A year ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced the future was all metaverse, and to mark the moment changed his company’s name to Meta.
Since that announcement and the accompanying vision of legless avatars inhabiting a soul-less corporate eyrie, Meta has given up three-quarters of its value – the better part of a trillion dollars.
So you might think, the metaverse is either not happening or is a very long way off.
In that case, you should have a look at Matthew Ball’s The Metaverse: and how it will revolutionize everything (2022, Liverlight). Ball is a former head of strategy for Amazon Studios. And he’s had a good hard look at the prospects.
One of the really useful things he offers, in a book densely packed with data and analysis, is this clear-cut definition of the metaverse –
‘A massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.’
About two-thirds of the book is given over to describing exactly what these words mean and what it will take to deliver them. Spelling it all out reveals the scale of the metaverse ambition – which dwarfs even Zuckerberg’s heroic vision and $10 billion-a-year investment.
For those with a long memory, the metaverse is a hare that started running with Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash. Or even earlier, with William Gibson’s 1984 Neuromancer, with its vision of ‘a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators’.
It was sci-fi then – and still is – but many of the building blocks are now lying around ready to be assembled.
‘But what about the content?’ you may ask. ‘What will the metaverse look like?’
Ball’s answer is to look closely at games and the technologies they have spawned. Take Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite Creative – three of the mighty integrated virtual world platforms (IVWPs) that now dominate game play.
Roblox, for instance, at the start of 2022 was generating 4 billion hours of usage per month, across 226 million average monthly players. By way of comparison, all of Netflix generates perhaps 15 billion viewing hours per month.
What’s driving this is Roblox creators – and get this: nearly 10 million users have created virtual worlds on Roblox’s platform. Meanwhile its top games, such as Adopt Me and Tower of Hell, come from small independent developers that start out with just one or two staff.
It’s an extraordinary flywheel. As Ball notes: ‘Every developer in an IVWP is effectively collaborating to populate an ever-expanding and increasingly capable network of virtual worlds and objects. As this network improves, it becomes easier to attract more users and more per-user spending, which leads to more network revenue, and then more developers and investment, and thus further improvements to the network, and so on …’
So what’s holding the metaverse back?
It’s not just the big technical challenges. It’s also the chokehold the big players have on the ‘payment rails’. Ball singles out Apple and Android as the main offenders, with their 30% bite of every transaction that passes through their gates. He notes that: ‘Even the most expensive malls in the world don’t charge rents that work out to 30% of a business’s revenue.’
30% means Apple and Alphabet earn more profit from a successful new digital business than its owners – an unwarranted tax on investment and innovation.
Some metaverse believers think the blockchain is the answer. But Ball is a sceptic, not yet persuaded that blockchains will deliver on their promise of decentralised control. Indeed, Ball is careful to distinguish the metaverse from everything Web3. Both, he says, are ‘successor states’ to the internet as we know it but the metaverse doesn’t need decentralization, distributed databases or blockchains.
Ball is bullish on the prospects and eventual value of the metaverse. He quotes figures suggesting it might grow to be worth 30% of the digital economy by 2032, or more than US$10 trillion. What’s more, companies active in its economy will grow faster and attract higher valuations than other companies in the digital and physical economies.
Notice the year: 2032. Just ten years from now (nine if you’re reading this in the new year). By then, Ball says, no one will be asking if the metaverse is happening. It will be a fact of life. Imperfect, contested, controversial, but definitely happening. And with that, ‘more of our lives, labor, leisure, time, spending, wealth, happiness and relationships’ will migrate online, until we are denizens of two worlds, the one we know and the one we don’t, quite yet.
And if that’s not a purely happy prospect, then at least we won’t have to wear a VR headset. Full immersion, Ball says, is optional.
No legless avatar for me.
The Metaverse is the second book read by the Compton book club. The club is open to anyone interested in creative people, creativity and creative business.