Virtual worlds

Metaverse - mega opportunity or mega bluff?

It's coming within reach - the metaverse. It brings us flowery designer chairs and pictures of celebrity weddings on the moon. It's peppered with flashy creatures, avatars and gamers - and hard-working employees. So it's time to address the question: What is the metaverse and why does it matter?

Aug 02 2022

In short, the metaverse can be described as a digital world that we can enter exclusively with technical aids. It exists online and yet we can experience, grasp and create it with all our senses. 

The prerequisites for this: special glasses, cameras, sound systems, headsets, gloves and suits equipped with sensors. We have been using much of this for augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) for years. AR and VR are the basis of the metaverse. 

While AR adds virtual images and information from the real world, VR creates completely artificial, new worlds. In the metaverse, these technical possibilities merge into a cyberworld that we can experience and create in the flesh with our own identity.

This picture was posted by wedding planner Enzo Miccio of footballer Kevin-Prince Boateng's wedding, which also took place on the moon in 2022. Image: Screenshot Instagram/enzomiccio

The armchair that came from the metaverse 

While the metaverse still seems far away to most people, millions of people already live in it temporarily. Fortnite players, for example, have created a virtual universe in which hundreds of thousands fight with each other at the same time or experience music events, no matter where their gaming chair is located, whether in Alaska or Zimbabwe.  

Others create furniture for metaverse worlds that become so popular in them that they are brought into the real one: The flowery armchair by Moooi, which caused a sensation at the Milan Furniture Fair 2022, was designed in a virtual world, with countless petals that made it difficult for the analogue one to recreate it. 

But 2022 succeeded and became a real eye-catcher. The boundaries between the worlds are already becoming fluid – it's time to get to know them.   

The not so recent history of the Metaverse 

The metaverse is surprisingly old. Not only because we are already familiar with life online. For example, we have been moving many areas of our lives into digital spaces for years: We shop, date, play and meet online. In this sense, the metaverse is added as another level and refers to a decades-old name that comes from the science fiction novel "Snow Crash". 

It gained worldwide attention when Mark Zuckerberg renamed his billion-dollar company Facebook Meta in autumn 2021, raved about a "new generation of the internet", Web 3.0, and has since been investing heavily in its development. Microsoft and other tech giants are doing the same and creating a present that is currently not so easy to see through.

Mark Zuckerberg talks on Youtube about the Metaverse as he imagines it. Picture: Screenshot Youtube

The present of the parallel world 

At present, it is mainly online gamers who cavort in the metaverse. But they are getting more and more company: companies and celebrities who use it to advertise themselves and their products, people in search of the new gold who want to get rich with cryptocurrencies.

The metaverse currently seems to be a virtual Wild West for many, attracting adventurous people and raising exorbitant hopes. In it, companies like BMW and Microsoft are pragmatically creating digital spaces in which employees can exchange ideas at the same time.

They meet as avatars in virtual workspaces, hold meetings in real time and do not stare spellbound at a monitor as others do in video conferences, in an often pitiful attempt to keep an eye on the many small heads or to share screens. 

Microsoft plans to offer virtual reality and augmented reality glasses integration to all teams by the end of 2022 to enable them to work in 3D in Web 3.0. 

BMW also uses the Metaversum for design, production planning and sales. Engineers scattered around the world develop cars together, in the (almost) realistic 3D world of the metaverse. BMW, Ford, the chip manufacturer Nvidia and others are currently translating entire factories with machines and employees into a photorealistic world in order to transfer it into a virtual one and to test and optimise work processes in it. 

Technicians do not work with simulations, but in a digital space in which they can move freely and even work on sound models together and simultaneously, just like in the good old analogue world.  

In the process, most companies create their own virtual spaces. They build a world as they like it, as their own metaverse. In many of them you can simply log in or rent, buy, use and play a virtual piece.  

Money rules the (meta-)world 

One of the currently most successful metaverses is "The Sandbox". The online game has developed digital spaces where users can form communities, trade, war and do business. In the Sandbox world, there are plots of land that can be bought or created with cryptocurrencies and NFTs.  

NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) play an important role in all metaverses. They are the building blocks for actions with crypto assets and act as identification access in closed computer networks. NFTs can be used to authenticate securely and thus make payments on the internet. They can also be traded with currencies from other networks, for example from our economic world. 

So anyone in the Sandbox world can buy NFTs for $10. Each NFT is a piece of Sandbox land and uniquely attributable to its owner. To increase the (albeit virtual) value of the properties, the number of land pieces in The Sandbox is limited and if you want to own a piece of the Sandbox metaverse, you have to participate in one of the strictly limited pre-sales.  

Besides "The Sandbox", there are many other metaverses vying for users. In "Decentraland", for example, the German Armed Forces are soliciting comrades-in-arms, and the Australian Open tennis event invites people to participate in 3D. 

Platforms such as Illuvium, Metahero and Upland have also created their own worlds and currencies in and with which to live and trade. Many of them will perish, others will be created anew, all driven by the longing for new cosms and shifting boundaries. They will only become predictable when the cryptocurrencies are too.

This is the selection of female avatars on "The Sandbox" with which you can enter the sandbox metaverse. Image: Screenshot sandbox.game 29 July 2022

The future of the metaverse 

As always, it is uncertain. There is much to suggest that the metaverse will become important. But when exactly that will be and in what form, no one can say today. Experts do not expect a fully developed metaverse until 20 years from now because of the immense computing power involved. 

Because the internet as we know it today is not yet capable of creating a virtual environment in which an unlimited number of people can be present at the same time. This requires a new infrastructure and also better, self-learning software such as artificial intelligence. 

However, the current giants of the tech business are very ambitious to create this world as quickly as possible, because the market potential is promising. According to the financial service Bloomberg Intelligence, the metaverse business is expected to be worth around 800 billion US dollars as early as 2024. 

For this to happen, the metaverse would have to become more attractive: The figures no longer look like edgy, shrill cartoon characters and, above all, the paraphernalia must become more user-friendly. The headsets and glasses are impractical, dialling into the metaverse is jerky, the images look artificial and some are darkly reminiscent of computer games from the early 2000s. 

However, when you consider how quickly pixelated games became graphical masterpieces or clunky mobile phones became handheld smartphones, and how quickly people of all generations around the world have adapted to them and all their apps and possibilities, this development will probably also be more rapid than we can currently imagine.  

One of the most important questions to be answered is: Which currency will prevail in the metaverse? There are still too many cryptocurrencies, which are produced with different techniques, calculated and traded on different platforms, and which are also not transferable.

As long as there is no reliable currency for the metaverse, it will have little significance as a trading place. As an advertising or working platform, however, it already offers some possibilities.  

To make the most of these, established tech companies need to agree on data standards so that data can be used between the different applications and platforms. In fact, the big players in the industry are all currently working on their own versions of Metaverse.

To make them compatible, companies like Meta Platforms, Microsoft, Alibaba, Sony and others have met to found a "Metaverse Standards Forum". In this forum, uniform standards are to be developed in order to be able to transfer, for example, basic items or clothing, virtual homes from one world to the other. 

Uniform technical standards would also have to be created for the hardware so that, for example, you can visually bring someone with AR into a meeting in which the others participate as avatars in virtual reality (VR).

Or the other way round: if you treat yourself to a luxurious designer sofa in real life, as an NFT you should also be able to have it for your avatar in the metaverse without having to buy it again there.  

Despite the desired compatibility, the special feature and the vision of the Metaversum fans lies in a decentralised structure in which many worlds can be created and the most diverse lives can be lived. They should all be colourful and free, designed and managed by each individual user. 

In this respect, many of those involved in Web 3.0 fear that the tech giants in the forum do not really stand for a decentralised metaverse. After all, they profit from the data they receive from their users in the metaverse and from the fact that these users predominantly stay in the very metaverses they have created for them.  

So it will still take time until we have a new world in which we can move safely and from which we can all benefit. But it is already made for experimenting and trying out new things, advertising and playing.

The furniture industry is already taking its first steps in it - small but fine steps for mankind, for example in the form of the petal-studded designer chair that came from the metaverse to the Milan Furniture Fair.  

How the furniture industry and which companies can benefit from the metaverse now and in the future will be the topic of another article on the metaverse. In a third, we will talk to experts, one of whom is rather sceptical about the new technology, the other enthusiastic.

Author: Christine Sommer-Guist

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