Tech companies of all shapes and sizes, from Facebook to Microsoft and even Tinder, have over the past few weeks announced their plans towards building a metaverse, which many believe will succeed the Internet in the coming decade. But at the moment it is quite literally a meta-verse with no one still sure about what the final form will entail. There are also questions about who will finally have control over this virtual environment and who will ensure everyone is on the same page.
Sai Krishna V K, the co-founder of AR firm Scapic which is a part of Walmart Inc-owned Indian e-commerce player Flipkart, describes “Metaverse” as an “evolution to the internet, where you will have 3D spaces, virtual environments, communication, commerce, and entertainment…” The “Metaverse” is for him is a logical next step to what comes after the smartphone and the Internet as we know them now.
When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently rebranded Facebook as Meta, he also announced what he plans to do within the metaverse. That in no way means he wants to own the metaverse. He simply can’t. No one can.
“Nobody owns the metaverse like how nobody owns the internet… it is an open platform,” Sai tells indianexpress.com over a video call. Meta’s plans are more aligned to building its version of a “meta-universe,” a digital world where the real and virtual merge. For example, you could meet your cousin living in California in a cafe in a virtual environment that too in real-time via digital avatars.
“Though social media is great to connect with people, they [Meta] have the power of having this data,” says Dr. Anupama Malik, Managing Director, Vizara Technologies, an IIT-D incubated startup specialising in AR/VR technologies. “2D to 3D is the next move because of the fact you have very easy ways of now acquiring 3D data, and he [Zuckerberg] knows that 3D spaces will be the next big thing.”
Meta has the talent and resources to build the metaverse. In fact, the social media giant plans to hire 10,000 people in the European Union for this big task. It helps that they already own Oculus, a leader in virtual reality hardware, which will literally be a gateway to the metaverse.
Sai believes that Facebook’s earlier 2D-first digital environment does not work anymore. “If Facebook can be built around people, if you logically shift the platform from the feature-first to people-first, where groups of users hanging around in 3D spaces can choose to do whatever they want to… that’s logically how social interactions have always happened.”
If Facebook wants to build the metaverse, Microsoft wants its mesh platform to be a core link that connects many virtual environments together. At its recently held Ignite conference, Microsoft said it plans to bring Mesh to its Teams collaboration platform, which has 250 million users worldwide. The company describes Mesh for Teams as a feature that will “combine the mixed-reality capabilities of Microsoft Mesh, which allows people in different physical locations to join collaborative and shared holographic experiences, with the productivity tools of Teams, where people can join virtual meetings, send chats, collaborate on shared documents, and more.”
The seriousness of Microsoft being a part of the metaverse can be gauged by the fact that Mesh will allow companies to use APIs and will provide them with a common set of controls and UI elements to build its metaverse. It’s just like how apps can be made for smartphones.
Be it Facebook or Microsoft, the race to build the Metaverse or become a part of it will benefit the AR/VR ecosystem in the future. “The adoption of AR/VR technologies by businesses and consumers has been gradual, but it is expected to change significantly with these technologies going mainstream,” explains Kanav Singla Founder & CEO, Adloid, a deep tech company with a focus on Augmented Reality (AR). “With big companies like Facebook entering the AR/VR space, people are more likely to embrace these technologies in their day-to-day lives.”
The point many miss while describing the “metaverse” is that it already exists and combines many emerging technologies such as cryptocurrencies, NFTs, gaming platforms like Roblox and video games like Fortnite, and virtual reality headset makers such as Oculus (Meta) and HTC Vive. All these technologies will further develop and overlap each other in a larger metaverse.
Because a metaverse can be a 3D immersive environment shared by multiple users, in which you can interact with others via avatars, there is a need for specialised hardware. “You can’t do it in a 2D world, you can’t do it in an app or you can’t do it on your smartphone,” Sai explains why experiential technologies like VR are a better way for social interactions in a 3D world.
Smartphones aren’t going anywhere; it’s just that they are not designed for 3D spaces. This is why all major tech companies are investing heavily in VR/AR technologies. Experts say the race is to build experiences that will bring information onto your face, but that also means a new set of hardware products that’s far different from a regular smartphone. “There will be an arms race over the next five years about how to equip your face with what is going to succeed a smartphone,” Sai said. That said, both VR and AR will co-exist and complement each other. “Over a period of time, the lines will get even blurrier between what high fidelity virtual reality is, and where the metaverse begins…it’s very similar to the analogy between your laptop and an internet connection,” he added.
“The immersive digital environment that metaverse will create for people to engage seems ground-breaking, however, it will have its own challenges,” warns Singla. Facebook’s track record with data and privacy is questionable, and with advertisements likely to be a key source of revenue in the metaverse, it’s hard to trust the social media giant. “Unlike the data Facebook can collect from someone through their use of a PC or mobile; VR data is biometric, and all personal and behavioral characteristics of the people will be recorded and harvested, making them susceptible to cyber-crimes,” Singla adds when asked why there is need to place stringent data policies to keep their users safe.