Associate professor (HDR) in Digital Marketing
Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (CNAM)
*Faculty member of the Business Science Institute.
Article originally published on The Conversation France.
Facebook but also Alibaba and Tencent are entering the "metaverse" race by investing several million dollars. If the concept of metavers is not recent, the commercial use of this digital world has been tested as regularly as it has failed for 30 years. Can new immersive technologies transform this concept into a sustainable 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" and therefore exists in its own right, in parallel to the real universe in which we live.
Stephenson defines a metaverse in the following way: it is a meta-universe that rests on a technological base (computer science), it has an economic purpose (a local currency can be used, it generates transactions and profits), the participants have an interactive avatar (to transmit emotions), and it must be able to represent a real quantity of individuals to reinforce the similarity with the physical world (a crowd is made up of several individuals and not by a message of the type "200 people are in the waiting room"). Immediately images of movies (Matrix, Ready Player One) or games (The 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 limitations. If movies represent perfectly the concept of the metaverse, we are only spectators and do not participate in this universe. If games are an interactive application, they concern a precise public (players of "world simulators" connected or not, of MMORPGs) and are based on game consoles, computers to which the screen-keyboard-mouse pack or screen-gamepad remains the only possible interaction.
However, some "real" metavers have seen the light of day. In 1997 Canal+ launched the first French online virtual world "Le Deuxième Monde", the user received by mail a CD with the map of Paris (partially) digitized in 3D, he could install the CD on his computer, create an avatar and walk around the city (with a very low bandwidth!), meet people and gather in groups, discuss via a text chat, see advertisements. We find here three of the four rules proposed by Stephenson, the economic dimension was limited to advertising for real world products.
In 2003, the very known "Second Life" (SL) proposes a more accomplished and general public version of the metaverse, taking again the fundamental concepts including a local currency the Linden Dollar (L$) which had an official quotation.
The Second World and Second Life were important steps, of which SL was undoubtedly the most successful, but the craze for the metaverse has been exhausted for two reasons: first of all, the man-machine interface (the screen-keyboard-mouse trio) is still a barrier to the user's immersiveness. Finally, the speculative bubble generated by SL has put off the metaverse purists (the speculative enthusiasm of investors is quite far from the dreams of F. Turner in his book "at the sources of digital utopia" and has ruined the opportunists. The enrichment of social value (in the sense of Holbrook) has not kept its promises, and finally the emerging social networks, such as Facebook, have fulfilled social needs without the constraints of low immersiveness linked to the interface. The microsegmentation of SL uses (there were regions dedicated to all kinds of activities) created an explosion of the metaverse by demoting it to a kind of ultra-specialized MMORPG.
But why are the web giants entering this race today?
The current market is certainly more mature than in the 2000s. The rate of computer equipment and broadband Internet access is close to 90% of the population in Europe and the United States.
The pandemic has democratized remote human relations. Games based on the creation of a virtual world (Minecraft, Fortnite, etc.) are now reaching an older and wider audience. The popularity of crypto-currencies (Bitcoin, Shiba, etc.) makes the use of virtual currencies and the vagaries of their quotation commonplace.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the democratization of virtual reality headsets allows us to overcome the main limitation of the old experiences: immersiveness. Being "in" the metaverse, an immersed actor and no longer an actor-spectator. We are close to the actors of the movie 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. A sort of super Second Life in which the consumer will be immersed to consume, work, entertain, meet.
For the big economic players like Facebook, Alibaba but also new entrants in the business, this is a way to build loyalty among their users by offering them an immersive experience. Buying products in an Alibaba metaverse "just like" in a physical store with unlimited visual creativity is the embodiment of the online customer experience, the grail of e-commerce.
Facebook can rely on nearly 2 billion daily users whose age and purchasing power make them an economically profitable target.
The big Chinese players such as Tencent are getting into the adventure. Each company is registering brand names dedicated to future metavers. For its part, Fortnite has been selling online for a few years now in its game universe. It has a very large pool of players (about 350 million accounts) and is younger than Facebook.
The concept of metavers imagined in 1992 is now seeing a convergence of elements leading to a new renaissance: technical antecedents (quality and low cost of broadband connections, drop in the price of VR headsets), social antecedents (acceptance of virtual human relationships, rate of use of social networks and online games), the key point will be the service offer proposed. How to bring together in a virtual world gaming (Fortnite), e-commerce (Alibaba), social relations (Facebook), work (Teams)? Value enrichment has rarely benefited the leaders. We remember Google's failure in social networks, Facebook's failure in email or in online sales. The metaverse may see the emergence of new entrants who will succeed in converging services.
Article translated from French with https://www.deepl.com/translator
Stéphane Bourliataux-Lajoinie's articles on The Conversation France.
Stéphane Bourliataux-Lajoinie's books & articles via CAIRN.info.