The coming battle on the metaverse

Virtual and augmented reality updates

Long before the Internet entered popular consciousness, there was the information superhighway.

The name became popular in the early 90s to describe the digital backbone that was to become a channel for communication, entertainment, and commerce. The media and telecommunications giants of the time dreamed of controlling this ubiquitous network.

What eventually emerged, in the form of the Internet, was a much more open network of networks, paving the way for a whole new class of online intermediaries.

Decades later, some in the tech world believe they can see a new realm of information shining on the horizon: the metaverse. A fully immersive virtual reality world is a place where people can pursue all aspects of life vicariously, as in a parallel digital universe.

As with the Information Highway, the first visions of the Metaverse are likely a flawed approximation of what ultimate reality will look like. What form it will take and what its first “killer apps” will be are a matter of guesswork. And, more importantly, it’s not yet decided who will set the rules and collect the profits – although today’s internet giants are in pole position.

Mark Zuckerberg has certainly placed his bet. At the end of last month, the CEO of Facebook declared that his company would one day be seen not as a social network, but as a “metaverse company”.

Given the political pressure Facebook is facing, this may seem like an attempt at distraction. But trying to shape forward-looking ideas like this has always been an important way for tech companies to prepare the market for what they plan to sell next, and Zuckerberg has been working on it for some time. It has been seven years since bought virtual reality company Oculus.

He may have to wait a little longer to get a return on these investments. For many, the idea of ​​conducting some of your most important personal and social interactions via a digital avatar in a virtual world conjures up a distant, and not particularly appealing, sci-fi future.

Yet, after the social isolation imposed on much of the world’s population by the pandemic, the idea of ​​escaping into a fully digital space no longer seems so far-fetched. If employees have embraced Zoom so easily, why not come together in a digital office?

And it’s not all or nothing. Rather than immersing users directly into a full-fledged VR world, the metaverse may well take shape more gradually. Using augmented reality to project aspects of the metaverse onto the physical world, for example, would see it first take shape as a partial digital overlay.

The end product could be an ultimate “walled garden”, a place where a single company benefits from the total immersion of users. If Facebook and other large internet companies build their own – and especially if they each sell their own proprietary hardware to access these areas – then the result could be a collection of isolated worlds, forcing digital citizens to choose where they want to go. spend most of their time. .

On the other hand, the metaverse could include a set of more closely interconnected worlds, some of them entirely controlled by their users. It would be a place where people could take their personal data, digital goods, and favorite services with them as they move from place to place.

It’s tempting to think of the internet giants as the current version of the telecommunications and media powers of the early 90s, dreaming of shaping and owning the next iteration of online media. In this comparison, it’s also tempting to think of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies as the decentralizing forces of the early internet. Crypto enthusiasts see people owning their own corners of a more fragmented metaverse, rather than throwing all their data away with a few large platforms.

Still, limiting the power of dominant tech companies won’t be easy. This will depend heavily on the outcome of the current global push for more effective regulation. It will also depend on whether the technologies underlying the crypto revolution lead to new experiences and new ways of interacting that are not available through today’s mass online services. It is still difficult to say exactly what this could be.

As it stands, today’s internet powers are in a good position to dominate a future metaverse. If that happens, they will end up with a lot more power to shape the online lives of billions of people than they currently have. What could go wrong?

richard.waters@ft.com

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