Virtual reality headsets have gleefully shaken up our representation of the real world by offering a very immersive experience of a virtual universe. One revolution is chasing another and now the “metaverse” presents itself as the Internet platform of the future, a sort of Grail both for social networks and for e-commerce giants who are already rubbing their hands.
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Facebook but also Alibaba and Tencent are embarking on the race for the “metaverse” by investing several million dollars. If the concept of metaverse is not recent, the commercial use of this digital world has known for 30 years tests just as regular as its failures. Can new immersive technologies transform this concept into a lasting economic reality?
The term metaverse was proposed by Neal Stephenson in 1992 in his book Snow Crash, the author himself defines this word as a precision of the term virtual world which is too vague and dreamlike. The metaverse is a “meta-universe”, so it exists in its own right, in parallel with a real universe in which we live.
Stephenson defines a metaverse in the following way, it is a meta-universe which rests on a technological basis (computing), it has an economic purpose (a local currency can be current, it generates transactions and profits), participants have an avatar interactive (to convey emotions), and it must be able to represent a real quantity of individuals to reinforce the similarity with the world physique (a crowd is made up of several individuals and not by a message such as “200 people are in the waiting room”).
Immediately film images (Matrix, Ready Player One) or games (les Sims, Clash of Clans, Fortnite) come to mind. An often utopian virtual world that lives its own life.
But these illustrations have far too many limits. If the films perfectly represent the concept of the metaverse, we are only spectators and do not participate in this universe. If games are one application interactive, they concern a specific audience (connected or not connected “world simulator” players, MMORPG and rely on game consoles, computers to which the pack screen-keyboard-mouse or screen-joystick remains the only possible interaction.
If the films perfectly represent the concept of the metaverse, we are only spectators and do not participate in this universe
However, a few “real” metavers have emerged. In 1997, Canal + launched the first French online virtual world “The Second World”, the user received by post a CD with the paris map (partially) digitized in 3D, he could install the CD on his computer, create a avatar and walk around the city in very, very low speed!), meet and meet in groups, discuss via a text chat, or even advertising. Here we find three of the four rules proposed by Stephenson, the economic dimension boiled down to advertising for real world products.
In 2003, the well-known « Second Life » (SL) offers a more mature and general public version of the metaverse, taking up the fundamental concepts including a local currency the Linden Dollar (L $) which had an official quotation.
the Second World and Second Life were important milestones, of which SL was undoubtedly the greatest success, but the metaverse craze was exhausted for two reasons: first of all, the human-machine interface (the screen-keyboard-mouse trio) is still a barrier to the user’s immersivity. Finally, the speculative bubble generated by SL put off the metaverse purists (the speculative enthusiasm of investors is quite far from the dreams of F. Turner in his book At the source of digital utopia and ruined the opportunists.
The enrichment of social value (in Holbrook’s sense) did not keep its promises in the end. social networks emerging, including a certain Facebook, fulfilled social needs without having the constraints of low immersivity linked to the interface. The microsegmentation of the uses of SL (there were regions dedicated to all kinds of activities) created an explosion of the metaverse by demoting it to a kind of MMORPG ultra specialized.
But why are the web giants embarking on this race today?
The current market is undoubtedly more mature than in the 2000s. The rate of computer equipment and access to Internet broadband is nearly 90% of the population in Europe and the United States.
The pandemic democratized long-distance human relations. Games based on the creation of a virtual world (Mindcraft, Fortnite, etc.) today affect a older and wider audience. The popularity of cryptomonnaies (Bitcoin, Shiba, etc.) trivializes the use of virtual currencies and the vagaries of their quotation.
Finally, and perhaps above all, the democratization of virtual reality headsets allows to overcome the main limit of old experiences: immersivity. To be “in” the metaverse, an immersed actor and no longer a spectator actor. Here we are close to the actors of the film Ready Player One !
And what will happen if we live in a parallel world in a sustainable way? We will consume in this world! Services, goodies, avatars, special effects, so many digital services to buy in virtual currency or real dollars. Kind of super Second Life in which the consumer will be immersed to consume, work, have fun, meet.
« To be “in” the metaverse, immersed actor and no longer spectator actor ». © Travis Scott and Fortnite Present : Astronomical (Full Event Video)
For major economic players such as Facebook, Alibaba but also new entrants in the business, this is a way to retain their users by offering them a immersive experience. Buy the products in a metaverse ofAlibaba “Like” in a physical store with limitless visual creativity, this is what embodies the online customer experience, the holy grail of e-commerce.
Facebook can rely on loan of two billion daily users whose age and purchasing power place them in an economically profitable target.
Major Chinese players such as Tencent are embarking on the adventure. Each company registers brand names dedicated to future metaverse. Fortnite, for its part, began selling online in its game world for a few years, it has a very large pool (around 350 million accounts) and younger than Facebook, the buyers of tomorrow are the community players of today !
The concept of metaverse imagined in 1992 today sees a convergence of elements leading to a new renaissance: technical antecedents (quality and low price of broadband connections, decrease in the price of VR headsets), social history (acceptance of virtual human relations, rate of use of social networks and online games), the main point will be the offer of services offered. How to make the game converge in a virtual world (Fortnite), e-commerce (Alibaba), social relations (Facebook), work (Teams)?
Value enrichment has rarely benefited leaders. We remember the failure of Google in social networks, from Facebook in e-mail or in online sales. The metaverse may see new entrants emerging successfully converging services.
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