Two Years of Meta

Two years since the launch of Meta, Guillermo de Haro explores how metaverse technology has developed towards more practical scenarios.

In 2003, surrounded by companies developing web technology, a group of engineers including myself decided to focus on software development for industrial manufacturing companies. If your web development fails, your customers may get angry and you may lose money, but the buck pretty much stops there. However, if you do not develop reliable software for industrial applications – in say manufacturing, energy, or healthcare – that failure could have serious consequences that can be much worse, including potentially lethal ones. The need to build robust applications and comprehensively understand the way industry worked was crucial. One of our flagship products was training simulators, i.e., digital twins, before they were commonly known by that name.

Around the same time, Second Life appeared on the scene. This virtual world, created by Linden Lab, allowed users to interact and communicate in an immersive three-dimensional environment. They could also create and customize their avatars to explore a vast digital landscape filled with buildings, landscapes, and objects developed by other Second Life residents.

The platform garnered popularity thanks to its community, its user-generated, content-based model, and because residents were able to buy, sell, and trade virtual property and goods using in-game currency, the Linden Dollar. Residents could socialize, participate in activities, and create and attend events such as concerts, art exhibitions, and educational workshops. Second Life was also intended as a platform for educational purposes, presentations, and business meetings. Expectations were high, following spectacular growth in the first year. And yet, this pioneering example of a virtual-world platform, which always stated that it was not a game, never took off (though it is still operational today.)

A couple of years ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced the launch of a new concept, a new business unit, and a new name for the company which we had all come to know as Facebook. Enter Meta. The concept of a metaverse – a shared virtual collective space – looked a lot like Second Life and was linked to the Oculus reality headset that the company had acquired in 2014. The move revolutionized the world of business and technology, and long-term billion-dollar investments followed.

The metaverse itself has undergone major growth and transformation over the past two years. The culmination of technological breakthroughs in immersive technology, and the growing demand for digital experiences, has spurred remarkable interest in mainstreaming and expanding the metaverse around the world. Yet this transformative journey has not revolutionized the way people interact, work, play, and learn in the digital realm, as was originally anticipated.

There has been an increase in both the number and the variety of metaverse platforms, each catering to specific user demographics and interests. Decentraland, backed by Ethereum; VRChat, open to community creation; and Sandbox, an online gaming platform based on NFTs, have failed to take off. The established technology giants have also failed to develop and dominate the market with their immersive virtual environments. These platforms have evolved and succeeded in delivering reasonable augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) integration, leading to more realistic, interactive offerings. However, they are clearly insufficient.

It was a risky bet on innovation, and after two years it has proven unsuccessful and unsustainable.

The meteoric rise of the metaverse has raised concerns about its environmental footprint and energy consumption. Industry leaders and innovators have proactively adopted sustainable practices and green technologies to minimize the carbon footprint of digital infrastructures. The development of energy-efficient data centers and the implementation of green design principles have demonstrated the industry’s commitment to reducing environmental degradation and promoting sustainable growth within the metaverse.

When I worked in the film world, the limitations of 3D technology for audiences quickly became apparent. The first 3D motion picture The Power of Love, which dates back to 1922, premiered and shown in Los Angeles at the Ambassador Hotel Theatre and the audience wore red/green glasses. It was the start of a fad for 3D cinema that returns every so often, as demonstrated by Jaws 3D (1983) and Avatar (2009). Why hasn’t it become mainstream? It is not a question of technology. Our vision simply expects to find specific shapes and sizes of familiar objects at a certain distance, and if this is not the case, we get headaches and become dizzy, among other unwanted effects. So, if it is anything other than an animation movie or a 100% 3D concept, the expected results (not to mention the business model), are likely to fall well short of the mark.

Advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning have boosted social interactions within the metaverse, enhancing the realism and depth of virtual engagements. The metaverse can be a hub for seamless communication and collaboration, transcending geographical boundaries and cultural limitations, from concerts and virtual events to collaborative workspaces and educational environments.

The widespread influence of the metaverse has had profound cultural implications and has shaped new forms of digital expression, art, and entertainment. Virtual museums, art galleries, and cultural heritage sites have become popular destinations for immersive learning and exploration, fostering a deeper appreciation of global diversity and history. The integration of the metaverse into educational and professional environments has redefined traditional learning and work paradigms. Virtual classrooms and training simulations have enabled immersive and interactive learning experiences that cater to diverse learning styles and preferences. It’s not all bad news.

So, what has gone wrong? Firstly, the Meta project did not have a clear focus (consider Fortnite and Roblox, which were designed for a particular audience with a specific goal in mind.) Secondly, the company’s main focus seemed to be creating a new line of business, given its almost absolute dependence on advertising revenues, which are highly sensitive to the vicissitudes of the economy. It was a risky bet on innovation, and after two years it has proven unsuccessful and unsustainable. But finally, the emergence of artificial intelligence has diverted all eyes to this new technology which, ironically, could be Meta’s saving grace, thanks to its enormous advantages and potential application in immersive environments.

Mark Zuckerberg raised the stakes with a high-resolution metaverse interview with Lex Friedman, a well-known technology communicator. And if Second Life has managed to survive to this day, why shouldn’t Meta succeed – and change the world of digital twins, industry, film, video games, and who knows what else. After all, he has had half the planet on an unprecedented innovation roll for the past two years, and he doesn’t seem to want to stop there. Let’s see.


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