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“Metavsesvit” is in the headlines again. Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that Facebook “will actually move from… as a social media company to a company from the metaworld.” Facebook plans to create an “embodied Internet” based on Oculus headsets and combining the company’s platforms in cyberspace. And Facebook is not alone, as Epic Games, Disney and other corporations are also investing billions in their virtual worlds.
Is this conversation about the metaworld fascinating? Of course. Is this new? Unlikely.
The term meta universe is almost 40 years old. The metaverse created by science fiction author Neil Stevenson in his 1992 novel The Snow Catastrophe was his name for bringing physical reality and virtual space closer together. The idea was a stable, shared environment that blurred the digital and the physical for everyone involved. This concept is as attractive today as it was in 1992, but why are the big players in games and technology rediscovering the metaverse today?
The change of generations leads great technologies to the metauniverse
My son had just turned 11, and among his gifts was a small cash gift from his grandfather. Since he was free to burn that money for his birthday for whatever he wanted, I couldn’t wait to see what he would buy. So imagine my reaction when he decided to buy new skins for his avatar Call of Duty. Are the pixels displayed on the screen? Seriously? I cautiously asked if he was sure he wanted to buy something digital that could not be removed from the PC. Without hesitation, he replied “Yes!” And as soon as he bought and added his new skins for the game, he wanted to show it to me, his mom, his siblings… and, of course, everyone he played online with.
I tell this story to illustrate the generational change that is leading to the rediscovery of the Big Tech metaverse: young people are more than willing to pay real money for completely virtual objects. And it’s not just children and teenagers – the explosion of interest in Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT) is an adult version of unique virtual goods that have a real monetary value. While NFT can be essentially any digital, it’s usually digital art or memorabilia, like Jack Dorsey’s first tweet (which sold for $ 3 million).
So why do all these digital products cost their buyers? For the same reason, my son wanted to show his new shiny pixels to anyone who wants to listen: the value of digital goods is that as many people as possible see that you have them. If you say that my older generation could understand, you are not buying a Ferrari because you need to get seats quickly. You buy a Ferrari because it looks stunning and you want to look great in it. Without the crowd looking, it’s just a fast (and expensive!) Car, not a symbol of the status it should be.
What Facebook doesn’t understand about the metaverse
The growing real value of digital objects helps explain why the metaverse is back in vogue, but we must remember that the social basis of the value of these digital objects. Without a large audience to look at your avatar or NFT, these elements are simply invisible pixels on the screen. And to maximize the audience of digital goods, the metacosm must be open and cross-platform. Otherwise, these digital goods are similar to a Ferrari buried under the trash in your garage.
This need for an open cross-platform experience is the reason for the failure of Facebook’s initiatives in the meta-universe. Everything Facebook does is inside a closed experience controlled by their engineers and administrators. Even if you want to use the Oculus headset to access a third-party virtual reality application, you need to log in with your Facebook account. I understand why the company does this, because its life force is unimpeded access to user data. Zuckerberg probably sees this expansion of the metaverse as a way to more fully immerse his user base in Facebook and get even more data and dollars from them.
However, the principle of top-down management in Facebook is the exact opposite of what a prosperous metaverse needs. Imagine the reaction of people like my son who want to show new skins to their meta-universe avatars, but find that their friends outside of Facebook don’t see them, and they only get answers from a specially designed Facebook echo camera. From the history of Facebook, it is safe to assume that the company will always prefer a tightly controlled environment over an open metaverse. In short, do we really want the metacosm to belong to Facebook – or to someone?
Imagining the best metaworld
I’m not writing this to join an online accumulation that criticizes Facebook’s vision of the metaverse, but because I’m quite excited about the potential of metaworld technology. My company has many clients who create VR and AR applications. I’ve seen with my own eyes how interesting it can be to place the main display on HoloLens for engineering work or to add AR targets to hit while riding an electric scooter. I’ve also seen how sad and isolated an empty virtual world can be when there’s no one in it but internal testers.
When we imagine a better metaworld, here are three basic principles it should have:
- The metauniverse is open, not closed. The more our digital world is cross-platform and embraces everyone who wants to experience them, the richer and more interesting they will be.
- The metauniverse is the expansion of the physical world, not a departure from it. Although I liked The Ready Player One, the metacosm, which gives new meaning to our physical coexistence, is much more promising than the one that encourages us to play VR games in a dark, closed room.
- The metauniverse should unite people, not divide them. For an open and inclusive platform to work, it needs a strong community that engages and welcomes people – while actively resisting trolls and other bad actors who try to inflame discord.
Because the younger generation perceives a more digital world and attracts investment in the metaworld, I don’t want to be a skeptical old man who misses the fun. Instead, I want companies like mine to take their responsibilities seriously to make this new world the best it can be. Instead of creating just a metacosm that we can control and profit from, let’s create one that is better than the world we have now – open, expansive and connected.
Jerod Venema is the founder and CEO of real-time video communications company LiveSwitch, which includes UPS, Match.com, Bosch and WWE.
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