π Digital π Science and technology
Do video games contribute to scientific progress?

Metaverse: a huge potential audience of virtual worlds

Jean Zeid, Journalist
On October 6th, 2021 |
4 min reading time
Julien Pillot
Julien Pillot
lecturer at Inseec and Associate researcher at CNRS
Key takeaways
  • Connected with gaming, there is a social universe that exists alongside it, with over 350 million registered accounts in 2020.
  • In this 100% digital universe, companies or third-party brands can create their own add-on modules anchored in the real world – an Ariana Grande concert brought in 78 million viewers.
  • Nevertheless, today the metaverse is more of a vision than a reality because the ‘real’ metaverse would require a virtual reality headset with capabilities for sensory and immersion.
  • As such, it would have a parallel economy as well as a form of societal organisation and other institutions.
  • Hence its growing popularity, supported by the media and economic power of its biggest ambassadors, led by Facebook, Microsoft and Tencent.

What is your def­i­n­i­tion of the metaverse?

Julien Pil­lot. A com­mon­ly accept­ed def­i­n­i­tion of a meta­verse is that of a fusion between vir­tu­al worlds which inte­grate spaces/zones anchored in real­i­ty. Today, we could even talk about meta­verses (plur­al), because there are already poten­tial­ly sev­er­al in exis­tence that could fit that descrip­tion. Roblox or Fort­nite, for exam­ple, are exam­ples of first gen­er­a­tion meta­vers­es. Fort­nite is pri­mar­i­ly a Bat­tle Royale game; a very pop­u­lar game genre, which is a mix of shoot­ing and sur­vival based on the prin­ci­ple of “last man stand­ing”. Alone or in teams, a hun­dred play­ers fight each oth­er online to be the last on remain­ing. In addi­tion to bat­tle are­nas, there is a social uni­verse that con­tin­ues to exist, with over 350 mil­lion reg­is­tered accounts in 2020.

In this 100% dig­i­tal uni­verse, the design­ers can open up space for oth­er devel­op­ers – com­pa­nies or third-par­ty brands – to design add-on mod­ules anchored in the real world. For exam­ple, Fortnite’s pub­lish­er, Epic Games, reg­u­lar­ly organ­is­es social events along­side its game. These include con­certs by glob­al music stars like Travis Scott attract­ing 27 mil­lion unique play­ers or Ari­ana Grande with 78 mil­lion view­ers. They are built on real­i­ty because these vir­tu­al con­certs, before being digi­tised by Fortnite’s devel­op­ers, were estab­lished, and chore­o­graphed by real artists, who spec­ta­tors could go and see on a phys­i­cal stage. Yet, the event is tak­ing place in a vir­tu­al uni­verse, and it is the play­er’s vir­tu­al avatars who are attend­ing the con­cert instead. That’s what the meta­verse is all about.

Will it be easy to trav­el between the dif­fer­ent mod­ules of a metaverse?

Any­thing it pos­si­ble, actu­al­ly, because today the meta­verse is more of a vision than a real­i­ty. The real meta­verse, the fan­ta­sy that many gamers and game devel­op­ers have been liv­ing with for decades, is linked to vir­tu­al real­i­ty. To enter this dream meta­verse, you would have to put on a vir­tu­al real­i­ty head­set with capa­bil­i­ties for sen­so­ry and immer­sion that are obvi­ous­ly mul­ti­plied. And in this vir­tu­al uni­verse, you could have dif­fer­ent social expe­ri­ences, some of which would be anchored in reality.

Why not vis­it a muse­um that has been com­plete­ly digi­tised? Why not go to a shop where your avatar could try on T‑shirts, dress­es, jeans that actu­al­ly exist in the real world and that you could order to be deliv­ered at home? Or con­verse­ly, why not imag­ine that the T‑shirt you have just bought in a phys­i­cal shop could be digi­tised to equip your dig­i­tal avatar as well? A par­al­lel econ­o­my could be set up, as well as a cer­tain form of soci­etal organ­i­sa­tion and oth­er institutions.

How does this dif­fer from a past exper­i­ment that was both a suc­cess and a fail­ure, name­ly Sec­ond Life?

Sec­ond Life, a life sim­u­la­tion that appeared in 2003, is real­ly the first attempt at a meta­verse. The ini­tial ambi­tion of the devel­op­ers was to cre­ate, right down to the name of the game, a vir­tu­al expe­ri­ence alter­na­tive to real life in which play­ers would be giv­en total free­dom to build the uni­verse. But it remained in the infan­cy stage because the tech­nolo­gies of the time, which were not very sen­so­ry or expe­ri­en­tial, were too lim­it­ed and the game has not aged well.

The idea of the major dig­i­tal play­ers today, name­ly Face­book, is to design – in the long-term – a sort of Sec­ond Life, but with all the tech­no­log­i­cal pow­er of today, prob­a­bly with greater con­trol over the degree of free­dom giv­en to play­ers, and a clear­ly estab­lished BtoB com­mer­cial rela­tion­ship with the mod­ule devel­op­ers. Behind this, we can imag­ine pay­ment sys­tems in dig­i­tal cur­ren­cy, and final­ly, the cre­ation of a real par­al­lel econ­o­my with­in this meta­verse, which Sec­ond Life has not been able to ful­ly achieve.

In a way, with Sec­ond Life, we had the smell of the meta­verse, but we did not yet have the taste. The cur­rent visions of meta­vers­es make us sali­vate, but they will not reach matu­ri­ty for many years. The tech­no­log­i­cal leap and invest­ments need­ed are colos­sal. We can expect the first large tech­ni­cal demon­stra­tors, nec­es­sar­i­ly lim­it­ed to one type of expe­ri­ence in par­tic­u­lar, to arrive quick­ly. Notably, Face­book’s Hori­zon Workrooms.

Since the com­put­er rev­o­lu­tion, video games have often played the role of medi­at­ing new tech­nolo­gies to the gen­er­al public.

This is nor­mal because video games have become main­stream enter­tain­ment and a medi­um in their own right. This means that today, the video game has replaced the cin­e­ma in the hearts of many vision­ar­ies as a vehi­cle for inno­va­tion. Invest­ments in video games in the broad­est sense are now colos­sal. They cre­ate a way to fund inno­va­tion with the cre­ation of pro­to­types to be test­ed on the gen­er­al public.

It is the lead­ing cul­tur­al indus­try in terms of val­ue. Of course, there may always be more peo­ple lis­ten­ing to music than play­ing video games. But this does not mean that the chal­lenges in terms of inno­va­tion, in terms of tech­nol­o­gy, in terms of indus­try, in terms of employ­ment if we take the log­ic to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion, are not focused on the video game sec­tor. Espe­cial­ly since video games also have technophile play­ers who are poten­tial ear­ly users. For inno­v­a­tive com­pa­nies, this soci­ol­o­gy of gamers is a real boon for test­ing their new val­ue propo­si­tions before mak­ing them known to the gen­er­al public.

Why is the meta­verse in vogue?

Let’s start by say­ing that it’s a buzz­word because mar­keters have seized upon it. This cir­cuit is often found in the eco­nom­ics of inno­va­tion. The term has become estab­lished as long as mar­ket­ing peo­ple are inter­est­ed in it, and they are inter­est­ed because they sense that, first­ly, there is a com­mu­ni­ca­tion bud­get to be spent and, sec­ond­ly, that there is a mar­ket behind it. If there is no imme­di­ate mar­ket, then some­times the buzz­word falls into dis­use, dri­ven out by the new fash­ion. But this does not mean that the orig­i­nal con­cept has dis­ap­peared and that the com­pa­nies involved in devel­op­ing the con­cepts and tech­nolo­gies do not con­tin­ue to work. Behind the meta­verse, there is above all a tech­no­log­i­cal vision, a fan­ta­sy fuelled by vision­ar­ies of the video game, and of the dig­i­tal world at large. Hence its grow­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty, well sup­port­ed by the media and eco­nom­ic pow­er of its biggest ambas­sadors, led by Face­book, Microsoft and Tencent.

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