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When the company formerly known as Facebook announced plans to change its name to Meta in October, it said the move would better reflect its intention to “bring the Metaverse to life and help people connect, create communities, find and build businesses”.
This drastic change by one of the world’s most valuable companies has sparked all sorts of commentary and speculation, raising as many questions as it answers. Key questions include: what exactly is the metaverse and why has Facebook focused its future on this space now?
David Touve, executive director of the Batten Institute and an expert in emerging technologies and digital experiences, answered questions about the nascent metaverse.
What is the metaverse as you understand Facebook’s current project?
David Tove: To understand the concept of a “metaverse,” it can help to first think of a shared virtual space: from a chat room to games like Minecraft and Fortnite. Although these spaces differ in terms of the richness of the virtual experience – text, audio, video, visual details, sense of space, actions one can perform, etc., all offer the opportunity for many or even to millions of people at once. to connect in an online environment.
When Facebook, now meta, refers to the metaverse, it’s just going a few steps further. Meta’s vision of this metaverse appears to be inspired by the immersive experience envisioned when the word was coined in Neal Stephenson’s book Snow Crash nearly 30 years ago. However, the structure of the platform – and more importantly, who runs it – is different.
The metaverse experience is intended to be highly immersive, giving the feeling of being elsewhere thanks to the fusion of augmented and virtual reality. Unlike virtual worlds like Minecraft and Fortnite, and the Metaverse in Snow Crash, which are owned by a single company, Zuckerberg and other tech leaders describe an internet-like platform – an underlying, enabling infrastructure that is not owned and operated by no single company.
Instead, the metaverse would be made possible by a set of underlying rules and a wide array of technologies that allow a variety of devices and software to connect and create these shared experiences, much like a set of protocols mostly invisible to the user that enable the Internet, through which we use today a number of services.
In other words, this platform would not be the metaverse of meta. Instead, companies like Meta would leverage shared experiences on one planet among thousands, if not millions, of other virtual destinations in the greater Metaverse.
Virtual reality has been heralded as “THE NEXT BIG THING” for decades. Is there any reason to believe that we could be heading towards greater acceptance?
David Tove: Much like artificial intelligence, which is slowly evolving, virtual reality as a real-world experience has been on the rise for a very long time. Stereoscopes introduced 3D experiences in the mid-18th century, first with drawings, then with photographs. Hollywood experimented with immersive cinematic experiences like Sensorama in the 1960s. The Air Force funded the development of 3D flight simulators in the 1970s. Ironically, one of the first VR goggles developed and sold in the late of the 1980s was nicknamed “EyePhone”.
More recently, I think there are signs that we’re taking a greater interest in these immersive experiences and the technology that has made them possible since the year 2000. Fortnite alone has had 100 million new users in the past the one-year period between Spring 2019 and Spring 2020, bringing the total number of registered users to 350 million. For comparison: Second Life, a virtual world that launched in 2002, took four years to reach one million registered users. Second Life’s user base represented approximately 0.08% of the total Internet population in 2006, while Fortnite’s user base represented over 8% of the online world in 2020.
If Fortnite were a travel destination, it would be one of the most popular destinations on the planet. For comparison: 145 million visitors were counted in China in 2019, nearly 80 million in the USA. However, Fortnite users don’t have to leave their homes to travel.
What are the barriers to introducing the Metaverse? Don’t we all need at least one new piece of hardware?
David Tove: Technology may no longer be the biggest barrier to experiences in immersive virtual environments. These early experiences are already made possible by a device that most of us already own: a smartphone. Phone makers are already building augmented reality capabilities into new devices. Plus, you can slip most smartphones released in recent years into a headset – which costs $50 or less – and enjoy a pretty decent VR experience.
In my opinion, the biggest obstacles to a metaverse of the scale described by companies like Meta are more social, if not socio-political, than technical. Technical obstacles can probably be overcome over time, while social problems become more acute over time. This social obstacle – a community of interest groups who could agree on how things worked – was the same challenge that faced the first Internet.
For example, in the 1980s there were several information networks – ARPANET, CSNET, BITNET, and then NSFNET – which together formed and became part of a precursor to the modern Internet. These networks consisted not only of different architectures and underlying standards, but also of different communities of people. If these communities hadn’t found a way to communicate with each other – both technically and personally – we might not have the Internet we have today.
Nearly 40 years later, the community of stakeholders affected by a possible metaverse is not only a much larger and more global population from day one, but also includes a non-trivial patchwork of nation states and huge corporations. private.
The South Korean government founded its own “Metaverse Alliance” in May this year, which now includes more than 200 institutions in the country. In August, Nvidia launched its “Omniverse” initiative, with which the graphics processor and system-on-chip maker combines its own ideas about the technologies required for an open and extensible VR platform.