The metaverse: A parallel universe online

Big Tech aims to shape how fully immersive, virtual reality worlds evolve

The metaverse is a virtual reality world where people will be able to pursue all aspects of life vicariously. Photograph: iStock

The metaverse is a virtual reality world where people will be able to pursue all aspects of life vicariously. Photograph: iStock

 

Long before the internet entered popular consciousness, there was the Information Superhighway.

The name became popular in the early 1990s to describe the digital backbone that was expected to become a conduit for communications, entertainment and commerce. The media and telecommunications giants of the day dreamed of controlling this pervasive network.

What finally emerged, in the shape of the internet, was a far more open network of networks, paving the way for an entirely new class of online intermediaries.

Decades later, some in the tech world believe they can see a new information realm glittering on the horizon: the metaverse. A fully immersive, virtual reality world, it is a place where people will be able to pursue all aspects of life vicariously, as if in a parallel digital universe.

Like with the Information Superhighway, early visions of the metaverse are likely to be an imperfect approximation of what the ultimate reality will look like. What form it takes and what its first “killer apps” will be are a matter of conjecture. And, most importantly, it is not yet settled who will set the rules and collect the profits – though today’s internet giants are in pole position.

Mark Zuckerberg has certainly placed his bet. The Facebook chief executive declared that his company would one day be seen not as a social network, but as a “metaverse company”.

Given the political pressure Facebook has been under, this might seem like an attempt at distraction. But trying to shape ideas of the future like this has always been an important way for tech companies to prepare the market for what they plan to sell next, and Zuckerberg has been at this for a while. It is seven years since he bought virtual reality (VR) company Oculus.

He may well have to wait a while longer to get a return on these investments. To many, the idea of conducting some of your most important personal and social interactions through a digital avatar in a virtual world evokes a remote and not particularly attractive sci-fi future.

Yet after the social isolation foisted on much of the world’s population by the pandemic, the idea of escaping into a fully digital space no longer seems as outlandish. If workers took to Zoom so easily, why not congregate in a digital office?

And this is not an all-or-nothing affair. Rather than plunging users straight into a full VR world, the metaverse could well take shape more gradually. Using augmented reality to project aspects of the metaverse on to the physical world, for instance, would see it take shape first as a partial digital overlay.

Isolated worlds

The final product could be an ultimate “walled garden”, a place where a single company benefits from the total immersion of users. If Facebook and other big internet companies build their own – and particularly if they each sell their own proprietary hardware to access these zones – then the result could be a collection of isolated worlds, forcing digital citizens to pick where they spend the bulk of their time.

On the other hand, the metaverse could comprise a set of more closely interconnected worlds, some of them controlled entirely by their users. This would be a place where people could take their personal data, digital goods and favourite services with them as they move from place to place.

It is tempting to view the internet giants as today’s version of the telecoms and media powers of the early-1990s, dreaming of shaping and owning the next iteration of the online medium. In this comparison, it is also tempting to view blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies as the decentralising forces of the early internet. Crypto enthusiasts see people owning their own corners of a more fragmented metaverse, rather than throwing all their data in with a few vast platforms.

Yet limiting the power of the dominant tech companies will not be easy. It will depend heavily on the outcome of the global push for more effective regulation. It will also depend on whether the technologies underlying the crypto revolution give rise to new experiences and new ways of interacting that are not available through today’s mass online services. Exactly what those could be is still hard to tell.

As things stand, today’s internet powers are in a good position to dominate a future metaverse. If that happens, then they will end up with far more power to shape the online lives of billions of people than they have now. What could possibly go wrong? – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021