Does the metaverse represent an inevitable future?

This is the direction many technology giants want to take, with Facebook leading the way. A virtual world, where we do real things without moving from home, that is not there physically. But are we really ready to move forward in that universe? Do you really have to believe it?

When your meeting is over, you will wear some shorts and you will go for a snorkeling session in a Maldivian lagoon. Tired, you decide to change the air. It was a walk in Central Park, Simon and Garfunkel gave a concert there. Soon, your friends are waiting for you for a Tibetan meditation session … “Imagine a virtual universe where we graft elements that have roots in reality, that’s the metaverse.summarizes Julien Pillot, teacher-researcher at Inseec. I can visit digitized museums in a very immersive way, attend a show given the avatar of my favorite artist, visit a store to buy clothes that I can receive at home… ” In short, a continuously parallel universe, evolving even when you are not there and allowing a junction with elements that are well anchored to the physical world. All with virtual reality headsets, sensors of all kinds, sensory combinations, odor generators and all the accessories imaginable that allow for the most total immersion. Some already exist, some have not yet been invented.

Horizon Workrooms from Facebook on Oculus.© Facebook Inc.

An old idea

If the word has been in fashion in Silicon Valley for a few months, the concept isn’t far off from having gray hair. Back in 1992, when The Virtual Samurai, a cyberpunk science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson. For the first time the idea of ​​a meta-universe arose: the metaverse in English. Two decades later, taken in many works, it became commonplace until it became an axiom in dystopian fictions.

At the end of June 2021, it suddenly gained a new spotlight when Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook, revealed his roadmap for the coming years. “If we do it wellhe told, over the next five years, we will no longer be considered a social network company, but a metaverse. » The offensive actually began in 2014, with the acquisition of Oculus, the specialist in virtual reality headsets. But, since this summer, “Zuck” has been looking to work twice as hard. Billions of dollars of investment have been announced and 10,000 of the California giant’s employees are now dedicated solely to developing VR and metaverses.

“For the first time in human history, we have technologies for which we do not yet know all the tools that are possible to extract from them.»

Francois-Gabriel Roussel

Researcher at the Sorbonne-Nouvelle University

Delirium of a billionaire fed up with SF or unreliable anticipation of what awaits us? What is certain is that with the advent of current technologies, we are still a long way from reaching a real meta-universe. “The experiments being done today taste like this, but not the smell”, smiled Julien Pillot. This is especially on the side of video games that we approach the most. For example with Fortnite where, along with BattleRoyal-style brawls, a pacifist arena offers regular events featuring avatars of trending artists, such as Travis Scott or Ariana Grande. Before that, at the beginning of the millennium, Second life already suffering the plasters of a virtual universe, even in the face of great success. The enthusiasm is that everyone wants to be a part of it. Press conferences were held there, the 2007 presidential candidates had a campaign headquarters, luxury brands wanted to present themselves there, a cash even authorized transactions. Gradually, however, users got tired, becoming more and more curious. In 2021, Second life still exists, inhabited by nostalgic witnesses to a past full of invention.

the metaverse Second life came out in 2003.© Linden Lab

If popularity has fled, the fact remains that this project opens the way for the concept of the metaverse. As it does, each on their own, new technologies are constantly emerging. Artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies, NFT, augmented reality, 5G, quantum computers: each development can be considered one of the necessary pieces of the puzzle. “For the first time in human history, we have technologies that we don’t yet know all the tools are possible to get from it”enthusiastic François-Gabriel Roussel, honorary researcher in the laboratory “Communication, Information, Media” at the Sorbonne-Nouvelle University.

A road still full of obstacles

Does the combination of all these elements make the impending birth of such a universe realistic? Julien Pillot is convinced there is still a long way to go. “Light years pa mi. Facebook’s most successful project to date has been to digitize a workspace. It doesn’t look very good, but it already takes a lot of work. Designing a true metaverse is millions of times more difficult. » The hardware requirements of a widely adopted virtual universe are another obstacle that needs to be overcome. It’s a question of giant servers, more advanced virtual reality headsets than those available today (lighter, cheaper to make, offers better definition and doesn’t cause resentment to a good portion of users), a generalization of high-speed connections… “The project is so huge, it involves such a heavy investment that real metaverses won’t see the light of day for decades”, returned Julien Pillot. To achieve this, the thorny question of carbon footprint must also be addressed. Because building it and using it can only fuel the bill. However, our near future, constrained by increasingly unique fossil resources and the consequences of climate change, now imposes a more virtuous energy relationship. Clearly, metaverses promise to increase energy consumption if everything must be done to reduce it.

“We can think of metaverse as virtual worlds that allow for real interactions. In this, they do not represent an extension of reality, but of a broader new reality.»

Fanny Parise

Anthropologist at the University of Lausanne

If technical difficulties remain numerous, they do not fully question the possibility of virtual universes. In the eyes of some researchers, the movement has already begun. In any case, this is what Fanny Parise, an anthropologist specializing in contemporary worlds at the University of Lausanne, believes: “Another world has been created, the process has already begun and it is not new. We have already moved from physical life to digital life. Why can’t the next step be virtual? We can think of metaverse as those virtual worlds that allow for real interactions. In this, they do not represent an extension of reality, but of a broader new reality. » Is the majority of the public enthusiastic about the idea of ​​exchanging part of the world of the past for another world? It is possible, the anthropologist believes, as long as there is no sudden destruction of this social revolution. On the contrary, it is likely that we ourselves participated in its construction: “Since the advent of digital, individuals have taken the tools they can use and developed strategies to enhance their experiences. In the end, we are as many actors as the founders of this world of the future. »

Beyond these questions of possibility, there is another question: do metaverses represent a desirable future? To know the origin of an answer, we must expect the fact that there is only room for one or two universes. “Like many digital services that operate on the network impact, one big player is always separating it from its competitors: Google for search engines, AirBnb for rental between individuals, and so on. pa.explains Jullien Pillot. It’s the same for metaverse, with more stakes because of the many investments they mean. » The challenge for Facebook – and some other companies that have expressed interest in the topic such as Nvidia, Sony, Epic Games … – clearly consists in becoming this future number 1. Because the “tag- his “in such a universe – in the data Its passage – is the guarantee of great economic power and the possibility of imposing its own rules.

Open to the public in 2020, the Decentraland platform is based on blockchain technology.© Decentraland

The Decentraland platform offers a glimpse of what that looks like. In this alternative world, users get virtual lands (so -called earth) to do what they want (games, cryptocurrency, applications, etc.). Regulation is organized in the form of votes, the number of votes is correlated with the number of spaces owned. In short, the richer you are, the more weight of the election. “Power and money are now centered in Gafam’s handsanalyzed by Fanny Parise. Their idea is to guarantee the stability of existing models. If the form can be changed, the substance has every reason to remain the same. » You say desirable?

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