What technologies do metaverses rely on?

This article was published in association with Binaire, a blog for understanding digital issues.

In October 2021, Facebook announced the development of a new dubbed virtual environment metaverse. This information led to numerous reactions in the form of comments in the media and declarations of intent at companies. As is often the case when faced with a technological innovation, the reactions are contradictory: hell is advertised for some, and heaven is for others. What are we thinking?

What are we talking about?

The concept of the metaverse comes from science fiction literature. The term first appeared in the 1992 novel, virtual samurai By Neal Stephenson, to describe a computer-generated universe accessed through glasses and headphones. Other novels had previously described somewhat similar virtual worlds in other terms: simulation in the 1968 novel by Daniel F. Galloway, or cyberspace in William Gibson’s novels of the early 1980s, for example.

The first tangible achievements of this concept date back to 1990-1995 for the active worlds, in the United States, or 1997 for Le deux monde, in France. It has always been limited by current technical capabilities.

Today, there are a large number of metaverses, most of which are unknown, and it was the Facebook/Meta ad that brought these environments back to the fore in the media landscape.

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

  • It is a computer perception that allows the creation of a virtual world – or a virtual world or environment – in which we can interact

  • The created virtual environment consists of landscape or decor elements, various independent or controlled objects and moving objects from the real world (we talk next about avatars).

  • The environment can reproduce a part of the real world (the city of Paris, in the second world), embody abstract elements of it (the software elements of the computer in the movie Tron, or the interconnectedness of computer networks in the cyberspace of cyberpunk literature) or invent something completely new.

  • The laws of this virtual environment and the aspect and behavior of what it consists of can be similar to those in the real world, or not (a human avatar can be given the possibility to fly over a city, for example).

  • This environment is accessed through traditional interfaces (keyboard, mouse, and/or joystick, possibly touch screen) or specific interfaces (helmet, goggles, gloves, etc.) which allow the world to be perceived (through visual, sound and tactile representations). sense of smell) and interaction with what it consists of.

Through these interfaces, various activities can be carried out: moving, observing, creating or modifying items, acquiring or exchanging them; Collaborate or compete with others present.

The environment can be accessed and used simultaneously by a very large number of people.

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

All these characteristics allow a virtual society to develop with its own culture and economy.

Where does this concept come from?

The idea of ​​deconstruction was first received: metaphors were not the result of a modern technological revolution initiated by Facebook. They are based on many scientific, technological and applied developments, and sometimes even ancient events.

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 in which the user can interact to navigate and perform various tasks. The richness of this representation and this interaction generates a feeling of being in the virtual environment which enhances user engagement. Virtual reality applications focused on understanding phenomena, designing objects or systems, and learning tasks, initially confined to sectors such as transportation, industry, architecture, urban planning, and medicine, and later opened 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 immerse themselves. At the crossroads of various fields (virtual reality, intermediate communications, digital work environments), the first multi-user environments are still aimed at professional situations, in particular the vehicle industry (automobiles, aircraft, satellite launchers) whose representatives are often located in different locations . However, environments for wider audiences and activities soon emerged. Let’s mention for example the Second World launched in 1997 by Canal + or Second Life launched in 2003, which numbered one million users and is still available today.

Screenshot from Second Life.
HyacintheLuynes / Wikimedia, CC BY

Research has been carried out on the architectures necessary for the transition to a larger scale (in France, within the framework of the Solipsis project, for example). Then the continuous development of digital technologies allowed the widespread distribution of hardware and software that were previously limited to research laboratories or very large companies. The advent of VR headsets of very high quality but significantly lower cost in the 2000s enabled the development of new uses for this technology in both professional and domestic environments.

Metaverses are also part of the recent evolution of video games. These games have always offered the exploration of virtual worlds, but many trends have profoundly changed the situation in recent years.

The ‘open world’ approach that some games are based on allows for free exploration of the proposed world, not just simple progression into a predetermined narrative structure. Online multiplayer games are becoming popular. It allows freedom of action, beyond just co-existence, cooperation or competition between players. Games allow them to communicate by text or oral messages, socialize, and organize themselves into teams, into clans. Some are designed as platforms that evolve over time with important updates and additions (settings, items, animated characters, etc.), to the point that these games are referred to as “seasons,” like TV series.

The games allow to get – as a reward for actions or for virtual currency purchased in the real world – weapons, balls and other things, outfits, vehicles, buildings, etc. Some also allow you to create, exchange, or sell things. Thus an economy is created within these environments, over time and with very tangible results in the real world. These companies and virtual economies attract companies from other sectors such as music to organize concerts or luxury to sell branded items to the video game industry.

Dofus (2004), Roblox (2006), Minecraft (2011), GTA online (2013), Fortnite (2017) or recent versions of Call of Duty (2003) demonstrate most of the mentioned characteristics. The technological bricks created to create these environments have reached a very high level of maturity and are now used in many other sectors. Thus, Unreal and Unity “graphics engines” are commonly used for applications in the fields of architecture, cinema, or engineering. These bricks could play an important role in realizing new metaverses, and are valued as such.

Enthusiasm with metaverses also coincides with questions about the future of social networks and the place of GAFAM, and the new possibilities offered by blockchain-type technologies. Social networks as we know them are great communication tools, and they have a ripple effect for better and for worse. Metaverses opens up new possibilities, offering new social interactions, beyond simple communication based on short texts or images. It is an opportunity to start over on new grounds, hoping – for the most optimistic people – that it will not necessarily lead to the same excesses.

Blockchain technologies provide the means to create digital scarcity (digital objects that can only exist in limited numbers), to verify the authenticity and ownership of an object, to trace its history, to allow its creator or creator to collect royalties on its resale through “smart contracts”. We see building on top of these technologies for new games/worlds like Decentraland or Axie Infinity where players/users are also creators and administrators of the virtual world, and can make real profits from it.

Users’ participation in creation and management makes it possible to visualize more complex worlds in the long run. These new worlds are part of what’s called “Web3,” a decentralized Internet (meaning power, not computer architecture) that would allow users to take back control from the actors who dominate the current system.

We have brought back decades of science fiction novels and films for metaverses (Matrix, Real Player One or Free Guy for example, in addition to the previously mentioned novels or films). The COVID pandemic has prompted us to collectively deploy IT resources to coordinate, communicate, and collaborate. Business meetings, courses, conferences, concerts and other performances of art were held in public places in unprecedented conditions. Despite some difficulties, a step has been taken to digitize these activities. Can we visualize these and other experiences in richer digital forms, on a larger scale, as fantasies about metaverbs have long promised?

In a 2005 text, Cory Ondrejka (co-founder of Second Life) said: “The metaverse will be so huge that only distributed methods of creation can create its content. So users will have to build the world in which they will live. […] These residents will attract regular users who play games, build an audience, and become customers. This will constitute supply and demand for a huge market for goods and services. With creators owning and rights to their creations, this will enable the creation of wealth and capital that will stimulate growth. Only then will the transformation in the Metaverse and the world, both real and online, be the same. “.

Does the convergence of the above elements lead us to the tipping point? There are still many scientific, technological, political, legal, economic and social (among other things) questions. Will the current excitement subside before it is answered? Will we be able to answer it? Will other concerns render all these questions useless? It’s hard to give a definitive opinion…

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