The Metaverse: What are we talking about?
The Metaverse has been a hot topic of conversation recently, but it is always difficult to know the ins and outs, as its outlines are blurred. So, let’s break it down!
In this article, we will go through the fundamentals of the Metaverse, its current and potential uses, and some points of concern to consider.
We will also look at the reasons for the recent hype around this topic, and of course, its links with the world of cryptocurrencies and blockchain.
Let’s define the Metaverse
There is currently no universally accepted definition of a true "Metaverse," except that it may be a more sophisticated successor to the internet. It could be defined as a virtual universe with a functional economy in which all digital life is interconnected. Of course, the definition is not straightforward because no one knows exactly what shape it will take.
One of the essential fundamentals of Metaverse is interoperability. Indeed, users must be able to move from one end of the metaverse to the other while maintaining their avatar and virtual assets. Regardless of the brand of the user's device, everyone should be able to access a common metaverse. In this virtual space, the different regions can contain social spaces, games, or others, and will be persistent, meaning that the activity takes place in real time, even when one is absent. The Metaverse is also connected to physical reality through augmented or mixed reality devices.
What could the Metaverse be used for?
As the concept of a Metaverse is relatively new, many use cases will arise in the future. However, some very promising uses are already being studied like going to a virtual concert, making a trip online, watching or creating artworks and trying on or buying digital clothes... It is also on the side of video games and virtual sports coach services that we will find applications.
The Metaverse could also be a game-changer for home-based work in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of seeing their colleagues on a video caller ID, employees could join them in a virtual office. One of the main benefits of the metaverse is supposed to be "presence", or the feeling of physically engaging with places and characters instead of looking at them through a window. Gathering your colleagues around a virtual table might feel more natural to some people than looking at a grid of Zoom thumbnails.
Still in the work area, training for manual or dangerous jobs could be facilitated by training with very realistic simulations, just as some operations (like maintenance) can be reinforced using augmented reality devices.
One interesting interpretation of the Metaverse is provided by Ernest Cline’s book Ready Player One (and the Steven Spielberg film adaptation), in which he gives us a vision of what it could become with its potential uses and limits.
Will we need special devices to use the metaverse?
The Metaverse is a virtual world. Therefore, it is essential to have a device that allows you to access it. Virtual reality helmets like the Oculus Quest 2 for example (owned by Facebook) are currently the most popular virtual reality helmet that allows you to immerse yourself in virtual worlds. Augmented reality (superimposition of virtual objects in our environment) is also useful to interact with the Metaverse and, as a consequence, special glasses will be necessary. From now on, some helmets combine the two technologies as for example the French mixed reality helmet, Lynx R-1.
These are relatively new technologies that are improving very rapidly. It is obvious that in a few years, the available devices will be much better than the current ones. Some observers point out, moreover, that brain-machine interfaces, such as those developed by Elon Musk's company "Neuralink", could also play a role in the future of the metaverse.
In Ready Player One, users put on, in addition to their helmet, a suit and haptic gloves to move in virtual worlds and feel the virtual on their body or objects with their hand. This might sound futuristic, but it already exists! Companies like Teslasuit have for example developed, for some time, a jacket with haptic feedback allowing users to physically feel different sensations. Gloves allowing the user to have the sensation of grasping virtual objects also exist. Some accessories go further by adding other senses to vision and hearing, such as smells. Research is even being conducted on taste.
In Ready Player One, users also use a kind of conveyor belt to move around in virtual worlds. This technology also exists! There is no doubt that with the development of the metaverse, these accessories giving a feeling of ever more complete immersion will improve and other accessories will most likely be developed.
How does the Metaverse relate to cryptocurrencies?
There is no doubt that 3D modelling and man-machine interfaces are essential to the development of a virtual world, but they do not cover all aspects of life necessary for the emergence of the metaverse. Cryptocurrency can provide other key elements required, such as:
- Value transfers - The metaverse will need a way to transfer value securely and with confidence. In-game currencies in multiplayer games are less secure than cryptocurrencies on a blockchain. If users spend a lot of time in the metaverse and even earn money there, they will need a reliable currency.
- Digital proof of ownership - By holding a crypto wallet with access to your private keys or linked to a KYC service, you can instantly prove ownership of activity or an asset on the blockchain. A wallet is one of the most secure and robust methods of establishing a digital identity and proof of ownership.
- Digital collection - Just as we can establish who owns something, we can also show that an object is original and unique. For a metaverse that seeks to incorporate more real-world activities, this is important. With NFTs, we can create objects that are 100% unique and can never be replicated exactly or forged. A blockchain can also represent ownership of physical objects.
- Governance - The ability to control the rules of your interaction with the metaverse should also be important to users. In real life, we can have voting rights in companies and elect leaders and governments. The metaverse will also need ways to implement fair governance, and blockchain is already a proven way to do that.
- Interoperability - Blockchain technology is continuously improving compatibility between different platforms. Projects such as Polkadot and Avalanche allow for custom blockchains that can interact with each other. A single metaverse will need to connect multiple projects, and blockchain technology already has solutions for this.
- Link to the physical world - The metaverse will also have to be able to integrate data from the physical world, something that Oracle-type crypto projects like Chainlink or The Graph can do reliably and securely due to their decentralised nature.
Thus, technology of cryptocurrencies seems to fit perfectly with the Metaverse. Also, the growing interest in NFTs gives a small idea of the potential economy of this persistent virtual universe. They allow users to authenticate the purchase of a digital good (an image, video, or music but maybe soon clothes, car, virtual house, or other virtual accessories). This could lead to the emergence of a real self-sufficient virtual economy with people selling digital goods through the Metavers, or collectors, salesmen...
Why the sudden hype and how Facebook/Meta is involved?
Digital worlds and augmented reality get trendy every few years and then the hype fades away.
However, the Metaverse is generating a lot of excitement among wealthy investors and large technology companies, and no one wants to be left out if it turns out to be the future of the Internet.
There is also a sense that, for the first time, the technology is on the verge of arriving, with advances in virtual reality gaming and connectivity coming close to what might be needed.
In this context, the Facebook group was rebranded the Meta group on October 28, 2021 , to focus their activity around the Metaverse. It’s this announcement which triggered the current hype.
Mark Zuckerberg is betting heavily on what he sees as the next generation of the Internet, as he believes it will be an important part of the digital economy. It is true that the potential of this technology seems very important in the long run. However, some critics wonder if this potential pivot is an effort to divert attention from the crises facing the company, including antitrust actions in the United States, testimonies from former employees alleging abuse, problems with taxes in Europe and concerns about its handling of disinformation.
The Meta group claimed in 2021 to have more than 2.85 billion monthly active users. The development of the Metaverse is based on this observation: if so many people were to join the Metaverse, the interactive virtual reality experience would be huge and would have no limits. But before this dream becomes a reality, there are many barriers to overcome (development of the technology, better connectivity in the world, greater purchasing power...).
To develop the metaverse, Meta intends to invest massively. Mark Zuckerberg has indicated that his company will spend no less than 10 billion dollars, starting this year, to develop its virtual worlds project. An amount that should increase in the coming years.
The boss of the giant social network has also indicated that he intends to hire no less than 10,000 employees in Europe to develop this project which will be led by the virtual reality and augmented reality laboratory, Facebook Reality Labs.
However, even its habit of buying up rival companies, Meta says the metaverse "won't be built overnight by one company" and has promised to collaborate. It is difficult to know what the future collaborations will be made of, but what is sure is that other companies are currently working on the metaverse including Microsoft and chipmaker Nvidia.
Video game companies are also playing a leading role. Epic Games, the company behind the popular video game Fortnite, for example, has raised $1 billion from investors to help with its long-term plans to build the metaverse. Gaming platform Roblox is another major player, presenting its vision of the metaverse as a place where "people can come together within millions of 3D experiences to learn, work, play, create and socialise.”
Consumer brands are also trying to follow the trend. Italian fashion house Gucci collaborated with Roblox in June to sell a collection of digital-only accessories. Coca-Cola and Clinique have sold digital tokens touted as a steppingstone to the metaverse.
Of course, there are also plenty of crypto projects and crypto companies who are linked to the Metaverse, and some of them taking advantage of this sudden hype. Among them we can mention Enjin, Decentraland, Sandbox, Audius…
Should we be concerned about the Metaverse?
Although the concept is beautiful on paper, the metaverse could be disastrous for some people. Indeed, evolving in virtual worlds with an avatar is a form of depersonalisation. The user adopts another identity and another form. By choosing an avatar that we like as if it was our physical body, by socialising based on this avatar and by having a second virtual life, some users could suffer from self-esteem problems when they return to the real world.
The return to real life, with a body that we do not like, with the difficulties of everyday life, could be a hard return to reality. The need to return to these virtual worlds, where we are another person, could be stronger each time. Just like the whistleblowers who talk about self-esteem problems linked to social networks, the effects of the metaverse on children, adolescents and adults could be even stronger. The addictive effect of such technology should also be studied. Other dangers of the Metaverse are pointed out as problems concerning physical health, addiction or "emotional refuge”.
Some observers also underline the fact that the Metaverse could be in the hands of a few multinationals that are especially greedy for profits and very little concerned about the subject of personal data. They could thus have even greater access to our lives. On this topic, some decentralised initiatives coming from the crypto world could be part of the solution.
Thus, like all technological advances and despite the beautiful prospects, it is essential to think as soon as possible about the harmful impacts which could occur in order to limit them to the maximum.
The Metaverse - Closing thoughts
The metaverse seems full of promise with a load of useful uses. However, it is a huge project that requires a colossal investment but also years of research (between 10 and 15 years according to Zuckerberg). The development of new technologies will also be necessary as well as the creation of numerous standards and protocols to make everything work. Unknowns could also come to play the spoilsport like new regulations, a dismemberment of the multinational Meta, etc...
However, it’s also a real opportunity for the cryptocurrency and blockchain world to provide sustainable solutions to the metaverse, and tries to limit the monopolisation of the metaverse by a few large centralised multinationals. An additional big challenge will be the ability of the players in the sector to generate mass adoption through real value-added services for individuals and companies.