Race to the metaverse: The battle to shape the future of the internet

Last week I was invited to get my hair done in the metaverse.

In the strangest PR email I’ve received in a long time, a leading hair care manufacturer offered me a place in a virtual salon, where my avatar would receive a luxury treatment I could only dream of.

By blurring the lines between the physical and the digital, the idea is that this will be a way for people to “test drive” new looks on themselves before perhaps choosing to go ahead with it. While I don’t foresee myself ever asking a hairdresser for anything more extravagant than a two round back and sides and a piece off the top, thank you, metaverse offers a risk-free opportunity to experiment.

And in this case, all without ever strapping on a bulky headset.

Like me, there’s a good chance that when you think metaverse, it’s the first thing you associate with it virtual or augmented reality. But in a week when Mark Zuckerberg’s relentless attempt to put his stamp on the concept came in strong relief of thousands of cuts on Metathis bizarre invitation was a timely reminder that it is much more than that.

Meta’s latest headset, the Quest Pro, launched last month for $1,499

Meta’s place in the metaverse

When Zuckerberg talks about the metaverse, he’s mainly talking about Horizon, which is the virtual world his company has created to host various experiences — from chatting with friends, to collaborating with work colleagues — while wearing a Meta Quest headset. Since the release last month of its $1,500 “Pro” headset, you’ve likely seen Meta ads and billboards touting the metaverse as the perfect home for just that kind of experience.

And there are certainly believers.

Nicky Danino, senior lecturer in computer science at the University of Central Lancashire, counts himself among those already on board, saying the metaverse offers “fantastic opportunities and possibilities” in particular education and training environments. Universities are already using virtual spaces to put students in situations and environments they would never normally be able to, while institutions such as the RAF have demonstrated how augmented reality can improve the work of their fighter aircraft maintenance crews.

But just as rebranding Facebook as Internet Inc wouldn’t indicate ownership of the web at large, don’t let Zuckerberg renaming it Meta make you think his vision is all there is to it when it comes to the metaverse. What Meta builds should really be seen as a platform within the metaverse, albeit one with an astonishing amount of money ( already tens of billions of dollars ) being thrown at it.

But there are plenty of others moving into the space — and you’ve probably heard of quite a few of them.

Meta has been on a metaverse marketing blitz.  Image: Facebook
Meta has been on a metaverse marketing blitz. Image: Facebook

There are, for example Fortnite from Epic Games. It’s no longer just a space for 100 players to parachute onto an island and kill each other, it also lets them create their own games and even go to concerts – those who have performed include real megastars like Ariana Grande and Travis Scott , taking to the stage in a fever dream of brand synergy that sees millions of fans able to appear as anyone from Princess Leia to Neymar.

Speaking of brands, that’s where you’ll find some of the metaverse’s biggest advocates. Last December, sportswear giant Nike bought a company called RTFKT, which was launched to create digital goods such as virtual clothes, collectibles and NFTs. Its first product after the acquisition was the Nike Cryptokicks, a pair of digital trainers designed to be customized and displayed online.

And then there are virtual spaces like Decentraland, one of the biggest pieces of the metaverse pie yet, which is probably the closest you’ll get right now to living a completely separate life from your real one. As Sky News found out earlier this yearpeople in Decentraland are spending thousands of pounds on plots of land to call their own.

It’s somehow the ultimate utopian vision of a decentralized metaverse, where people own what’s theirs and can monetize it all themselves, taking it with them wherever they go – no strings attached or corporate overlords attached. It’s a vision that wouldn’t allow any corporation – not even one named after the metaverse itself – to hold sway over the entire court.

For Tom Ffiske of Immersive Wire, the idea of ​​”interoperability” between metaverse platforms is absolutely key to its viability – there can’t be one metaverse to rule them all.

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Would you buy virtual land?

“The connection about the future of the Internet”

Now all this probably sounds completely crazy to many people born before the turn of the millennium. What makes Horizon different from Second Life (a virtual online chat room populated by avatars) from 20 years ago? Why would Ariana Grande want to perform in a video game? You may be baffled as to why people are excited enough to queue for trainers in real life, let alone buy pairs they can’t even put on their feet.

You might be right to think that’s completely crazy – the truth is, we just don’t know yet. The only thing that is certain is that these possibly brilliant, possibly baffling ideas are here to stay.

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“The metaverse connection is about the race for the future of the internet,” said Professor Yu Xiong, director of the Surrey Academy for Blockchain and Metaverse Applications at the University of Surrey.

“The fields of virtual/augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and blockchain all require a skill maturation process that takes significant time. Currently, the metaverse is facing problems with battery limitations, slow internet connections, and the demise of the unstable blockchain.

“But in 10 years, once we’ve made battery breakthroughs, are using 6G for data transfer, and blockchain has matured, I have absolutely no doubt that the metaverse will be the future. As a result, these companies need to understand that their billion-dollar investments will have little or no returns until then.”

The last comment is a pointed barb at Meta, which has seen its metaverse strategy eroded by financial analysts as it tries to get to the forefront of what will be a long-term shift in how we engage with the internet.

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Is this the end of “big tech”?

Gen Z is the key to all of this

Even proponents of the metaverse agree that when it comes to Zuckerberg’s go big or go home strategy, trying to run before it can walk is an extremely risky case. He seemed to think of the pandemic as an accelerator — a time jump that would see us embrace a decade’s worth of technological change in an instant, and expanded Meta’s ambitions accordingly. Our willingness to return to the comforts before COVID surprised him.

“They’ve piled in faster and spent more than any other metaverse and probably not gained more traction,” is the blunt assessment of Cudo founder Matt Hawkins, and yet he believes the metaverse is “the natural next step” in a transition that is seen younger generations grow into an increasingly digital world.

“Gen Zs have grown up purely into a digital world and often value digital assets more than physical assets. The idea is that you can take it with you and show it off to the world, so if you spend £1,000 on a picture and put it up on your bedroom wall, no one will see it. If you buy a digital version, you can show it to the world.”

Again, this is not a particularly new phenomenon. Online games like World Of Warcraft had players showing off their exotic pets and epic armor to each other as far back as 2004. One of Fortnite’s trump cards is that people love being able to dress up as Star Wars characters, Marvel superheroes and global sports stars. and then hang out with their friends to compare looks.

Twenty million people watched The Device on Fortnite
Fortnite has become a hub for live events – and a place for people to dress up and show off to friends

The promise of the metaverse is to blur the lines between our digital and real lives, to the point where the former may be the one we’re more proud of. The same generation that fears never having enough money to get on the housing ladder may decide the money is better spent on a digital home to call their own.

After all, £5,000 will go a bit further in the Decentraland housing market than on Rightmove (although Spitfire Homes, somewhat ironically, just became the first UK housebuilder to create a show home in the metaverse).

Image: Spitfire Homes
Image: Spitfire Homes

John Needham is president of esports at gaming giant Riot Games, and before that Microsoft oversaw an augmented reality project called Hololens, which blends meta and physical worlds via a headset that overlays digital effects and objects onto a real space.

“Millennials and Gen Z are on their phones all day, their presence is defined by their digital presence,” he said.

“Gaming has scratched the surface [the metaverse] will look like for a long time, with MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) with games like The Sims. I think it will require much better technology than what we have now.

“But you see all the signs that your digital persona is becoming more and more important, it’s going to evolve to become the primary important thing. I don’t know if it’s this generation or the next generation, but I think it’s inevitable.”

BAE Systems and the RAF are working with AR to improve aircraft maintenance
BAE Systems and the RAF are working with AR to improve aircraft maintenance

Whether it’s education, industry, or just dancing with friends at an online gig, it’s clear that we’re increasingly dipping our collective toe into the possibilities the metaverse can offer.

For Cudo’s Matt Hawkins, all that’s missing is a eureka moment. As access to information and e-commerce drove people to the internet and connections drove us to social media, what brings us en masse to the metaverse?

Zuckerberg seems determined to make it his, and seems ready to make or break Meta to find out.

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