Internet giants, such as Meta, Microsoft and Google; major high street brands, the likes of Adidas, Gucci and Samsung; and banks like HSBC and JP Morgan as well as tech giants like Siemens are all moving into the metaverse. Only there is not one metaverse, there are lots, at least potentially. As yet there is nothing that fulfils all the criteria to be a ‘metaverse’. The aspirations are far from a reality. Meta’s president of global affairs and former UK deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has said: “These innovations aren’t going to happen overnight. We’re in the early stages of this journey. Many of these products will only be fully realised in 10–15 years, if not longer.” The Metaverse can perhaps best be described as a direction of travel, a journey several major players in the software field have embarked upon and are in the process of investing very substantial sums of money in bringing it into existence.
So, the question is not what is a metaverse but what might a metaverse be at some point in the future? The expectation is that it will be an immersively-experienced virtual world; a three-dimensional environment in which you, as a digital avatar, can be highly interactive with people and objects; and entry will probably be via some form of headset. Most also hypothesise that the metaverse worlds will be persistent, continuing to exist when the individual users are not on-line; infinite, supporting massive numbers of users; and real-time, providing live experiences, maybe even with avatars reflecting real-world facial expressions and body language. Some also imagine levels of interoperability that will allow users to move avatars and digital assets between different metaverses on different platforms. This latter has moved a little closer with the recent formation of the Metaverse Standards Forum, which has been joined by some, but by no means all, of the major players including: Adobe, Alibaba, Epic Games, Khronos, Meta, Microsoft, NVIDIA, Sony and the World Wide Web Consortium. Most notably absent are Google and Apple but other major players not yet signed up include Niantic, Decentraland, The Sandbox and Roblox.
Buying into the evolution
The metaverse and Web 3, which to many are interchangeable, are seen as the natural evolution of the World Wide Web, as it moves on from Web 2, where its orientation evolved from presentation to increasingly user-generated content and a participatory culture. It proposes that in the near future a sizeable number of us will create a parallel life in metaverses via our avatars and will want to buy ‘land’ (investments have already topped $500m) – build homes, cafés, venues, offices, laboratories and so on; create cultural experiences and digital assets; as well as socialise and collaborate on creative, social or commercial projects. Recent developments have made possible the potential for such things as blockchain-powered, decentralised metaverses, where there is no single entity in overall control. Blockchain also enables non-fungible tokens (NFTs) – certificates of ownership for digital assets that exist on the blockchain and can be bought and sold using cryptocurrencies, which ultimately may have real world values as well as value in the virtual world.
Where are we now?
Artificial intelligence (AI) is making an enormous contribution to the potential for the metaverse to be persistent, responsive with, for example, functionality of non-player characters and through analysing images to generate realistic avatars with different expressions, clothes, and characteristics. Engineers and software developers are working on areas such as building infrastructure: cloud, edge computing and photogrammetry pipelines (software that utilises images to create 3D renderings). Developing the AR and VR interface headsets, sensors and gloves, or their successor devices necessary to access the metaverses, are achieving mixed results and remain very crude tools, in their present form, for the kind of accessibility and duration of engagement envisaged. Key fundamental methodologies such as cryptography protocols, non-fungible tokens (NFT) are gaining ever more traction to make trading possible and build economies in the virtual world. Other tools envisaged, but not yet invented, for holograms and for users to touch and manipulate digital objects in the metaverse, have also yet to appear. As always, answers may or may not be found, sooner or, potentially, very much later.
Some endeavours will inevitably turn out to be dead-ends and investors in those will lose money. Other concepts will not find the large numbers of interested users hoped for, so will become niche backwaters. The ultimate goal of fully functional, mass appeal virtual worlds in which people enjoy parallel existences may turn out to be just enhanced gaming worlds. Daily outputs of engineering and computer science will form the core pillars of the metaverse and their successes and failures will constantly adjust the aspirations and goals for the metaverse. It might enable life-changing collaborations that produce medical breakthroughs, cheap energy and increased leisure time for all or free mankind to travel the universe as an avatar. The future is always very difficult to predict.
There are some scenarios where current virtual realities are evolving quite rapidly. In scientific research, computer simulation has become a common practice. Scientific theories are being proven and tested in computer environments rather than conducted in physical laboratories. Virtual reality is reducing physical limitations and facilitating collaboration on experiments. Participants can dynamically change the parameters and utilise the power of cloud computing systems to visualise results. This saves material preparation expenses and provides a safer and more effective working environment. The ever growing use of digital twins in design, manufacturing, operations and customer support is moving into the metaverse. Here the concept of the digital twin is enhanced and expanded, envisaging a new wave of work that can only be done expeditiously and cost-effectively in virtual worlds.
The future: virtual or real
Metaverses have the potential to enable virtual worlds to expand beyond the gaming genre to encompass all manner of social and commercial activities. Some of these will pave the way for things to exist in the real world but others will only ever exist in the metaverse. While Citi says the metaverse represents a potential $8 trillion to $13 trillion opportunity by 2030 and could boast as many as 5 billion users, there is never a guarantee of what technology will produce, when it will arrive or that the public will want what it delivers. We can only wait and see. The idea of the metaverse is ambitious. The attempt to make it a reality will undoubtedly produce many innovative contributions to life in the real world and may provide a viable parallel existence for those that want or need one.
Tran Hoang Giang is a Founding Member of FPT Software akaChain as well as the Founder and CEO of Aura Network.