Big tech's race to control the metaverse: Who will own the future of virtual reality?
Is the metaverse really the future? Or has Mark Zuckerberg missed a crucial flaw?
The metaverse is 30 this year! The idea first appeared in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash. Stephenson imagined a future in which everyone took up residence in an online virtual world where they worked, played, lived, and, in this dystopian novel, also suffered from a mysterious physical and digital virus.
There have been attempts since then to create the metaverse for real, some good, some bad, and some truly laughable. Now, in 2023, some of the biggest global players have entered the game. Meta offers us a vision of the metaverse as a future social place, a virtual reality version of Facebook. Microsoft is taking the more serious approach, envisaging it as an office environment where we’ll work online.
So what is the metaverse and will we all flock there? Common to all visions of the metaverse is that this place is presented as a coherent whole through interactive 3D graphics and sound. In other words, the metaverse is a globally connected virtual environment… albeit, a somewhat glitchy work-in-progress environment.
You might be forgiven for thinking we are already living in the metaverse. After all, many of us migrate online everyday to work, play and live on the internet through web browsers, search engines, and social media. What is different about the metaverse? At its core, the metaverse aims to present the internet as a monolithic virtual place.
The metaverse is also universally talked about as a social experience, with its inhabitants communicating through their avatars. Despite the popularity of social media, much of today’s internet remains an isolated place. We might be looking at the same web page, but never see each other. In contrast, the metaverse will be crowded.
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You might also take up permanent residence, acquiring real estate and making it your own by uploading user-generated content. Of course, this idea already underpins today’s social media, and was core to Second Life through its economy based on the Linden Dollar.
Companies like Meta (Facebook), Microsoft and Sony have invested heavily in headset technologies with the goal of deeply immersing people in the virtual world of the metaverse. However, despite advances in resolution, weight and size, headsets remain clumsy, can require significant space, and cut us off from those around us in the ‘real world’. They are still a niche technology.
An extreme view of the metaverse is that it will become the universal ‘front end’ to the internet; we will enter the metaverse to do everything we might conceivably do online.
What are the biggest problems with the metaverse?
There is an overhead to being in the metaverse. One must navigate virtual real estate and crowds and perhaps even go to the trouble of donning a headset, and continuing to socialise with new people, it’s almost as much work as the real world.
While the big tech names seem sure the metaverse is the future, this kind of technology requires full commitment, leaving the real world to live an almost second life in a digital world.
But let’s say the metaverse came to fruition, and we all flocked to this virtual utopia, who would actually be in charge of our new techy global world? There appear to be several contenders for owners. But as a manifestation of the internet, surely no particular company will own it, but instead different metaverse implementations will talk to each other using agreed protocols.
We might instead consider ownership in terms of who gets to purchase its virtual real estate and populate it with their own content. And who gets to regulate the metaverse? Who makes and enforces its laws?
This is perhaps the most challenging and pressing sense of ownership today, given the current tensions between ‘big tech’ and governments over privacy, freedom of speech and online safety.
Turning full circle, we return once again to Stephenson’s metaverse in which citizens’ lives were policed by major corporations while governments were reduced to small administrative outposts. Perhaps the important question for the metaverse right now is not what kinds of technology it will use, nor even what we will use it for, but who will win the battle between corporations and governments for controlling it.
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Steve Benford is a professor of computer science at the University of Nottingham, where he co-founded the Mixed Reality Laboratory. His research explores virtual, augmented and mixed reality, plus mobile computing. Benford previously worked as a visiting researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge, and as a visiting professor at the BBC's research and development group.