Race to the Metaverse: The Struggle to Shape the Future of the Internet | Science and technology news

Last week I was invited to do my hair in the metaverse.

In what was the strangest PR email I’ve received in a while, a major hair care manufacturer offered a place in a virtual salon, where my avatar would receive a treatment of luxury that the real me could only dream of.

By blurring the lines between the physical and the digital, the idea is that this will become a way for people to “test” new looks on themselves before choosing to move forward. While I don’t anticipate asking a hairstylist for anything more extravagant than a two-round back and sides and a little bit out at the top, thank you, the metaverse offers a risk-free opportunity to experiment.

And in this case, all without ever wearing a bulky headset.

Like me, there’s a good chance that when you think of the metaverse, the first thing you associate with is virtual or augmented reality. But in a week when Mark Zuckerberg’s relentless attempt to put his stamp on the concept has been highlighted by thousands of job cuts in Metathis quirky invitation was a timely reminder that it’s so much more than that.

Meta's latest headset, the Quest Pro, launched last month for $1,499
Image:
Meta’s latest headset, the Quest Pro, launched last month for $1,499

Meta’s place in the metaverse

When Zuckerberg talks about the metaverse, he’s mostly talking about Horizon, which is the virtual world his company created to host various experiences — from chatting with friends to collaborating with co-workers — while wearing a Meta Quest headset. Since last month’s release of its $1,500 “Pro” headset, you’ve probably seen Meta ads and billboards touting the metaverse as the perfect home for those exact kinds of experiences.

And there are certainly believers.

Nicky Danino, lead computer science lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire, sees herself as one of those already on board, saying the metaverse offers “incredible opportunities and possibilities” particularly in education and training settings. The university already uses virtual spaces to place students within situations and environments they would normally never be able to, while institutions such as the RAF have shown how augmented reality can improve the work of their aircraft maintenance crews from combat.

But just like rebranding Facebook as Internet Inc wouldn’t indicate ownership of the web at large, don’t let Zuckerberg renaming it Meta make you think his vision is all there is when it comes to the metaverse. What Meta is building should really be seen as a platform within the metaverse, though certainly one with a surprisingly large amount of money (tens of billions of dollars already) is being thrown at it.

But there are many others moving through space – and you’ve probably heard of quite a few.

Meta has been involved in a metaverse marketing blitz.  photo: Facebook
Image:
Meta has been involved in a metaverse marketing blitz. photo: Facebook

For example, there is Fortnite by Epic Games. It’s no longer just a space where 100 players can parachute onto an island and kill each other, but it also allows them to create their own games and even attend concerts – real megastars like Ariana Grande have performed here. and Travis Scott, taking to the stage in a fever dream of brand synergy that sees millions of fans able to look like anyone from Princess Leia to Neymar.

Speaking of brands, that’s where you’ll find some of the metaverse’s biggest advocates. Last December, sportswear giant Nike bought a company called RTFKT, which was launched to create digital goods such as virtual clothes, collectibles and NFTs. Its first post-acquisition product was the Nike Cryptokicks, a pair of digital trainers designed to be customized and displayed online.

And then there are virtual spaces like Decentraland, one of the largest slices of the metaverse pie thus far, which is probably the closest you’re getting right now to living a life completely separate from your real one. As Sky News found out earlier this yearpeople in Decentraland are spending thousands of pounds on parcels of land to call their own.

It’s somehow the ultimate utopian vision of a decentralized metaverse, where people own what’s theirs and can monetize it all themselves, taking it with them wherever they go, with no strings attached or corporate overlords attached. It’s a view that wouldn’t allow any company, not even one named after the metaverse itself, to rule the entire court.

Indeed, for Immersive Wire’s Tom Ffiske, the idea of ​​”interoperability” between metaverse platforms is absolutely critical to its viability: there can’t be a single metaverse to rule them all.

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Would you buy virtual land?

‘The Race for the Future of the Internet’

Now, this all probably sounds absolutely insane to many people born before the turn of the millennium. What makes Horizon different from Second Life (a virtual online chat room inhabited by avatars) of 20 years ago? Why would Ariana Grande want to perform in a video game? You might be puzzled as to why people are excited enough to queue up for sneakers in real life, let alone buy pairs they can’t even put on their feet.

You might be right to think it’s completely insane – the truth is, we don’t know yet. The one sure thing is that these perhaps brilliant, perhaps baffling ideas are here to stay.

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“The race for the metaverse is about the race for the future of the internet,” says Professor Yu Xiong, director of the Surrey Academy for Blockchain and Metaverse Applications at the University of Surrey.

“The areas of virtual/augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and blockchain all require a time-consuming skill maturation process. Currently, the metaverse is facing issues with battery limits, slow internet connections, and the disappearance of ‘unstable blockchain.

“However, in 10 years time, once we have advanced the battery, used 6G for data transmission and the blockchain has matured, I have absolutely no doubt that the metaverse will be the future. As a result, these companies need to understand that their billion-dollar investments will have little or no returns until then.”

This latest comment is a sharp jab at Meta, which has seen its metaverse strategy eviscerated by financial analysts as it seeks to brute-force its way into what represents a long-term sea change in the way we interact with the internet. .

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Is this the end of “big tech”?

Gen Z is the key to all of this

Even metaverse proponents agree that when it comes to Zuckerberg’s “go big or go home” approach, it’s an extremely risky case to try to run before he can walk. He seemed to be thinking of the pandemic as an accelerator, a time leap that would see us embrace a decade of technological change in the blink of an eye, and broadened Meta’s ambitions as a result. Our willingness to return to pre-COVID comforts took him by surprise.

“They’ve built up faster and spent more than any other metaverse and probably haven’t gotten as much traction,” is Cudo founder Matt Hawkins’ candid assessment, yet he believes the metaverse is “the natural next stage” in a transition that it is seen the younger generations growing up in an increasingly digital world.

“Gen Z have grown up exclusively in a digital world and very often value digital assets more than real world assets. The idea is that you can take it with you and you can show it to the world, so if you spend £1,000 on a photo and Stick it to your bedroom wall, no one will see it. If you buy a digital version, you can show it to the world.”

Again, this isn’t a particularly new phenomenon. As early as 2004, online games like World Of Warcraft had players showing off their exotic pets and epic armor. , and then hang out with their friends to compare looks.

Twenty million people have watched The Device in Fortnite
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Fortnite has become a hub for live events and a place for people to dress up and show off with friends

The promise of the metaverse is to blur the lines between our digital and real lives, to the point that the former may be the one we are most proud of. The same generation that fears they’ll never have enough money to climb the housing ladder may decide it’s better to spend the money on a digital home to call their own.

After all, £5,000 is going to go a bit further in Decentraland’s housing market than Rightmove (although, somewhat ironically, Spitfire Homes has just become the first UK homebuilder to create a show home in the metaverse).

Photo: Spitfire Homes
Image:
Photo: Spitfire Homes

John Needham is the president of esports at gaming giant Riot Games, and previously oversaw an augmented reality project at Microsoft called Hololens, which blends the meta and physical worlds via a headset that overlays effects and digital objects in real space .

“Millennials and Generation Z are on their phones all day, their presence is defined by their digital presence,” she said.

“The game scratched what [the metaverse] it will seem for a long time, with MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) featuring games like The Sims. I think doing that, on a human scale, will require much better technology than we have now.

“But you see all the signs that your digital persona is becoming more and more important, it’s going to evolve to become the most important thing. I don’t know if it’s this generation or the next generation, but I think it’s inevitable.”

BAE Systems and the RAF are collaborating with AR to improve aircraft maintenance
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BAE Systems and the RAF are collaborating with AR to improve aircraft maintenance

Whether it’s education, industry, or just dancing with friends in an online concert, it’s clear that we’re increasingly dipping our collective toe into the possibilities the metaverse could offer.

For Cudo’s Matt Hawkins, all that’s missing is a eureka moment. As access to information and e-commerce brought people to the internet and connections brought us to social media, what brings us en masse to the metaverse?

Zuckerberg seems determined to make it, and seems poised to make or break Meta to find out.