Is the “metaverse” the new Eldorado as Facebook says?

Facebook but also Alibaba and Tencent started the race for the “metaverse” by investing several million dollars. If the concept of the metaverse is not new, the commercial use of this digital world is known through 30 years of trials as regular as its failures. Will new immersive technologies change this concept into a sustainable economic reality?

The term metaverse was proposed by Neal Stephenson in 1992 in his book Snowfall, the author himself defines this word as an accuracy of the term virtual world that is vague and dream -like. The metaverse rather than a “meta-universe” is that it exists in itself, similar to the real universe in which we live.

Stephenson defines the metaverse in the following way, it is a meta-universe that relies on a technology base (computing), it has an economic purpose (a local currency can now be there, it creates transactions and gain), participants have an interactive avatar (to express emotions), and it must represent a real number of individuals to foster equality in the physical world (a crowd composed of a few individuals and not by a message of the type “200 people are in the waiting room).

Instant images of the movie (Matrix, Ready Player One) or games (the Sims, Clash of Clans, Fortnite) are in mind. An ever -utopian virtual world living its own life.

But these illustrations have too many limitations. If films fully represent the concept of the metaverse, we are just spectators and do not participate in this universe. If the games are an interactive application, they are concerned with a specific audience (players in the “world simulator” whether connected or not, in MMORPGs and rely on game consoles, computers where the screen-keyboard- mouse pack or screen-joystick remains the same.possible interaction.

However, some “real” metaverses have emerged. In 1997 Canal + launched the first French online virtual world “The Second World”, the user received by posting a CD with a map of Paris (partially) digitized in 3D, he was able to install the CD on his computer, create an avatar and walk around. the city at a very low speed!), meet people and meet groups, chat via text chat, see advertising. Here we see three of the four rules proposed by Stephenson, the economic dimension boiled down to advertising for real-world products.

In 2003, the famous “Second Life” (SL) offered a more successful version of the metaverse for the general public, capturing basic concepts including a local currency, the Linden Dollar (L $ ), with an official list. .

The Second World and Second Life are important steps, where SL is undoubtedly the greatest success, but the desire for the metaverse has been extinguished for two reasons: first of all the human-machine interface (the screen- keyboard trio -mouse) is still the same. a barrier to user immersion. In the end, the speculative bubble created by SL removes the purists from metaveres (the speculative craze of investors is far from the dreams of F. Turner in his book “at the sources of digital utopia” and destroys the opportunists. value (in Holbrook’s sense) did not ultimately live up to its promises, the emerging social networks whose social needs were met with a Facebook without the limitations of low immersion associated with the interface. (there are regions dedicated to all sorts of activities) created an explosion in the metaverse by demoting it into a sort of ultra-specialized MMORPG.

But why are the web giants starting this race today?

The current market is actually more mature than in 2000. The number of computer equipment and access to high-speed Internet is almost 90% of the population in Europe and the United States.

The pandemic democratizes human relations at a distance. Games based on creating a virtual world (Mindcraft, Fortnite, etc.) are now reaching an older and wider audience. The popularity of cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin, Shiba, etc.) has eliminated the use of virtual currencies and the vagaries of their quotes.

Finally, and perhaps most of all, the democratization of virtual reality headsets makes it possible to overcome the main limitation of old experiences: immersion. To be “in” the metaverse, an immersed actor and no longer an audience actor. Here we are close to the film actors Ready Player One ! And what will happen if we live in the same world permanently? Let’s consume this world! Services, goodies, avatars, special effects, many digital services can be purchased with virtual money or real dollars. A kind of extra Second Life where the consumer is immersed in consuming, working, having fun, meeting.

For big economic players like Facebook, Alibaba but also new to the business, this is a way to keep their users engaged by offering them an immersive experience. Buying products in an Alibaba metaverse “like” a physical store with unlimited visual creativity, here’s what the online customer experience is all about, the holy grail of e-commerce.

Facebook can rely on loans to 2 billion daily users whose age and purchasing power put them at an economic income target.

Big Chinese players like Tencent are embarking on the adventure. Each company registers brand names dedicated to future metaverses. For its part, Fortnite started selling online in the universe of its games a few years ago. It has a very large pool (about 350 million accounts) and is even younger than Facebook. Tomorrow’s buyers are today’s community players!

The metaverse concept envisioned in 1992 now sees a convergence of elements towards a new renaissance: technical background (quality and low price of broadband connectivity, low price of VR headsets), social background (acceptance of virtual people, rate of use of social networks and online games), the important point is the variety of services offered. How to make games (Fortnite), e-commerce (Alibaba), social relations (Facebook), work (Team) come together in a virtual world? Value enhancement rarely benefits leaders. We remember Google’s failure in social networks, Facebook in email or in online sales. The metaverse can see the appearance of new entrants who are successful in gathering services.


By Stephane Bourliataux-Lajoinie, Lecturer (HDR) in Digital Marketing. Director of MiM2 E-business and Digital Marketing, National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts (CNAM).

The original version of this article was published in The Conversation.