Among the headwords nominated for the Oxford Dictionary 'word of the year' for 2022 was also 'metaverse' and that is not very surprising. We have been hearing about it for months, from fantasy-economic projections to the most disruptive technologies, and more often than not, in curious anecdotes. A trend that probably peaked when the state of Vanuatu, threatened by rising seas due to climate change, announced its intention to recreate itself in the metaverse so as not to disappear, or at least not completely, once its atolls are swallowed up by the Pacific Ocean.
A provocation, indeed, a just complaint made on the crest of a wave, but nothing more. Because the metaverse, in that immersive form represented by virtual reality, is still not enough. Above all, because the metaverse is not a parallel world disconnected from our own, where the poor inhabitants of Vanuatu will always have a home. Or at least it should not be, with the risk of losing the meaning of that word, which begins with 'meta-' and indicates, on the contrary, a convergence. Beyond the narrative, the question then arises: does the metaverse really exist and, if so, how should we view it?
Mark Zuckerberg has managed to impose a concept that just over a year ago was nothing more than a literary memory of science fiction lovers (the term was coined by writer Neal Stephenson in his novel Snow Crash) or the trappings of some philosopher. By renaming his company Meta and investing billions of dollars in research and development, Facebook's founder did not see an extra dollar, quite the contrary. But he has at least diverted attention away from the bigger problems of his social networks, such as content moderation, the psychological fallout on users, and the reduced effectiveness of advertising tools. At the same time, he brought virtually unknown platforms to the headlines.
So today the idea of moving around in a three-dimensional space to connect with other avatars and follow all sorts of activities, such as concerts and sporting events, is not so bizarre. But what are we actually talking about? Decentraland and Sandbox, each claiming around 200,000 active users per month, are currently the main ones among the virtual worlds not entirely dedicated to gaming (like Fortnite, for instance), followed by others such as Cryptovoxels, Somnium Space, Axie Infinity and Horizon Worlds, Meta's official one, which has a further 200,000 users. In total, these platforms are currently frequented by less than one million people each month. Instagram alone reaches 2 billion. There is even an ongoing diatribe over the counts, because in September, the analysis company DappRadar recorded just 38 active users on Decentraland in one day.
Each of these virtual worlds is then isolated from the others, with its own design, its own cryptocurrencies, even its own entry device (Horizon Worlds can only be accessed with Oculus visors, manufactured by Meta itself). Unique features, which even computer developers are obliged to take into account in order to create tailor-made content, dispersing resources and slowing down the expansion of the metaverse itself. Pending concrete decisions on platform interoperability, what many now identify with the metaverse consists of some crypto versions of Second Life: an extension of gaming with the possibility of using virtual currencies and little else.
Are we talking about nothing? Let's look at some numbers. By 2021, large corporations, venture capitals and private equity funds had already invested USD 57 billion in metaverse-related investments, a sum that had already doubled by mid-2022, according to McKinsey & Co. In its report Value Creation in the Metaverse, the well-known management consultancy estimates that the metaverse as a whole could generate up to USD 5 trillion by 2030: this is more than the GDP of Japan, the world's third largest economy. In four to five years, 30 per cent of the world's organisations will have products or services in the metaverse, reports Gartner in its Critical Insights on Metaverse study, and 25 per cent of the population will spend at least one hour a day in contact with them. We are not talking about nothing. If anything, we should talk about something else.
First, we should remember that the metaverse is many things: not only augmented, virtual and mixed reality, but also artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, blockchain, NFT (Non Fungible Tokens), 5G and more. The more immersive one, to which Mark Zuckerberg has drawn our attention and which is the subject of the often banal narrative that has brought Decentraland and company into vogue, represents only one facet of the metaverse. Secondly, we should go further, to look at the uses to which this facet will lend itself, far broader than social networking made up of virtual avatars attending concerts or business meetings. McKinsey predicts an impact of between USD 2 trillion and USD 2.6 trillion on the e-commerce world by 2030. Between 180 and 270 billion will be generated by applications of virtual reality to learning and teaching. The advertising market could benefit by 206 billion. Results to which virtual reality could also contribute, but only partially.
Today, the metaverse is mainly what we do not yet see or what, distracted by some curious anecdote, we do not want to see. If it is, to use Gartner's succinct but effective definition, the ‘convergence of physical and digital reality, virtually enhanced’, we may already be in it. Just think of the funny filters that we can apply to our stories on Instagram, Lens, the visual search tool created by Google, or the real-time suggestions that Google Maps can give us. This type of convergence, which is becoming deeper and more pervasive, is what billion-dollar investments are aiming at and why it makes sense to talk about the metaverse and to do it better and better. Maybe without the need for a Snoop Dog to found a city in his name on Sandbox (Snoopverse, which really exists) or a neo-virtual state like Vanuatu.