This is the direction that several tech giants, Facebook leading the way, want to take. A virtual world, where we would do real things without leaving home, without being physically present. But are we really ready to evolve in such a universe? Do you really have to believe it?
Once your meeting is over, put on some shorts and go snorkeling in a Maldivian lagoon. Tired, you decide to change air. It becomes a walk in Central Park, Simon and Garfunkel give a concert. You can’t stay long, your friends are waiting for you for a meditation session in Tibet… “Imagine a virtual universe in which we graft elements that have their roots in reality, that’s what a metaverse issummarizes Julien Pilot, lecturer-researcher at Inseec. I can visit digitized museums in a very immersive way, attend the show given by the avatar of my favorite artist, visit a store to buy clothes that I will actually receive at home…” In short, an ongoing parallel universe, evolving even when you’re not there and allowing a connection with elements well-anchored in the physical world. All with virtual reality headsets, all kinds of sensors, sensory combinations, scent generators and every imaginable accessories for the most total immersion. Some already exist, others have yet to be invented.
An old idea
If the word has been in vogue in Silicon Valley for a few months now, the concept is not far from gray hair. In 1992, when? The Virtual Samurai, a cyberpunk science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson. For the first time, the idea of a meta-universe arises: the metaverse in English. Two decades later, incorporated into many works, it has become commonplace until it has become an axiom of dystopian fictions.
At the end of June 2021, it suddenly received a new spotlight when Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook, unveiled his roadmap for the coming years. “If We Do It Right”he tells theverge.com, over the next five years we will no longer be a social networking company, but a metaverse. † The offensive had actually already started in 2014, with the acquisition of Oculus, the specialist in virtual reality headsets. But since this summer, “Zuck” wants to work twice as hard. Billions of dollars in investments have been announced and 10,000 employees at the California giant are already dedicated solely to developing VR and metaverses.
“For the first time in human history, we have technologies from which we do not yet know all the applications that we can extract. †
Francois Gabriel Roussel
Researcher at the Sorbonne-Nouvelle University
Billionaire delirium fed to SF or credible anticipation of what lies ahead? What is certain is that with regard to existing technologies, we are still a long way from the arrival of a real meta-universe. “The experiments being conducted now taste like it, but not the smell”, smiles Julien Pilot. It is mainly on the video game side that we approach it the most. Example with Fortnite where, in addition to BattleRoyal-style battles, a pacifist arena regularly hosts events featuring the avatars of trending artists, such as Travis Scott or Ariana Grande. Long before that, around the turn of the millennium, Second Life had already suffered from the plasters of a virtual universe, even with great success. The enthusiasm was so great that everyone wanted to be there. Press conferences were held there, the 2007 presidential candidates had campaign headquarters there, luxury brands wanted to present themselves there, a currency even approved transactions. However, gradually users got tired and became more and more rare. in 2021, Second Life still exists, populated by nostalgic witnesses of a yesterday full of inventiveness.
If the popularity has gone, the fact remains that this project paved the way for the concept of metaverse. Just like each in itself the innovative technologies that are constantly emerging. Artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies, NFT, augmented reality, 5G, quantum computing: any progress can be considered as one of the necessary pieces of the puzzle. “For the first time in human history, we have technologies from which we do not yet know all the applications we can derive from them”says François-Gabriel Roussel, honorary researcher at the laboratory “Communication, Information, Media” of the Sorbonne-Nouvelle University.
A road still littered with obstacles
Does the combination of all these elements make the imminent birth of such a universe realistic? Julien Pilot is convinced that there is still a long way to go. “We are still light years away. Facebook’s most successful project to date is digitizing a workspace. It doesn’t seem like much, but it already requires a lot of work. Designing a real metaverse is millions of times more difficult. † The hardware requirements of a widely accepted virtual universe are another hurdle to overcome. It’s a question of huge servers, more advanced virtual reality headsets than those currently available (lighter, cheaper to produce, offer better definition and do not cause nausea for a large proportion of users), a generalization of very fast connections… “The project is so gigantic, there are such heavy investments involved that the real metavers will not see the light of day in a few decades”, continues Julien Pilot. To achieve this, the thorny issue of the carbon footprint will also have to be resolved. Because building and using it can only inflate the bill. Our near future, limited by increasingly scarce fossil resources and by the effects of climate change, is already imposing an increasingly virtuous relationship with energy. Obviously, the metaverses promise to increase energy consumption, while everything will have to be done to reduce it.
“We can think of metaverses as virtual worlds that enable very real interactions. In it they would not represent an extension of reality, but more broadly a new reality. †
Anthropologist at the University of Lausanne
If the technical problems remain numerous, they do not entirely call into question the feasibility of virtual universes. In the eyes of some researchers, the movement has already begun. In any case, this is what Fanny Parise, anthropologist specializing in contemporary worlds at the University of Lausanne, believes: “Another world is being created, the process has begun and it is not new. We have already moved from a physical life to a digital life. Why shouldn’t the next step be virtual? We can think of metaverses as virtual worlds that allow very real interactions. In it they would not represent an extension of reality, but more broadly a new reality. † Will the general public be excited about the idea of swapping one part of the world for this other world sooner? Possibly, the anthropologist believes, provided there is no sudden break in this social revolution. On the contrary, it is likely that we ourselves participate in its construction: “Since the advent of digital, individuals have adopted the available tools and developed strategies to improve their experiences. Ultimately, we are both actors and builders of this world of the future. †
In addition to these feasibility questions, there is another question of a different nature: do the metaverses represent a desirable future? To find the beginning of an answer, we must anticipate the fact that there will only be room for one or two universes. “As with many digital services that work on the network effect, a major player is always breaking away from its competitors: Google for search engines, AirBnb for private rental, etc.explains Julian Pilot. It will be the same for the metaverses, with more stakes because of the huge investments they entail. † The challenge for Facebook – and the few other companies that have shown an interest in the subject, such as Nvidia, Sony, Epic Games… – is obviously to become this future number 1. Because the “owner” of such a universe – of data passing through it – is the guarantee of immense economic power and the ability to impose its own rules.
Decentraland’s platform offers a glimpse of what that might look like. In this alternate world, users acquire virtual countries (called Country) to do whatever they want (games, cryptocurrency, applications, etc.). Regulation is organized in the form of votes, where the number of votes is correlated with the number of parcels owned. In short, the richer you are, the more weighs on the election. “Power and money are now concentrated in the hands of Gafamanalyzes Fanny Parise. Their idea is to ensure the stability of existing models. If the form can change, the content has every reason to stay the same. † Did you say desirable?