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Race to the metaverse: The fight to shape the future of the internet | Science & Tech News

Last week I was invited to get my hair done in the metaverse.

In what was the strangest PR email I’d received in some time, a leading hair care manufacturer offered a place in a virtual salon, where my avatar would receive a luxury treatment the real me could only dream of.

By blurring the lines between the physical and the digital, the idea is that this will become a way for people to “test” new looks on themselves before perhaps choosing to go through with them. While I don’t envision myself ever asking a hairdresser for anything more extravagant than a two around the back and sides and a little of the top thank you, the metaverse offers a risk-free opportunity to experiment.

And in this case, all without ever strapping on a bulky headset.

Like me, chances are when you think metavers, the first thing you associate with them is virtual or augmented reality. But in a week when Mark Zuckerberg’s relentless attempt to make his mark on the concept was greatly relieved by thousands of layoffs at Metathis bizarre invitation was a timely reminder that it’s much more than that.

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Meta’s latest headset, the Quest Pro, launched last month for $1,499

Meta’s place in the metaverse

When Zuckerberg talks about the metaverse, he’s primarily talking about Horizon, the virtual world his company created to host a variety of experiences — from chatting with friends to collaborating with colleagues — while wearing a Meta Quest headset. Since the release last month of its $1,500 “Pro” headset, you’ve probably seen Meta ads and billboards pitching the metaverse as the perfect home for just that kind of experience.

And there are certainly believers.

Nicky Danino, a senior lecturer in computer science at the University of Central Lancashire, considers herself one of those already on board, saying the metaverse offers “great opportunities and possibilities” in education and training settings in particular. The university is already using virtual rooms to put students in situations and environments they would never normally be able to, while institutions such as the RAF have shown how augmented reality can improve the work of their fighter jet maintenance crews.

But just as renaming Facebook as Internet Inc wouldn’t mean you own the web at large, Zuckerberg renaming it Meta doesn’t let you think his vision is all there is to it when it comes to the metaverse. What Meta is building should really be seen as a platform within the metaverse, albeit admittedly one with an astonishing amount of money (tens of billions of dollars) is thrown at it.

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But there are plenty of others venturing into space – and you’ve probably heard of quite a few of them.

Meta has been on a metaverse marketing blitz.  Photo: Facebook
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Meta has been on a metaverse marketing blitz. Photo: Facebook

For example, there is Fortnite of epic games. No longer is it purely a space for 100 players to parachute onto an island and kill each other, it also allows them to create their own games and even attend concerts – among those who have performed are real megastars like Ariana Grande and Travis Scott, take the stage in a feverish dream of brand synergy where millions of fans can perform as everyone from Princess Leia to Neymar.

Speaking of brands, that’s where you’ll find some of the metaverse’s biggest advocates. Last December, sportswear giant Nike bought a company called RTFKT, which was launched to create digital goods such as virtual clothing, collectibles, and NFTs. The first post-acquisition product was the Nike Cryptokicks, a pair of digital trainers designed to be customized and displayed online.

And then there are virtual spaces like Decentraland, one of the biggest pieces of the metaverse pie yet, which is probably the closest thing you’ll get to living completely separate from your real life. As Sky News found out earlier this yearpeople in Decentraland spend thousands of pounds on lots to call their own.

It is, in some ways, the ultimate utopian vision of a decentralized metaverse, where people own what is theirs and can monetize it for themselves, and take it anywhere — with no strings attached or corporate overlords. It’s a vision that doesn’t allow one company — not even one named after the metaverse itself — to hold sway over the entire field.

For Tom Ffiske of Immersive Wire, the idea of ​​”interoperability” between metaverse platforms is absolutely key to its viability – there can’t be a single metaverse to control them all.

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‘The race for the future of the internet’

All of this probably sounds absolutely crazy to many people born before the turn of the millennium. What makes Horizon different from Second Life (an online virtual chat room inhabited by avatars) of 20 years ago? Why would Ariana Grande want to act in a video game? You might be perplexed as to why people are excited enough to line up for trainers in real life, let alone buy pairs they can’t even wear.

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You might be right in thinking it’s completely crazy – the truth is we just don’t know yet. All that is certain is that these potentially brilliant, possibly baffling ideas will remain.

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“The race for the metaverse is about the race for the future of the internet,” said Professor Yu Xiong, the director of Surrey Academy for Blockchain and Metaverse Applications at the University of Surrey.

“The fields of virtual/augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and blockchain all require a skill maturation process that takes a long time. Currently, the metaverse is facing issues with battery limitations, slow internet connections, and the demise of the unstable blockchain.

“However, 10 years from now, if we have made a breakthrough in batteries, using 6G for data transmission and blockchain has come of age, I have absolutely no doubt that the metaverse will be the future. As a result, these companies need to understand that their billion-dollar investments until then will yield little or no return.”

That last comment is a sharp barb towards Meta, which has seen its metaverse strategy brushed off by financial analysts as it tries to brute-force its way to the front of what will be a long-term turnaround in how we deal with internet.

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Gen Z is the key to all of this

Even proponents of the metaverse agree that when it comes to Zuckerberg’s go big or go home approach, it’s extremely risky business to try to run before it can walk. He seemed to view the pandemic as an accelerator – a time jump that would allow us to embrace a decade of technological change in an instant, and he expanded Meta’s ambitions accordingly. Our willingness to return to pre-COVID comfort surprised him.

“They’ve come in faster and spent more than any other metaverse and probably haven’t gained traction,” is the blunt assessment of Cudo founder Matt Hawkins, and yet he believes the metaverse is “the natural next phase” of a transition younger generations have seen growing up in an increasingly digital world.

“The Gen Zs have fully grown into a digital world and often value digital assets more than real world assets. The idea is that you can take it with you and show it off to the world, so if you spend £1,000 in a photo and hang it on your bedroom wall, no one will see it. If you buy a digital version, you can show it to the world.”

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Again, this is not a particularly new phenomenon. Online games like World Of Warcraft let players show off their exotic pets and epic armor back in 2004. One of Fortnite’s strengths is that people love dressing up as Star Wars characters, Marvel superheroes, and global sports stars. , and then hang out with their friends to compare looks.

Twenty million people watched The Device on Fortnite
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Fortnite has become a hub for live events – and a place for people to dress up and show off to friends

The promise of the metaverse is to blur the lines between our digital and real lives, to the point where we might be more proud of the former. The same generation that fears never having enough money to get up the housing ladder may decide the money is better spent on a digital home to call their own.

After all, £5,000 will go a lot further on the Decentraland housing market than on Rightmove (although, somewhat ironically, Spitfire Homes has just become the first UK homebuilder to create a show home in the metaverse).

Photo: Spitfire Houses
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Photo: Spitfire Houses

John Needham is the president of esports at gaming giant Riot Games, and before that he oversaw a Microsoft augmented reality project called Hololens, which combines the meta and physical worlds through a headset that overlays digital effects and items in a real space.

“Millennials and Gen Z are on their phones all day, their presence is defined by their digital presence,” he said.

“Gaming has scratched a bit [the metaverse] will be looking for a long time to come, with MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) featuring games like The Sims. I think to do that on a human scale will require much better technology than we have now.

“But you see all the signs that your digital persona is becoming more and more important. It’s going to grow into the most important thing. I don’t know if it’s this generation or the next generation, but I think it’s inevitable.”

BAE Systems and the RAF are working with AR to improve aircraft maintenance
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BAE Systems and the RAF are working with AR to improve aircraft maintenance

Whether it’s in education, industry, or just dancing with friends at an online gig, it’s clear that we’re increasingly dipping our collective toe into the possibilities the metaverse could offer.

Only a eureka moment is missing for Cudo’s Matt Hawkins. As access to information and e-commerce drove people to the internet, and connections took us to social media, what brings us en masse to the metaverse?

Zuckerberg seems determined to make it him, and seems ready to make or break Meta to find out.

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