- In “The Metaverse,” Matthew Ball provides an entertaining guide to the coming alternative virtual world.
- The book is optimistic about the metaverse’s potential impact, yet describes monumental obstacles standing in its way.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the writer.
The polarization of the current era extends far beyond traditional politics to matters of taste, technology, the environment, and economics. The result is an increasing inability to engage in civil discourse on any number of subjects that have significant implications for our collective 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 toward polemic and hyperbole.
Happily, however, the book — written by consultant and investor Matthew Ball, the former global head of strategy for Amazon Studios — demonstrates that a true believer can still make a meaningful contribution to everyone’s understanding of an important topic.
Ball achieves this feat by being clear and transparent on his assumptions and grounding his discussion in real data and facts. His analysis then manages to integrate logic, humor, and an appropriate degree of skepticism of the most extreme claims, often made by those with vested interests. The result is an entertaining and thought-provoking guide to the coming alternative virtual world that should prove indispensable to not just users and developers but investors, competitors, and regulators.
“The Metaverse” is organized in three parts that explain in turn what it is, what’s needed for it to actually come
into existence and, finally, why we should care.
The term “metaverse” itself was coined 30 years ago in a sci-fi novel called “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson. Despite being around for so long, there is still little consensus on what precisely it is. Ball suggests that this may be in part because the very companies who most view the metaverse as both a threat and an opportunity for their existing businesses — Facebook and Microsoft are extreme examples — each propose starkly conflicting definitions that fit “their own worldviews and/or the capabilities of their companies.” The resulting confusion encourages conflation of these concepts with blockchain and Web 3.0, which “The Metaverse” does a particularly good job of untangling.
The almost 50-word definition of the metaverse offered up by Ball may be a mouthful, but it usefully highlights all the key attributes needed to establish a ubiquitous, fully-functional virtual 3D ecosystem that can accommodate an unlimited number of simultaneous participants. Ball closely examines the technical and practical constraints on realizing each of these essential features. This exercise may come across as too painfully detailed for some — the longest chapter examines the payment mechanisms needed to support a parallel metaverse economy — but it is critical to an informed view of what the metaverse can actually be.
Despite his overall optimism about the ultimately revolutionary impact of the metaverse, Ball does not downplay the monumental technological obstacles to achieving this vision. “Its arrival remains far off,” Ball concedes, “and its effects largely unclear.” Some of the constraints, like bandwidth and computing power, may be eventually overcome through creativity and persistence. Others, like the speed of light, which poses a significant challenge to maintaining real-time interactive renderings of multiple individuals separated by many thousands of miles, are likely to remain stubbornly resistant to human innovation.
The biggest challenge of all
As incumbent platforms and new disrupters scramble to build their own unique piece of virtual real estate, Ball also grapples with what may be the biggest challenge to creating an all-encompassing metaverse — getting the resulting cacophony of independent virtual worlds to communicate with each other. Solving the problem of interoperability will entail the establishment of a raft of agreed technical standards and potentially a meaningful dose of government intervention. We will get a very small taste of what the latter may look like as the European Union interoperability requirements for messaging apps come into effect in the coming years.
As effective as “The Metaverse” is at describing the primary drivers and key elements of the billions being invested in what he refers to as “the next internet,” it’s less convincing on the claim that it will actually “revolutionize everything.” The vast majority of economic value being generated today from these technologies relate to gaming applications. Although it is true that gaming is no longer primarily the province of antisocial teenage boys — indeed the sector has now surpassed Hollywood and the music industry combined — the relative paucity of compelling use cases beyond that makes one question just how truly revolutionary it will be. Indeed, for most of the other applications described or envisaged — whether in medicine, education or otherwise — it is less than clear that a full-blown metaverse is actually required.
What’s more, for those of us concerned with the increase in anti-social behavior in the wake of a pandemic that discouraged face-to-face human interaction, the eventual rise of the metaverse elicits as much foreboding as awe. Ball is right to be focused on regulatory approaches to avoid corporate gatekeepers as dominant in the virtual as in the physical world. But an economically significant parallel universe that facilitates anonymity raises a host of regulatory and social concerns well beyond competition and innovation that require as much, if not more, attention.
Luckily, given how long it will be for the metaverse to become a reality, we have time to get its regulation right for a change. Anyone committed to trying to do that could do worse than starting with a copy of The Metaverse.
Jonathan A. Knee is a professor of professional practice at Columbia Business School and a senior advisor at Evercore. His most recent book is “The Platform Delusion: Who Wins and Who Loses in the Age of Tech Titans.“