LISBON: There was no bigger buzzword at this year’s Web Summit than the “metaverse”, a virtual reality version of the internet that Facebook, among others, is keen to build. Here are some key ideas from this week’s conference about how the metaverse could evolve.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg-who renamed the parent company “Meta” last week to signal its commitment to the project-believes the workplace could be transformed by virtual reality (VR). In August Facebook unveiled Workrooms, a platform where employees can use VR headsets to attend virtual meetings, appearing as cartoonish avatars. Facebook’s product manager Chris Cox hit back at suggestions that the trial version remains basic. People’s avatars do not currently have legs, for example.
“Technology starts in lower-resolution versions of what it becomes,” Cox said, pointing to early smartphones preceding the iPhone. He also responded to the idea that employees might not want to discuss serious matters while depicted as cartoons. “The reason that it’s better for us than a video conference is that you get to see body language,” he said. Facebook is not the only company trying to update the conference calls that have caused mass fatigue during the pandemic. Augmented reality company Magic Leap is working with software firm Cisco to create 3D meetings using augmented reality headsets.
Gaming platform Roblox is widely seen as a rudimentary metaverse, where millions have attended virtual concerts from pop stars like Zara Larsson. The Swedish singer told Web Summit that Roblox allowed her to perform for much bigger audiences than at a physical venue-including for people “in a small town in a country where I have never toured”.
Electronic music legend Jean-Michel Jarre is meanwhile set to create soundscapes and virtual shows for Sensorium Galaxy, an entertainment-focused metaverse. The Frenchman compared scepticism about the metaverse to early reactions to film-making. “People from the theatre were seeing these people moving on this screen and saying, ‘these are not real actors’,” Jarre said. “Today VR is in exactly the same situation.”
Proponents believe the metaverse will eventually blur the real-world economy with the virtual one. Again, this is already a reality in some ways. At Larsson’s physical concerts, you might buy a t-shirt; in Roblox, you can spend real money on a “bundle” that allows you to replicate a virtual version of the singer herself.
Bye-bye screen time
Several Web Summit panellists enthused that the metaverse could do away with the more dispiriting aspects of the internet, like our addiction to staring at screens. The metaverse could also provide more social experiences than lonely phone-scrolling, hopes Ivan Nikitin, product director at Sensorium Galaxy. Meeting up with friends in the metaverse would help banish “the solitude that we might be getting from modern social networks”, Nikitin suggested.
Zuckerberg was the butt of many jokes last week while showcasing a mock-up of what the metaverse could look like, not least because his avatar was clad in dull real-world clothes exactly like his own. Metaverse evangelists want the new virtual world to be an outlet for creative expression. You might give yourself a pair of wings, or hair made of flames-similar to in Second Life, another early metaverse-like website. “I’m excited about the opportunity that we have to redesign our lives,” said Amy Peck, CEO of virtual reality consultancy EndeavorXR.
Who runs it?
Facebook-or Meta-is not the only company jumping on the metaverse bandwagon, but the idea of a virtual world dominated by the tech giant has sparked alarm in some quarters. “Virtual reality is an incredible opportunity,” Roger MacNamee, an early Facebook investor who became a vocal critic, told the conference. “I want to have great games, I want to have fun. I do not want to have somebody controlling my life using this technology.” – AFP