On the Tracks

of the Metaverse _

If you have been around Earth in 2021, it is very likely that you have heard of the “Metaverse”. It was possible to encounter the word on the radio, on television, in entertainment podcasts, on social media, online articles and even in generalist written press. The “Metaverse” made a remarkable entrance in 2021. It triggers curiosity, strong enthusiasm and sometimes concern. But if you are maybe now familiar with this word, it is still hard to understand and explain what really is, at core, the “Metaverse”.



A short history of the word “Metaverse”


Most times, it is only after creating a new concept or an invention that we choose a name for referring to it. But for the word « Metaverse », it is quite the opposite, we need to investigate. What is behind it? Let’s try to follow the tracks of this word’s genesis and its semantics and see if we can get an answer.


The tracks take us back to 1992. The American writer Neal Stephenson releases his third novel, a science-fiction opus with the name of Snow Crash. In the story, the word refers to an alternative virtual world where characters escape from reality to have surreal experiences. This portmanteau word is a combination of “meta” (metá: “beyond, near, around” in ancient Greek) and “-verse” (versum: “turn” in ancient Greek) like in “universe”. An alternative world where people can escape from reality, it probably reminds us of some great science-fiction hits such as Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg’s film, 2018, adapted from Ernest Cline’s novel Player One, 2011), eXistenZ (David Cronenberg’s film, 1999) and many more. In Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson popularises a concept soon to become a reference for other authors but also for other figures, for instance one of Google Earth’s founder, and one of Oculus co-creator.


Even though projections on this word may vary, we can still extract a few key notions: the “Metaverse” is a virtual place, in three dimensions, connected in real time, where users are represented by avatars. This simplified definition has the advantage of covering fictional occurrences, as well as real initiatives associated with the “Metaverse”.


Mark Zuckerberg’s vision


For a word only known by a few to surface almost thirty years after its creation, it needed a hand, one with a blue thumb. In September 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announces investing 50 million US dollars in the creation of the “Metaverse”, through his Facebook company. This represents nearly 20% of the group incomes. Zuckerberg thinks that the “Metaverse” is the next big thing, the future of communication technology after the Internet. And when one giant of the GAFAM makes such a sensational announcement, this attracts interest. The buzz machine has started, big web players join the march and claim the 50-million-dollar word as well. Zuckerberg details his project and ambitions in October 2021, at the same time as he announces a rebranding: Facebook becomes Meta. If Zuckerberg believes in the future of the « Metaverse », he holds hope to become its main reference. His subsidiary Oculus VR, one of the virtual reality headset market’s leaders also changed its name for Meta Quest.


Zuckerberg already had in mind the potential of virtual reality when he bought Oculus VR in 2014 for two billion dollars. The VR and AR (Augmented Reality) market attained 28 billion US dollars in 2021 and is the sector expecting one of the biggest growths of the decade.


It is in Meta’s best interests to invest in the “Metaverse” as incomes stagnate and even decrease, for the first time in Facebook history. On Thursday February 3rd, Facebook loses 200 billion dollars at Wall Street, a record drop in markets. Even if turnover increased by 20% during fourth trimester comparing to 2020, Facebook profits decreased of 8%. The social network also experiences a drop in users count: 4 million less users have been recorded between September and December 2021.


This decline can be explained partly by a strong competition, notably from TikTok which seduces younger users. The Chinese social medium even becomes a serious rival for Meta, as its parent company ByteDance buys Pico in 2021, the leader of VR headsets in China. In addition, the regulations concerning the use of personal data are restraining the first source of income of Facebook and Instagram platforms: targeted advertising. Since April 2021, iPhones apps are required to ask users for their consent to track their activity for advertising purposes. Users can turn off this tracking, and that may be what 70% of them chose to do. Antitrust regulations on GAFAM are strengthened in Europe with the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act, and by the American Innovation and Choice Online Act in the USA.


“The goal, for Meta, is to try to entirely manage its own platform so it would not depend on Apple or Google, a former employee considers. The “Metaverse” seems to be the perfect virgin territory for Meta to move its advertisement empire to. Will Zuckerberg succeed in attracting millions of users in his “Meta universe” and creating an audience as big as its other platforms’? We probably will only get an answer in a few years.


The Future of the Metaverse


It is not the first time that a word appears in language to describe what the “Metaverse” is, and it will not be the last. After a rise in interest in 2021, the word is already falling out of trend for a few weeks. But if this word has chances to be left out, that does not mean that the ideas, technologies, and ambitions gravitating around are to disappear with it, quite the contrary. The excitement around the “Metaverse” helped accelerating interoperability initiatives such as the adoption of the 3D file format GLTF maintained by the open consortium Khronos. The establishment of these standards is a real breakthrough on long term, like how Internet’s standards are still used since the late 90s. What is for sure, the building of an open and shared virtual world can only be envisioned in collaboration with every Internet agent, as the domination of the “Metaverse” by only one entity could not go that far.

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