Recent statements by American Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft’s video game division, have raised many questions, well beyond the circle of gamers. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he stated bluntly that a metaverse was nothing more than “a poorly constructed video game. Operating in a metaverse that looks like a living room is really not how I want to spend my time,” he said. However, he added that this technology was still in its infancy, and that it would all “evolve”. Are these assertions to be read as a peremptory position or as an affirmation of an unknown reality?
Video games are already metaverses
Since its birth in the research laboratories of the 1950s and 1960s, the video game has been a faithful ambassador of new technologies. Even today, it is still the ideal way of bringing certain innovations to the general public. From the computer revolution to virtual reality, the video game is a born evangelist, as Raphaël Granier de Cassagnac, writer, researcher at the CNRS in particle physics and director of the “Science and Video Games” chair supported by École Polytechnique (IP Paris) and Ubisoft, points out.
In fact, Phil Spencer makes an observation that is well known to gamers. Metaverses have been around for many years in the entertainment industry. In 1993, Steve Jackson Games launched a massively multiplayer game, or MMO, called The Metaverse. Today, avatars of League of Legends, Roblox or World of Warcraft roam virtual worlds, meeting, chatting, trading, and having great adventures.
The video game is the ideal way to bring certain innovations to the general public.
By establishing remote interactions in a virtual world thanks to unprecedented means of communication, the emergence of social communities has not only heralded Facebook and Twitter, but also the metaverse in a playful and popular way. This is the meaning of Phil Spencer’s words. But the limit of such a discourse lies in the very characterisation of the metaverse, which goes far beyond its exclusively playful use.
A metaverse open to all…
With the reclassification of Facebook as a Meta, many people have taken Mark Zuckerberg’s definition for granted, i.e. a virtual space that anyone can visit using virtual reality headsets and controllers. The metaverse is infinitely more accessible. If it is indeed a persistent virtual universe, permanently open, where each individual can go via his or her avatar to be in the company of other people who are themselves distant from each other, virtual reality headsets are not at all necessary.
Clément Merville, president of the company Manzalab, relies on cognitive science to maximise the feeling of presence. This impression is based on three pillars. The first is “the impression of presence of oneself in this universe”, he says. The more the avatar resembles its owner, the more easily an individual can become incarnated in this virtual world. The second pillar of the metaverse “is the feeling of spatial presence, i.e. of the environment in which the avatar is located”. What cognitive science recommends is that it should be realistic, as credible as possible. The avatars’ attention must not be diverted by a dissonant environment.
Finally, the third and last pillar is to take into account the presence of others, the feeling of community, and it is based on the means of communication made available to the participants. While for Clément Merville, we will never be able to achieve the intensity of the feeling of presence in the real world, the metaverse can come close by making communication as natural as possible and by rediscovering the sense of informality that it is imperative to recreate, those moments of impromptu exchange that are the cement of social life.
Zuckerberg does not have a monopoly on the metaverse
This cognitive structuring is a far cry from Mark Zuckerberg’s vision, where the audience, advertising, NFTs and video games take precedence. And for good reason. Before being a film by director Steven Spielberg, Ready Player One was an anticipation novel by Ernest Cline. A few months before publishing his book, the author wanted to compare his vision of the metaverse with that of the Californian start-up world. He went to meet Mark Zuckerberg on the one hand, and Palmer Luckey on the other, the young creator of the company Oculus, which had just brought virtual reality headset technology up to date with the computing power of the moment.
Ernest Cline adjusted the characteristics of the metaverse described in his novel after these two meetings. A few years later, Facebook bought the company Oculus for two billion dollars. The plan to create a playful and lucrative metaverse had already existed for a long time at the head of the American company. But the Oasis of the book and film Ready Player One is far from being within our reach. In addition to the sight and hearing covered by the headsets, this type of metaverse would need to speak to our other senses as well, especially with touch – not to mention the impression of movement, which remains a major technical obstacle. Should we choose to stay on our screens, as Phil Spencer points out?
The metaverse could help produce ten times less greenhouse gases in the years to come.
No, because another future is already here. Companies use metaverses on a daily basis, such as Manzalab’s Teemew solution or GatherTown’s, which allows virtual events to be animated on a customisable 2D map. This type of metaverse, which uses less energy, could help produce ten times less greenhouse gases in the years to come. Indeed, all the images needed to create the environments in this type of metaverse can be calculated locally, directly on the user’s machine. The only information that would pass through the network, the heart of the production of greenhouse gas emissions, would then be minimised. This would give this emerging metaverse other dreams than advertising or NFTs.