What Is the Metaverse, and Will It Be Worth the Wait?


Imagine an online three-dimensional world where you teleport from your London office to a meeting room in Singapore, shop in a digital replica of your favorite clothing store, and then play a round of virtual golf with a friend. For some, this ambitious version of the internet known as the metaverse is the future of human interaction. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg changed the company’s name to Meta Platforms Inc. and is pouring billions of dollars each year into an effort to dominate this “next frontier.” But it’s unclear what a unified virtual universe would look like, or if people really want it.

1. How would the Metaverse work?

It would combine technologies like video conferencing, games like Minecraft and Roblox, crypto tokens, email, virtual reality, social media and live streaming. Just as you could create a document in Microsoft Word and send it from Google via Gmail to a colleague for them to read on an Apple iPad, elements in the metaverse could move through an ecosystem of competing products and retain their value and function. For example, a digital artwork purchased as a non-fungible token or NFT from Company A could be displayed in a Company B game on the virtual wall of a house.

2. What would you do there?

work and play. For example, “Jane” creates a 3D avatar—a digital representation of herself—within Facebook or Microsoft Teams and uses it in virtual office meetings. After work, Jane has tickets to a virtual concert with friends, and all of her avatars appear among the hundreds of heads in the audience. The music stops and the band says, “Don’t forget to buy a t-shirt!” Via her avatar, Jane browses through the designs at a booth just like she would at Amazon, Asos or Taobao today, paying for one with cryptocurrency and wears it to the virtual office the next day. A co-worker wants to borrow it for his daughter to use in a Roblox game that night, and Jane lends it to him. This scenario includes corporate communication tools, live event streaming, e-commerce, and sharing something of value. It only works if each provider builds their system in such a way that assets such as avatars and shirts are compatible and transferable.

3. When can I enter the Metaverse?

Not for years, if ever. You can already use crypto tokens to buy “land” in browser-based virtual worlds like Decentraland, attend conferences in VR with vFairs, or use Sizebay’s 3D fitting room to try on clothes. But these products are far from the cohesive, interoperable world that Zuckerberg and others envisioned. While there’s no shortage of investors betting that the Metaverse will emerge, the biggest checks are going to chipmakers, video game studios, and other companies whose products can thrive whether that happens or not. Microsoft Corp. CEO Satya Nadella said in January that the company’s proposed $69 billion acquisition of game maker Activision Blizzard Inc. will help build the “next internet.” But, he added, “there won’t be, and shouldn’t be, a single centralized metaverse.” The Metaverse would also need ultra-fast internet capable of handling hundreds of simultaneous streams of data, and most of today’s wireless connections can barely support multiplayer games like Fortnite.

4. Is there a demand for it?

It’s proving difficult to convince people to put a VR headset on their face and hang out with cartoon versions of their co-workers and best friends. Zuckerberg was widely ridiculed in August when he posted a primitive “selfie” from the Metaverse to promote Meta’s VR platform Horizon Worlds. There’s not a lot 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 space” is offset by the dizziness and nausea that can accompany the constant movement. When social media platform Snap Inc. announced layoffs in September, those working on technology that could play a role in a future metaverse had to go first. Meta’s VR division has been making headsets since 2014, and it’s still reporting heavy losses and revenues that make up a fraction of its core ad-supported business.

It could be a technological leap forward, akin to the Internet’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 to a way to get college Attending lectures and designing products together. It could transform the way people gather, interact and spend money, creating a distinctive virtual life experience. It’s the kind of future imagined in science fiction novels like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and films like The Matrix and Ready Player One. Each of them, it should be noted, represented a form of dystopia.

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