On Oct. 28, 2021, Mark Zuckerberg stood in front of an airy sofa in Menlo Park, California, looked dead in the camera, and made a major announcement: Henceforth, the company he co-founded in 2004, formerly known as Facebook, would be called Meta.
Because the announcement occurred amidst a public relations crisis — created by the release of the so-called “Facebook Papers” by whistleblower Frances Haugen — it seemed to many this name change was a way to change the subject. Days later, however, Microsoft made an announcement of its own. Starting in 2022, it said, it would begin rolling out Mesh for Microsoft Teams, a mixed-reality take on virtual meetings. In mid-January, Microsoft announced it was acquiring digital entertainment company Activision Blizzard –– maker of blockbuster games like Call of Duty, World of War Craft and Diablo – for $68.7 Billion.
These moves showed there was more to Meta than branding. It was the trumpeting of a new era, that the metaverse will rise. Those moving behind believe it’s going to change everything, from the way people work, learn and play.
That is, if Meta, Microsoft and the rest of tech industry can deliver on their promise. To do so, they’ll need to help consumers see their vision. And then, they’ll need to build the IT infrastructure to make it a reality.
What is the Metaverse?
In simple terms, the metaverse is the convergence of virtual reality, augmented reality, and video to create a new mixed-reality environment, the result of which will be an immersive digital universe in which consumers can live, work, and play.
“Our social lives and gaming are converging and creating a large, fast-growing virtual goods consumer economy,” Grayscale Research explained in its November 2021 report, The Metaverse: Web 3.0 Virtual Cloud Economies, in which it estimates that revenue from virtual gaming worlds could grow from approximately $180 billion in 2020 to approximately $400 billion in 2025.
It’s part of a next-generation internet known as Web 3.0, or Web3. A decentralized approach to the World Wide Web, Web3 uses blockchains to reimagine and reorganize online communities and data around users instead of corporate gatekeepers. Along with virtual currencies and on-screen avatars, the metaverse will be a defining pillar.
“Web 1.0 connected us online, Web 2.0 connected us into online communities, and Web 3.0 connected us into a community-owned virtual world,” Grayscale continued. “The Web 2.0 mobile internet changed how, where, when, and why we used the internet. In turn, this changed the products, services, and companies we used, which changed our business models, culture, and politics—the Web 3.0 metaverse has the potential to do the same.”
Zuckerberg called the metaverse “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.”
In a letter outlining his vision for the metaverse, he stated “The defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence — like you are right there with another person or in another place. In the metaverse, you’ll be able to do almost anything you can imagine — get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create — as well as completely new experiences that don’t really fit how we think about computers or phones today.”
Zuckerberg predicts people will take the form of a hologram inside the Metaverse. They will be able to teleport instantly to the office to meet with colleagues, to a concert to hang out with friends, or to a parents’ house to visit mom and dad.
“This will open up more opportunity no matter where you live,” he stated in the lettter. “You’ll be able to spend more time on what matters to you, cut down time in traffic, and reduce your carbon footprint.”
New Era, New Guard
The metaverse sounds cool. But it also sounds complicated. Because it’s based on a decentralized approach to digital community, the shift to Web3 will require CIOs and other IT leaders to embrace transparency and agility in ways they never have before — and to build new IT infrastructure that empowers them to do so.
This is evident in an emerging conflict between the “old guard” and the “new guard” of technology. Typical of the old guard are Meta and Microsoft, whose centrally controlled platforms resemble walled gardens and black boxes. Representing the new guard, meanwhile, are companies like Decentraland and Sandbox, both of which are taking a democratic approach to building metaverses wherein users buy, build, and monetize their own virtual experiences.
The old guard used massive server racks and cloud computing to concentrate ownership of the web in the hands of a privileged few. The new guard, however, is spreading processing power among all users, or “nodes,” which allows new platforms to dynamically spring up, scale, and shift in response to real-time consumer demand.
“The metaverse will not be created by one company,” Zuckerberg observes. “It will be built by creators and developers making new experiences and digital items that are interoperable and unlock a massively larger creative economy than the one constrained by today’s platforms and their policies.”
No wonder centralized Web 2.0 monoliths are eager to plant a flag in decentralized Web3: Their biggest point of leverage — all the processing power money can buy — is now easily outstripped by the collective processing power of individual Web3 users.
We’ve been here before. In the 1990s, America Online (AOL) was synonymous with the internet. In short order, however, consumers began to realize that AOL was just one internet pipeline among many. When Web 1.0 gave way to Web 2.0, it became a dinosaur. With Web3 on the horizon, Web 2.0 businesses are now scrambling to avoid the same fate.
In order to survive the coming transition to Web3, companies and their IT leaders must embrace what their customers increasingly are demanding: a higher level of autonomy, privacy, and customization. Just like the shift from company-owned computers to bring your own devices, the metaverse era will require CIOs to be flexible in execution and inoperability while still being on top of security.
“There is no [Web3] future without all citizens having sovereign identity structures and ways to share data in a peer-to-peer fashion,” says John C. Havens, author of Heartificial Intelligence: Embracing Our Humanity to Maximize Machines. “They need to be provided with the tools, regulations, and information to make an informed choice.”
In other words, customers will expect to be able to control what data they share, access it at will and — most notably for CIOs — take it with them across other platforms.
How many legacy or even cloud-based systems are ready for that kind of agility? Autonomous cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and community-driven computing like Ethereum foreshadow the bigger sea change happening in the metaverse.
“In Connectography, I wrote about the rise of high-bandwidth global digital connectivity through fiber internet cables, 5G, and satellites, and how it would enable ‘cloud communities’ to become more cohesive as networked units,” said futurist Dr. Parag Khanna, author of Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization and founder and managing partner of FutureMap, a data- and scenario-based strategic advisory firm. “With the rise of GitHub, blockchain, Web3, and metaverse, you see ever more platforms or domains within which new organized units can emerge in parallel to the state.”
All of this portends the creation of new digital communities that are decentralized in nature, which is exactly what the metaverse promises to deliver.
“Feeling truly present with another person is the ultimate dream of social technology,” concluded Zuckerberg. “That is why we are focused on building … the metaverse.”
The destination is clear: digital freedom. Whether tech leaders at Meta and other Web 2.0 enterprises are adaptable enough to get there will be the defining question of the Web3 era.
Damon Brown is a contributing writer. He hosts the #BringYourWorth business show every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Follow him on Twitter @browndamon.
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