With more companies and capital funds pouring money into those at the forefront of this concept, we explore why the metaverse has everyone so excited.
In 2021, the new gold rush isn’t for precious metals, but for something vast, complicated, and physically intangible: the metaverse, a near-future concept born in science fiction and made real with new technologies.
Depending on who you ask, the metaverse means a lot of different things, but one common definition describes it as a digital twin to our current reality – a virtual version of our world, with countless new ways for people to work, play, live, and express themselves.
Some of the most popular games pushing into the metaverse are Fortnite and Roblox, where users can socialise, hang out at live concerts, and attend events that only take place in-game.
Fortnite has been especially aggressive in partnering with brands to create special in-game content, working with music acts like Ariana Grande, Major Lazer and Marshmello, films like John Wick, and the NFL. Christopher Nolan’s time-warping thriller Tenet even premiered its trailer in the game.
Despite its imaginative origins in speculative fiction, in practice, the metaverse is very much about building and growing new economies. Cryptocurrencies and NFTs (non-fungible tokens) –each with pros and a slew of ethical and environmental cons – have become hot-button topics in discussing art, ownership, economic empowerment, climate change and sustainability. Even so, the metaverse has become a flavour of the month concept for savvy startups, investors, and of course, users eager to snap up digital gaming accessories, custom avatars, virtual event tickets, and even virtual real estate.
“In the virtual world, you can be anything, look like anything, you can change your look and feel with a click,” says John Burris, chief strategy officer at Together Labs, which owns the pioneering social avatar company IMVU. “You can represent yourself in all kinds of 3D ways, not even necessarily in human ways. It's unlimited.”
Burris explains that right now, everyone seems to be racing toward the goal of crafting social experiences that transcend media boundaries, whether it’s on games, advertising, or social platforms like IMVU and VRChat. Even Facebook has thrown its hat in the ring, though the social network company isn’t exactly known for innovating in this area. There’s even a new AR app for immersive audio experiences that will undoubtedly play a part in immersive metaverses in the near future.
Together Labs is currently working on a new platform called WithMe that will use the Unreal Engine to create a new 3D social platform. “[Users] can imagine 3D graphics, real 3D physics, where when I hug another avatar, their body squeezes in a sense,” Burris explains. “We'll be able to augment this with true VR...and really build really high-end experiences. So that's really what we're investing in when we think about friendship and the next version of our metaverse.”
But one of the most important things to understand about the metaverse is that it encompasses both virtual and augmented reality, and everything in between.
Senior technology architect Ash Richter is a strong advocate of an open metaverse, which encourages collaboration and open-source sharing between creators and companies in the service of a truly open world. For the last two and a half years, she’s been working on investment strategies for the metaverse at In-Q-Tel, a venture capital group which was founded 20 years ago by the CIA.
For Richter, the metaverse is a shift in the way we communicate, and also a shift in the way we make a living, just as the printing press created new professions and shaped new ways of understanding economics.
“Similar to the internet, similar to all of these different things, [the metaverse] is a new digital scaffold that a myriad of economies are going to be laid across,” she says, pointing to the explosion of different service industries over the last few years that rely on smartphone mapping apps. “It's not just a virtual realm where people can go and have all of these economies. It's a virtual realm that's layered on top of the physical realm.”
Richter, who has a professional background in anthropology and archaeology in addition to her engineering experience, isn’t just interested in the potential of new metaverse economies, but how it can change people’s lives. “I am obsessed anthropologically with what [Twitch] means for society,” she says, “because it’s like, ‘Come here, I’m going to show you my space, we’re going to play a game together’… It’s this interesting piece of human surveillance capitalism that we want to participate, it’s so much more fun. Why have a traditional nine-to-five job when you can do that?”
The ability to monetise your presence online, she explains, can potentially open up new earning opportunities for groups who haven’t been able to participate on the traditional economic spectrum. “That’s what I see a lot of on Twitch, all of these amazingly intelligent people who are so wonderful at navigating these virtual realms,” she says. “In the real world, it doesn’t translate, but here are these new spaces where they feel safe enough to apply these skillsets [although] society... has told them like, ‘No, you’re not good enough’. Here’s this platform, this multi-tiered thing that will hopefully open up the door to a lot more talent and opportunity for everybody.”
Richter’s hopes for the metaverse also acknowledges the security and privacy concerns that run rampant in the online sphere, especially with tracking personal data. Presenting at a recent SIGGRAPH event on the open metaverse, while expressing excitement and passion for this new technological frontier, she invoked Douglas Adams’ famous mantra from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Don’t panic.” While worry is warranted, it’s still early days, she said, and there’s still plenty of work to be done.
“I worry that for national investment levels, [the metaverse] often gets written off as like a new toy,” explains Richter, as she would like to see individuals, groups, companies, and even countries work together to lean into metaverse discourse in an ethical fashion, as well as a fashion that can scale accordingly.
“There are definitely other new states who are pushing forward farther and faster than us. I think Australia is one of the leaders of that, China is another, South Korea is another, Singapore is another.”
For her, the importance of metaverse investment is on par with the use of social media, which has become a critical communication tool for governments who are traditionally slow to adopt new technologies.
Just as there isn’t one way to design a metaverse, the metaverse also won’t be a monolith – there are most likely going to be many types that cater to different interests and styles. Speaking at the same SIGGRAPH event on the open metaverse, Soul Machines CEO Mark Sagar likened it to travelling to different countries.
Visiting multiple metaverses will be similar, and companies (and even countries) will have to collaborate on creating digital personalities that can safely traverse those different realms while maintaining continuity. Some metaverses may be photorealistic and focus on replicating real-world features -- famous monuments, geography, terrestrial physics, and so on. Others might be more experimental and fantastical and lack polish, but will serve an entirely different demographic.
Over at Together Labs, Burris believes that the metaverse is very much an inevitability for many tech companies, and that people will come at it from different angles. “These open protocols like crypto and other assets might usher in more quickly these truly open worlds, where it's not these closed worlds,” he says, “but avatars and assets you've earned or the way you can move between metaverses will all evolve over time.”
Over at SIGGRAPH’s open metaverse event, Teddy Bergsman, senior director of Epic’s Quixel tool, observed that we will probably not be scanning every inch of the world, but the “most valuable objects in the world,” which raises questions of what different people and cultures deem valuable, and how different metaverses will approach this issue.
“Nobody’s going to have a perfect answer early on,” added Unity’s director of software engineering, Vlad Vukićević.
However, as the metaverse hype continues to take on more momentum, there are also new problems as companies try to stake their claim in this new territory.
There’s also a maelstrom of issues around NFTs, arguably the bedrock of metaverse economies and metaverse ownership – which exact a powerful toll on the environment and are still susceptible to theft and hacking. Trying to picture all of these problems playing out on a worldwide scale in a borderless meta-environment is, understandably concerning.
There is no straightforward solution to any of these issues, as it’s become clear that the metaverse is more than a fad – it’s something that both businesses and users are invested in on every level. So it’s even more imperative for new investors and startups to do their homework before leaping into the fray.
Together Labs’ Burris encourages new investors to take the time to learn as much as they can about the metaverse, warts and all. “There are so many different use cases, there are so many different approaches to the metaverse,” he says. “Right now, we have users on our platform that are 18 in a foreign country trying to make some money on the platform. We have users who are 34 years old who just connect with their friends they’ve had for five years on the platform.”
Richter would like more thought and care put into long-term planning. “I think new venture capital investors should get smarter faster, should pay attention to what everybody else is doing, and should not invest willy nilly,” she advises. “Because I think we're definitely going to see a lot of vaporware, and I don't want this to go into a trough of disillusionment… I think [metaverse hype] is peaking in a really lovely way, and as long as we don't hit any major traps, there will be more progress, which would be great.”
Ultimately, as with all new technologies, things could go either way, and it’s up to folks getting in on the ground floor to help shape the future of the metaverse.
“It’s the kind of thing where if the puzzle pieces between governments and industry and academia all were to click together in the right way, we will get something seriously, seriously awesome,” says Richter with a laugh. “And if they get clicked together in the wrong way or just partially, then I think we will get the dystopian sci-fi future, and it will be bad and it will be corporations and omni-panopticons.”
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