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“Metavers” is in the headlines again. Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that Facebook would “effectively transition from being a social media company to a metavars company.” Facebook plans to create “a tangible Internet” – powered by its Oculus headsets and bridging the company’s platforms in virtual space. And Facebook is not alone, as Epic Games, Disney and other corporations are also investing billions in their virtual world.
Is this metaverse thing exciting? Exactly. Is this new? rarely.
The term Metavers is about 40 years old. Metavers was named for the confluence of physical reality and virtual space, created by science writer Neil Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash. The idea was a constant, shared environment that obscured the digital and the physical for everyone who entered it. The concept is as compelling today as it was in 1992, but why are big players in gaming and technology rediscovering Metavers today?
The shift of pay takes the big tech to the metavars
My son just turned 11, and one of his gifts was a small cash gift from his grandfather. Since this birthday money is free to burn anything he wants, I couldn’t wait to see what he would buy. So imagine my reaction when he decided to buy new skins for his Call of Duty avatar. Pixels presented on the screen? Seriously? I lightly asked if he was sure he wanted to buy something digital that could not be removed from the PC. Without hesitation, he replied “Yes!” And once he bought and added his new skins for the game, he wanted to show me, his mom, his siblings …
I am telling this story to explain Pay’s shift driving. Big Tech’s re-discovery of metavars: young people are willing to pay real money for virtual things. And it’s not just children and adolescents સ્ the explosion of interest in non-fungal tokens (NFTs) represents a grown version of unique virtual goods with real cash value. While NFTs can be essentially anything digital, it’s usually digital art or memorabilia like Jack Dorsey’s first tweet (which sold for 3 million).
So why do all these digital goods have real money value for their buyers? This is the reason my son wanted to show everyone his shiny new pixels that will listen: The value of digital goods comes from as many people as possible that you have. In a way that my older generation can understand, you don’t buy a Ferrari because you need to get places quickly. You buy a Ferrari because it looks amazing and you want to look amazing in it. Without a crowd of spectators, it’s just a fast (and expensive!) Car, not a status symbol.
Don’t understand what Facebook is all about
The growing real-world value of digital items helps explain why metavars are prevalent, but we must remember that the foundation of value for these digital items is social. Without a large audience staring at your avatar skins or NFT, these things are just invisible pixels on the screen. And to maximize the audience for digital goods, the metavarus must be open and cross-platform. Otherwise, this digital goods is like a Ferrari buried under the junk in your garage.
This requirement for an open, cross-platform experience is why Facebook’s Metavers initiative will fail. Everything that Facebook does is within a closed experience controlled by their engineers and administrators. If you want to use your Oculus headset to access third-party virtual reality applications, you must also sign in with a Facebook account. I understand why the company does this, because its life is the unrestricted access to blood user data. Zuckerberg probably sees this meta-extension as a way to more fully immerse his user base in Facebook and get more data and dollars from them.
However, Facebook’s principle of top-down control is exactly the opposite of the needs of affluent metavars. Imagine the reactions of people like my son who want to show off new skins for their metavars avatars, just to find their friends outside of Facebook they can’t see them and they will only get feedback from Facebook’s custom-built echo chambers. It is safe to assume from Facebook’s history that the company will always prefer a tightly controlled environment over open metavers. In short, do we really want Facebook – or someone-owned metavars?
The idea of better metavars
I’m not writing to join the online pile-on criticizing this Facebook’s Metavers Vision but because I’m legally excited by the prospect of Metavers technology. My company has a lot of customers who make VR and AR applications. I’ve seen before how exciting it can be to put a head-up display on a hololance for engineering work or to add AR targets to drive during an electric scooter ride. I also saw how miserable and isolated an empty virtual world can be when there is no one but internal testers.
As we better envision metavers, here are three key principles:
- Metavers are open, not closed. The more our digital worlds are cross-platform and inclusive for everyone interested in experiencing it, the richer and more attractive it will become.
- Metavers is an extension of the physical world, not a retreat. While I enjoyed the movie “Ready Player One”, Metavers has a lot more promise that puts new meaning to our shared physical existence that encourages us to play VR games in a dark, closed room.
- Metavers should connect people, not divide them. For an open and inclusive platform to work, it needs a strong community that attracts and welcomes people – while actively opposing trolls and other bad artists who try to create divisions.
As the younger generation adopts a more digital world and invests in metavars, I don’t want to be a skeptical older person who happily misses out. Instead, I want my new companies to take seriously their responsibility to make this new world better. Instead of just creating a metavars from which we can gain control and profit, let’s make the world better than we have it – open, expansive and connective.
Jarrod Venema is the founder and CEO of the real-time video communications company LiveSwitch, which counts among its clients UPS, Match.com, Bosch and WWE.
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