Examining the reality of the metaverse

Th obligatory Sansar promo image :) (please can we have some new ones?) - Linden Lab

Th obligatory Sansar promo image🙂 (please can we have some new ones?) – Linden Lab

Eric Johnson has a thought-provoking article over on re/code. In Welcome to the Metaverse, he ponders the lot of avatar-based virtual spaces, past and future, and how a number of companies – the Lab included – are betting that the “new era” of VR is going to be the means by which such spaces will become mainstream.

It’s an interesting piece, offering plenty of food for thought, starting with an opening statement by the Lab’s CEO, Ebbe Altberg, on defining human life:

What humans do is create spaces. Some spaces are mobile, like a bus. San Francisco is a space that was created by its users. Whether you go into a pub, a bar, a classroom, a bowling alley, an office, a library … We create spaces and we have people come together in those spaces, and then we communicate and socialize within those spaces.

This is actually the first thing about the article that leaves me with a familiar feeling of feeling at odds with the prevailing view of all things metaverse, albeit for a slightly different reason. With due respect to Mr. Altberg, people didn’t come together as a result of building spaces. They built spaces as a result of coming together. However, as an opening gambit for a study of this thing we call the “metaverse”, it’ll do as an opener.

Eric Johnson, Associate editor, Gaming at Re/code (via LinkedIn)

Eric Johnson, Associate editor, Gaming at Re/code (via LinkedIn)

From here, Mr. Johnson give us the pocket introduction to “the metaverse” via the obligatory (and rightful) nod to Neal Stephenson while simultaneously dispensing quickly with a look at the “past promise” of virtual spaces that didn’t in the end measure-up to the expectations.

This leads the way to a clever little nod to the book which has become this decade’s “Snowcrash”  in the form of  Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (which is actually a very good read) – as a means to introduce the main three companies he sees as currently vying for space in “the metaverse” – the Lab,  High Fidelity and AltspaceVR.

Chances are the Sansar and High Fidelity are already well-known to people reading these pages, which AltspaceVR may have passed some unnoticed. As the article points out, they’ve been developing avatar-based VR for the last couple of years, focusing on shared spaces (watching a film with a friend who is halfway across the world for example), and scheduled events, including gaming weekends, etc.

AltspaceVR also has some ideas for business applications with their environments, which they are planning to offer on a pay-to-use basis. And while their avatars main have been viewed with disdain by some, there are a couple of points to bear in mind where the company is concerned.

The first is that as a result of watching some of AltspaceVR’s virtual interactions, Mark Zuckerberg caught the social VR bug, and Facebook went after Oculus VR, with the subsequent $2 billion acquisition (which was actually quite a modest punt when compared to the $19 billion the company had earlier spent on a proven technology in WhatsApp).

The second is that the company, which has been around about as long at Philip Rosedale’s High Fidelity, has almost raised a comparable amount in funding – around $15.7 million to date (SEC filings indicate High Fidelity has raised around $16.5 million), and both are working at solving many of the same technical issues – head and motion tracking, eye tracking, etc.,

Beyond this, others interested in making a pitch into the metaverse space, as Mr. Johnson mentions are IMVU, which has around 15% of it’s 130+ staff now working on trying to integrate VR into its existing spaces (a-la the Lab’s early effects with SL and the Rift), and a small New York based start-up, focusing on VR social games with around $300,000 in seeding money. called Surreal, the 4-person company is billing itself as “the first fully immersive virtual world”, which is focused entirely on using VR HMDs (Oculus, Gear VR and Cardboard).

Johnson attempts to split his examination of the metaverse into two views: the short-term and the long-term. In doing so, he inevitably points to the elephant in the room: Facebook. In this, he quotes Palmer Luckey, who gives a fair warning as to whether or not “the metaverse” is around the corner, and which stands as a cautionary warning, in more ways than one:

I think at this point the term ‘metaverse’ is a bit undefined. For any one company to say, ‘We are building the metaverse’ is pretty hyperbolic. Building all the pieces is going to be hard, and the way you imagine things in sci-fi doesn’t always translate over to the way things will be in the real world.

Palmer Luckey: precient words on

Palmer Luckey: prescient words on “the metaverse”?

He has a very valid point; and with today’s rapidly evolving pace of technology, it’s one worth keeping in mind; the technical issues people see today as only being surmountable through the use of avatars may not actually be technical issues a few years hence.

Interestingly, Johnson places this in the “short-term” view – although both Oculus VR and Facebook have always talked in terms of “the metaverse” still being around a decade away. For the longer term, Johnson looks in particular at High Fidelity’s work and also the Second Life revenue generation success (and, despite the naysayers out there SL is a commercial success, both for the Lab and its users, the latter of whom benefited with collective revenues of $60 million from the platform in 2014), before taking another look at AltspaceVR.

There is a lot to be digested in the piece, and it makes for a good read. However, for me, Palmer Luckey’s warning that how things don’t always match the real world tends to stand out a lot when a lot of the approach being then with avatar-based virtual spaces tend to smack of the “if you build it, they will use it” approach.

I don’t doubt for a minute that spaces will have a lot of applications among various vertical markets. It is no coincidence that the likes of Philip Rosedale and Ebbe Altberg talk much of the same language concerning them: education, training, healthcare, business; there is potential for avatar-based VR spaces in all of them. But I’m still not convinced that longer-term, such spaces are going to claim a much large market among causal consumers than is currently the case, for a couple of reasons.

The first is that the vast majority of people really haven’t seen the need to “climb in” to an avatar for their social interactions – and getting a shiny new headset (which Johnson quotes some rather interesting demographics about) isn’t actually going to change that. The second is connected to the headsets themselves.

High Fidelity and Linden Lab see the education sector as a major focus for their efforts – and neither is wrong. But are avatar-based virtual spaces really going to go consumer mass market?

Simply put, it would seem likely that this brave new world of VR could end-up delivering so many fantastic experiences and opportunities to the casual user, that the majority still won’t see the need to invest time and effort in creating a virtual alter-ego of the kind we desire (and we, as SL / OpenSim users are a niche), because so much else is being delivered to them pre-packaged and ready-to-go. Thus, as Palmer Luckey indicates, the chances are “the metaverse” could well arrive in our lives in a manner very different to that being envisaged by High Fidelity and Linden Lab, thus leaving their approach still very much niche-oriented.

Not that there is anything wrong with that either. As both Rosedale and the Lab can demonstrate, it’s done them rather nicely over the years. And it is fair to say that “niche” this time around a liable to be somewhat larger, simply because of the vertical market opportunities they’re looking at.

Even so, and as mentioned, there is this optimistic we “build / they come” aspect to the whole idea of avatar-based vertical spaces that it would be nice to see an article probing the pros and cons a little more. Perhaps that might be something for a follow-up from Mr. Johnson? In the meantime, Welcome to the Metaverse is a thought-provoking read, and for reasons I’ve not even scratched at here (such as the question of on-line abuse), as such, it’s not one to miss.

Related Links

With thanks to Indigo Mertel for the Google+ pointer at the weekend.

Have any thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s