5 min

All about the metaverse

If you don’t live on a deserted island without Internet, you have been exposed since this summer—certainly many times—to this new U.S. concept: the metaverse. But what exactly is it?

Metaverse—a combination of the words “meta” and “universe”—means a virtual universe that encompasses all other virtual universes. A virtual universe is a persistent 3D environment, i.e. one that becomes a destination for many people due to its permanence.

Is the concept really new?

In fact, the metaverse originated from a science fiction book released in 1992 (The Virtual Samurai, by Neal Stephenson) and revived in 2011 in Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One. This is where the story gets interesting. In the middle of writing his book, Ernest Cline met with Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus, a virtual reality (VR) headset company, and Mark Zuckerberg, the iconic boss of Facebook, to validate some of his predictions with them.

This was the start of the history of the metaverse by Facebook. Oculus, founded in 2010, was acquired by Facebook for a cool $2 billion in 2014, just two years after the company first released a headset.

In 2018, Steven Spielberg adapted Ready Player One ($580m at the box office), a motion picture seen by many as a lavish trailer for Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse. The pitch? In 2045, in a failing world, the majority of the population escapes, thanks to VR headsets and haptic devices[1], into a virtual world of leisure, the metaverse OASIS.

Today, the all-out media offensive launched in August by Zuckerberg on the metaverse aims to do just that: a hegemonic virtual world, with a huge adult theme park run by Facebook, now called Meta (announcement of 28 October 2021).

However, this all-encompassing vision—if it ever comes to fruition—will take time. Because voices are being raised against the very principle of the metaverse, which is basically a standard that makes it possible to retain one’s digital identity regardless of the virtual universe visited. This unified digital identity that Meta would like to impose on us—which would mean that its war is definitely won—raises many questions: firstly about security, then about politics, and finally about ethics.

Of course, this outcome of the metaverse is not for now; but then why is everyone talking about metaverses at the moment?

The meaning of the term metaverse is that of a persistent 3D virtual universe… which only really becomes a metaverse when enough people use it, so that people can gather there every time they log on.

Misconception #1:

Contrary to what Meta would have us believe—for obvious commercial reasons—the metaverse does not require a virtual reality headset. Indeed, the feeling of presence in a virtual place—called ‘virtual presence’ in cognitive sciences—can very well be obtained on a “flat screen” (PC, Mac, tablet, smartphone). In this sense, Second Life, created in 2003 by Linden Lab and still existing in 2022 on PC and Mac, is certainly the first metaverse, with a peak of about 1 million regular users reached in 2013.

Virtual presence is based on three pillars:

  1. The feeling of self-presence: that is, the feeling of embodiment. This is of course achieved through the 3D avatar. It is interesting to note that cognitive science studies have shown that the more the avatar resembles us, the easier and quicker we will embody ourselves in this avatar. This is why Teemew—the French metaverse solution that my company publishes—has a module that allows you to create a photorealistic 3D avatar from a simple portrait (a selfie). It should be noted that having an avatar that does not look like us is also very interesting for generating empathy towards this other body, as several studies have shown, in particular to fight against discrimination.
  2. The feeling of spatial presence: that is, the feeling of actually being in a place, of understanding its topography, and of being able to move around in it, by memorising it. Achieving this is very simple: you just have to be realistic, whether it is in the layout of the buildings, in the proportions, or in the materials. It is essential that the places are beautiful and pleasant. It is therefore advisable to work with designers or architects to design such places. An anecdote: I am often asked if it is possible to create a virtual conference on Mars. This is obviously technically possible, but cognitively undesirable, because the participants would spend a large part of their attention span imagining themselves on Mars, rather than enjoying the conference and the encounters they might have there.
  3. The feeling of virtual co-presence: that is, the feeling that the other avatars you meet are really people and not robots or AI (artificial intelligence) persons. To achieve this, we need to make interactions between avatars as simple and natural as possible, once again trying to get as close to reality as possible. Talking to someone should be as simple as walking up to them or clicking on them to call them. The sound can be spatialised, to reproduce a natural conversation with several people. This way, we know by ear which person is speaking and can simply turn to them: as our avatar is looking at them, they will know in return that they have captured our attention. At this stage, with the existing hardware and while waiting for the future XR (eXtended Reality) headsets, it is still difficult to reproduce facial expressions or exact body movements—all this non-verbal communication that counts a lot in natural exchanges. One way forward may be to sometimes use videoconferencing as a complement to 3D.

Misconception #2:

Although Meta wants to take us to the OASIS—the large virtual theme park described in Ready Player One—a metaverse is not necessarily a place of fun and games.

On the contrary: since we spend half of our waking hours at work, I think it is essential to think about how professional metaverses could improve our quality of life at work. The crucial issue today is to try to solve what Microsoft—after having conducted a study on more than 60,000 employees—has called the “hybrid paradox”: hybrid, in the sense of teleworking versus working on the company’s premises; and paradox, because if 70% of employees, after the Covid crisis, want more telework in their lives (in this respect, we are already in the “post-crisis world”, with more than double the amount of telework than before the crisis), there are also 70% of employees who complain about the lack of human relations in their work and the loss of informality and of the feeling of belonging to a team. This hybrid paradox is reflected in a frightening statistic: at the moment, 40% of employees want to leave their company!

It is therefore urgent to look for solutions that recreate natural exchanges—with their share of spontaneity and informality—between employees who may be either teleworking or in the office. Offering a common space where everyone can meet, where interactions are fluid and unforeseen—in short, using metaverse technology to put people back at the heart of companies—this seems to be a truly promising approach to professional metaverses.

[1] Virtual reality technologies that allow a human to physically interact with a virtual object.

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