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Explainer | What is a Metaverse and why is everyone talking about it?

Facebook, Epic Games and other companies are investing significantly in creating a metaverse, which for long was a term found only in dystopian science-fiction novels. What it means is that instead of interacting with your friends online as is the case now, you can meet them in a digital universe in your respective digital avatars, using a virtual reality headset or other device

August 18, 2021 / 02:10 PM IST

On July 28, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said during the company's earnings call that it would transition from a social media company to a metaverse company, renewing the debate on this topic.

To be sure, the very idea of a metaverse isn’t new even if is more often than not found in dystopian science fiction novels. Going by tech CEO commentaries in recent times, though, it might not remain that way for long.

This explainer aims to decode the metaverse, what is brewing in this space and why there is a lot of noise around the topic.

What is a Metaverse?

For a long time, metaverse was just a term in the 1992 dystopian novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Inside Snow Crash’s metaverse, individuals appear in digital avatars in a virtual world complete with companies, houses and anything that resembles the real world. The main character Hiro Protagonist, a hacker and pizza delivery boy, escapes to this metaverse.


Another book -- later a movie directed by Steven Spielberg -- that popularised this concept was Ready Player One. The 2011 book by Ernest Cline was set in 2045, where people escape to a virtual reality game as the real world is plunged into crisis. In the game, you interact with fellow players and team up with them.

The 2013 Japanese series Sword Art Online (SAO), based on a science-fiction light novel of the same name by Rei Kawahara, went a step forward. Set in 2022, in the game, technology is so advanced that if the players die in the virtual reality world they would die in real life too, leading to government interference.

Though the world created in the SAO is a little extreme, a metaverse is not limited to these definitions from science fiction. It could be a lot more, or less, as the ecosystem evolves. As explained by Zuckerberg during the earnings call last month, “It's a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. You can kind of think about this as an embodied internet that you're inside of rather than just looking at. We believe that this is going to be the successor to the mobile internet.”

What it means is that instead of interacting with your friends online as is the case now, you can meet in respective digital avatars, using a virtual reality headset or any other device, and get inside any virtual environment, be it an office, café or even a gaming centre.

Why are we talking about it now?

The sudden focus, to a large extent, could be attributed to the recent commentaries by tech CEOs.

During Microsoft's earnings call last month, CEO Satya Nadella said, “As the digital and physical worlds converge, we are leading in a new layer of the infrastructure stack, the enterprise metaverse.”

Soon after, Facebook's Zuckerberg spoke about the next phase of growth for the social media company, with a metaverse at the heart of it. “In addition to being the next generation of the internet, the metaverse is also going to be the next chapter for us as a company. In the coming years, I expect people will transition from seeing us primarily as a social media company to seeing us as a metaverse company,” he said during the earnings call on July 28.

Has Facebook already started working on a metaverse?

Yes. The company has set up a team of hardware, gaming and virtual reality  experts to build the metaverse. On July 26, Andrew Bosworth, Vice President of augmented and virtual reality, Facebook, said in an FB post, “Today we are standing up to a Metaverse product group that is bringing my organization together to focus on building responsibly.” This group includes Vishal Shah, executive from Instagram, Vivek Sharma, VP -- FB Gaming, and Jason Rubin, VP of Play and Content, Facebook Metaverse group.

Are there other companies working in this space?

As pointed out earlier, Microsoft has said it will work on an enterprise metaverse, but has not shared more details. Nvidia, a computer graphics firm, is also investing in this space. But the most interesting firm that is working on a metaverse is Epic Games, which owns the popular online game Fortnite. In April 2021, Epic Games announced a $1 billion funding round to support its long-term vision of creating a metaverse.

How will this metaverse work and eventually look?

It is not clear yet how exactly it will look. According to Zuckerberg, “Creation, avatars and digital objects will be central to how we express ourselves, and this is going to lead to entirely new experiences and economic opportunities.”

So, it could be that you could be watching a movie with your friends in a virtual theatre, transacting using cryptocurrency, or doing an interview in your digital avatar, sitting across the interviewers, in a space that resembles an office with lifts, cafeteria and workers milling about. It might be a totally different world.

But to enable a digital universe, companies will have to work on a combination of technologies such as augmented and virtual reality, to start with, that will be a lot more complex given the massive amount of computing bandwidth required to enable millions of users to access the metaverse. “There will need to be new protocols and standards, new devices, new chips, new software -- from rendering engines to payment systems and everything in between,” Zuckerberg said.

In a blogpost, Matthew Ball, Managing Partner of EpyllionCo, an early-stage venture fund, said: “The Metaverse will require countless new technologies, protocols, companies, innovations, and discoveries to work. And it won’t directly come into existence; there will be no clean 'Before Metaverse' and 'After Metaverse'. Instead, it will slowly emerge over time as different products, services, and capabilities integrate and meld together.

Does this mean that you work on multiple technologies and integrate them?

To start with, yes. But it is way more than that. According to Ball, the internet, in its current form, is not designed for the metaverse experience and the infrastructure does not exist.

“It (internet infrastructure) was designed to share files from one computer to another. As a result, most of the Internet’s underlying systems are oriented around one server talking to one other server or an end-user device. This model continues today. There are billions of people on today’s Facebook, for example, but each user shares an individual connection with the Facebook server, not with any other user,” Ball explains in his blogpost.

But metaverse, where you will be interacting in real time in the digital universe as you do in real life, requires technology that works in real time and at scale that can handle not just a hundred or a thousand but millions of people. This translates to massive computing infrastructure, which is a challenge that companies need to solve

According to Ball, this could take decades to evolve.

Is technology the only challenge?

No. It is only a part of the issue. Like with any technological disruption that impacts human lives and how they interact, one cannot discount the impact metaverse will have on our lives. Take for instance, the evolution of social media such as Facebook. Far from connecting with friends, the company have come under scrutiny for hate speech and resulting violence, anti-trust lawsuits for abuse of dominance, and privacy and security breaches.

The metaverse, too, will have similar issues related to data security. According to Ball, “The metaverse will need altogether new rules for censorship, control of communications, regulatory enforcement, tax reporting, the prevention of online radicalization, and many more challenges that we’re still struggling with today.”
Swathi Moorthy
first published: Aug 12, 2021 04:03 pm
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