Metaverse: time for the first assessment

On October 18, 2021, Meta (parent company of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram) announced the creation of 10,000 jobs in the EU over the next five years to invest in new talent and help build the metaverse.

A year later, Mark Zuckerberg announces the elimination of 11,000 jobs, triggering the first wave of layoffs and acknowledging the most difficult changes in the company’s history.

But a recent report by McKinsey estimates the metaverse market at $5 trillion by 2030, equivalent to the world’s third-largest economy behind the US and China. The investments are estimated at more than 120 billion dollars. The Metaverse project exceeds the ambitions of any single company, no matter how large.

Recognized retailers and brands such as Nike, Balenciaga or Louis Vuitton have positioned themselves in these virtual spaces. Companies such as Microsoft, Amazon or Google have confirmed their investments. Since the situation is ambivalent, let’s decipher the differences in the perception of the metaverse and examine the ingredients that can contribute to its success.

Why doesn’t the metaverse meet the expected success?

The first source of ambiguity is linked to the simple fact that we do not all agree on the definition of the metaverse. The metaverse is a concept under construction, and no one really knows what it will look like, or even what should be included behind this term. Web 3, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), and blockchain are all modern creations that revolve around the metaverse. The lack of knowledge about these technologies and the blurred boundaries between these concepts and metaverses do not make it easier for the public to understand.

In May 2022, Ipsos published the results of a survey indicating that only 28% of French people were familiar with the concept of metaverse. While large corporations, states and the EU are investing, 62% of the French still do not see the point of virtual worlds. It is therefore important to inform citizens to better understand the metaverse and the associated technologies.

The mission’s interdepartmental report on the development of metaverses published in October 2022 defines the latter as “an online service that provides access to real-time, shared and persistent 3D space simulations where we can live immersive experiences together”.

This definition places the virtual experience at the heart of the matter. However, virtual reality headsets are still little used and have obvious limitations (cost, autonomy, weight). In a desire for inclusion, the major players present a metaverse that is accessible via a virtual reality headset, but also from a browser or a mobile application. While immersion is necessary according to some actors, according to others it would be a brake on the democratization of the metaverse.

An example of a metaverse: Roblox.
An example of a metaverse: Roblox

To date, several hundred metaverses can be identified, and the largest (Roblox, Second Life, Zepeto, Minecraft, Fortnite) have millions of users. The colossal numbers that we see circulating are inflated by the success of massively multiplayer online gaming. However, one may wonder if the latter can be considered metaverse. This issue needs to be discussed, especially since some articles have highlighted the very low participation of platforms regularly cited as metaverse (Decentraland, The Sandbox). Although these numbers have been contradicted, we are not reaching the level of engagement we were hoping for.

What does metaverse success require?

Metaverse adoption is too slow for observers. Anticipation is high as big players showed up early and made a long-term bet. Despite the record high of 400 million monthly active users by 2022 (equivalent to the number of Internet users at the turn of the year 2000), mass adoption is a long way off. Recently at the DealBook Summit, Mark Zuckerberg hinted that the metaverse would not be profitable until 2030 at the earliest.

A study by Gartner shows that 25% of people will spend an hour a day in the metaverse by 2026. Its method bicycle hype (curve describing the development of a new technology) placed the metaverse as a new technology. It estimates that its productivity plateau will be reached in more than ten years.

Businesses looking for better productivity can be a key driver of adoption. A large number of players believe that the metaverse is about to revolutionize remote work. The health crisis has largely contributed to the acceleration of the adoption of this type of format. According to a Forrester report, at least three of the next four flagship solutions, Zoom, Slack, Webex and Google Apps, will add metaverse-like functionality by 2023. A recent PwC survey revealed that 51% of companies are in the process of integrating virtual reality in their strategy or have already integrated virtual reality in at least one industry. Institutions of higher education have also identified beneficial effects of the metaverse.

Technology usage patterns remind us of the importance of usability criteria as well as usability. To date, these have not really been fulfilled. The effort to enter the metaverse will no longer be a brake when our motivations are sufficient. For those who have taken the leap, Capgemini indicates that three-quarters still use it and will continue to do so.

Among the many conditions that allow the large-scale propagation of Metaverse, the following criteria are presented regularly.

The metaverse must be interoperable. This means that designers and platforms that enable the creation of virtual universes should rely on common protocols to make it easy to modify virtual space. Eventually, navigating from one site to another should be as simple as navigating from one web page to another. This work is ongoing with the efforts of the Open Metaverse Alliance (association based in Switzerland) or the Metaverse Standards Forum (industry consortium).

In order to achieve a satisfactory experience, it is essential to be able to benefit from an interaction in (almost) real time. The number of operations per second is a fundamental limit. Playback and timing of scenes depends on the technical performance. The Metaverse, in order to reach a large audience, will therefore have to rely on increasingly efficient technologies. This also raises the question of energy consumption in virtual universes. The latter will have to register as best as possible within the framework of digital sobriety.

Technological developments will also need to find solutions to reduce cybernetosis (a term adapted from motion sickness – a mismatch between visual perception and the vestibular system that generates motion sickness), which nearly 40% of users suffer from, as well as visual fatigue, muscle and mental strain. Similarly, theft of data, digital assets or breach of privacy due to security or ethical issues can lead to loss of trust among users and investors.

The tools must be more easily accessible without unnecessary complexity. It needs to be more intuitive to create a cryptocurrency wallet, buy NFTs and create virtual experiences.

An expected advance is the finer capture of our senses, including touch, smell and spatial sound. Haptic vests are starting to appear, helping to feel virtual interactions in the physical world. They allow, for example, to feel the sensation of the wind or even the rain. Omnidirectional mats allow you to run, swim and move around virtual universes with real movements.

Today, video games are a gateway to the metaverse, already winning over the youngest, but struggling to convince other audiences. The metaverse is in the hands of young people, as almost 51% of users in some virtual universes are under the age of 13. If the metaverse is regularly confronted with waves of skepticism, the new generation already seems immersed in the virtual universe and actively participates in its construction.

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