A book about the Metaverse that raises more questions than it answers
Everybody in the world of technology talks about the Metaverse. But no two people among them seem to agree on what it is, how it will be built, who if anyone will control it, and when it will become a reality. Tech investor Matthew Ball sets out to address this problem in The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything. Building on his own tongue-twisting definition, Ball shares his views on all these questions. Just don’t be surprised after reading the book if you still don’t have a clue what the Metaverse will be like if and when it comes into being. And, despite the promise of the book’s subtitle, you won’t know much about “how the Metaverse will revolutionize everything.” But you will know the right questions to ask.
QUESTIONS YOU MAY NOT WANT TO ANSWER
Many readers will confront the same challenge I did when reading this book. As Ball sees it, online gaming will be front and center in the Metaverse. My own experience in this field is limited to a single game. Solitaire. So it’s difficult for me to look toward a day when I will adapt an avatar to make my way through the precincts of the Metaverse. Ball’s account implies we’ll all have to do that, assuming the Metaverse replaces the Internet as we know it today. Why will I need to take on a fictitious role to buy books for my Kindle on Amazon? What’s the point? And will I have to wear a headset or goggles, which seems to be in the cards, too? I’m sure many who read this review will have the same questions. And Ball doesn’t answer them. But he gets credit for raising them.
THE METAVERSE: AND HOW IT WILL REVOLUTIONIZE EVERYTHING BY MATTHEW BALL (2022) 435 PAGES ★★★★☆
A TONGUE-TWISTING DEFINITION OF THE METAVERSE
Ball devotes the first third of his book sharing his definition of the Metaverse as he envisions it and then, word by word, unpacking it. In fairness, once you’ve passed that point, the definition makes sense. For the record, though, here is is:
“A massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.”
If you understand all that on first reading, you’re better attuned to the online world than I am. And I began doing business on the Internet more than thirty years ago.
You may notice that Ball’s definition makes no mention of Web 3.0, which many people seem to confuse with the Metaverse. Wikipedia’s definition may help dispel that confusion: “Web3 (also known as Web 3.0) is an idea for a new iteration of the World Wide Web which incorporates concepts such as decentralization, blockchain technologies, and token-based economics.” As Ball notes, those concepts might be features of the Metaverse. But the Metaverse won’t necessarily displace the World Wide Web.
THE COMPANIES AT THE FOREFRONT IN DEVELOPING THE METAVERSE
As the author makes clear, none of this is possible today. And it may not be for many years to come. However, he describes a mind-boggling array of hardware and software approaches under development to make Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) devices more accessible and less costly. Apparently, dozens of companies are engaged in this work. The biggest players Ball identifies include both the usual suspects (Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft) and the leaders in the online gaming industry. Those Ball sees in the forefront are Nvidia (which makes the chips that power online gaming), Sony, Unity Technologies (a leader in online 3D visuals), Roblox (which makes popular online games), Nintendo, and Chinese technology company Tencent.
Another source names an overlapping set of eight companies that are investing big-time in the Metaverse. Microsoft. Meta (formerly Facebook). Google. Nvidia. Unity Software. Shopify (an online e-commerce platform). Roblox. And Qualcomm (a semiconductor company working with Microsoft on Augmented Reality). But, as Ball makes clear, hundreds of companies have set out to compete in this space.
Ball’s account raises several big questions:
- Will the Metaverse swallow up the Internet as we know it today, or simply represent a new, three-dimensional layer atop the Internet? Or, for that matter, something entirely independent of it?
- Will an independent, nonprofit entity come into being to write and administer the standards for the Metaverse, as is the case with the Internet today? Or will it become solely controlled by profit-making corporations?
- Which, if any, of the big companies now investing heavily in the Metaverse will emerge bigger and stronger? And will any of them shrink to second-class status (or even go out of business)?
- Will it be necessary to don Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality headsets or goggles to enter the Metaverse? Or will some form of brain-to-computer interface emerge as a less intrusive alternative?
Ball advances an answer to the second of these questions. “A ‘corporate internet,’ he writes, “is the current expectation for the Metaverse. The internet’s nonprofit nature and early history stems from the fact that government research labs and universities were effectively the only institutions with the computational talent, resources, and ambitions to build a ‘network of networks,’ and few in the for-profit sector understood its commercial potential. None of this is true when it comes to the Metaverse. Instead, it is being pioneered and built by private businesses, for the explicit purpose of commerce, data collection, advertising, and the sale of virtual products.”
A GRIM WORD OF WARNING
Ball is pessimistic about the impact of the Metaverse. “[F]ears of a Metaverse dystopia seem fair, rather than alarmist. The very idea of the Metaverse means an ever-growing share of our lives, labor, leisure, time, wealth, happiness, and relationships will be spent inside virtual worlds, rather than just extended or aided through digital devices and software. It will be a parallel plane of existence for millions, if not billions, of people, that sits atop our digital and physical economies, and unites both. As a result, the companies that control these virtual worlds and their virtual atoms will likely be more dominant than those who lead in today’s economy.” A grim forecast, indeed.
THE ROADBLOCKS ON THE WAY TO THE METAVERSE
The author cites numerous technological challenges that confront those who are now attempting to build the Metaverse. Chief among them is latency. That’s the difficulty of transmitting enormous amounts of data at speeds high enough not to frustrate users. But there are many others. “We are far from being able to replicate the density and flexibility of the ‘real world,’” Ball notes. But he implies that the business practices of Apple and Google today represent a much bigger roadblock. Ball cites Apple’s in particular. “Apple does not want a Metaverse comprised of integrated virtual world platforms, but of many disparate virtual worlds that are interconnected through Apple’s App Store and the use of Apple’s standards and services.” If the former happens, Apple will lose money. A lot of it. If the company instead manages to nudge the Metaverse in the direction of the latter, it will add trillions to its market capitalization and cast an even larger shadow over Planet Earth.
But Ball seems to view it as equally likely that other players will emerge on top. “The Metaverse offers the opportunity to disrupt today’s gatekeepers, such as Apple or Google, but many fear that we’ll just end up with new ones — maybe Roblox Corporation, or Epic Games.” Heaven forfend!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matthew Ball is the CEO of Epyllion, a diversified holding company which makes angel investments, provides advisory services, and produces television, films, and video games. He is also a Venture Partner at Makers Fund, Senior Advisor to KKR, Senior Advisor to McKinsey & Company, and sits on the board of numerous start-ups. The Metaverse is his first book. Ball is also an “Occasional Contributor” to The Economist, holds bylines at Bloomberg, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and wrote the August 8, 2022 cover story for Time Magazine.
FOR MORE READING
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