The next battle for the metaverse

Virtual and augmented reality updates

Long before the Internet entered the popular consciousness, there was the Information Highway.

The name became popular in the early 1990s to describe the digital backbone that was expected to become a conduit for communications, entertainment, and commerce. The media and telecommunications giants of the time dreamed of controlling this ubiquitous network.

What finally emerged, in the form of the Internet, was a much more open network of networks, which paved the way for a whole new class of online intermediaries.

Decades later, some in the tech world believe they can see a new realm of information shining on the horizon: the metaverse. A totally immersive virtual reality world, it is a place where people can pursue all aspects of life indirectly, as if they were in a parallel digital universe.

As with the information highway, the first visions of the metaverse are probably an imperfect approximation of what the ultimate reality will be. What form it takes and what its first “killer applications” will be is a matter of conjecture. And, most importantly, it is still unresolved who will set the rules and reap the benefits, even though the current Internet giants are in pole position.

Mark Zuckerberg has certainly bet. Late last month, Facebook’s chief executive said his company would one day be seen not as a social network, but as a “metaverse company.”

Given the political pressure Facebook has had, this may seem like an attempt at distraction. But trying to shape ideas for the future like this has always been an important way for tech companies to prepare the market for what they plan to sell later, and Zuckerberg has been there for a while. Seven years ago he bought the virtual reality company Oculus.

You may have to wait a while longer to get a return on these investments. For many, the idea of ​​conducting some of your most important personal and social interactions through a digital avatar in a virtual world evokes a remote and not particularly appealing future of science fiction.

However, after the social isolation that much of the world’s population suffered from the pandemic, the idea of ​​escaping into a fully digital space no longer seems so extravagant. If workers zoomed in so easily, why didn’t they meet in a digital office?

And this is not a matter of all or nothing. Instead of immersing users directly in a complete virtual reality world, metavers could take shape more gradually. The use of augmented reality to project aspects of metaverse into the physical world, for example, would be seen to take shape first as a partial digital overlay.

The end product could be a definitive “walled garden”, a place where a single company benefits from the total immersion of users. If Facebook and other large internet companies build their own, and especially if everyone sells their own proprietary hardware to access these areas, the result could be a collection of isolated worlds, forcing digital citizens to choose where they go. most of his time. .

On the other hand, the metaverse could comprise a set of more closely interconnected worlds, some of them completely controlled by its users. This would be a place where people could take their personal data, their digital products and their favorite services as they move from one place to another.

It’s tempting to see the Internet giants as the current version of the powers of the telecommunications and media of the early ’90s, dreaming of shaping and owning the next iteration of the online medium. In this comparison, it is also tempting to see blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies as the decentralizing forces of the early Internet. Cryptography enthusiasts see that people have their own corners of a more fragmented metaverse, rather than throwing all their data across a few vast platforms.

However, limiting the power of dominant technology companies will not be easy. It will largely depend on the outcome of the current global drive to achieve more effective regulation. It will also depend on whether the technologies underlying the cryptographic revolution lead to new experiences and new ways of interacting that are not available through today’s massive online services. It’s still hard to say exactly what they could be.

As things stand, the current powers of the Internet are in a good position to dominate a metaverse future. If that happens, they will end up with far more power to shape the online lives of billions of people than they have now. What could go wrong?

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