Does the meta-verse represent an inevitable future?

This is the direction several tech giants, Facebook at the forefront, want to take. A virtual world where we would do real things without moving away from home, without being there physically. But are we really ready to evolve in such a universe? Do you really have to believe that?

As soon as your meeting is over, put on some shorts and head off for a snorkeling session in a Maldivian lagoon. Tired, you decide to change air. It will be a trip to Central Park, Simon and Garfunkel give a concert there. You can not stay long, your friends are waiting for you for a meditation session in Tibet … “Imagine a virtual universe where we graft elements that have their roots in reality, that’s what a metaverse issummarizes Julien Pillot, teacher-researcher at Inseec. I can visit digitized museums in a very immersive way, attend the show given by my favorite artist’s avatar, visit a store to buy clothes that I will actually receive at home … “ In short, a lasting parallel universe that evolves, even when one is not there, and that allows for a crossroads of elements that are well rooted in the physical world. All with virtual reality headsets, sensors of all kinds, sensory combinations, odor generators and all the accessories imaginable, allow the most total immersion. Some already exist, others have yet to be invented.

Horizon Workrooms from Facebook at Oculus.© Facebook Inc.

An old idea

If the word has been in vogue in Silicon Valley for a few months, the concept is not far from having gray hair. Back in 1992, then The virtual samurai, a cyberpunk science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson. For the first time, the idea of ​​a meta-universe arises: metavers English. Two decades later, recorded in many works, it has become commonplace until it has become an axiom of dystopian fictions.

In late June 2021, it suddenly got a new spotlight when Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook, unveiled his roadmap for the coming years. “If we do wellhe tells theverge.com, for the next five years, we will no longer be considered a social networking company, but a metaverse. » The offensive had actually already begun in 2014, with the acquisition of Oculus, the specialist in virtual reality headsets. But since this summer, “Zuck” intends to work twice as hard. Billions of dollars in investment have been announced, and 10,000 of the California giant’s employees are already dedicated solely to the development of VR and metaverses.

“For the first time in the history of mankind, we have technologies that we do not yet know all the uses that it will be possible to get out of them. »

Francois-Gabriel Roussel

Researcher at the Sorbonne-Nouvelle University

Delirium of a billionaire fed to SF or credible expectation of what awaits us? What is certain is that in terms of existing technologies, we are still far from the emergence of a true meta-universe. “The experiments currently being carried out taste of it, but not the smell”, smiles Julien Pillot. It is especially on the side of video games that we approach it the most. Example with Fortnite where a Pacific arena alongside BattleRoyal-style fights features regular events featuring avatars from popular artists such as Travis Scott or Ariana Grande. Long before that, at the turn of the millennium, Second Life had already suffered the plates of a virtual universe, even met with great success. The enthusiasm was such that everyone wanted to join. Press conferences were held, the presidential candidates in 2007 had a campaign headquarters there, luxury brands wanted to show themselves there, a currency even approved transactions. Gradually, however, users became tired and became more and more rare. In 2021, Second Life still exists, populated by nostalgic witnesses of a yesteryear teeming with ingenuity.

metaverset Second Life was published in 2003.© Linden Lab

If popularity has fled, it is a fact that this project paved the way for the concept of metaverse. Just as individually do the innovative technologies that are constantly emerging. Artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies, NFT, augmented reality, 5G, quantum computer: every advancement can be considered as one of the necessary pieces of the puzzle. “For the first time in human history, we have technologies that we do not yet know all the uses that it will be possible to get out of them”thrilled François-Gabriel Roussel, honorary researcher at the laboratory “Communication, Information, Media” at the Sorbonne-Nouvelle University.

A road still filled with obstacles

Does the combination of all these elements make the impending birth of such a universe realistic? Julien Pillot is convinced that there is still a long way to go. “We are still light years away. Facebook’s most successful project to date is digitizing a workspace. It does not look like much, but still it already requires a hell of a lot of work. Designing a real metavers is millions of times harder.” The hardware requirements for a widespread virtual universe are another hurdle that needs to be overcome. It’s a matter of gigantic servers, more advanced virtual reality headsets than those currently available (lighter, cheaper to produce, provides better definition and does not cause nausea in a good portion of users), a generalization of very high speed connections … “The project is so gigantic, it involves such heavy investments that the real metavers will not be able to see the light of day for decades”, resumes Julien Pillot. To achieve this, it will also be necessary to have solved the difficult issue of the CO2 footprint. Because building them and using them can only blow the bill up. But our near future, limited by increasingly scarce fossil resources and the consequences of climate change, is already imposing an increasingly virtuous relationship with energy. It is clear that the metavers promise to increase energy consumption when every effort must be made to reduce it.

“We can perceive metavers as virtual worlds that allow very real interactions. In this, they would not represent an extension of reality, but more broadly a new reality.”

Fanny Paris

Anthropologist at the University of Lausanne

If the technical difficulties remain numerous, they do not completely question the feasibility of virtual universes. In the eyes of some researchers, the movement has already begun. At least that’s what Fanny Parise, an anthropologist specializing in contemporary worlds at the University of Lausanne, thinks: “Another world is being created, the process has begun, and it is not new. We have already moved from a physical life to a digital life. Why should the next step not be virtual? We can perceive metavers as virtual worlds that allow very real interactions. In this they would not represent an extension of reality, but more broadly a new reality. » Will the general public be enthusiastic about the idea of ​​swapping part of the world before for this other world? Possible, the anthropologist believes, as long as there is no sudden break in this social revolution. On the contrary, it is likely that we will be involved in building it: “Since the advent of the digital, individuals have taken over the tools available and created strategies to improve their experiences. Ultimately, we are as much actors as builders of this world of the future.”

In addition to these questions of feasibility, there is a question of a different nature: do the metavers represent a desirable future? To find the beginning of an answer, we must anticipate that there will be room for only one or two universes. “As with many digital services that operate on the network effect, a major player always ends up breaking away from its competitors: Google for search engines, AirBnb for renting between individuals, and so on.explains Jullien Pillot. It will be the same for the metavers, with stakes multiplied because of the huge investment they involve. » The challenge for Facebook – and the few other companies that have expressed interest in the subject like Nvidia, Sony, Epic Games… – of course is to become this future number 1. Because being the “owner” of such a universe – of data to pass through it – is the guarantee of enormous economic power and the ability to impose its own rules.

The Decentraland platform is open to the public in 2020 and is based on blockchain technology.© Decentraland

The Decentraland platform gives a glimpse of what it might look like. In this alternative world, users are acquiring virtual lands (called Land) to do what they want (games, cryptocurrencies, applications, etc.). The regulation is organized in the form of votes, where the number of votes is correlated with the number of lands owned. In short, the richer you are, the more weights the election. “Power and money are now concentrated in the hands of Gafamanalyzes Fanny Parise. Their idea is to guarantee the stability of existing models. If the shape can change, the fabric has every reason to remain the same. » Did you say desirable?

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