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By Sylvia Gallusser, Global Futurist, Founder at Silicon Humanism
Are we heading towards a betterverse? What role will humanism play in the new technological landscape, now that web3 opens new possibilities? As we dig into this topic, we wished to offer a panorama of the Metaverse(s), underlining the multiple ways to conceptualize it, the different value propositions brought by big tech players, and the diverse strategies to building it.
Mark Zuckerberg has been vocal about his investment in the future of the metaverse (up to changing his company’s name), expressing that “It won’t be built overnight by a single company. We’ll collaborate with policymakers, experts and industry partners to bring this to life.” His intention looks good on paper: “The metaverse is a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you. You’ll be able to hang out with friends, work, play, learn, shop, create and more. It’s not necessarily about spending more time online — it’s about making the time you do spend online more meaningful.”
In this vision, Meta presents the metaverse as a sort of 3-dimensional version of the current web, an umbrella for a variety of VR-centric sub-worlds and social networks (note that Meta owns four of the top six social media platforms) and accessible through the Oculus VR headset (Oculus was acquired by Facebook in 2014).
Meta revealed financials for its metaverse business for the first time a few days ago. Its Reality Labs reported massive losses, reaching more than $10 billion in 2021. Mark Zuckerberg is seemingly unfazed, having previously announced the concept would cost $10 billion in 2021, then more in future years, as he expects the metaverse to lose money for the foreseeable future. Meta executives believe it could take up to 15 years to fully realize their vision.
Recent patents filed by Meta indicate that the metaverse might be filled with hyper-personalized ads and could include eye-tracking and face-tracking technology.
(Sources: “Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse business lost more than $10 billion last year, and the losses keep growing”, February 2022, “Building the Metaverse Responsibly”, November 2021)
Epic Games announced a $1-billion funding round (in April 2021) to support its long-term vision for the metaverse including an additional $200-million strategic investment from Sony Group Corporation. Whereas Meta believes social networking to be the most natural on-ramp to the metaverse, another driving force to the metaverse has been gaming: Fortnite and Roblox (Roblox considers itself the “shepherd of the metaverse”) have demonstrated how gaming can flow into purely social interactions as people often stop playing the game to hang out. MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) and persistent universes have been a subject of study for anthropologists for a while now. Field studies and monographs based on immersion in virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft underline the establishment of specific language and behaviors, social norms, rituals, and even rites of passage (such as weddings).
In addition to accelerating the development of connected social experiences in Fortnite, Rocket League and Fall Guys, Epic’s investment is destined to empower game developers and creators with Unreal Engine, Epic Online Services and the Epic Games Store. This metaverse approach is driven by a holistic gaming experience, on top of which creativity and co-ownership play a crucial role. The balance of power is being slowly displaced from “brands over consumers”, to “consumers as co-creators”.
The market for digital artifacts is becoming quite active, both from the involvement of brands such as Nike and all major luxury brands offering virtual fashion items within the games, but also from myriads of digital studios and independent creators designing and now selling their own digital artifacts as NFTs.
If Fortnite, which is a natural part of the emerging metaverse, is not based on decentralized technology, Epic’s CEO Tim Sweeney yet underlines the importance of building an open metaverse, to counter the threat of a “metaverse run like an Apple ecosystem, governed by one central company, and more powerful than any government”.
(Sources: “Announcing a $1 Billion Funding Round to Support Epic’s Long-Term Vision for the Metaverse”, April 2021, “Silicon Valley is racing to build the next version of the Internet. Fortnite might get there first”, April 2020)
Niantic’s CEO, John Hanke, has been advocating for a Real-World Metaverse, which is less of a VR-closed environment (he considers a metaverse seen through a Virtual Reality headset a “dystopian nightmare”), and more of a truly Augmented Reality with physical-digital spaces merging.
“AR is where the real metaverse is going to happen,” Hanke declared to Wired. “At Niantic, we believe humans are the happiest when their virtual world leads them to a physical one. Unlike a sci-fi metaverse, a real-world metaverse will use technology to improve our experience of the world as we’ve known it for thousands of years.” The Pokestops in the Game Pokemon Go are based on landmarks, usually featuring a photograph and occasionally an advertisement.
Niantic has been building its landmark database and building its 3D mapping by asking players to scan these landmarks using the smartphone camera. A new feature rewards players with bigger and better items. This incentive to collect real world visual data is a major step for Niantic to realize their vision for the “real world metaverse”.
By layering information over the real world through smartphone apps, an AR-based metaverse removes any need for expensive VR equipment, plus it allows users to still experience the world we live in through natural sensory input: “I’m talking about embellishing things selectively, like planting flowers in boxes along the street”. Opposed to VR hardware that block out the users’ senses and replace the input with digital artifacts, John Hanke believes in the idea of “using digital tech to reinvigorate the idea of a public square, to bring people off the couch and out into an environment they can enjoy. There’s a lot of research that supports the positive psychological impact of walking through a park, walking through a forest.”
(Sources: “The Real World Metaverse”, December 2021, “AR Is Where the Real Metaverse Is Going to Happen”, November 2021)
Microsoft’s vision is closer to a mixed-reality platform at the service of gaming and business applications. As described by Cecilia D’Anastasio in Wired, Microsoft’s metaverse is a “sci-fi skin over its manifest-destiny aggregation of platforms and products, which include its operating system (Windows), servers (Azure), comms network (Teams), hardware (HoloLens), entertainment hub (Xbox), social network (LinkedIn), and IP (Minecraft)”.
According to Azure’s Corporate VP, Sam George, the solution resides in converging the physical and digital with digital twins, mixed reality, and metaverse apps. The environment is already in use for many industrial applications. “Digital twins enable you to create rich digital models of anything physical or logical, from simple assets or products to complex environments. This initial binding of the physical and digital is foundational to enabling metaverse apps.” From there, the possibilities look endless: “One of the most powerful things you can do is interact with the digital model overlaid onto the physical environment in mixed reality. You can get rich metadata and insights into anything you’re doing in the physical world from this digital copy. You can also interact in pure virtual space, even over distances with colleagues and experts anywhere in the world.”
On top of that, Microsoft just announced a $69 billion deal to buy gaming giant Activision Blizzard. “This acquisition will accelerate the growth in Microsoft’s gaming business across mobile, PC, console, and cloud and will provide building blocks for the metaverse.” Activision Blizzard, the company behind World of Warcraft, has earned well over $8 billion in lifetime revenue from the game.
(Sources: “Converging the physical and digital with digital twins, mixed reality, and metaverse apps”, May 2021, “Microsoft’s metaverse vision is becoming clear — and makes sense”, January 2022, “Microsoft to acquire Activision Blizzard to bring the joy and community of gaming to everyone, across every device”, January 2022)
Linden Lab offered an early implementation of metaverse under the form of a persistent 3D world. Philip Rosedale launched Second Life in 2003, as an immersive digital platform in which users can build worlds, create art, and buy and sell digital goods. Despite a spike of traffic in 2007, Second Life faded into the background, while still maintaining a loyal base of enthusiasts.
In January 2022, Philip Rosedale announced he would rejoin Linden Lab as a strategic advisor, which has been interpreted as a strong message to the tech world to prevent the “Facebook-ization of virtual reality”: “Big Tech giving away VR headsets and building a metaverse on their ad-driven, behavior-modification platforms isn’t going to create a magical, single digital utopia for everyone. Second Life has managed to create both a positive, enriching experience for its residents — with room for millions more to join — and built a thriving subscription-based business at the same time. Virtual worlds don’t need to be dystopias.”
Unlike the ad-auction business model implemented by Facebook or Google, Second Life chose to earn revenue “from charging people what’s basically a property tax if they choose to own land in Second Life. The rest of its money it makes from small fees on transactions. If somebody sells digital goods to somebody else through the Second Life marketplace, there’s a small fee that Second Life charges the seller.” However, if the atoms in Second Life have a stamp on it to trace ownership, they are not stored on blockchain like NFTs, but in a public database: “That information contains who created it, who presently owns it, and, if it’s for sale, what the price is and what you’ll be able to do with it once you buy it. It’s very similar to the metadata associated with an address on a blockchain. But we store it in a central database, so people have to trust that Linden Lab is going to keep that database up to date.” As such, Second Life’s version of metaverse is not a decentralized one as web3 is advocating for.
(Sources: “How to Build a Better Metaverse”, January 2022, “Second Life’s creator is returning to advise the original metaverse company”, January 2022).
Crucible believes in the inevitability of an Open Metaverse, and works to build tools and communities to bring it to reality the right way. According to Ryan Gill, co-founder of Crucible, “the internet up until this point has been developed and architected by web developers, and the Metaverse is just saying that it’s going to start being built by game developers.”
Crucible uses decentralized Web3 protocols and technologies such as blockchain to verify digital ownership and protect the privacy of the user. The Open Metaverse Interoperability Group works on building protocols to bridge the gaps between virtual worlds and making the metaverse more secure and diverse.
According to Ryan Gill, “The level to which the metaverse is going to be important to the lives of the people on Earth is immense, and the influence it will have is far too great for one company, or a couple of companies, to own in the same sort of consolidated way that other markets have. So we need to embrace more open standards and protocols.”
Crucible also pushes the idea of Self Sovereign Identity as a single-sign-on: “SSI is the gold standard for the way digital identity works. In the real world, SSI has really gotten its foothold in many industries like government and banking, but we are the first people to bring it to gaming. We prove our identity in the world through credentials, and typically on the internet, that is your email. SSI is a blockchain- based credential that proves your identity. It’s the perfect use case for avatars and the way that digital identity is becoming this cultural movement about expression.”
Sebastien Borget, CEO of The Sandbox, also supports the idea that the metaverse isn’t about competition but about a future that is open and decentralized.
(Sources: “The Open Metaverse”, September 2021, “The metaverse is too important to get wrong, so it needs to be open”, November 2021)
Google was among the first companies to launch augmented reality glasses with its Google Glass (2013–2014) which didn’t gain widespread consumer interest nor adoption. Since then, it has been quietly investing in the Metaverse, although it refers to this as immersive, ambient computing. According to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, “Computing over time will adapt to people more than people adapting to computers. You won’t always interact with computing in a black rectangle in front of you. Just like you speak to people, you see, and interact, computers will become more immersive. They’ll be there when you need it to be.”
AR headsets, internally codenamed Project Iris, are expected to be released in 2024. The device will use outward-facing cameras to blend computer graphics with a video feed of the real world, creating a more immersive, mixed reality experience than existing AR glasses. Google is keeping the project secret and no clear go-to-market strategy is defined so far.
(Sources: “Sundar Pichai thinks of the metaverse as more immersive computing with AR”, November 2021, “The Metaverse Set Off A Battle Between Tech Giants Google, Apple, Microsoft And Meta To Build Virtual And Augmented Reality Headsets”, January 2022)
While Meta publishes its $10 billion losses on the metaverse, while Epic Games continue to lead the way with Fortnite, while Linden Lab’s founder Philip Rosedale returns to Second Life, while Microsoft invests in Activision, while Google secretly speeds up the project, while Niantic’s John Hanke states “The future that I am describing is the one that’s going to win”, Apple appears “perfectly happy to let the metaverse pass it by”.
So far, its vision is closer to Niantic’s one: Apple (which now counts over 14,000 ARKit apps in its App Store) has already spent a lot of resources on building software to make it easy for developers to implement augmented reality, focusing mostly on the phone and tablet spaces. Apple is said to be working on releasing its own headsets in 2022. These devices could include eye tracking and cameras blending VR and AR together. We wouldn’t be surprised if in a couple of years, Apple comes up with a whole new transverse ecosystem, a neatly designed integrated cross-device extended-reality user experience, with the same surprise effect as for the launch of the first Macintosh computer and first iPhone.
(Source: “Why Apple is perfectly happy to let the metaverse pass it by”, January 2022)
And we are personally looking forward to a metaverse that goes beyond a VR-headset encapsulated world and a phone-based augmented reality, and incorporates smartly with our homes (mirrors, screens, walls, windows, appliances, monitors, furniture…) as mixed-reality equipment! What about an IKEA-led metaverse?
Of all these conceptions of the metaverse, these corporate visions, centralized, decentralized, AR-VR-MR-based, with their experimental governance and business models, we cannot predict which one will dominate. However we believe that this profusion of innovation and healthy competition, with a focus on interoperability, safety, security, wellness, responsibility, and inclusion, will bring many options to a diverse audience looking to engage always further with technology, with each other, and with the exterior world around.
(Sources: “What is the metaverse?”, November 2021, “Is Metaverse singular or plural?”, January 2022)
These nascent metaverses are exciting, fascinating, opening new possibilities. But they also make us wonder about the world(s) we are going to live in a few decades, and specifically how we can remain human and respectful of each other in such future(s).
Read more about “The Future of Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Belonging (DIEB): in web3 and the Metaverse”, February 2022, by Sylvia Gallusser and Antonia Nicols, a publication by Grey Swan Guild.
Read more about “Humanism at the core of web3 and the Metaverse”, January 2022, by Sylvia Gallusser which raises the question: “Are we heading toward a ‘betterverse’?”
Sylvia Gallusser will be a speaker at web3summit in San Diego (May 18-20).
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