Does the metaverse represent an inevitable future?

This is the direction that several tech giants, Facebook in the lead, want to take. A virtual world, where we would do real things without moving from home, without being physically there. But are we really ready to evolve in such a universe? Do you really have to believe it?

As soon as your meeting is over, put on some shorts and set off for a snorkeling session in a lagoon in the Maldives. Tired, you decide to change scenery. It will be a walk in Central Park, Simon and Garfunkel will perform a concert there. 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 issums up Julien Pillot, teacher-researcher at Inseec. I can visit digitized museums in a very immersive way, attend the show offered by my favorite artist’s avatar, visit a shop to buy clothes that I will actually receive at home … “ In short, a persistent parallel universe, which evolves even when you are not there and which allows a junction with elements well anchored to the physical world. All with virtual reality viewers, sensors of all kinds, sensory combinations, odor generators and all the accessories imaginable that allow the most total immersion. Some already exist, others have yet to be invented.

Horizon Workrooms from Facebook on Oculus.© Facebook Inc.

An old idea

If the word has been in vogue in Silicon Valley for a few months, the concept is not far from having 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 is born: the metaverse in English. Two decades later, taken up in many works, it has become commonplace to the point of becoming an axiom of dystopian fictions.

In late June 2021, he suddenly took on a new spotlight when Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg unveiled his roadmap for the years to come. “If we do it righttells, in the next five years we will no longer be considered a social networking company, but a metaverse. “ The offensive actually began in 2014, with the acquisition of Oculus, the specialist in virtual reality headsets. But, starting this summer, “Zuck” intends to work twice as much. Billions of dollars of investments have been announced and 10,000 employees of the Californian giant are already dedicated exclusively to the development of VR and metaverses.

“For the first time in the history of humanity we have technologies of which we do not yet know all the uses that will be possible to derive from them. “

Francois-Gabriel Roussel

Researcher at the Sorbonne-Nouvelle University

The delusion of a science fiction-fueled billionaire or a credible anticipation of what lies ahead? What is certain is that compared to existing technologies we are still far from the advent of a real meta-universe. “The experiments currently underway have the taste, but not the smell”smiles Julien Pillot. It is above all from the side of video games that we get closer. Example with Fortnite where, in addition to BattleRoyal-style brawls, a pacifist arena offers regular events featuring avatars from trendy artists, such as Travis Scott or Ariana Grande. Long ago, at the turn of the millennium, Second life he had already undergone the patches of a virtual universe, also enjoying great success. The enthusiasm was such that everyone wanted to be part of it. Press conferences were held there, the 2007 presidential candidates had a campaign headquarters there, luxury brands wanted to exhibit there, one currency even authorized transactions. Gradually, however, users got tired, becoming more and more rare. In 2021, Second life it still exists, populated by nostalgic witnesses of a yesterday teeming with inventiveness.

the metaverse Second life released in 2003.© Linden Laboratory

If popularity has fled, the fact remains that this project paved the way for the concept of the metaverse. Just as innovative technologies that constantly emerge do, each on their own. Artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies, NFT, augmented reality, 5G, quantum computers: all progress can be considered as one of the necessary pieces of the puzzle. “For the first time in the history of humanity we have technologies for which we do not yet know all the uses that it will be possible to obtain”enthuses François-Gabriel Roussel, honorary researcher at the “Communication, Information, Media” laboratory of the Sorbonne-Nouvelle University.

A road still strewn with obstacles

Does the combination of all these elements make the imminent birth of such a universe realistic? Julien Pillot is convinced that there is still a long way to go. “We are still light years away. Facebook’s most successful project so far is the digitization of a workspace. That doesn’t sound like much, yet it already requires a lot of work. Designing a true metaverse is millions of times harder. “ The hardware requirements of a widely adopted virtual universe are another hurdle that will need to be overcome. These are giant servers, more advanced virtual reality headsets than those currently available (lighter, cheaper to produce, which offer better definition and do not cause nausea to most users), a generalization of very high speed connections … “The project is so gigantic, it involves such heavy investments that true metaverses will not be able to see the light for several decades”, Julien Pillot resumes. To achieve this, it will also be necessary to have solved the thorny issue of the carbon footprint. Because building and using them can only blow the bill. However, our near future, constrained by increasingly rare fossil resources and the consequences of climate change, already requires an increasingly virtuous relationship with energy. Clearly, metaverses promise to increase energy consumption when everything must be done to reduce it.

“We can conceive of metaverses as virtual worlds that allow for very real interactions. In this, they would not represent an extension of reality, but more generally a new reality. “

Fanny Parise

Anthropologist at the University of Lausanne

While the technical difficulties remain numerous, they do not entirely 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, an 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 gone from a physical life to a digital life. Why shouldn’t the next step be virtual? We can conceive of metaverses as virtual worlds that allow for very real interactions. In this, they would not represent an extension of reality, but more generally a new reality. “ Will the general public be excited about the idea of ​​exchanging first part of the world with this other world? Possible, the anthropologist believes, to the extent that there will be no sudden interruption in this social revolution. On the contrary, it is likely that we ourselves participate in its construction: “Since the advent of digital, people have taken possession of the tools at their disposal and created strategies to improve their experiences. In the end, we are both actors and builders of this world of the future.”

Beyond these feasibility questions, there is a question of another nature: Do metaverses represent a desirable future? To find the beginning of an answer, we have to anticipate the fact that there will only be room for one or two universes. “As with many digital services that operate on the network effect, a big player always ends up breaking away from its competitors: Google for search engines, AirBnb for private rentals, etc.explains Jullien Pillot. It will be the same for the metaverses, with the stakes multiplied by the immense investments they involve. “ The challenge for Facebook – and the few other companies that have expressed interest in the topic such as Nvidia, Sony, Epic Games … – obviously consists in becoming this future number 1. Why be “owners” of such a universe – of data its passage – is the guarantee of immense economic power and the ability to impose your own rules.

Open to the public in 2020, the Decentraland platform is based on blockchain technology.© Decentraland

The Decentraland platform offers a taste of what it could be like. In this alternate world, users acquire virtual lands (called Land) to do what they want (games, cryptocurrencies, applications, etc.). The settlement is organized in the form of votes, the number of votes being related to the number of property plots. In short, the richer you are, the more weighs on the elections. “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 substance has every reason to remain the same. “ Did you say desirable?

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