Digital transformation

The Metaverse’s history shows we’re not quite ready for it

Events leading up to Facebook’s Metaverse show business should wait for technology to catch up before investing heavily in the space.

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In October 2021, Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg changed his company’s brand name to Meta to reflect what he sees as the importance of the metaverse to their business strategy.

Experienced using a virtual reality (VR) headset, the three-dimensional virtual environment lets characters (called avatars) engage in social and commercial activities much like real life. Many global business giants see the Metaverse as a huge commercial opportunity that will change how we live and work.

Should your business get involved? I believe the Metaverse’s history shows while it’s an environment you should get familiar with, it may not be the time to invest big. Here’s why.

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MMOGs have been around since the 1990s. Their popularity has risen fast worldwide with improved internet connectivity, computer power and immersive graphics. One such game, space simulator EVE Online, has seen over 60,000 players simultaneously playing. And like in the Metaverse, trading virtual items for real-world money in MMOGs has become big business.

What’s the Metaverse’s attraction?

The Metaverse has business potential because of our willingness to invest so much time and money in playing games online.

In a 2022 virtual conference on the Metaverse, Datin Lorela Chia, CEO of Haus of Stylo, Malaysia, gave examples of the fashion and games industry collaborating, like creating and selling virtual garments for avatars.

But it’s not just about buying and selling things – the Metaverse offers a way to meet, discuss or learn that’s more immersive than other online communication tools. Bill Gates said in 2021, “Within two to three years, I predict most virtual meetings will move from 2D camera image grids… to the Metaverse – a 3D space with digital avatars.”

Metaverse follows in Second Life’s footsteps

In almost every way except the VR headsets, there was a Metaverse from 2003, when Linden Labs launched virtual world Second Life. Second Life is a virtual world that lets users create avatars and settings, and teleport from one place to another in seconds.

Second Life has an estimated 800,000 users and many of the characteristics of a real-world civilization – rules, citizen rights, homes, shops, universities and events. It has many business applications like hybrid conferences, virtual project meetings and data visualization for education and collaboration.

IBM has used Second Life for internal meetings. BP for graduate recruitment and Imperial College London for virtual hospital tours.

With its functionality, maturity and alignment with business, Second Life still leads over the Metaverse. It has already delivered all the business applications envisaged for the Metaverse.

But with all its functionality and experience, Second Life hasn’t gained mainstream commercial success. So why does Mark Zuckerberg believe his Metaverse has massive disruptive potential?

What’s enabling today’s Metaverse?

The answer lies in how the internet evolved since its birth in 1983. The power of 5G and fibre, smartphones and social media have all played a role. Today’s advanced internet technologies make the Metaverse possible, but the devices and applications we use daily will determine whether it has significant commercial potential.

Second Life runs on a desktop computer and connects to a network of Linden Lab servers. It’s a security risk for businesses with network firewalls.

Second Life is also ‘synchronous:’ users only get value from being online at the same time as other users. So there are no users in most Second Life locations most of the time. To use a real-world retail analogy, there’s a lack of footfall.

This is also true for the Metaverse. Its commercial potential will depend on user numbers and where they spend time. It’s critical there’s on-demand universal access across computers, laptops and mobile devices. Perhaps ‘Web 3.0’ will be the technology that delivers on making Metaverse experiences securely accessible to a global marketplace across different devices, but especially mobile devices like smartphones.

What is Web 3.0 and why does it matter?

IT industry analyst Robin Bloor recently said, “Web 3.0 is the third generation of the internet — a global network that permits intelligent interactions between all its users and devices.”

Web 3.0 is a theoretical new blockchain-based iteration of the web. It could provide increased data security, scalability and privacy for users. It would let users publish rich media content to a global audience and make a Metaverse more commercially viable than Second Life.

By making the web more powerful, intuitive and secure, Web 3.0 could mean the volume of online users accessing and creating content grows faster. One major difference, most relevant to the Metaverse, is better handling of the 3D graphics needed for virtual worlds.

Blockchain important to Metaverse commerce

Metaverse settings are computer-generated environments or 360-degree photos and videos captured by consumer or professional cameras. These digital images and videos are now traded on the internet. Blockchain can validate ownership of these digital assets, enabling the fashion industry to sell digital garments.

In Second Life from 2005, you could create digital assets and trade them for the digital currency Linden dollars. Today, the same thing is happening in the Metaverse using blockchain and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. These latest developments, alongside artificial intelligence that connects buyers with sellers, will add to the growth of the Metaverse.

How will the Metaverse affect business?

The future shape and commercial potential of the Metaverse go beyond numbers of users. It also depends on how often they visit, for how long, where and why.

With pandemics and climate change restricting face-to-face contact and travel, applications that enable remote communication and collaboration have grown fast. Online meeting app Zoom saw daily meeting participants grow from 10 million to 300 million between 2019 and 2020, mostly from small business and personal use.

Will the Metaverse become the new virtual meeting space Bill Gates predicted? It seems unlikely for now, with the convenience and ease of use of Zoom and other online meeting platforms. More likely, the commercial potential of the Metaverse will be unlocked by applications that benefit more from immersive experiences.

The Metaverse’s business value is likely to be in virtual tours for marketing and brand development, training simulations that use virtual or augmented reality and large-scale conferences and entertainment events.

It could also be useful in mental and physical health therapies that use virtual reality and for complex 3D data visualization.

Facebook (Meta) has invested hugely in strategy based on VR headsets as the gateway to their Metaverse platform. Unlike the browsers found on every smartphone and laptop, few own or have access to a VR headset. At the moment, Metaverse suffers from the same problem that restricted Second Life – a limited marketplace, until the technology evolves to the point where VR headsets or glasses are affordable and ubiquitous.

Unlike recent disruptions like cryptocurrency, the Metaverse relies on mass adoption to be profitable for business. Several factors in the market today make mass Metaverse adoption unlikely, like low VR headset ownership and lack of systems to access the Metaverse with commonly owned devices. While businesses should closely follow the Metaverse’s development, it may be premature to invest heavily at this time. In any case, watch this space.

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About authors

David Wortley is vice president of the International Society of Digital Medicine. He consults on gamification, writes for Cutter IT journal and has been an extra on TV soap operas.