Be ready for Ready Player One ! 

The term “metaverse” was coined and described for the first time in 1992 by Neal Stephenson, an American sci-fi writer, in his novel Snow Crash.” Decades later, this concept has been translated into reality, so much so that it applies to different applications such as video games, musical events, or professional meetings. How is the state of the metaverse now, and what is its potential?

Julien Tromeur | Unsplash

In his novel “Snow Crash,” the American writer Neal Stephenson describes an apocalyptic futuristic world that characters can escape by discovering a virtual reality universe. Everyone can evolve by choosing an avatar previously. At that time, it was already described by the author as a computer-generated universe. After a few years later, as personal computers gradually invaded homes, it became non longer a sci-fi concept to be qualified and understood as a « highly immersive, shared virtual world where people gather to play games, to socialize and to work.» It is thus also tied to the development of Web 3.0, which some believe will be the next chapter of the internet’s existence – one built on blockchains that, theoretically, will democratize access and power and weaken up the grip of the biggest tech companies.

Of course, this is not what web giants want, as they are going all guns blazing on the metaverse. Mark Zuckerberg is all in and even changed the name of his firm on the 28th of October this year for “Meta,” acknowledging the abandonment of the original name for a reorientation of his enterprise’s projects towards developing the metaverse. He announced the creation in Europe of 10,000 new jobs dedicated to this new large-scale project, particularly to manufacturing virtual and augmented reality devices to access this future metaverse. As for Microsoft, they also announced to have plans to build the enterprise metaverse.

The concept is not, however, really new. Back in the early 2000s, there were a lot of forerunners to the metaverse, including Second Life, which Linden Lab launched in 2003, and Habbo Hotel, made by Finland’s Sulake. They have dropped off a lot of people’s radars since then, but both are still going (Second Life, for example, still has 200,000 daily active users). 

Meanwhile, online multiplayer games like Fortnite, Minecraft (owned by Microsoft), and Roblox have already made social gaming a mainstream phenomenon. They have created platforms that can be the building blocks for developing the metaverse. Minecraft, for example, runs on Hadean cloud software, which can scale up to thousands of users per world. 

Besides, the computing power to scale virtual reality to a massive scale is only now emerging. Companies like Hadean and Improbable, which specialize in creating large-scale distributed companies, can simultaneously get 10,000 players on the same server. Many metaverse companies are talking about hosting concerts and sporting events for 50,000 people simultaneously- something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. 

The metaverse today is so, obviously, not just about playing video games: as regards the event industry, Fortnite has hosted concerts by Ariana Grande and Travis Scott, while Lil Nas X’s Roblox concert last year got 33m views. The metaverse also attracts creatives, such as designers, with London-based Gravity Sketch, which recently launched a virtual collaboration room where designers can work remotely on the same 3D design project. On the more business-focused side, there is the potential for meetings, education, and healthcare. Swedish startup Warpin, for example, is building VR training videos for companies and did a pilot project with digital doctor service Kry, where socially anxious patients were able to work through their fears by going into immersive virtual social scenarios with a therapist.

The generalization of the metaverse is something that, according to some people like Mike Allender, chief executive and co-founder at Tailwind Studios, cannot be reversed. This latter indeed said, “Every company has a 2D website right now. In the metaverse, it will have a 3D version of that”.

However, its development is likely to be accompanied by risks that can already be defined: firstly, disputes over intellectual property and ownership, data protection, content licensing as well as risks around crypto-assets. Many lawsuits will have to be fought to establish the rules -in September, for example, Roblox settled a case with the US National Music Publishers Association, which paves the way for artists to debut their music in the metaverse. Another risk, says Ted Persson at EQT, is that the metaverse remains too fragmented, and people can’t take their virtual identities across different platforms. “Multiple businesses are fighting to become the glue between the different virtual worlds, but the risk I see is that no strong winner emerges leading to fragmented communities.”

A battle is brewing over whether the metaverse will be ruled by one company like Facebook or have multiple companies that collaborate. “What Facebook is proposing in the metaverse is very much centralized control over an entire ecosystem. The alternative model is embodied by what we are seeing in the blockchain space where multiple digital currencies will coexist, and multiple companies collaborate”, says Jean-Philippe Vergne, associate professor at the UCL School of Management and author of a recent paper on the metaverse’s prospects. But most metaverse-watchers doubt that Facebook will be able to dominate the metaverse: “I believe it’s unlikely this will happen,” says Persson. “Most individuals building on the metaverse seem to agree on a collective desire of openness and decentralization; to make this a reality, a diverse community and competition are crucial. So, unless those large players find a way to crack distribution of digital worlds and products, I don’t believe they will emerge as winners”.

Yvan Barbeau

Woman in VR glasses in entertainment technology theme | Freepik


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