The Metaverse is set for fame in 2022. Many see it as the grand market prize for an emergent contest between the high-tech giants. But what is this prophesised, virtual, distributed reality all about — and why are the digital platforms selling it so hard?
Enter the Metaverse
The lofty concept was laid out in detail during a more than one-hour-long video presentation from Mark Zuckerberg, founder, and CEO of the technology behemoth Meta. The company, which has become a significant force in the world, rebranded late last year, signaling its new orientation towards developing the fledgling Metaverse. Part promotion, part call for industrial action, those behind the video seemed intent on creating excitement about this new technological frontier.
In the promotional video, viewers are presented with an all-encompassing digital playground, where people socialise with the online avatars of their friends and play real and fantastical games in locations spanning the mundane to the impossible. They buy tickets to live, virtual events and even attend private afterparties.
Zuckerberg, in avatar form, is shown playing poker with a group of floating amigos before jumping into a more conventional video call that simply projects itself before his eyes. People are depicted teleporting from location to location at the mere tap of a button — not a buffer symbol in sight. All the while, ticking over in the background are allusions to novel financial opportunities in “digital goods.”
It all makes for dizzying viewing.
To industry insiders, the Metaverse is the future of the internet, an heir apparent. And central to the idea are some key concepts.
One of these is the emphasis on user immersion. Any of us who have tried computer games through virtual reality headsets have a clue of what this means.
In terms of experience, the Metaverse will stress embodied virtual play and interaction with other people in real-time. Instead of viewing things individually through the filters of screens, on phones and computers, the Metaverse will be felt and experienced directly and communally.
But the idea goes far beyond extended reality experiences.
The cryptocurrency market Coinbase defines the Metaverse as “a massively scaled, persistent, interactive, and interoperable real-time platform,” comprised of interconnected virtual worlds in which “people can socialize, work, transact, play, and create.”
One of these words, in particular, has tech companies salivating. It begins with a T. Analysts expect any Metaverse market to eventually be worth trillions of dollars or a significant fraction of the global economy.
Why the hard sell?
Zeal is not uncommon when new technologies present themselves. Initial enthusiasm over techno-hype generally dissolves as design challenges and reality push back against early projections.
There are several reasons why the subject is getting such ferocious attention. However, and as ever, timing is a significant factor.
One noteworthy point is the sudden rebranding of Meta, a company that has become ubiquitous in terms of its products and notorious in times of controversy. Exciting technologies are a wonderful distraction for a tech giant with a reputation problem. And in the age of the pandemic, the promise of fantasy worlds is becoming more accessible and easier sell.
But the Metaverse, not unlike the interactive internet that we use today — Web 2.0 — will depend on many layers of technologies. Some of these have recently passed through essential milestones.
People have been enjoying virtual experiences for many years, mainly via gaming. This side of the technological puzzle, though far from solved, requires less suspension of disbelief. The virtual reality proof-of-concept is already here to see. Meta acquired VR headset maker Oculus Rift in 2014, setting seven years of groundwork for this more recent push in the space. Other offerings come from Microsoft, Nvidia, Samsung, HTC, and Magic Leap.
The following crucial components of any Metaverse are the distributed trust architectures through which ownership in virtual realms becomes possible and cyber worlds become interoperable — that is to say, compatible with one another.
These two components are essential: if users of a future Metaverse are to spend their money on acquiring digital goods in one location, they will want to be able to take them wherever they travel in cyberspace. The revelations of NFTs — non-fungible tokens — have seeded mania in this burgeoning investment space.
Crucially for the Metaverse, individuals and companies have begun placing their bets, purchasing virtual assets and real estate in the spawning disparate, as-of-yet-unconnected worlds. Expenses could be trifling if investments secure footholds in an entirely new value economy. But only time will tell.