Who doesn’t want everything in the Metaverse! Even a college for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cadres in Beijing would soon have a curriculum in which “Party work flexibly and strongly” can be trained in an artificial reality. According to Chinese media, virtual reality company Mengke VR reported it. In the future, party cadres will use avatars to participate in virtual events similar to party conferences and will be able to interact with other cadres in the 3D virtual world.
So far, only a few people have such a clear idea of what the so-called metaverse can be used for. We are talking about 3D virtual worlds in which users can have fun with avatars and consume all kinds of virtual goods. It sounds familiar: Second Life, an online platform from 2003, will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year and is now more of a virtual niche than a virtual world.
For the media industry, the Metaverse is the further development of the marketing of films through releases and merchandise that has been practiced for decades.
A science fiction writer coined the term metaverse: in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash“, Neal Stephenson described a virtual world in which people interact. Although Stephenson’s vision differs in detail from other literary plans for virtual worlds, it is nothing more than cyberspace as imagined ten years earlier by another science fiction writer – William Gibson. But cyberspace looks like the 1990s, like bad computer graphics, movies like “The Lawnmower Man,” and organizations like the Federal Criminal Police Office’s National Cyber Defense Center. Metaverse, on the other hand, still looks fresh.
Facebook, or Meta Platforms as the group has called itself since last October, is trying to take market leadership in the development of 3D virtual worlds. Meta operates Horizon Worlds, a so-called social virtual world. To enter it, you need data glasses such as Oculus Rift or Oculus Quest and a controller that fits in the hand like console games. A so-called plaza leads to various virtual worlds that users can design themselves.
The principle of not only offering ready-to-use products, but also letting users build their own virtual worlds comes from the computer game industry. This principle was particularly pronounced in Minecraft which, despite or because of its primitive graphical blocks, motivated players to build their own virtual worlds alone or in groups and to visit each other. In this way, large virtual worlds have emerged as part of multiplayer games, while Second Life & Co. carves out a niche existence.
Another influence for the metaverse is role-playing games, which were originally played with paper, pencil, cards, and pawns and were adapted to computers early on. They allow groups to experience adventures together in fantasy worlds. The plot of the games often takes a back seat. Users moved parts of their social lives into game worlds, where they interacted in the form of their game characters.
It is the same with many computer games. For example, the online game Fortnite was originally an arena for so-called Battle Royale competitions in which players compete against all others according to the principle of the Hunger Games. It still happens, but Fortnite has long been primarily a social space where people meet. There are exhibitions, concerts and events. Part of socializing is dressing up for it. In this case, it is a question of designing a particularly individual avatar from graphic elements, some of which are chargeable – the character with which you are perceived by other players. The game itself is free. Epic Games, the company that offers Fortnite, earns money from players who buy virtual items that are useful in the game or that embellish the avatar. Basically, these are virtual status symbols.
But it’s also about marketing stories. People love to piece together and tell their favorite stories, which Lucasfilm turned into a huge selling machine decades ago with its Star Wars characters and related merchandise. Virtual worlds allow you to dive even deeper into your favorite stories and help shape the worlds in which those stories take place in a way that was previously only possible with the writing of fan fiction. So the Metaverse might be about that too. market synthetic versions of worlds created in the imagination by reading The Lord of the Rings or the vampire saga Twilight.
A virtual 3D model of a spaceship made for a movie, for example, can be reused in a follow-up series or game, with copies sold to players who could then take the spaceship for a spin in the virtual world. From the perspective of the media industry, the Metaverse would be nothing more than the further development of the marketing of films through releases and merchandise that has been practiced for decades.
However, there is a problem: digital goods, be it works of art, magic swords or copies of a piece of music, can be copied as often as you want. In capitalism, however, goods must be scarce to have a price. For this reason, attempts are repeatedly made to provide data carriers or music and film streams with copy protection. Virtual world providers have it relatively easy. Because they control access to the world, they can ensure that a certain virtual good only exists in a certain number of copies, exactly as many as have been purchased.
Virtual worlds are platforms and have the typical characteristics: network effects and restricted access. The network effect ensures that users are there because everyone is there too: there is no getting around Whatsapp because everyone is also using Whatsapp. As a result, despite its decentralized technical structure, significant parts of the Internet are becoming increasingly centralized. A resulting shortage, however, is initially barely noticeable to users, after all Whatsapp and Fortnite are free and anyone can participate. While Fortnite controls and restricts access to virtual goods, Facebook controls and restricts advertisers’ access to Facebook users. Because both platforms are used by hundreds of millions of people, it is very profitable and the Metaverse is still far from these standards. There are still only many small virtual worlds with different standards and rules. Some are simple text-based chat rooms, others are fantasy game worlds, but there are plenty of other options for interaction as well. Within Horizon Worlds, for example, there is a virtual space for business meetings and teamwork called Horizon Work, which is intended to compete in the long term with providers such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
Meta, in particular, is investing heavily in hopes of establishing its version of the Metaverse as a platform it can control as a business. In 2021 alone, it would have been ten billion US dollars in investments. At first, it does not pay off, because this division has generated almost no income so far. The profit for the last quarter of last year was therefore relatively meager for Meta at 10.3 billion US dollars.
When Facebook renamed itself Meta in October and declared itself to be the company of the Metaverse, few knew the term. Some even believed that Facebook had changed its name because the old brand now had a bad reputation. The race for the range has been in full swing for a long time. While Facebook, Whatsapp, and Instagram have a very large user base, visiting virtual worlds with big data glasses is nothing you can do in between like glancing at your smartphone. Apple has already launched its own augmented reality platform in 2020, wants to offer data glasses soon and hopes iPhone customers. But game providers like Epic, which already have many years of experience building and marketing virtual worlds, seem better equipped. Nor would it be surprising if there was a revival of Microsoft, which has recently strategically acquired companies, much like Facebook did with Instagram, for example, a decade ago; As a result, Microsoft has now achieved a dominant position in the gaming market. But it may also be an opportunity for completely new providers who are still largely unknown.