Facebook has many urgent issues, from the proposed antitrust legislation to allegations that the company is contributing to vaccine misinformation. But when CEO Mark Zuckerberg joined a recent conference call with analysts to discuss his latest quarterly results, much of the focus was on something far removed from those issues: the metaverse. During the one-hour call, the metavers was mentioned nearly two dozen times.
The metaverse was originally conceived as the setting for dystopian science fiction novels, where virtual universes offer an escape from ruined societies. Now, the idea has become a moon target for Silicon Valley and has become a favorite conversation point among startups, venture capitalists, and tech giants.
The idea is to create a space similar to the Internet, but that users (through digital avatars) can walk inside and where they can interact with each other in real time. In theory, you could, for example, sit around a virtual meeting table with colleagues around the world (instead of looking at their 2D Zoom faces) and then go to a virtual Starbucks to meet. with your mother, who lives the country.
Zuckerberg has been praising in recent weeks his vision of turning Facebook into a “metaverse company,” claiming he started thinking about the concept in high school. The company recently announced the creation of a new group of metaverse products, and Zuckerberg said he sees the technology as “the successor to the mobile internet.”
Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, said last week that her company is working on building the “business metaverse”. Epic Games announced a $ 1 billion round of funding in April to support its metaverse ambitions, boosting manufacturer Fortnite’s valuation to nearly $ 30 billion. And in June, venture capitalist Matthew Ball helped launch a publicly traded fund so people could invest in the metaverse space, including companies like graphics chip maker Nvidia and gaming platform Roblox.
Despite the current advertising cycle, the idea remains amorphous and a fully functioning metaverse is likely to occur in years and billions of dollars, if any. Large companies joining the discussion may now simply want to reassure investors that they will not lose what could be the next big thing or that their investments in VR, which has not yet gained widespread commercial appeal, will end up giving its fruits. And, especially in the case of Facebook, harnessing the long-term potential of the metaverse could be a useful way to distract yourself from growing scrutiny here and now.
Whatever the motivations, big questions remain, from how tech companies can deal with security and privacy issues in the metaverse to whether people really want to live much of their lives within an immersive virtual simulation.
“My biggest concern with the metaverse is, are we ready?” said Avi Bar-Zeev, founder of AR and VR consulting firm RealityPrime and a former employee of Apple, Amazon and Microsoft, where he worked at HoloLens.
“Are we emotionally evolved enough to go beyond the safe division of having screens between us and writing words?” He said. “Are we sure we’ll start interacting on a more person-to-person level, or will the ** holes still ruin it for everyone?”
What is the “metaverse”?
The “metaverse” was coined in the 1992 cyberpunk novel “Snow Crash”. In the book, the protagonist Hiro Protagonist, a hacker and, for a short time, pizza delivery man, uses the metavers as an escape from his life, in which he lives with a roommate in a storage container of 20 by 30 feet. a desolate world where the government has been replaced by corrupt corporations.
In this story, the metaverse is a platform for virtual creation, but it is also fraught with problems, including technology addiction, discrimination, harassment, and violence, that sometimes escape the real world.
This is far from the optimistic potential that Zuckerberg and others have presented. But a sign that the metavers is still far away: no one can agree on a clear definition of what it is, or could be.
Experts working in the space tend to agree on some key aspects of the metaverse, including the idea that users will experience a sense of ‘shaping’ or ‘presence’. That is, they will feel that they are really inside a virtual space with other people, seeing things in the first person and probably in 3D. It will also be able to host many users who can interact with each other in real time.
“You can think of something [the metaverse] like an embodied Internet that you’re on, rather than just looking at it, ”Zuckerberg said in the call.
As on the Internet today, metavers will not be a single technology igniting at once, but an ecosystem built over time by many different companies using different technologies. Ideally, these various parts of the ecosystem will be interconnected and interoperable, said Jesse Alton, leader of Open Metaverse, a group that develops open source standards for metaverse.
“Someone who is playing a video game could win a flaming sword in their favorite Xbox game, put it in their inventory, and later in RV, they can show it to their friend and their friend can keep it.” , said Alton, who is also the founder of the extended reality firm AngellXR. “It ‘s the ability to carry [information] from one world to another, regardless of the platform on which it is located “.
Some pieces of the metavers already exist. Services like Fortnite, an online game where users can compete, socialize, and build virtual worlds with millions of other players, can give users a first idea of how it will work. And some people have already spent thousands of dollars on virtual homes, handing out their piece of metaverse real estate.
Why is everyone talking about it all of a sudden?
The metaverse is a relatively old idea that seems to be gaining momentum every few years, only to disappear from the conversation instead of more immediate opportunities. Perhaps predictably, those working on this technology see signs that this time it could be different.
“A lot of people who worked there before … are still involved, it’s because we’ve been waiting for certain technological advances,” Alton said.
Improvements in mobile device processors, gaming systems, Internet infrastructure, virtual reality headsets, and cryptocurrency are key elements in creating the metaverse and ensuring consumer adoption.
Also, after the pandemic has forced much of the world to work, learn, and socialize from home, many people may feel more comfortable interacting virtually than they did two years ago, something tech companies may try to take advantage of.
“[A change like] it’s always an iterative process of several decades … and yet there’s an unmistakable sense in recent years that the core pieces come together in a way that feels very new and very different, ”Ball said. the venture capitalist.
Will the metaverse have the same problems as the Internet?
Proponents of metaverse say there could eventually be huge commercial potential: a whole new platform to sell digital products and services. It could also have advantages for the way humans interact through technology.
“What we’re really doing is finding ways to add technology to our lives to improve our lives and improve our communication with other people,” Bar-Zeev of RealityPrime said. “It’s not just about conquering a whole new world.”
But there are also many concerns about how the metaverse could be used or exploited.
Zuckerberg said last week that ads will likely be a key source of revenue in the metaverse, as they are today for the company. But in space there are those who care that an ad-based business model creates so many people who can afford to pay for inexperienced headphones or a metaverse experience, and those who can’t, reproducing the inequalities present. in the real world.
“I don’t want a world where we segregate people into those who can afford it to have a better experience and those who can’t afford it to have that shitty experience of being exploited to advertise,” Bar-Zeev said. He added that online harassment could be more intense when users could attack the virtual bodies of others, instead of exchanging ugly words on a screen.
Privacy and data security could also become bigger concerns when “there are more of our lives, our data, our work, our investments in a purely virtual way,” Ball said. And other issues, such as misinformation and radicalization, could also get worse in the metaverse.
“If you can now replace someone’s entire reality with an alternative reality, you can make them believe almost anything,” Bar-Zeev said. “The responsibility of everyone on the ground is to prevent bad things as much as possible and to encourage good things.”
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