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Enter the Metaverse

by Adrian Hinchcliffe
The Metaverse has become the newest macro-goal for many of the world’s tech giants. (Epic Games)

At first glance, the idea of the ‘Metaverse’ seems like an arbitrary rebranding of some current digital technologies and video games. But there’s some serious investment and organisations are throwing their weight behind the concept, so expect things to change significantly, although not quickly.

“The Metaverse has become the newest macro-goal for many of the world’s tech giants,” notes one of the most prominent authors on the subject, Matthew Ball, managing partner, EpyllionCo, on his eponymous blog. He puts the potential value at stake as at least in the trillions as a new computing platform or content medium. “But in its full vision, the Metaverse becomes the gateway to most digital experiences, a key component of all physical ones, and the next great labour platform,” he writes.

As seems obligatory in every article about the subject, the term ‘Metaverse’ was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash. But since this prescient sci-fi work was first printed, a number of standards organisations, such as IEEE, Internet Engineering Taskforce, and ISO, have been working to turn the concept into reality.

While the idea has been in the works for many years, momentum is now finally starting to build. But what exactly is the Metaverse? With something so broad and vague, definitions vary, but there are common themes. In a New York Times article, published in July, John Herrman and Kellen Browning describe it as a ‘variety of virtual experiences, environments and assets that gained momentum during the online-everything shift of the pandemic. Together, these new technologies hint at what the internet will become next’.

Luke Franks, host of the Welcome to the Metaverse podcast, says while this next phase of the internet is already happening, it’s in the early stages, so opportunities still abound. For Franks, the Metaverse is made up of a series of virtual worlds that users can experience as an avatar, but it’s broader than that, he adds. “It’s on the internet, but crosses over to crypto, social media, ecommerce, gaming and lots more.”

Multiplatform games like Roblox and Fortnite have certainly pushed the Metaverse concept further ahead in recent years, enabling players to build their own worlds, experience them as a chosen avatar, but, importantly, they include their own in-game currencies, thus potentially enabling their own economies in future. Roblox, which went public in 2020, has a market capitalisation of $45 billion, and, according to the company, has 150 million monthly active users, largely made up of preteens. With a slightly older demographic, Fortnite has over 350 million monthly active players, says its parent firm, Epic Games, which has a market valuation of $29 billion based on the $1 billion funding round it undertook in April to support its ‘long-term vision for the Metaverse’. That these playgrounds are where tomorrow’s adults are living and learning about digital worlds means that expectations are being set around what the internet of the future could look like, although Ball reckons realising the full vision of the Metaverse is ‘decades away’.

Another precursor to the future is that Fortnite’s regularly refreshed seasons include the ability to buy and earn avatars of characters tied in with upcoming film or TV releases, presenting marketing and sales opportunities. But it also provides a platform for characters from competing franchises to play with and against each other, so DC’s Superman taking on Marvel’s Loki, Star Wars’ Kylo Ren, or basketball player LeBron James and footballer Harry Kane, for example. With in-game concerts by famous music artists, Fortnite is moving the immersive experience beyond gaming to become an entertainment and social platform for Gen Z.

Not getting left behind

The biggest of all social platforms hasn’t been left napping either. Facebook’s Horizon is its foundation for a foray into its own Metaverse. In 2014, Facebook acquired virtual reality headset leader Oculus, and this is where that $2.3 billion gamble fits in. Horizon, currently in beta, is an all-VR experience, designed that friends can hang out as avatars, playing games and completing puzzles, or even build their own worlds.

Before writing the Metaverse off as simply immersive videogamescum-social platforms, we must consider Microsoft’s recent step into the arena too, opening the door for developers and enterprises.

In May, the company created, or rather bundled together, its own ‘Metaverse technology stack’, with its augmented reality HoloLens and recently released Mesh at the frontend. Underpinning this is a range of Azure services, notably cloud, AI, analytics, and IoT; it also leans heavily on the digital twin model.

“Digital twins enable you to create rich digital models of anything physical or logical,” writes Sam George, corporate VP, Azure IoT, on a company blog. “Once it’s modelled, it can be brought to life and two-way IoT connections. This initial binding of the physical and digital is foundational to enabling metaverse apps.”

Speaking at Microsoft Build this year, he added: “As more and more companies start to take advantage of these capabilities and interact with each other and partner in these virtual worlds, we’re really creating the Metaverse, the intersection of all these digital realities that are then optimising the physical reality.”

But as today’s big tech firms fight for space in this burgeoning market, one factor to understand is that the Metaverse is expected to bring ‘unprecedented interoperability of data, digital items/assets, content, and so on, across each of these experiences’, writes Ball.

Earlier this year, fashion brand Gucci launched its Virtual 25 digital-only trainers that could be worn in augmented reality, but also used on an avatar in Roblox. This idea of a digital asset that can be bought and used in different virtual environments is central to the Metaverse and is undoubtedly going to challenge the idea of proprietary app stores and closed ecosystems that we know today. An example of this conflict already occurring is evident in the recent court case between Epic Games and Apple, which, in part, relates to the charging of excessive fees to process in-game currencies through the app store. Issues like this will continue to arise and need to be resolved to truly realise the Metaverse vision of an interoperable future.

“Ultimately, too much of the Metaverse remains unclear for us to have strong convictions on who will lead it or how they’ll get us there. And in truth, it’s most likely the Metaverse emerges from a network of different platforms, bodies, and technologies working together (however reluctantly) and embracing interoperability,” Ball notes.

So, if the idea that Fortnite players can pit heroes from competing content brands against each other is quite a lot to get your head around, in future, users could be able to fly their Superman avatar, with his Gucci sneakers, from Roblox into Facebook, or potentially into your enterprise environment.

Defining the metaverse

Matthew Ball notes a number of factors that define the Metaverse.

It will be:

  • persistent
  • synchronous and live
  • uncapped for concurrent users, with each having an individual sense of presence
  • a fully functioning economy
  • an experience that spans both digital and physical worlds
  • populated by ‘content’ and ‘experiences’ created and operated by an incredibly wide range of contributors, and
  • unprecedented in the level of interoperability.

To achieve this, it will need:

  • Infrastructure capable of offering millions of users a shared, synchronous experience, which doesn’t exist today. “Most of the internet’s underlying systems are oriented around one server talking to one other server or an end-user device,” he writes. So accessing content is achieved by each user sharing an individual connection with the central server, not with another user. Concurrent infrastructure will enable ‘persistent communication synchronised in precise realtime to countless others… this is an enormous computational challenge and one that fights against the underlying design/intent of the internet’.
  • Changes to current standards and protocols used by the internet, with some pruned and some added to enable interoperability and synchronous experiences. While the web today is built on open standards, much of it is closed and proprietary. There will be resistance by the big players to change anything that weakens their positions, as well as challenges around industry consensus on standards, but also legal and financial controls, which are still in flux today.
  • An ‘On-Ramp’ experience to encourage widescale adoption. It’s not a case of, ‘build it and they will come’, it will require destinations to attract users, and they will undoubtedly need to evolve to become attractive. The Metaverse needs to be populated, rather than just populable, and this population must then fill in this digital world with things to do and content to consume.

Republished with permission from ITWeb Limited


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