks for creating the metaverse and ensuring consumer adoption.
Furthermore, because the pandemic forced much of the world to work, learn, and socialize from home, many people may feel more at ease interacting virtually than they did two years ago, which tech companies may be attempting to capitalize on.
“[A change like] this is always a multi-decade, iterative process… and yet, despite that, there is an unmistakable sense over the last few years that the foundational pieces are coming together in a way that feels very new and very different,” said Ball, the venture capitalist.
According to proponents of the metaverse, there could eventually be enormous business potential — a whole new platform for selling digital goods and services. It may also have implications for how humans interact with technology.
“What we’re really doing is figuring out how to incorporate technology into our lives in order to improve our activity and improve our communication with other people,” RealityPrime’s Bar-Zeev explained. “It’s not just a matter of conquering a whole new world.”
However, there are a number of concerns about how the metaverse might be used or exploited.
Last week, Zuckerberg stated that advertisements will most likely be a major source of revenue in the metaverse, just as they are for the company today. However, some in the space are concerned that an ad-based business model will create haves and have-nots who can afford to pay for an ad-free headset or metaverse experience, replicating inequalities that exist in the real world.
“I don’t want to live in a world where those who can afford it have a better experience and those who can’t afford it have this crappy experience of being exploited for advertising,” said Bar-Zeev. He went on to say that online harassment could become more intense if users could assault each other’s virtual bodies instead of just trading ugly words on a screen.
Data privacy and security may also become more of a concern as “more of our lives, our data, our labor, and our investments now exist in purely virtual form,” according to Ball. Other problems, such as misinformation and radicalization, may worsen in the metaverse as well.
“If you can now replace someone’s entire reality with an alternate reality, you can make them believe almost anything,” explained Bar-Zeev. “It is everyone’s responsibility in the field to prevent bad things as much as possible and to foster good things.”