Big numbers coming. Microsoft’s US$75 billion (£55 billion) acquisition of Activision Blizzard has landed – true to Call of Duty vernacular – “like a bomb” on the US$200 billion revenue video games industry.
It heavily arms the Xbox giant for its vision of the metaverse, in which gaming is the marketing adrenaline of this much-touted online future that is to be experienced immersively through virtual reality (VR) headsets or augmented-reality (AR) glasses. The stock market knocked US$10 billion off Playstation maker Sony’s valuation on the news.
The metaverse was also a big noise at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, branded “tech’s hottest trend” by Variety magazine. Product launches included Samsung’s new VR world My House, offering virtual home makeovers; and US beauty tech group Perfect Corp’s AR-driven virtual beauty makeover range, which lets people experiment with cosmetics and accessories using AR.
Certainly the metaverse has been fast-moving, even since (in October 2021) Facebook renamed itself Meta - a bold step when VR only brings in about 3% of the company’s current revenue. But Bloomberg is predicting that the overall metaverse will be generating revenues of US$800 billion as soon as 2024 (compared to US$500 billion in 2020), so the prize is huge.
About half of that 2024 projection is expected from video games, while a substantial remainder is from live entertainment – and major artists like Ariana Grande and Marshmello have already been holding concerts in the virtual world.
Yet besides niche attractions for early adopters, what about the rest of us? Will we sign up for virtual interaction en masse when the technology is ready in a few years time? Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg thinks that the metaverse will allow people “to feel present – like we’re right there … no matter how far apart we actually are”.
But hang on a second
Maybe Zuckerberg shouldn’t be so sure. Change in tech and entertainment is never predictable – as anyone who remembers 3D movies will confirm.
As Elon Musk said in December:
I currently am unable to see a compelling metaverse situation … I don’t see someone strapping a frigging screen to their face all day and not wanting to ever leave. Sure, you can put a TV on your nose. I’m not sure that makes you ‘in the metaverse’.
An organisation that promotes all things Icelandic, Inspired by Iceland, tapped into similar concerns with an November 2021 commercial titled “Introducing the Icelandverse”. The host parodied Zuckerberg’s evangelical “I’m so excited to tell you” launch film for Meta, to champion analogue existence instead: “It’s already here … Enhanced actual reality, without silly-looking headsets … It’s completely immersive, with water that’s wet.”
Those makers deserve an award for spotting the zeitgeist. Social and entertainment trends show plenty of people craving real-world experiences. US data shows an urban shuffle out of cities to smaller towns and the great outdoors, for instance. Touring is the principle revenue driver in music (pandemic aside).
German filmmaker Jens Meurer’s analogue-celebrating The Impossible Project has just hit the cinemas, about the man who saved the last Polaroid factory. The UK’s BBC One has a hit show in The Repair Shop, conceptual opposite of the metaverse: “A workshop filled with expert craftspeople … A heartwarming antidote to throwaway culture.”
It’s therefore easy to query the idea of a seamless theme park future where your life is a video game. Attractive products coming down the pipes will tempt some people – Apple reportedly has cool VR/AR ski-style goggles, and Bond-style intelligent contact lenses have already been made. But will we really embrace office life VR-style (possible now on Oculus) where your accounts team are avatars with hipster beards, and your Monday sales catch-up is in a virtual ski lodge?
Meet your AI avatars
Appropriately enough, there is an alternative paradigm for the alternative paradigm that is the metaverse. Instead of us accessing the metaverse, we could leave it to someone else - delegating it to synthetic versions of ourselves created via machine learning.
Trained on our needs and likes, our synthetic selves would navigate digital spaces with ease. Combine everything Amazon and Facebook know already about your purchase intent, add your dinner conversation, a quick morning meeting to set priorities – and your digital avatar could be a functioning replica.
It would need no physical existence, but could synthesise your speech and your physical features and go forth into metaland. It will negotiate your new electricity contract, pick some clothes out, book a plumber – you name it.
This is the metaverse where the work gets done: our avatars execute the boring jobs in the virtual world - buying a new fridge, negotiating a deal - while we focus on what really matters in the real one.
It could function like the invisible place below the stairs where the actual work gets done in Downton Abbey. Or as your own private call centre, with banks of agent versions of you handling tedious customers, while the real you can go to the real beach. (The New Yorker once called the author Clive James “a great bunch of guys”. In the metaverse that could actually be true.)
Strip back the metaverse to this functional space and it’s even more interesting than the current, predominantly entertainment-driven conceits - and possibly an even bigger opportunity. Sure, we’ve all heard about dystopian AIs or alarming reports on deep fakes and bot armies, but there will be blockchain ways of proving our avatar identities in the metaverse so the worst dangers can be avoided.
And as AI guru Andrew Ng at Stanford put it anyway: “Worrying about evil AI killer robots today is a little bit like worrying about overpopulation on the planet Mars.”
The space is still forming. But maybe AI replicas will be the killer application that brings us the best of virtual worlds, without giving up the best of the real world we have already.
As they put it in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One: “Reality is the only thing that’s real.”