December 5, 2023

What is the metaverse?

Tim Bradshaw on the trouble with definitions

In the metaverse, we are promised, we can be anyone, do anything and go anywhere.

Silicon Valley fell for this vision of a limitless ­virtual world in 2021, when Facebook changed its name to Meta and games like Fortnite and Roblox offered millions an escape from Covid-era claustrophobia.

Suddenly, a term that had been known only to ­science-fiction fans for decades was being name-dropped in quarterly earnings calls, even by companies far outside the tech industry. In the process, however, the concept became fuzzy and distorted.

If there is one common idea that unites the many different takes on the metaverse, it is that it’s a way of visiting a three-dimensional version of the internet, promising more natural and intuitive forms of control and communication than today’s keyboards and touchscreens. Avatars that represent us will be able to work, play or simply hang out in a digital space, be that a realistic copy of our actual offices or a fantastical land constrained only by our imagination.

Beyond that, there is intense debate in the tech world about who will run it and how it is built. Some argue online multiplayer video games are the closest thing we have to a metaverse today. Others insist that everything should be underpinned by decentralised “blockchain” technology, giving each user a stake in how the world is governed, lest tech overlords like Mark Zuckerberg try to control our virtual lives. “The metaverse is whatever you want it to be,” says Matt Miesnieks, an entrepreneur who has been working in the field for more than a decade.

For Miesnieks, the drive to help build the metaverse initially came from novels like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, where the term first appeared in 1992, and Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End (2006), where smart-clothing and sophisticated contact lenses layer “augmented reality” visions on top of the real world. “One of the beliefs I had was that the way we connect to the internet is going to become more intimate, more ­sensory,” says Miesnieks.

His career shows how the technology that powers the metaverse has, at least until recently, lagged behind that expansive vision.

After working for a mobile software company, in 2009 Miesnieks moved from Sydney to Amsterdam to work for Layar, one of the first companies to bring “augmented reality” — which mixes the metaverse with the real world — to smartphones. After the start-up ran out of funding and was sold, he moved to San Francisco to launch his own company: an AR game called Dekko that resembled an early prototype of Pokémon Go, with digital characters perching on tabletops. The company ended up failing painfully. “It was one of those classic cases of building exactly the right things but too early,” says Miesnieks.

His next venture, 6D, focused on just one piece of metaverse tech: using smartphone cameras to capture a digitised 3D map of the world. In 2020, 6D was acquired by Niantic, the start-up that develops Pokémon Go. This time, the market was there. “Every couple of years I try to live less in the future,” Miesnieks says. “As an entrepreneur, one of the lessons I’ve learnt is that you need to meet people where they are today.”

He is already on to his next start-up, a multiplayer AR game called LivingCities. But while 18 months ago investors were throwing cash at metaverse-related start-ups, now the tech economy has cooled. Part of the problem is the fuzziness of concept, Miesnieks says. “Investors want specificity: what are you doing, who for and why?”

In the coming years, the metaverse could still be ­anything we want it to be. But first, Silicon Valley has to figure out what it is useful for.

Tim Bradshaw is the FT’s global technology correspondent

How soon will it be here?

Hannah Murphy on the countdown till arrival

In 2021, an estimated half a million festival-goers from around the world donned virtual reality headsets in order to attend a digital version of Burning Man — partying virtually during pandemic lockdowns, rather than facing the sandstorms of the Nevada desert.

According to experts, the online jamboree brought together one of the biggest communities in an avatar-filled world to date. Others include Nikeland, a virtual world created by Nike in the Roblox online platform, which attracted some seven million diehard sports fans in its first five months, or the growing community for furries, a subculture of those who enjoy presenting themselves as anthropomorphic animal characters in the app VRChat. “It’s much like the early days of the internet, where it’s oddballs and weirdos coming together to find their tribes,” says VR and metaverse consultant ­Cortney Harding.

But these communities remain niche and whether their digital worlds constitute an actual metaverse — one in which users’ avatars move seamlessly between communities and experiences — remains up for debate.

For many experts, mainstream adoption of this grander vision of the metaverse is perhaps a decade away. Meta’s founder Zuckerberg believes it will take five to 10 years to go mainstream.

His end goal is to have one billion users simultaneously logging in to a sprawling universe of events, activities, gaming and shopping — a vision that will require significant technological leaps in terms of ­computing power, connectivity and finessing ­hardware, as well as a deluge of alluring content from creators and brands. It will, he has said, be an open and interoperable system.

Lewis Smithingham, senior vice-president of ­Innovation at Media.Monks, a digital marketing and advertising company, says that in order to build such a singular “utility of sorts, a functional monolith”, there will need to be “open agreed-upon standards” as there are with the internet. Coalitions such as the Metaverse Standards Forum, whose 2,200 members include Meta, Microsoft and Nvidia, are already meeting, with competitors collaborating in order to one day get a slice of the pie.

In the meantime, say Leslie Shannon, head of trend and innovation scouting at Nokia, industrial-use cases — training staffers with equipment virtually, for example — are a first step towards mass adoption, even if headsets and the like remain heavy. “You don’t need to wait for the hardware,” she says.

Some, however, think we’re closer than 10 years. “The metaverse is here today and what we’re going to see in the coming small number of years is more and more of a 3D skin emerge on top of it,” says Tony Parisi, chief product officer of Lamina1, a blockchain company. This, he says, will happen application by application, experience by experience. “There’s not going to be some magical moment.”

Hannah Murphy is the FT’s technology correspondent in San Francisco

© Maria do Rosario Frade

What do I need to get there?

Tim Bradshaw on the tech race

To visit the metaverse today, you could spend $1,500 on a Quest Pro, Meta’s latest and greatest headset. Or you could download WhatsApp.

Meta has splurged $36bn on metaverse technology since 2020, as it pivots from photo-sharing to immersive technologies. But while much of that mammoth investment into Meta’s “Reality Labs” division has gone on hardware, its boss Zuckerberg recently claimed that more than 100 million WhatsApp users had taken their first step into the metaverse simply by creating an avatar within the messaging app.

In a call with Wall Street analysts earlier this month, he said: “Even though most of our Reality Labs investment is going towards future computing platforms — glasses, headsets and the software to run them — as the technology develops, most people are going to experience the metaverse for the first time on phones.”

But his long-term goal remains more ambitious. “The defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence — like you are right there with another person or in another place,” he has said.

As he and others are learning, it is hugely expensive to build a virtual reality headset that lives up to that promise. Making it lightweight, comfortable and affordable enough to sell on the scale that smartphones do today is still a number of years away.

Nonetheless, 2023 is expected to see several big new headset launches, including Sony’s PlayStation VR 2 this month, Meta’s Quest 3 and Apple’s long-awaited first goggles. Samsung recently announced that it was working with Google and chipmaker Qualcomm on a new headset, while TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is making inroads with its more affordable Pico VR devices. Pricing and other release details have not yet been announced but the new devices are expected to range from hundreds of dollars for the latest Quest into the thousands for Apple’s headset.

At a time when big tech companies are slashing thousands of jobs, however, some are reconsidering their investments in metaverse hardware. The future of Microsoft’s pioneering Hololens headset appears uncertain after budget cuts and staff departures.

The Hololens allows the wearer to see the world around them through transparent optical lenses, enhanced by tiny projections of digital objects that appear to stay fixed in a real-world position through a complex array of sensors. Turning something like the Hololens, which features a solid headband and a visor larger than most ski goggles, into a pair of lightweight “augmented reality” glasses is the long-term goal of companies like Meta and Apple. But AR glasses require difficult engineering trade-offs that make the past decade of VR headset development seem almost trivial.

The first Oculus VR prototype, released in 2013 before it was acquired by Facebook for $2bn, relied on components originally intended for smartphones, such as screens and chips. The optical systems at the centre of AR glasses, on the other hand, are still being invented. The size and brightness of the images that the glasses display must be balanced against their power requirements. Miniaturisation remains a challenge.

With its 2021 prototype AR Spectacles, Snap prioritised size and comfort. “You need a small-form factor,” says Qi Pan, Snap’s director of computer vision engineering in London. “You have to provide a lot of value for people to want to wear something on their face.” The trade-off is a battery life of just 30 minutes.

With its first “mixed reality” headset, the Quest Pro, Meta took a different approach. Mixed reality enables a much more expansive and high-resolution viewing experience compared to the letterbox vision of today’s AR glasses. Outward-facing cameras beam images of the room around the Quest Pro’s user on to tiny video screens centimetres from their eyes.

“The value of MR is that you can experience the immersion and presence of VR while still being grounded in the physical world around you,” Zuckerberg argues. Apple is rumoured to be taking a similar approach with its first headset.

But Pan warns that experiencing reality through video screens can make the user feel “one step removed from the real world”. The philosophy behind his AR glasses is different. “We don’t distort the reality around you . . . we are trying to make the real world better,” he says.

Will I really want to go?

Leo Lewis on leaving the real world behind

I was a member of the first generation to grow up with video games as part of the furniture of life. For more than four decades, I’ve participated in their evolution. So the prospect of the metaverse feels part overblown fantasy and part alluring retirement plan.

Yes, the idea works hard to evade definition — and, yes, it depends on hardware that does not yet exist. But it’s enough that, in principle, the metaverse seems at least partly aimed at people like me, and I can imagine spending a fair bit of time there when it properly opens its doors.

Without doubt, there will be enjoyment to be found in many of the metaverses that emerge. Some creators will simply project the existing fun of games into more immersive environments and with better tech; others may deliver an array of “liveable” experiences which we might not otherwise encounter or be able to afford. But what will a functioning metaverse be competing with?

The issue is partly one of ambition. Throughout their history, games have had a miraculous run, expanding from the hobby of a few computer engineers in the 1970s to a $200bn global industry with roughly three billion participants. That progression happened because games were primarily competing against other forms of entertainment for our attention, and were very, very good at it.

They nailed fun — not just inherently, but as an alternative to a whole lot of other things (books, films, TV). But while they were aggressive colonisers of real-world time and real-world emotion, games never pretended to be an alternative to the real world itself. The metaverse, whatever it is, appears to be making just such a pitch: that it can, to some extent, replicate real life and implicitly lay claim to all the fun that real life throws up.

Someone like me can immediately see a lot to be excited about in that promise, even if the current versions of the metaverse make the execution seem a long way off. Would I like to attend an entire globe’s worth of real-life sports events, concerts, festivals and so on as a virtual spectator in an immersive recreation of the actual venue, alongside thousands of others doing the same? Of course. Would I relish metaverse travel to replicant versions of Giza, Machu Picchu or the peak of Everest? Yes, if it were convincing. Would I attend more family events, school reunions and friends’ open-mic comedy nights if they were held in a holodeck style setting? It’s possible.

That presents two possible scenarios, both of which give me pause for thought. The first is that, for many reasons, the metaverse will never work properly: it will be able to create a certain type of fun, but not one that meets the ambition of genuine virtual world-building, and maybe not even one that exceeds the existing fun of games. The second possibility is that it does work and that we end up having to acknowledge the grim truth that fun is in such short supply in the real world that the virtual world is its only reliable supplier.

Leo Lewis is the FT’s Asia business editor

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