NextGen Internet series #1/3
The October 2021 announcement of Facebook’s rebranding as Meta has catapulted the idea of the metaverse to the front of the technology world.
The concept was popularized by Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel, Snow Crash, which tells the story of a hacker and pizza delivery driver who spends his nights plugging VR goggles into the metaverse, a virtual world populated by user-controlled avatars filled with games, events, and social activities. In Snow Crash, technology in this futuristic, dystopian world represents an indispensable, neutral element that actors within the system use for either good or bad.
Stephenson’s central illuminating message is that technology, as a vital element in our interconnected world, is developed with an agenda in mind—and whether that agenda is good or bad is determined by the actor that proposes that technology. It is thus well worth exploring what the metaverse will look like and evaluating the actors building the next generation of technology.
Today’s idea of the metaverse has been largely defined by a select group of large companies pursuing the large-scale adoption of a technological vision. Generally, the metaverse is understood to be a persistent and synchronous world that combines aspects of the physical and digital worlds into a single environment.
Traditional Platforms Stake Their Claim
Companies like Meta and Microsoft that have developed extensively used augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and generalized extended reality (XR) platforms like Oculus and HoloLens are developing 3D metaverses that allows users to work, learn, and play in one place.
Meta has developed its version of the metaverse through its Horizon Worlds platform, which is a free, VR online video game and integrated game creation system. In the past year, Meta has also introduced Horizon Workrooms, which enables remote meetings and work utilizing the same platform and system. Entrance into this metaverse requires the purchase of a 3D motion Oculus system, and cannot be accessed from any other devices. Meta has not made any plans to integrate any other devices into their system, opting to concentrate on the sales of its Oculus system. Since Meta released it in December, Horizon Worlds users have soared to 300,000 people, according to The Verge. This growth is probably limited by the number of people that own an Oculus system.
Meta has made significant investments in the metaverse, including the addition of 10,000 jobs in Europe specifically dedicated to developing metaverse technologies, and further pledging around $10 billion dollars in initial investments, according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg in an investor call last year.
Microsoft has developed their metaverse through its Mesh platform, a largely-work oriented platform, to collaborate in a singular environment across XR, laptops, smartphones, and other devices with Microsoft services. Mesh is concentrated on permitting work through the metaverse, allowing teams to communicate in a singular environment across different devices. In November 2020, Microsoft announced that global services company Accenture is already using Mesh to create a virtual reality campus and onboard new employees across the world.
Microsoft has also made significant investments in the metaverse. Though the monetary cost of developing Mesh is not known, Microsoft’s recent $70 billion acquisition of gaming giant Activision Blizzard has been described as an investment boost to the company’s metaverse stake. In a 20-minute investor call after the announcement of the acquisition, senior leadership at Microsoft used the word “metaverse” eleven times, highlighting the importance of the acquisition to Microsoft’s metaverse ambitions.
Physical and Virtual Worlds Converge
Traditional ideas of the metaverse, like those presented by Snow Crash and the book Ready Player One, portray the metaverse as a world enabled by AR/VR technologies, but it is worth noting that ideas of the metaverse are far more expansive than just AR/VR-enabled virtual worlds. More nontraditional ideas of the metaverse have largely been championed by gaming companies, like Roblox and Fortnite, which concentrate more on uniting aspects of the physical and virtual worlds into a single system.
Roblox, a free-to-play platform that hosts user-generated games, has exploded in use throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to nearly 164 million monthly active users across the world, according to reporting from The New York Times. In 2020, Roblox was valued at $4 billion after a funding round led by Andreesen Horowitz, but in 2021 that valuation spiked to $45 billion when Roblox went public through a direct listing.
The increasing convergence between the physical and virtual worlds within a single platform, especially amidst challenges with traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic, largely explains the exponential rise of interest in Roblox. Inside the platform, users explore an expansive virtual world with a user-generated avatar that can be customized with accessories from popular brands like Nike. Though the primary activity in Roblox is gaming, over the past several years, Roblox has expanded into more user experiences, including a high-profile virtual concert from Lil Nas X that attracted 30 million visits and an art-styled community space sponsored by Gucci.
Fortnite, another free-to-play gaming platform combines gaming, community activities, and user experiences into a single environment. Fortnite boasts over 350 million active users, who play as much as 3.2 billion hours in a month. Similar to Roblox, Fortnite has also hosted virtual concerts, with a Travis Scott concert drawing in 27 million players, 12 million of which were online concurrently, according to reporting around the event. Fortnite has also expanded to include more unique experiences, like access to a virtual tour of the Serpentine Gallery art museum in London. Fortnite partners are even more extensive and have included high-profile companies like Marvel, Star Wars, NFL, NERF, and others.
The platformization of Fortnite and Roblox has enabled the games to ship out concurrent community experiences and new games at a rapid pace, bucking the decades-old gaming trend of shipping a single game and experience at a time. This new trend, which has allowed for these games to become community platforms, have opened the gaming world to the possibilities of the metaverse.
Strategic Competition and the Geopolitical Metaverse
The most prolific and fast moving metaverse applications are certainly in the business and gaming sectors, however, there are significant advancements being made in the political and security realms.
Recently, Barbados said that its next embassy would be hosted in Decentraland, a metaverse platform. The Barbados Decentraland Embassy will be the first virtual embassy of its kind, reportedly costing between $5,000 and $50,000. The variance in the price is likely explained by how variable the cost of “land” in Decentraland is; it fluctuates considerably. Despite the change in price, the embassy will be fully sponsored by a grant from Decentraland.
Gabriel Abed, the Barbados ambassador to UAE and the leader behind the country’s digital diplomacy push, has said that “this is about diplomatic parity. We cannot support 197 diplomatic missions around the world. We’re tiny — but in the metaverse we’re as large as America or Germany.” The idea is an innovative one, and Barbados is currently the only country pursuing a metaverse-focused diplomatic push.
When it comes to security, the most metaverse-forward country is the UK. The Ministry of Defence recently announced the development of the Digital Backbone, a centralized command authority over the development of digital military technologies. Key to the Digital Backbone is the development of the Single Synthetic Environment (SSE), a program that will combine AI/ML technologies, computation modeling, and distributed systems. Through this, SSE can create comprehensive simulations of countries that can highlight critical infrastructure, smart-city data, military deployments, and social listening. To this end, at the tactical level, SSE will allow operational components to train more effectively using rich and updated virtual systems and worlds. At the strategic level, policymakers will more readily be able to understand how a country or region will respond to catastrophic events like disasters, pandemics, and cyberattacks.
Whether the metaverse will continue to materialize will largely depend on whether large companies, governments, and other organizations continue to embrace metaverse technologies and what if any regulatory approaches they pursue. There are still serious questions around the reality or sustainability of the metaverse, but as long as money continues to be spent in the sector, the development of the metaverse is likely to continue.