What is the Metaverse, and will it be worth the wait?



Imagine a three-dimensional online world where you teleport from your London office to a meeting room in Singapore, shop in a digital replica of your favorite clothing store, then join a friend for a virtual round of golf. For some, this ambitious version of the internet known as the metaverse is the future of human interaction. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has changed the company’s name to Meta Platforms Inc. and is investing billions of dollars a year in efforts to dominate this “next frontier.” But it’s unclear what a unified virtual universe would look like, or if people really want it.

1. How would the metaverse work?

It would combine technologies such as video conferencing, games like Minecraft and Roblox, crypto tokens, email, virtual reality, social media and live streaming. Just as you might create a document in Microsoft Word and send it via Google’s Gmail to a colleague to read on an Apple iPad, elements of the metaverse could move into an ecosystem of competing products, retaining their value and function. . A piece of digital art purchased as a non-fungible token, or NFT, from Company A, for example, would be displayable on a house’s virtual wall in a game created by Company B.

2. What would you do there?

Work and play. An example: “Jane” creates a 3D avatar – a digital representation of herself – in Facebook or Microsoft Teams and uses it in virtual office meetings. After work, Jane has tickets to a virtual concert with friends and all of their avatars appear among the hundreds of heads in the audience. The music ends and the band says, “Don’t forget to buy a t-shirt!” Through her avatar, Jane browses through designs on a booth like she would on Amazon, Asos or Taobao today, pays for one with cryptocurrency, and takes it to the virtual office the next day. A co-worker asks to borrow it for his daughter to use that night in a Roblox game, and Jane lends it to him. This scenario involves business communication tools, live event streaming, e-commerce, and sharing something of value. This only works if each vendor builds their system to make assets like avatars and shirts compatible and transferable.

3. When can I access the metaverse?

Not for several years, if ever. You can already use crypto tokens to buy “land” in browser-based virtual worlds like Decentraland, attend conferences in VR using vFairs, or use Sizebay’s 3D dressing room to try on clothes. But these products are far from the cohesive, interoperable world envisioned by Zuckerberg and others. While there’s no shortage of investors betting the Metaverse will see the light of day, the biggest checks are being written for chipmakers, video game studios, and other companies whose products can thrive, let it happen. or not. Microsoft Corp. CEO Satya Nadella said in January that the company’s planned $69 billion buyout of games maker Activision Blizzard Inc. would help build “the next Internet.” But, he added, “there will be no centralized metaverse and there shouldn’t be.” The Metaverse would also need super-fast internet capable of handling hundreds of simultaneous data streams, and most current wireless connections can barely support multiplayer games like Fortnite.

4. Is there a demand for this?

It’s proving difficult to persuade people to clip a VR headset to their face and hang out with cartoonish versions of their colleagues and best friends. Zuckerberg was widely mocked in August when he posted a primitive Metaverse “selfie” to promote Meta’s VR platform, Horizon Worlds. There’s not much evidence that people working from home want to switch from regular Zoom calls to VR meetings. For some, the benefit of feeling “in the room” is outweighed by feelings of dizziness and nausea that can accompany the constant movement. When social media platform Snap Inc. announced layoffs in September, people working on technology that could play a role in a future metaverse were the first to go. Meta’s VR division has been manufacturing headsets since 2014 and is still incurring heavy losses and revenue that is only a fraction of its core ad-supported business.

It could be a technological leap similar to the transformation of the web in the 1990s, going from static text and images on a page, to a place to buy a book or watch a movie, and then to a way attend academic conferences and design products collaboratively. It could change the way people gather, interact and spend money, creating a distinct virtual life experience. It’s the kind of future imagined in science fiction novels like Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” and movies like “The Matrix” and “Ready Player One.” Each of these, it should be noted, portrayed some form of dystopia.

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