What technologies are the metaverses based on?

In October 2021, Facebook announced the development of a new virtual environment dubbed Metaverse. This information caused numerous reactions both in the form of comments in the media and statements of intent in the companies. As is often the case when confronted with a technological innovation, the reactions are opposite: hell is declared for some, paradise is declared for others. What to think?

What are we talking about ?

The concept of the metaverse comes from science fiction. The term first appeared in Neil Stevenson’s 1992 novel The Virtual Samurai to describe a computer-generated universe accessed through glasses and headphones. Other novels have previously described more or less similar virtual worlds in other terms: for example, the simulation in Daniel F. Galway’s 1968 novel, or cyberspace in William Gibson’s novels of the early 1980s.

The first concrete achievements of this concept date back to 1990-1995. for Active Worlds in the US or 1997 for Second World in France. They have long been limited by the technical capabilities of the moment.

Today, there are a large number of metaverses, most of which are unknown, and it was the Facebook/Meta announcement that brought these environments back to the forefront of the media scene.

Even if there is no precise definition, we can list some of the characteristic elements of the metaverse:

  • This is a computer implementation that allows you to create a virtual universe, or a virtual world, or an environment in which we can interact.

  • The created virtual environment consists of elements of landscape or decor, various objects and autonomous or controlled animated creatures from the real world (then we are talking about avatars).

  • The environment can reproduce a part of the real world (the city of Paris in World War II), materialize its abstract elements (software elements of a computer in the movie Tron, interconnections of computer networks in cyberspace). from cyberpunk literature) or come up with something completely new.

  • The laws of this virtual environment, the appearance and behavior of what constitutes it, may or may not be similar to the laws of the real world (for example, a human avatar may be flying over a city).

  • This environment is accessed through conventional interfaces (keyboard, mouse and/or joystick, possibly a touch screen) or special interfaces (helmet, goggles, gloves, etc.) that allow one to perceive the world (through visual representation, sound, tactile sensations). , olfactory) and interact with what makes it up.

Various actions are possible through these interfaces: moving, observing, creating or changing elements, acquiring or exchanging them; cooperate or compete with others present.

The medium is accessible and can be used by a very large number of people at the same time.

The environment persists over time and is constantly evolving, whether we access it or not, which is why we rarely find it in the state we left it in.

All these characteristics allow the development of a virtual society with its own culture and economy.

Where did this concept come from?

First came the idea of ​​deconstructing: the metaverses are not the result of a recent technological revolution initiated by Facebook. They are based on numerous scientific, technological, applied, and sometimes old event developments.

Metaverses are part of the field of virtual reality (VR) that emerged in the early 1980s and is based on an immersive representation of a virtual environment that the user can interact with to navigate and perform various tasks. The richness of this presentation and this interaction creates a sense of presence in the virtual environment, which contributes to the involvement of the user. Focused on understanding phenomena, designing objects or systems, and learning tasks, VR applications were initially limited to sectors such as transportation, industry, architecture and urban planning, medicine, and then opened up to other areas such as tourism, culture and entertainment.

In the 1990s, the development of digital technologies allowed the creation of collaborative virtual environments in which different users could simultaneously dive. At the intersection of different fields (VR, mediated communication, digital work environments), the first multi-user environments were still often focused on professional situations, in particular on the production of vehicles (cars, aircraft, satellite launchers), whose actors are most often on different sites. However, environments for a wider audience and activity soon emerged. Mention, for example, “Second World”, launched in 1997 by Canal+, or “Second Life”, launched in 2003, which had up to a million users and remains available today.

Screenshot from the game Second Life.

Studies have been carried out on the architectures needed to move to a larger scale (in France, within the Solipsis project, for example). Then, the continuous development of digital technologies allowed the wide-scale distribution of hardware and software, which was previously limited to research laboratories or very large companies. The emergence in the 2010s of very good quality but significantly reduced cost virtual reality headsets has allowed the development of new ways to use this technology in professional and home environments.

The Metaverses are also part of the recent evolution of video games. These games have long offered exploration of virtual worlds, but several trends in recent years have drastically changed that.

The “open world” approach that some games are based on allows for free exploration of the proposed world, rather than simply advancing through a predetermined narrative structure. Multiplayer online games have become commonplace. Freedom of action allows, beyond mere co-presence, cooperation or rivalry between players. Games allow them to communicate by text or verbally, socialize, unite in teams, clans. Some are designed as platforms that evolve over time with significant updates and additions (settings, objects, animated characters, etc.), to the point where we talk about these “seasons” games like TV shows.

Games allow you to purchase – as a reward for actions or with virtual currency bought in the real world – weapons, balls and other items, equipment, vehicles, buildings, etc. Some also allow you to create objects, exchange them or sell them. Thus, in these environments, economies are created over time and with very tangible effects in the real world. These companies and the virtual economy attract companies from other sectors such as music to organize concerts or luxury goods to sell branded items to the video game sector.

Dofus (2004), Roblox (2006), Minecraft (2011), GTA Online (2013), Fortnite (2017) or recent releases of Call of Duty (2003) illustrate most of the characteristics mentioned . The technology blocks created to create these environments have reached a very high level of maturity and are now being used in many other sectors. Thus, Unity and Unreal “graphics engines” are commonly used for architecture, film, or engineering applications. These building blocks can play an important role in the realization of new metaverses and are valued as such.

Enthusiasm for the metaverse also coincides with questions about the future of social media and the place of GAFAM, as well as the new possibilities offered by technologies such as blockchain. Social media as we know it is a great means of communication, with a multiplier effect for both better and worse. Metaverses open up new possibilities, offer new social interactions, beyond simple communication based on short texts or images. It is an opportunity to start over on a new basis with the hope – for the most optimistic – that they will not necessarily lead to the same excesses.

Blockchain technologies offer the means to create digital scarcity (digital objects that can only exist in limited quantities), to verify the identity and ownership of an object, to track its history, so that its creator or its creator can receive royalties from it. resale. through smart contracts. We see the creation of new games / worlds based on these technologies, such as Decentraland or Axie Infinity, in which players / users are also the creators and administrators of the virtual world and can extract real profit from it.

This involvement of users in creation and administration enables much more complex worlds to be envisioned in the long run. These new worlds are part of what is called “Web3,” a decentralized Internet (in terms of power, not computer architecture) that will allow users to regain control over the actors that dominate the current system.

Decades of sci-fi novels and movies have prepared us for the metaverses (like The Matrix, Real First Player or Free Guy in addition to the novels or movies already mentioned). The Covid pandemic has pushed us to massively deploy IT resources for coordination, communication and collaboration. Working meetings, courses, conferences, concerts and other artistic performances in public took place in unprecedented conditions. Despite some difficulties, a step has been taken towards the digitization of this activity. Can we imagine these and other experiences in richer digital forms, on a larger scale, as metaverse fictions have long promised us?

In a 2005 text, Corey Ondrake (co-creator of Second Life) said: > “The Metaverse will be so huge that only distributed approaches to creativity will be able to generate its content. Therefore, users will have to build the world in which they will live. […] These residents will attract random users who will play games, build an audience, and become customers. This will constitute the supply and demand of a huge market for goods and services. Since creators have ownership and rights to their creations, this will create wealth and capital that will fuel growth. Only then will the Metaverse shift, and the world, both real and online, will never be the same again. “.

Does the convergence of the elements mentioned above lead to a tipping point? Many scientific, technological, political, legal, economic and sociological questions (among others) are still emerging. Will the current excitement subside before it can be answered? Can we answer it? Will all these questions make other concerns useless? It’s hard to give a definitive opinion…