Sat. Dec 3rd, 2022

Activision was acquired by Microsoft for $75 billion. For the $200 billion video games industry, Blizzard has come “like a bomb,” bolstering Microsoft’s metaverse strategy. As virtual reality headsets and augmented reality glasses become more widely available, gaming has become an important marketing tool for this much-hyped online future that will be experienced through immersive headsets. The stock market slashed Sony’s Playstation maker’s value by $10 billion following the news.

As Variety magazine put it, “tech’s hottest trend,” the metaverse was a big deal at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month. Samsung’s new virtual reality world My House and beauty tech group Perfect Corp’s AR-driven virtual beauty makeover range were among the new products unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Indeed, since Facebook renamed itself Meta (in October 2021), the metaverse has been moving quickly, even though VR only accounts for 3% of the company’s current revenue. It’s a big deal that, according to Bloomberg, the metaverse will generate $800 billion in revenue by 2024 (up from $500 billion in 2020).

In 2024, video games are expected to account for about half of all revenue, with live entertainment accounting for the bulk of the rest. Major artists like Ariana Grande and Marshmello have already held virtual concerts.

What about the rest of us, who aren’t early adopters?

When the technology is ready in a few years, will we all jump on the virtual interaction bandwagon? People will be able to “feel present — like we’re right there, no matter how far apart we actually are,” according to Mark Zuckerberg of Meta. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg may want to reconsider his confidence. There is no such thing as a safe bet when it comes to technology and entertainment.

In December, Elon Musk stated:

Metaverse situations aren’t appealing to me right now…. I don’t see anyone glued to a screen all day long and not wanting to get up and go somewhere else. Put a TV on your nose, for sure. That doesn’t necessarily put you “in the metaverse,” though.

An advertisement titled “Introducing the Icelandverse” for November 2021 by Inspired by Iceland, a group dedicated to promoting all things Icelandic, tapped into similar anxieties. For Meta, the host parodied Zuckerberg’s evangelical launch film “I’m so excited to tell you” in order to promote analogue existence instead: As far as I know, it has already arrived… Real-life enhancements without gaudy headsets… It’s a fully immersive experience, complete with wet water.

Whoever it was who spotted the zeitgeist should be recognised. Trends in social media and entertainment show tha many people are seeking out real-life experiences. US data show an urban shuffle out of cities to smaller towns and the great outdoors, for instance. Touring is the principle revenue driver in music (pandemic aside) (pandemic aside). German filmmaker Jens Meurer’s analogue-celebrating “The Impossible Project” has just hit the cinemas, about the man who saved the last Polaroid factory.

The UK’s BBC One has a hit show in “The Repair Shop,” conceptual opposite of the metaverse:

“A workshop filled with expert craftspeople … A heartwarming antidote to throwaway culture.” It’s therefore easy to query the idea of a seamless theme park future where your life is a video game. Attractive products coming down the pipes will tempt some people — Apple reportedly has cool VR/AR ski-style goggles, and Bond-style intelligent contact lenses have already been made. But will we really embrace office life VR-style (possible now on Oculus) where your accounts team are avatars with hipster beards, and your Monday sales catchup is in a virtual ski lodge?

Meet your AI avatars

Appropriately enough, there is an alternative paradigm for the alternative paradigm that is the metaverse. Instead of us accessing the metaverse, we could leave it to someone else — delegating it to synthetic versions of ourselves created via machine learning.

Trained on our needs and likes, our synthetic selves would navigate digital spaces with ease. Combine everything Amazon and Facebook know already about your purchase intent, add your dinner conversation, a quick morning meeting to set priorities — and your digital avatar could be a functioning replica.

It would need no physical existence, but could synthesise your speech and your physical features and go forth into metaland. It will negotiate your new electricity contract, pick some clothes out, book a plumber — you name it.

This is the metaverse where the work gets done: our avatars execute the boring jobs in the virtual world — buying a new fridge, negotiating a deal — while we focus on what really matters in the real one.

It could function like the invisible place below the stairs where the actual work gets done in Downton Abbey. Or as your own private call centre, with banks of agent versions of you handling tedious customers, while the real you can go to the real beach. (The New Yorker once called the author Clive James “a great bunch of guys.” In the metaverse that could actually be true.)

Strip back the metaverse to this functional space and it’s even more interesting than the current, predominantly entertainment-driven conceits — and possibly an even bigger opportunity. Sure, we’ve all heard about dystopian AIs or alarming reports on deep fakes and bot armies, but there will be blockchain ways of proving our avatar identities in the metaverse so the worst dangers can be avoided.

And as AI guru Andrew Ng at Stanford put it anyway:

“Worrying about evil AI killer robots today is a little bit like worrying about overpopulation on the planet Mars.”

The space is still forming. But maybe AI replicas will be the killer application that brings us the best of virtual worlds, without giving up the best of the real world we have already.

As they put it in Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One“: “Reality is the only thing that’s real.”

By Adam

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