the metaverse by Matthew Ball

  • In The Metaverse, Matthew Ball offers an entertaining guide to the upcoming alternate virtual world.
  • The book is optimistic about the metaverse’s potential impact, but describes monumental obstacles that stand in its way.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

Today’s polarization extends well beyond traditional politics to issues of taste, technology, the environment, and economics. The result is an increasing inability to engage in civil discourse on any number of issues that have significant implications for our common future. The title of a new book exploring the potential impact of virtual and augmented reality technologies – The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything – seems to reflect this tendency for polemics and hyperbole.

Fortunately, the book — written by consultant and investor Matthew Ball, former global chief of strategy at Amazon Studios — shows that a true believer can still make a meaningful contribution to understanding an important issue for everyone.

Ball achieves this feat by stating his assumptions clearly and transparently, and basing his discussion on real data and facts. His analysis then manages to incorporate logic, humor and a fair amount of skepticism towards the most extreme claims often made by interest groups. The result is a fun and thought-provoking guide to the upcoming alternative virtual world that should prove indispensable not only for users and developers, but also for investors, competitors and regulators.

“The Metaverse” is divided into three parts, which in turn explain what it is, what it takes for it to actually come

The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything


Liveright


launched and finally why we should care.

The term “Metaverse” itself was coined 30 years ago in a science fiction novel called “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson. Even though it’s been around for so long, there’s still little consensus on what exactly it is. Ball suggests this may be partly because the very companies that most view the metaverse as both a threat and an opportunity to their existing businesses — Facebook and Microsoft are extreme examples — each propose wildly conflicting definitions that “their their own worldviews and/or the capabilities of their companies.” The resulting confusion fuels the conflation of these concepts with blockchain and Web 3.0 that The Metaverse unravels particularly well.

The nearly 50-word definition of the metaverse that Ball offers may be a mouthful, but it usefully highlights all of the key attributes required to establish a ubiquitous, fully-functional 3D virtual ecosystem that offers an unlimited number of simultaneous participants. Ball closely examines the technical and practical limitations in the realization of each of these key features. This exercise may seem overly painfully detailed for some – the longest chapter examines the payment mechanisms required to support a parallel metaverse economy – but it is crucial for an informed overview of what the metaverse may actually be.

Despite his general optimism about the metaverse’s eventual revolutionary impact, Ball does not downplay the monumental technological obstacles to achieving that vision. “His arrival remains a long way off,” Ball concedes, “and its impact is largely unclear.” Some of the limitations, like bandwidth and processing power, can eventually be overcome with creativity and perseverance. Others, like the speed of light, which poses a significant challenge to sustaining real-time interactive renderings of multiple people many thousands of miles apart, are likely to resist human innovation stubbornly.

The biggest challenge ever

As established platforms and new disruptors scramble to build their own unique virtual property, Ball also grapples with perhaps the greatest challenge in creating an all-encompassing metaverse – getting the resulting cacophony of independent virtual worlds to communicate with each other. Resolving the interoperability issue will require the adoption of a set of agreed technical standards and potentially a significant dose of government intervention. We’ll get a very small taste of what the latter might look like when the European Union’s interoperability requirements for messaging apps come into force in the coming years.

As effectively as “The Metaverse” describes the primary drivers and key elements of the billions being invested in what it calls “the next internet,” it is less convincing in claiming that it will actually “revolutionize everything.” Most of the economic value generated from these technologies today relates to gaming applications. Furthermore, while it’s true that gaming is no longer primarily the domain of anti-social teenagers – in fact, the sector has now overtaken Hollywood and the music industry combined – the relative lack of compelling use cases makes one wonder just how truly revolutionary it will be. In fact, for most other applications described or proposed—whether medical, educational, or otherwise—it is far from clear that a full metaverse is actually required.

Moreover, for those of us grappling with the rise of antisocial behavior in the wake of a pandemic that discouraged face-to-face interaction between humans, the eventual rise of the metaverse inspires as much foreboding as awe. Ball rightly focuses on regulatory approaches to avoid corporate gatekeepers being as dominant in the virtual as in the physical world. But an economically significant parallel universe that allows anonymity raises a multitude of regulatory and social concerns that go far beyond competition and innovation and that require just as much, if not more, attention.

Thankfully, given how long it’s going to take for the metaverse to become a reality, we’ve got time to get its regulation right for a change. Anyone committed to trying this could do worse than starting with a copy of The Metaverse.

Jonathan A. Knee is Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia Business School and Senior Advisor at Evercore. His latest book is The Platform Delusion: Who Wins and Who Loses in the Age of Tech Titans.

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