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The “metaverse” is back in the headlines. Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that Facebook “will effectively go from … being a social media company to being a metaverse company.” Facebook plans to create “an embedded Internet”, powered by its Oculus headsets and bringing together the company’s platforms in the virtual space. And Facebook is not alone, since Epic games, Disney, and other corporations are also investing billions in their virtual worlds.
Is this metaverse talk exciting? Sure. Is this new? Hardly.
The term metaverse is almost 40 years old. Coined by science fiction author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow crash, the metaverse was his name for the convergence of physical reality and virtual space. The idea was a shared and persistent environment that blurred the digital and the physical for all who entered. This concept is as attractive today as it was in 1992, but why are the big players in games and technology rediscovering the metaverse today?
The generational change that brings big technology to the metaverse
My son just turned 11 and among his gifts was a small cash gift from his grandfather. Since he was free to spend his birthday money on whatever he wanted, he 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. Rendered pixels on a screen? Seriously? I asked him gently 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 it to me, his mother, his siblings … and of course everyone he played with online.
I tell this story to illustrate the generational shift that drove big tech’s rediscovery of the metaverse: younger people are more than willing to pay real money by entirely virtual elements. And it’s not just about kids and teens – the explosion of interest in non-fungible tokens (NFTs) represents the grown-up version of unique virtual goods that have real cash value. While NFTs can be essentially anything digital, they are generally digital art or souvenirs such as Jack Dorsey’s first tweet (sold for $ 3 million).
So why are all these digital products worth real money to their buyers? The same reason my son wanted to show off his shiny new pixels to everyone who would listen: the value of digital products comes from as many people as possible seeing that you have them. Put in terms that my older generation could understand, you don’t buy a Ferrari because you need to get to places quickly. You buy a Ferrari because it looks amazing and you want to look amazing in it. Without a gaping crowd of onlookers, it’s just a fast (and expensive!) Car, not the status symbol it should be.
What Facebook doesn’t understand about the metaverse
The increasing value of digital items in the real world helps explain why the metaverse is all the rage, but we must remember that the basis for the value of these digital items is social. Without a large audience to look at your avatar or NFT skins, these items are just invisible pixels on a screen. And to maximize the audience for digital goods, the metaverse must be open and cross-platform. Otherwise, these digital products are like a Ferrari buried under garbage in your garage.
This need for an open, cross-platform experience is why Facebook’s metaverse initiatives will fail. Everything Facebook does is within a closed experience controlled by its engineers and administrators. Even if you want to use your Oculus headset to access a third-party VR app, you must log in with a Facebook account. I understand why the company does this, as its lifeblood is unrestricted access to user data. Zuckerberg likely sees this metaverse expansion as a way to more fully immerse his user base in Facebook and get even more data and dollars from them.
However, Facebook’s spirit of top-down control is the exact opposite of what a thriving metaverse needs. Imagine the reactions of people like my son who want to show off new skins for their metaverse avatars, only to find that their friends outside of Facebook can’t see them and will only get responses from Facebook’s custom echo chamber. It’s safe to assume from Facebook’s story that the company will always prioritize a strictly controlled environment over an open metaverse. In short, do we really want a metaverse owned by Facebook, or someone else?
Imagining a better metaverse
I’m not writing this to join the online crowd criticizing Facebook’s metaverse vision, but because I’m legitimately excited about the potential of metaverse technology. My company has many clients who create virtual reality and augmented reality applications. I’ve seen firsthand how attractive it can be to fit a head-up display on a HoloLens for engineering jobs or add AR targets to run over during an electric scooter ride. I’ve also seen how sad and isolated an empty virtual world can be when there is no one in it other than internal testers.
As we envision a better metaverse, here are three basic principles you should have:
- The metaverse is open, not closed. The more cross-platform and inclusive our digital worlds are for everyone interested in experiencing them, the richer and more attractive they will be.
- The metaverse is an expansion of the physical world, not a withdrawal from it. While I enjoyed the movie “Ready Player One,” there is much more promise in a metaverse that adds new meaning to our shared physical existence than one that encourages us to play virtual reality games inside a dark, closed room.
- The metaverse should connect people, not divide them. For an open and inclusive platform to work, you need a strong community that attracts and welcomes people, while actively resisting trolls and other bad actors trying to provoke dissent.
As younger generations embrace a more digital world and drive investment in the metaverse, I don’t want to be an old skeptic missing out on the fun. Instead, I want companies like mine to take seriously their responsibility to make this new world the best it can be. Rather than just building a metaverse that we can control and capitalize on, let’s make one that is better than the world we have now: open, expansive, and connective.
Jerod Venema is the founder and CEO of the real-time video communication company. LiveSwitch, which counts UPS, Match.com, Bosch and WWE among its clients.
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