- In “The Metaverse,” Matthew Ball provides an entertaining guide to the upcoming alternate virtual world.
- The book is optimistic about the metaverse’s potential impact, but outlines the monumental obstacles that stand in its way.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
The polarization of the current era extends far beyond traditional politics to issues of taste, technology, the environment and the economy. The result is a growing inability to engage in civil discourse on a number of topics that have significant implications for our collective future. The title of a new book exploring the potential impact of virtual and augmented reality technologies – “The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything” – seems to reflect this tendency towards polemic and hyperbole.
Fortunately, however, the book – written by consultant and investor Matthew Ball, the former global head of strategy for Amazon Studios – demonstrates that a true believer can still make a significant contribution to anyone’s understanding of a subject. important.
Ball achieves this feat by being clear and transparent about his assumptions and basing his discussion on real data and facts. His analysis then manages to incorporate the logic, humor and an appropriate degree of skepticism of the most extreme claims, often made by those with vested interests. The result is an entertaining and thought-provoking guide to the upcoming alternative virtual world that should prove indispensable not only for users and developers, but also for investors, competitors and regulators.
“The Metaverse” is organized into three parts which in turn explain what it is, what it takes for it to actually come
into existence and, finally, why we should care.
The term “metaverse” itself was coined 30 years ago in a science fiction novel called “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson. Although it has been around for so long, there is still little consensus on what precisely it is. Ball suggests this may be partly because the very companies that most see the metaverse as both a threat and an opportunity to their existing businesses — Facebook and Microsoft are extreme examples — each offer wildly contradictory definitions. that match “their own worldviews and/or the capabilities of their businesses. The resulting confusion encourages the conflation of these concepts with blockchain and Web 3.0, which “The Metaverse” does particularly well in unraveling.
Ball’s nearly 50-word definition of the metaverse may be a mouthful, but it helpfully highlights all of the key attributes needed to establish a ubiquitous and fully functional virtual 3D ecosystem that can accommodate an unlimited number of concurrent participants. Ball takes a close look at the technical and practical constraints involved in achieving each of these essential features. This exercise may seem too painfully detailed for some – the longest chapter examines the payment mechanisms needed to sustain a parallel metaverse economy – but it’s essential for getting an informed view of what the metaverse can really be.
Despite his general optimism about the metaverse’s ultimately revolutionary impact, Ball doesn’t minimize the monumental technological obstacles to realizing this vision. “Its arrival remains distant,” Ball concedes, “and its effects largely unclear.” Some of the constraints, like bandwidth and computing power, can eventually be overcome through creativity and perseverance. Others, like the speed of light, which poses a significant challenge to maintaining real-time interactive renderings of multiple individuals separated by thousands of miles, are likely to remain stubbornly resistant to human innovation.
The biggest challenge of all
As established platforms and new disruptors scramble to build their own unique virtual real estate, Ball also grapples with what might be the biggest challenge to creating a global metaverse – making the resulting cacophony independent virtual worlds communicate with each other. Solving the interoperability problem will involve establishing a set of agreed technical standards and potentially a significant dose of government intervention. We’ll get a very small glimpse of what the latter might look like when the European Union’s interoperability requirements for messaging apps come into effect in the coming years.
As effective as “The Metaverse” is in describing the main drivers and key elements of the billions invested in what it calls “the next Internet”, it is less convincing on the claim that it will “revolutionize everything”. The vast majority of the economic value generated by these technologies today is in gaming applications. While it’s true that gaming is no longer primarily the domain of antisocial teenagers – indeed, the sector has now overtaken Hollywood and the music industry combined – the relative scarcity of compelling use cases beyond of this makes one wonder how truly revolutionary it will be. Indeed, for most other applications described or contemplated – whether in medicine, education or otherwise – it is less than clear that a full-fledged metaverse is actually needed.
Moreover, for those of us concerned about the rise in antisocial behavior in the wake of a pandemic that has discouraged face-to-face human interaction, the eventual rise of the metaverse is as much apprehension as it is fear. Ball is right to focus on regulatory approaches to avoid corporate gatekeepers as dominant in the virtual as they are in the physical world. But an economically meaningful parallel universe that facilitates anonymity raises a host of regulatory and social concerns far beyond competition and innovation that require just as much, if not more, attention.
Luckily, given how long it will take for the Metaverse to become a reality, we have time to fine-tune its regulations for a change. Anyone who commits to trying to do so could do worse than start with a copy of The Metaverse.
Jonathan A. Knee is Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia Business School and Principal Advisor at Evercore. His most recent book is “The Platform Delusion: Who Wins and Who Loses in the Age of Tech Titans”.