Six months have passed since Mark Zuckerberg posted a open letter announcing his vision of the metaverse and the rebranding of Facebook to Meta.
Although it painted an attractive picture – “in the metaverse you’ll be able to do almost anything you can imagine”, we were told – the letter left a lot of room for interpretation, sparking debate over what form this new virtual world might take. .
Some have argued that the Metaverse already exists (at least in its building blocks), while others say the necessary criteria won’t be met for many years. But broadly speaking, it is understood that the metaverse will consist of a series of interconnected spaces that connect the physical and digital worlds, through the fusion of traditional and extended reality (XR) platforms.
In his letter, Zuckerberg acknowledged that the metaverse “will not be created by a single company” and will require new governance models to ensure that “more people have a stake in the future.”
He also promised to offer developers and creatives low fees “in as many cases as possible”, to encourage innovation and “maximize the overall creative economy”.
However, there are already signs that this utopian vision could quickly dissolve under the weight of the monopolistic impulse. Instead, we could end up with a closed-system metaverse chaired by Meta alone, supported by its many services, powered by its server infrastructure, and accessible through its Oculus headsets.
But can a metaverse controlled by a single party be considered a metaverse?
The issue of interoperability
While the metaverse is expected to enable many new consumer experiences (from virtual concerts to a new generation of online games), it will also house commercial services designed to support collaboration.
One such application is Arthur, a virtual reality dating platform specially designed for business use. The idea is not for employees to spend their entire working day in the virtual world, but rather to seamlessly switch between media depending on the nature of the activity at hand.
“In 2022 and beyond, we have to realize that the old system was outdated long before the pandemic. The downsides we see staring at a screen for ten hours a day are related to the fact that we are not made to work in 2D, we are made to work in 3D”, explains Christoph Fleischmann, founder of Arthur.
However, realizing the full potential of the metaverse will depend on more than the ability to switch between computing platforms. Free movement between services is equally important, he told us.
“A critical element will be interoperability; the ability to move goods and identify through apps. The moment it becomes a metaverse is when we can move from a business-focused service to a social app and back again,” Fleischmann said.
“It all depends on how much we can reduce friction, because openness is key for the metaverse to become a ubiquitous technology that everyone embraces.”
Asked if this level of interoperability is feasible, given corporate tendencies to take over the metaverse, Fleischmann conceded that universal standards will have to be established — and soon.
He also said he expects technologies such as blockchain to play a role in decentralizing governance of the metaverse, strengthening democracy through technological mechanisms that are, in theory, resistant to manipulation. .
“It’s an inherently intractable challenge for a company to build the metaverse on its own,” Fleischmann told us. “Organizations can own parts of the Metaverse, much like countries in the real world, but no one can own the Metaverse alone.”
The concern, however, is that effective standardization won’t materialize soon enough to prevent the metaverse from splitting into a multitude of mini-verses, each owned and operated by a single organization, and separated by impregnable boundaries.
Another player with ambitions in the space is HTC, which makes the popular Vive series of VR headsetsone of the few legitimate competitors to Meta’s Oculus line.
In a scenario where Meta has absolute control of the metaverse, HTC risks being sidelined; the quality of enterprise hardware will not matter if it is not supported by core metaverse applications.
Talk to Tech Radar Pro At MWC earlier this year, the company’s head of hardware, Shen Ye, explained that the Metaverse is something HTC has “always built” on, long before it got a name and was elevated into the mainstream. public consciousness. The implicit suggestion was that no company has the right to own the concept.
While not asked to comment specifically on Meta’s position, Shen was also keen to emphasize the importance of open standards, both to promote broad hardware support and to enable integration of services from multiple vendors.
“At the end of the day, we would like standards to be established. There are W3 standards for the web, but there is currently no equivalent for the metaverse. We will try to leverage as many open standards as possible.
“Our goal is to aim for openness; it’s not about building a closed metaverse – we want other universes to connect to ours. We are not trying to create a walled garden here.
Like Fleischmann, Shen made a move towards the potential of blockchain to help support the decentralization of the metaverse. Specifically, he highlighted the role of cryptocurrencies, which disintermediate the Payments and NFTs, which could help enforce property rules in the virtual world.
In a demonstration of its commitment to the idea, HTC recently launched a new crypto-centric XR Navigatorbuilt on the foundations of a project abandoned by Mozilla.
“We see Vive Browser as the key to the metaverse, enabling experiences through virtual reality, computer and smartphone. Our goal is to have a cross-platform browser that supports Web 3.0 and crypto use cases,” Shen told us.
HTC also recently announced Vive Connect, a cross-platform hub space where people can display their NFTs and other digital assets and engage in virtual events. The long-term strategy is likely to establish the service as a gateway to the metaverse that users rely on.
All the good noises
So far Meta has been making all the right noises. The company says it wants to collaborate with third parties, help set open standards, prioritize cyber security and privacyand resist unfair market dynamics.
However, by publishing the open letter, Zuckerberg implicitly positioned his company (and to some extent, himself) as the founder of the metaverse. Indeed, Meta has claimed a digital domain that does not yet exist.
Given the resources and infrastructure available to the company, and the commitment of its founder alleged concern with the metaverse project, other space players may be right to be wary.
No one knows what the Metaverse will ultimately look like, but Big Tech’s history tells us it’s unlikely to be as open, fair, and inclusive as we’re told.