The idea of a “metaverse” reached critical mass last fall, when Facebook announced its new company name, Meta, and its intention to build “a 3D place where people can work, play, and connect with others in immersive, online experiences.”
While Facebook’s name change has made it the public face of the future of the metaverse, other tech companies are also developing virtual and augmented reality technologies to make their own metaverse plays.
And companies of all kinds are looking at what a robust metaverse means for them and their industry. Some companies, like Gucci and Ferrari, have already established a presence on immersive platforms Roblox and Fortnite, while companies like Disney are looking at creating their own metaverse experience. Bill Gates recently predicted that in the next few years, most remote meetings will move to a metaverse-type platform.
But the future is unclear because the metaverse is still just a concept, according to futurist Amy Webb, the chief executive officer of the Future Today Institute, who moderated a discussion about the metaverse at the recent Future Compute conference hosted by MIT Technology Review. “It’s not a technology, it’s not even an umbrella of technologies. It’s not a singular place, it’s not a singular protocol,” she said.
Overall, “the metaverse is almost entirely hype and baloney right now,” said Philip Rosedale, whose company Linden Lab created the pioneering virtual civilization Second Life. “If you're worried about your company needing to jump in right this very minute to make your metaverse play, you can stop worrying.”
But that doesn’t mean it can be pushed aside. The metaverse “is something we all have to be thinking about, especially when it comes to the enterprise, because it does influence things that come next,” Webb said.
One way to prepare for the future metaverse is looking at existing immersive online experiences, like Second Life and popular platforms like Roblox, Fortnite, and Minecraft.
Key points include the importance of creating collaborative experiences and full online economies, the work to be done on moderation and virtual reality headsets, and how some industries are better poised to enter the metaverse than others.
With those challenges in mind, leaders at Second Life and Roblox shared their key lessons:
At best, metaverses bring people together in a shared space
In Second Life, which was created in 2003, users create avatars and can create homes and other spaces, interact with others, and explore different experiences and communities.
Second Life has several features that are unique and important to look at, Rosedale said. One is that users built everything live. “The very atomic elements of Second Life are literally something that you reach out with your hand or your mouse and click on and drag around,” he said. “People can sit together and collaboratively build a space together.”
This collaboration encourages people to behave well on Second Life, Rosedale contends. “It’s a single big experience. The virtual world of Second Life is one big world that you share together, as opposed to a bunch of different highly tuned filter bubbles.”
Rosedale also noted that Second Life doesn’t use the targeted advertising models used by other companies like Facebook and Google. “Those two models are so destructive if brought into a metaverse that you can't imagine. Imagine a world where you're being continuously surveilled, your body movement can tell the operators of the world things like your illnesses, your mental state,” he said. Though Second Life only has about a million users today, he said, it makes more money per person than the companies he mentioned without ads or attention-targeting.
“Shared experience is very important. It's social and you're doing something together, said Daniel Sturman, the chief technology officer at Roblox.
Moderation is a key but difficult part of managing a shared experience. This is especially tough for Roblox, Sturman noted, because the content is user-generated, and many users are children and teenagers. “As a platform … I do think we have a role to play, ensuring a civil environment in the same way when humans come together in any environment they figure out how to make a civil environment.”
“That idea about moderation, about how we keep people behaving well, is essentially what all of the virtual worlds are talking about right now,” Rosedale said. One important component is identity verification, which creates trust and a relationship between people, he said.
Avatars are also important — they associate people with a visual identity. “Being an avatar in Second Life, your identity has consequences,” he said. “If you do harm to somebody there, they're going to remember you because you live next door to them. You share the same neighbors, you go to the same stores, you hang out at the same place to listen to live music.”
A full economy is important — but cryptocurrency is not the easy answer
Among other things, Second Life was one of the first virtual economies, Rosedale said. Users can create, sell, and buy goods and services using the Linden dollar, with major categories including clothes, avatars, furniture, and housing. The average transaction is about $2, and users can exchange Linden dollars to U.S. currency at a rate of about 250 Linden dollars to $1, Rosedale said.
“There’s more transactions than Bitcoin and Ethereum together could handle,” he said. “That speaks to the challenge of getting to the metaverse. You have to actually build transactional systems that are very high capacity.”
Cryptocurrency as it exists now is an unsatisfactory solution for metaverse transactions for several reasons, Rosedale said. There are real-world fees associated with crypto, and the average value of a real asset in the metaverse is less than in the real world, though people do make several small transactions a day.
Virtual worlds require transfers of small amounts of money without the risk of fraud between individuals whose physical locale isn’t known, Rosedale said. “Price stability is also important. You can't have something that makes money for content creators unless you have reasonable price stability, because if they invested any real time or costs in it, then they need to take the Robux or the Linden dollars out and pay their actual rent with it.”
At Roblox, people can use “Robux” to upgrade avatars or purchase digital goods, and individuals can create — and are paid — for everything from creating games to creating avatars or home goods. Developers also make money from things like in-app purchases and how much time players spend in their game.
“My personal vision is that we're going to find ways for any creator to find an outlet on this platform,” Sturman said. A shared global experience gives creative people a bigger audience and market, he added. “We just need to enable that.”
Virtual reality headsets need to improve
The metaverse is likely to be built on virtual reality and augmented reality technology, most proponents expect. But existing virtual reality headsets need improvement, Rosedale said, noting that they are too heavy, of low resolution, and don’t allow people to do other things, like access their mobile phones, while using them.
In addition, not all populations would feel comfortable wearing headsets — essentially a blindfold — in public spaces. “It’s discriminatory, it's divisive,” Rosedale said. “The person that feels most vulnerable is not going to put on a headset in a room full of people they don't know.”
Android and iPhones are the top device used for Roblox, Sturman said, but people also use computers, consoles like Xbox, and virtual reality headsets. He said that virtual reality headsets might be most conducive for work. “When you're working, by definition, you're isolating yourself, you're in a safe environment, generally in a chair,” he said.
Some businesses are better suited to the metaverse than others
Companies wondering about the metaverse can learn from how different sectors have used Second Life and platforms like Roblox.
“The most avant-garde enterprises on this are in media and music,” Sturman said. “In other words, companies that are trying to bring something to the public anyway are finding this as a new venue.”
For example, Burning Man held a virtual festival on Second Life, while Lil Nas X performed a Roblox concert in December 2020 that lead to millions of dollars in sales of digital merchandise. Paris Hilton created “Paris World” on Roblox, where 400,000 people attended a virtual “Neon Carnival” in April.
“These are all experiences being created, not by us, but by others,” Sturman said.
Similarly, some consumer brands are creating virtual experiences. Gucci created a “Gucci Garden” experience on Roblox, complete with themed rooms and branded virtual goods. One Gucci handbag sold for more on Roblox than it costs in real life. Vans and Chipotle have also launched experiences on Roblox.
“They all built their own experiences, and they're all really exciting and different, leaning towards the demographic and the sort of person they want to attract to that platform,” Sturman said.
That said, companies should remember that they don’t have to worry about many aspects of a metaverse. “We’re going to do a lot of the heavy lifting for you, us and others who are in this space,” Sturman said. “Because I think you’re seeing the common trends between Second Life and us, some common things — economy, moderation.”
Creating experiences is part of the “magic” of the platform, Sturman said. “It’s not like just going and playing a game, it's doing something together. Whether it's music, whether it's shopping, whether it's playing a game … [that] experience has got to be something worthwhile to do. It's not just a space.”