What is the Metaverse? Will it be worth the wait and effort?


Imagine yourself in a virtual three-dimensional world. You can teleport to your London office, visit a Singapore meeting room and shop at a replica of your favorite clothing retailer before joining a friend to play virtual golf. Some believe this vision of the future internet is the metaverse, an aspirational model of the internet. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg changed the company’s name to Meta Platforms Inc. and is pouring billions of dollars a year into efforts to dominate this “next frontier.” But it’s unclear what a unified virtual universe would look like, or whether people really want it. 

1. How would the metaverse function?

It would incorporate technologies like video-conferencing, Roblox games, crypto tokens as well as email, virtual reality and social media. 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, items in the metaverse would be able to move across an ecosystem of competing products, holding their value and function. A digital work or art that was purchased from Company A as a non-fungible token or NFT would be visible on the virtual wall at a house in a game by Company B. 

2. What would you do?

Play and work. An example: “Jane” creates a 3D avatar — a digital representation of herself — within Facebook or Microsoft Teams and uses it in virtual office meetings. Jane and her friends go to a virtual concert after work. All their avatars are there, along with hundreds of other people. The music finishes and the band says, “Don’t forget to buy a T-shirt!” Through her avatar, Jane browses the designs at a stall just as she would on Amazon, Asos or Taobao today, pays for one with cryptocurrency and wears it at the virtual office the next day. Jane lends the T-shirt to a colleague who asks for it to be borrowed by his daughter to play Roblox. This scenario involves live-event streaming, corporate communication tools and e-commerce. This system works only if all providers build their systems in a way that allows assets like avatars and shirts to be compatible and transferable.

3. How do I get into the metaverse?

This will not be the case for several years, or 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. These products are far from the interoperable, cohesive world Zuckerberg and others envisioned. While there’s no shortage of investors betting the metaverse will come into being, the biggest checks are being written for chipmakers, video game studios and other companies whose products can thrive whether or not it happens. Microsoft Corp. CEO Satya Nadella said in January the company’s planned $69 billion takeover of game maker Activision Blizzard Inc. will help to build “the next internet.” But, he added, there “won’t be a single centralized metaverse and there shouldn’t be.” The metaverse would also need ultrafast internet that can handle hundreds of concurrent streams of data, and most of today’s wireless connections can barely support multiplayer games like Fortnite.

4. Are there any people interested in it?

It’s proving hard to persuade people to hook 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 “selfie” from the metaverse to promote Meta’s VR platform, Horizon Worlds. There’s not a great deal of evidence that people working from home want to switch from regular Zoom calls to meetings in VR. For some, the benefit of feeling “in the room” is offset by sensations of dizziness and nausea that can come with the constant motion. Snap Inc. announced in September that it was cutting back on its technology team. Meta’s VR division has been making headsets since 2014 and has reported heavy losses, and revenue that’s only a fraction of Meta’s core ad-funded business. In 2022, many metaverse-related mutual funds and exchange-traded fund investments plunged as investors sought out more predictable revenues and tangible profits. 

5. What happens if the Metaverse succeeds? 

It could be a technological leap forward similar to the web’s transformation in the 1990s from static text and images on a page to a place to buy a book or watch a movie, and then into a way to attend college lectures and collaboratively design products. It may change the way people gather, interact and spend money. It’s the kind of future imagined in science-fiction novels such as Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” and movies like “The Matrix” and “Ready Player One.” Each of those, it should be noted, depicted a form of dystopia.

(Includes details on metaverse-related assets in the fourth section. A previous version of this article corrected the spelling of author Neal Stephenson’s name in Reference Shelf section)

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