Is the “meta-verse” the new Eldorado that Facebook claims?

Facebook but also Alibaba and Tencent are kicking off the race for the “meta-verse” by investing several million dollars. If the concept of metaverse is not newer, the commercial use of this digital world for 30 years has known trials as regular as its failures. Can new immersive technologies transform this concept into a sustainable economic reality?

The term metaverse was suggested by Neal Stephenson in 1992 in his book Snow controlled, the author himself defines this word as a precision of the term virtual world that is too vague and dreamlike. The meta-verse is a “meta-universe”, so it exists for itself, in parallel with a real universe we live in.

Stephenson defines a metaverse in the following way, it is a meta-universe that rests on a technological base (computing), it has an economic purpose (a local currency may be relevant there, it generates transactions and profits), the participants have an interactive avatar (to convey emotions) and it must be able to represent a real amount of individuals to reinforce the similarity with the physical world (a crowd consists of several individuals and not of a message of the type “200 people are in the waiting room) .

Movie shots instantly (Matrix, Ready Player One) or games (The Sims, Clash of Clans, Fortnite) come to mind. An often utopian virtual world living its own life.

But these illustrations have far too many limitations. If the films perfectly represent the concept of the meta-verse, we are only spectators and do not participate in this universe. If the games are an interactive application, they relate to a specific audience (players of the “world simulator”, whether connected or not, of MMORPGs and depending on game consoles, computers, to which the screen-keyboard-mouse-package or the screen-joystick remains the only possible interaction.

However, some “real” metavers have emerged. In 1997, Canal + launched the first French online virtual world “The Second World”, the user received by mail a CD with the map of Paris (partially) digitized in 3D, he could install the CD on his computer, make an avatar and walk around the city at very very low speed!), meet people and meet in groups, chat via sms chat, see ads. Here we find three of the four rules proposed by Stephenson, the economic dimension boils down to advertising for real-world products.

In 2003, the well-known “Second Life” (SL) offered a more successful version of the meta-verse to the general public, taking up the basic concepts, including a local currency, the Linden Dollar (L $), which had an official listing.

The Second World and Second Life were important steps, of which SL was undoubtedly the biggest success, but the craze for the meta-verse was exhausted for two reasons: First of all, the human-machine interface (screen-keyboard-trio-mouse) is still a barrier to the user’s immersion. Finally, the speculative bubble generated by SL’s purists discouraged (the speculative craze among investors is quite far from F. Turner’s dreams in his book “at the sources of digital utopia” and destroyed the opportunists. Enrichment of social media value (in Holbrook’s sense) held finally not its promises, new social networks whose social needs were met by a particular Facebook without having the limitations of low immersion attached to the interface. (there were regions dedicated to all sorts of activities) created an explosion of metavers by downgrading it to a kind of ultra-specialized MMORPG.

But why are the web giants embarking on this race today?

The current market is certainly more mature than in the 2000s. The number of computer equipment and access to high-speed Internet is almost 90% of the population in Europe and the United States.

The pandemic has democratized human relations at a distance. Games based on the creation of a virtual world (Mindcraft, Fortnite, etc.) today reach an older and wider audience. The popularity of cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin, Shiba, etc.) downplays the use of virtual currencies and the whims of their offerings.

Finally, and perhaps above all, the democratization of virtual reality headsets makes it possible to overcome the main limit of old experiences: immersion. To be “in” the metaverse, an immersed actor and no longer a spectator actor. Here we are close to the actors of the film Ready Player One ! And what will happen if we live in a parallel world in a sustainable way? We will consume in this world! Services, goodies, avatars, special effects, so many digital services to buy in virtual currency or real dollars. A kind of super Second Life, where the consumer will be immersed in consuming, working, having fun, meeting.

For major financial players like Facebook, Alibaba, but also newcomers to the company, this is a way to retain their users by offering them an immersive experience. Buying products in an Alibaba metavers “like” in a physical store with unlimited visual creativity, here’s what embodies the online customer experience, the holy grail of e-commerce.

Facebook can rely on the loan of 2 billion daily users whose age and purchasing power place them in an economically viable goal.

Big Chinese players like Tencent are embarking on the adventure. Each company registers brand names dedicated to future metavers. Fortnite, for its part, began selling online in its universe of games a few years ago. It has a very large pool (about 350 million accounts) and younger than Facebook. Tomorrow’s buyers are today’s community players!

The metaverse concept, introduced in 1992, now sees a convergence of elements leading to a new renaissance: technical background (quality and low cost of broadband connections, lower price of VR headsets), social background (acceptance of virtual people, speed of use of social networks and online games), the crucial point will be the range of proposed services. How do you get the game (Fortnite), e-commerce (Alibaba), social relationships (Facebook), work (Teams) to meet in a virtual world? Value enrichment has rarely benefited leaders. We remember Google’s failure on social networks, Facebook in email or in online sales. Metaversen can see the emergence of new players who succeed in the convergence of services.

The conversation ______

By Stephane Bourliataux-Lajoinie, Teacher (HDR) in Digital Marketing. Director of MiM2 E-business and Digital Marketing, National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts (CNAM).

The original version of this article was published on The Conversation.