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.