Facebook’s Meta has energized the quest for a digitally augmented world and has great resources to dominate the sector, especially as it commands app-driven mega-networks like Instagram and WhatsApp, already possessing a formidable user base for whatever it creates.
But massive multiplayer games like Roblox and Fortnite are already incubating the metaverse. They are not alone.
Harry Potter Wizards Unite is a location-based augmented reality game inspired by the Wizarding World and the Harry Potter franchise. It may have failed to survive as in early November 2021, it announced it closed, but others like Niantic, an AR game pioneer, recently announced its Lightship Augmented Reality Development Kit, which enables independent developers to create experiences in the vein of Pokemon Go. It also has the advantage of running on today’s smartphones.
At Augmented World Expo, Qualcomm and Lenovo announced they are teaming up on an initiative called Snapdragon Spaces to bridge high-end Android devices and smart glasses.
Microsoft also hopped on the metaverse train at its Ignite event, announcing that it will integrate its Mesh efforts with Teams, targeting both businesses and consumers.
Furthermore, there’s no shortage of smaller companies developing collaborative environments that could scale, including Spatial, Varjo, ExperienceCloud, and Arthur Technologies.
The founders of startup Gather believe we will eventually get to 3D world navigation, and it has started the development of its aspiring metaverse product with a 2D design that looks like it was created for the Super Nintendo game system.
Apple’s Tim Cook has expressed his bullishness on AR, hinting the company will release some form of headset/eyewear in the coming years.
Spatial: From VR to metaverse
Spatial is a startup that spent the past 2 years convincing hosted enterprise clients and their communications via VR headsets. But the company recently shifted gears to the NFT market, which carried an interesting twist to the metaverse.
According to a recent Bloomberg report, the crypto art market generated $3.5 billion in sales in the first nine months of 2021.
“The industry seems to be rallying around this idea of an interoperable, NFT-driven metaverse,” Anand Agarawala, Spatial’s co-founder and chief executive told WIRED.
Spatial’s rapid transition from hosting VR board meetings to hosting NFT auctions was more of an evolution than a pivot as their users dictated what Spatial would become.
Being able to appear as an avatar in a “holographic office” was useful as the world embraced remote work, as some office leaders did using Spatial to host virtual team events, to give remote workers a sense of presence with one another.
But what happened next was that people would not be more comfortable wearing a VR headset for extended periods of time and would rather join a Zoom meeting instead.
Another thing was that virtual museum owners started using Spatial to sell 3D product renderings and NFTs in digital galleries.
Soon, 90 percent of Spatial’s users were NFT artists using the app’s virtual environments as exhibition spaces. The company now shifted to the metaverse environment with a focus on NFT art markets.
What is the metaverse?
The metaverse is essentially an advanced version of the Internet that you are inside of, instead of merely looking at it. In this singular 3D world, you walk around as an avatar, interacting with other avatars; you can buy and sell virtual stuff, go to work, form communities, play games, and more.
Both VR and AR (augmented reality, which layers the virtual world on top of the real world) have yet to penetrate fully widespread adoption, and both are needed for the metaverse to really take off.
But today, much of human life has moved online in unprecedented ways. We now attend birthday parties on Zoom and send the host presents via Amazon. We attend company meetings on Zoom or Microsoft Teams. We spent billions of collective hours and hundreds of millions of real dollars on games like Fortnite, Roblox, and Animal Crossing.
In April 2020, 27 million unique visitors watched Travis Scott give a virtual concert in Fortnite.
So, the metaverse is already here, in bits and pieces.
Now, a competition is being waged over what the next stage of the Internet will look like, and who will control it. The latest player is haptic gloves allowing virtual objects to be touched and giving the virtual world a more realistic approach to it.
Microsoft, Tencent, Snap, Nvidia, and others have started pouring resources into developing the metaverse but in October, Mark Zuckerberg changed the name of Facebook’s parent company to Meta and virtually proclaimed it as its own.
Facebook will soon hire 10,000 workers in the EU to build out Zuckerberg’s vision. The company already owns Oculus, a VR goggles company, and is trying to coax people to buy cheap headsets as a gateway to the metaverse.
Meta’s 2014 $2.27 bn takeover of Oculus, the market leader in immersive virtual reality tech, allowed the company to develop headsets equipped with sensors capable of tracking eye movements and facial expressions.
Other metaverse creators are proponents of an idea known as “Web 3,” who envision a world in which every action or interaction we undertake online will no longer be under the purview of mega-corporations. They dream of an “open metaverse” in which online spaces are owned collectively And where every person owns their data and can reap the profit of their online creations without corporate middlemen taking a slice.
Blockchain-based worlds like Decentraland, Somnium, and Sandbox are already building out their communities under this vision, although they count their daily active users in the thousands as opposed to the tens of millions of Fortnite and Roblox.
Tim Sweeney, the CEO of Epic Games, has verbally aligned himself with this camp, even as Fortnite gains more and more market share in this new era: “As we build up these platforms toward the metaverse, if these platforms are locked down and controlled by these proprietary companies, they are going to have far more power over our lives, our private data, and our private interactions with other people than any other platform in previous history,” he said in May 2017.
Early versions of the metaverse
At its peak in 2007, Second Life from San Francisco-based company Linden labs operated a virtual world that had an estimated 800,000-900,000 active users.
Video games like Fortnite and Roblox, and virtual social worlds like Decentraland can be considered part of the metaverse already.
Decentraland has stated its intention is to recruit 10,000 workers in the European Union dedicated to metaverse development.
It is a decentralized social world run on the Ethereum blockchain, owned by its community of users.
“Land” in this world is bought via NFTs and gives the owner a stake in how the virtual world is run.