The Metaverse term was first introduced by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 sci-fi novel, Snow Crash, where humans, as avatars in a virtual world, socialise and conduct business in a parallel existence. Since then, the term is often used to describe the concept of a collective virtual shared space in a virtual universe and has had a huge impact on the digital technology industry. As consumer computing devices become more powerful, cloud computing solutions are increasingly embraced, and the Internet becomes an ever more critical and low-latency infrastructure underpinning society as a whole, we will see the materialisation of the global Metaverse.
The advance of the Metaverse is driven by pushing the boundaries of traditional gaming, new forms of social media, and an increasingly digital economy.
The gaming industry is no longer just for gameplay and is set to become the next dominant technology platform and therefore, the most viable path forward in terms of creating the Metaverse, where people can convene for community, entertainment and business. In an interview with The Washington Post, venture capitalist and former Amazon executive Matthew Ball said, “We’re seeing this advancement of technology and Internet interaction and the Metaverse coming from gaming because it tends to be at the forefront of something designed for many, and who have the highest [technological] needs.”
In the pursuit of this next frontier, video game creators are already building the foundations of the Internet’s future. Fortnite’s creators at Epic Games are publicly pushing for its creation, as seen in a Tweet from CEO, Tim Sweeney. Although originally Fortnite was created to be a four-player cooperative game, it developed a reputation as the social media platform favoured by Generation Z. The gaming company, Roblox also has all the key traits of the Metaverse. An average of 36.2 million users visit every day and form a vast community that play, learn, communicate, explore, and expand their friendships, in user-generated 3D digital worlds. Roblox creators consider this to be the new form of social interaction which they have named “human co-experience.” It is reported that two-thirds of children in the U.S. between the ages of 9 to 12 use its platform. It also has its own thriving decentralized creator economy and virtual currency called Robux, used to purchase collectible virtual items.
The recent skyrocketing growth in the gaming industry in general which added millions of users to Roblox’s platform is also largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the imposed quarantines. During these times, it became a popular way for children to communicate with each other and even hold birthday parties on the platform. In fact, in January 2021, Roblox hit a milestone of 199 million monthly active users (an increase from 121 million in February 2020).
Binge gaming as the dominant form of entertainment is on the rise and TV consumption is down, with a 2020 report stating that video gamers spend an average of six hours, twenty minutes each week playing games. Unlike traditional media, gaming has an element of social competition which is a powerful driver of adoption and keeps players hooked. Furthermore, whilst mobile phones remain the most popular device for gaming globally, the gaming industry is quick to evolve, effective at iterating and innovating smoothly, and testing new directions like augmented and virtual realities.
Augmented reality (AR) bridges the physical and digital worlds and has the potential to be bigger than the web. We currently only experience the web when we go to it but soon we’ll be able to experience the AR around us every single day. Imagine a future in which every sign on every street is personalised just for you and directions pop up in front of you wherever you go. AR is often used in gaming to bring a more realistic experience to gamers that engages more senses. Pokémon Go, the AR mobile game launched in July 2016, hit one billion downloads in March 2019. AR is also helpful in the shopping experience, providing consumers with the new ability to see exactly how a hat might look on their head or a new sofa in their living room. And anyone who has ever purchased something online, knows how easy it is to do so.
However, with more and more digital products being sold and bought online, the problem of piracy becomes a barrier to growing the digital economy of the Metaverse. Blockchain and cryptocurrency may be the natural solution to this: a virtual currency for a virtual world. Perhaps the Metaverse will even be powered by Non Fungible Tokens (NFTs), which suddenly became a very talked about cryptocurrency after an NFT was recently sold for $69 million. The NFT in question was paired with a digital-only artwork and acts as certificate of authenticity and proof of ownership. NFT-art is already being displayed and sold in virtual showcases such as Somnium Space which refers to itself as an “Open, Social, Virtual Reality world. A world with its own economy and its own currency. A VR world with its own Marketplace, Games, Social experiences and Virtual Land ownership.”
AI will also have an important role to play in the Metaverse. In the future we may find ourselves not only interacting with other humans through digital avatars but will also be able to interact with intelligent AI beings that inhabit and even generate fully immersive worlds that we can explore.
The growth of the Metaverse will be fuelled by commercialisation and will provide more business opportunities for collectables, in a self-sustaining business model. As the Metaverse becomes more mainstream, more companies will begin the inevitable transition into the shared, virtual space and start targeting their new customers. However, it is of the utmost importance that they approach this new world with responsibility and ethics and avoid turning it into a world full of giant, targeted advertising.
Metaverses have the potential to become places of global equality and representation, where all voices can mingle and all participants have a chance to benefit from this brave new virtual world.