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Tech News: The Metaverse, a whole new world

Photo: Epic Games

Photo: Epic Games

Published Nov 30, 2021

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IN 1992 the science fiction writer, Neal Stephenson, wrote an interesting futuristic book called Snow Crash in which he coined the term “metaverse”. His intention was to describe an alternative computer-generated universe that is highly immersive, with a shared virtual world where people can gather, socialise, play games, work and do business.

Today the description of Stephenson still holds, and the metaverse is seen as an online digital space where people can do things together in interconnected worlds across a wide variety of devices. But you will need a digital avatar of yourself to participate in this virtual world.

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The metaverse is also closely tied to the development of Web 3.0, which many believe is the next phase of development of the internet. It is purported that Web 3.0 will be built on blockchains that will democratise access and power and weaken the immense control of the web by the large tech companies.

The creation of a metaverse is also not new, since in the 2000s there were many precursors to the metaverse, such as Second Life in 2003 and Hubbo Hotel. Although they have lost their popularity, both are still operating. Second Life, for instance, still has 200 000 daily active users.

But suddenly the metaverse has become the most popular catchword in tech on the lips of enthusiasts and investors alike. Facebook even changed its name to Meta Platforms Inc because they believe that the metaverse is the future of the internet and therefore their current focus is very much on smart glasses, virtual reality (VR) headsets, and lifelike video calls over the internet. Meta endeavours to move beyond their two-dimensional social media platforms to an interactive digital metaverse by replicating the feeling of real social presence and interactions as if you were physically in the same room with other people.

Epic, the producer of the online multiplayer game, Fortnite, earlier this year raised $1 billion (R16bn) in funding to further develop the online immersive experience. Microsoft again wants to build an enterprise metaverse called Mesh, as part of its Teams platform. And as expected, many new metaverse companies are avidly trying to get a slice of the pie.

Interestingly, it all started with multiplayer games such as Fortnite, Minecraft (owned by Microsoft), and Roblox (loved by children from seven to 12-years old). These companies made social gaming popular, where children and adults could socialise while playing. By focusing on the socialising aspect, they created platforms that could be the basic building blocks for the development of the metaverse.

Most of these games, such as Minecraft that runs on Hadean cloud software, can easily scale up to thousands of simultaneous users. The reason for the sudden focus on virtual reality is because the computing power to scale resource-hungry virtual reality to a massive scale is only now becoming a reality. Due to the increased computing power, providers of large-scale distributed computing can easily accommodate 10 000 players on the same server at the same time. Many metaverse companies are even talking about hosting virtual concerts and sporting events for so many as 50 000 people simultaneously.

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But the metaverse is not only about games. From shopping to watching movies in a virtual theatre with people all over the world or playing golf with virtual clubs are all available in the metaverse. Fortnite, for instance has hosted concerts by Ariana Grande and Travis Scott, while Roblox hosted a concert of Lil Nas X and got 33 million views. Many other companies are also building immersive music experiences for the metaverse, in partnership with some well-known artists.

Just a few days ago, the Metaverse Group bought a piece of virtual real estate in “Fashion Street” in the virtual world of Decentraland for a whopping $2.4 million (R39m) in cryptocurrency. The Metaverse Group intends to host digital fashion events and sell virtual clothing for avatars.

E-commerce in the metaverse is just as active due to cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that make it easy to trade inside the metaverse. The wonderful thing about NFTs is that it makes the portability of a person’s virtual identity and goods possible between different metaverse worlds, such as taking a pixelated sword from a Roblox game and turning it into a powerful gun in Fortnite. This will make the metaverse truly “meta” and allow people to move seamlessly between platforms. This is very similar to the 1990s when cellphone operators started to allow people to text each other across the different networks with the result that cellphone texting (SMS) exploded worldwide.

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Many businesses, such as fashion designers, working in virtual collaboration rooms, will build their businesses around the provision of goods and services for the metaverse. Gucci, for example, sells digital outfits and accessories in Roblox. Artists are increasingly presenting their art in immersive art exhibitions. Others are focusing on healthcare such as the consultation of a digital doctor or psychologist through immersive VR. It might just be possible that every company will eventually have a three dimensional (3D) metaverse presence, just as they have a two-dimensional (2D) website at the moment.

And do not for one moment think that we will all wear the clunky VR headsets of today. Most people will just use their smartphone when they want to try on some dresses, or look at a product before buying it. It would even be possible to virtually apply the makeup to see if it suits you.

With work-from-home due to the pandemic now becoming a permanent arrangement, it is the main reason why Meta created the Horizon Workrooms app to recreate the office experience. It is even possible with the Oculus Quest 2 VR headset to scan your computer, keyboard and desk into virtual space to create a Holodeck level of interactivity blending real world tools with virtual reality. In this virtual office, collaboration with colleagues are possible with special-aware audio, screensharing and a whiteboard. You can even receive phone notifications and social media updates while in this space.

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Meta also introduced Meta Portal, a smart display and video-chatting device with a camera that follows you to create a life-like experience. The “Do Things Together” button in Messenger opens up a whole world of interactivity, such as reading your child a bedtime story with augmented reality effects allowing you and your child to become characters in the story.

The metaverse is an interesting new world that is becoming increasingly popular, but it is not without dangers. Certain things such as intellectual property (IP), ownership, data protection, content licensing, and crypto assets still need to be thrashed out properly.

Then there is also Facebook and Microsoft’s dystopian idea that the metaverse is a set of virtual worlds that we will have to access via corporate-controlled entry points, such as propriety headsets and apps. In contrast Web3 players proposes a decentralised metaverse or “paraverse”, consisting of community-owned platforms where communities co-exist and users can earn a living in cryptocurrency, and data is shared transparently using interoperable blockchains (also referred to as “sidechains” or “parachains”). The two proposed scenarios are thus centralised control or total independence of centralised control. But who can we trust?

It indeed seems that in future we will spend increasingly more time in the digital sphere or metaverse relative to the physical one. But despite the enthusiasm for the metaverse, the massive amounts invested in it, and Facebook and Microsoft’s efforts to dominate the metaverse, I believe we are still a few years away from the ability to seamlessly move between apps. Only when we really can meet people around the globe, work together in the same room in a fully immersive way, the metaverse will explode and become part of our daily lives.

Professor Louis CH Fourie is a technology strategist

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.

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