From Facebook to Fortnite: The metaverse is calling. Are we ready?
Mike Snider USA TODAY
You might not know this, but the metaverse is coming. What is this metaverse? A virtual world on the internet where the mundane and the surreal coexist. Where you can live a life that expands on reality and can approach hyperrealism. I just took my next big step toward embracing it – and soon you may, too.
Within a matter of minutes, I was reborn as a holographic avatar – a digital version of me – with the help of the Avatar Dimension technicians in northern Virginia, just west of the nation's capital.
My virtual doppelgänger is ready to embark on digital adventures, be inserted into a video game, a movie, or virtual reality. And it's ready for the metaverse, the persistent alternate reality in cyberspace author Neal Stephenson envisioned in his 1992 science fiction novel "Snow Crash." There, lifelike avatars had alternate homes, hung out with friends in clubs and explored realistic 3D buildings and expanses.
In the years since, we have been inching our way toward that. Some stops on the way included the online fantasy world Second Life, which was founded in 2003 and is still going. Other virtual universes growing before our eyes include 3D building games Minecraft, which has about 131 million active users, and Roblox, founded in 2004 but now valued at more than $37 billion after going public last month.
On the day of the initial public offering , Roblox founder and CEO David Baszucki tweeted a thank you to all who helped bring the platform "one step closer to fulfilling our vision of the #Metaverse."
And uber-popular video game "Fortnite" represents not just a place for our 3D avatars to engage in online battles but also a venue to attend concerts – gigs by Marshmello in February 2019 and Travis Scott in April 2020 have drawn 10.7 million and 12 million, respectively.
After more than a year of life in lockdown conditions due to the coronavirus pandemic – with livestreaming of events becoming ubiquitous – we are now on the fast track to the metaverse.
Matthew Ball, managing partner of venture capital firm Epyllion Industries
"Right now, we are on the cusp of the next internet."
If anything the COVID-19 shutdown has hastened developers' drive to create virtual worlds so you never have to leave home for entertainment and social life – places where you can hang out at the bar, listen to concerts or see other types of live performances.
"Right now, we are on the cusp of the next internet," said Matthew Ball, managing partner of venture capital firm Epyllion Industries, in a February 2021 essay on his website. "But what matters is that a growing share of our time will be spent within virtual spaces and with virtual goods – for education, work, health, politics and leisure."
And there are plenty of tech companies and startups looking to be that spot in the metaverse where you want to hang.
The virtual world is becoming reality
We don't know what the metaverse will look like or when it eventually arrives – or how much is being spent on its development. But spending on virtual reality alone is expected to expand from its $17 billion value in 2020 to as much as $184 billion by 2026, estimates Mordor Intelligence, a research firm in India.
Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games
"It’s no secret that Epic is invested in building the metaverse."
And the $151 billion global video game market – with online games that deliver evermore immersive experiences – could top $290 billion in 2027, according to Grand View Research of San Francisco.
The initial forays into the development of the metaverse began two decades ago when the first head-mounted displays allowed researchers to do molecular design in virtual space, says Paul Saffo, a futurist and adjunct professor at Stanford University. "It's getting there," he said.
When Epic Games last month announced its acquisition of Tonic Games, maker of the popular "Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout" video game, company founder and CEO Tim Sweeney said, "It’s no secret that Epic is invested in building the metaverse. As Epic works to build this virtual future, we need great creative talent who know how to build powerful games, content and experiences."
Since then, Epic Games raised an additional $1 billion in funding including $200 million from Sony. Those investments will "help accelerate our work around building connected social experiences in Fortnite, Rocket League and Fall Guys while empowering game developers and creators with Unreal Engine, Epic Online Services and the Epic Games Store,” Sweeney said.
To populate games and virtual worlds with photorealistic digital humans, Epic has already shown off its MetaHuman Creator. Just as current video games often let you customize your character, it's easy to imagine simplified versions of these tools to create a picture-perfect avatar for exploring the metaverse.
Cyber-stops on the road to the metaverse
There are already many way stations on the road to the metaverse.
Second Life, for instance. The online fantasy world founded nearly 20 years ago remains active with about 900,000 monthly users, Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Second Life operator Linden Labs, told Vice News in November. The company – acquired by an investment group in July 2020 – saw growth early in the pandemic getting 60% more new user registrations than the previous year, and is preparing for its 18th-anniversary celebration to begin June 17.
Another stop: High Fidelity, a new virtual reality platform co-founded by Second Life founder Philip Rosedale in 2013. Interest has grown in it and its audio technology, which can spatially orient conversations on High Fidelity's own program and others such as Zoom to make them sound more realistic.
High Fidelity also lets you try its social space software: You can invite up to 20 people for free and mingle around the environment. "You can move around naturally as you would at a real-life gathering," Rosedale said in a recent blog post.
Four-year-old virtual world Decentraland is another sign of interest in virtual life.
Daily users have grown to 10,000 from about 1,500 at the beginning of the year, NBC News reported. You can own digital real estate and items and inhabitants are investing. Property values for these pixels have skyrocketed amid the NFT (non-fungible tokens) craze with undeveloped land parcels – measuring 16 meters by 16 meters or 2755.56 square feet – that went for about $20 in the past now priced $6,000 and up. A two-parcel spot with an art gallery on site (you could use it to display art NFTs, for instance) has an asking price of $22,100.
Also placing bets on the metaverse: Atari. The maker of video games such as "Asteroids" and "Pac-Man" is preparing to open an Atari-branded casino within Decentraland virtual Vegas City casino, according to Coindesk. (Coindesk's parent company Digital Currency Group, has a stake in Decentraland.)
Nowhere: A virtual somewhere
A newly created path toward the metaverse leads us to Nowhere, an online haven that mashes up "Fortnite," Zoom, and Clubhouse. Its spaces can be persistent or opened and closed – for public or private use – depending on the event. For businesses, Nowhere could be an alternative to Zoom and serve as a networking space for happy hours or conference parties.
Nowhere can also host concerts, festivals, talks, reunions and other activities. "We saw this void between video chat and MMO (massively multiplayer online) games," said Jon Morris, CEO of The Windmill Factory, the New York production company which began developing the platform just over a year ago.
A tour of the online space begins on a futuristic floating platform overlooking a New York City skyline. Those already here are represented by floating "video pods," which are nonagons (nine-sided polygons) bearing their real-world faces.
You can chat with one another – with your real voices – and your entourage can travel together to other gathering spots and quiet nooks. Sound is delivered spatially, like surround sound, so you will hear someone close to you better than those farther away, and a person (or pod) to your left will be heard in your left speaker.
One level below is a bookshelf-laden room where quiet conversations can happen. And there's a hopping nightclub where a singer is performing in another section of Nowhere that looks like a place where Kirk and Spock might be beamed down to.
The Windmill Factory, which has done projects for Lady Gaga and Nine Inch Nails, is constantly testing Nowhere, which is a web-based environment that needs no special equipment such as a VR headset. Last month, the site, which can hold thousands of users, held its first public opening, the Nowhere Fest, with panel discussions and performances to mark a year into the coronavirus pandemic.
Demand for virtual destinations has "warped like ten years into the future," Morris said. "It's not only the work from home platforms. It's going to be the social platforms to build personal and work relationships."
Nowhere already has 120 business clients interested in conducting future events in nowhere. But games and concerts can be part of the experience, too. Music, comedians, DJs, magicians, poets, and other entertainment are part of Nowhere's Thursday "Hopping Hours," which are open to the public from just after 8 p.m. EDT to 10:17 p.m. EDT. To join go to Nowhere's site.
The destination "will grow into a take on the metaverse, with real-life human presence in video pods," Morris said.
Sensorium, a virtual wonderland
An alternate route to the metaverse can be found in the Sensorium Galaxy, which plans various connected online "worlds" to explore with VR headsets or desktop computers.
Prism, the first world expected to open, is devoted to music and certainly fits the vision of the metaverse. Its fantastical spaces evoke landscapes seen in movies such as "Tron" and "Avatar," the video game "Quake," and the '70s album covers artist Roger Dean created for the progressive rock band Yes.
With an artificial intelligence engine in development for five years – and 3D underpinnings provided by Epic Games' video game creation platform Unreal Engine – Sensorium has just launched a closed beta test and is now accepting applications for new testers on its web site. A mobile app is also due to launch by the end of May and availability on video game consoles is planned for the future.
VR users get a full-body avatar – you will choose from a stylized roster of humanoid options (some are obviously alien) that you can customize. Other users will embody a communicative drone – think of Wall-E's paramour Eve in the 2008 Pixar film – with their likeness. On your first visit, after you create and outfit your avatar, a virtual companion then shows you around. In the Sensorium main deck, called the Starship, you can meet up with real friends or meet new people exploring the space.
From there, you might check out a performance by one of the famous DJs such as David Guetta whose digital doppelgängers may be performing in Prism. Other performers include virtual "smart" DJs that can create new music by reading the room. You may mention that you have seen Guetta perform previously and your virtual friend – using AI to monitor the crowd – may introduce you to another real-world user with similar interests.
"That way, we match people by various interests and at least they have something to start a conversation with," said Ivan Nikitin, Sensorium’s product director. "It might end up in a real friendship, real relationship, or it might just be a one-off thing, but we give a chance for those random communications to happen. ... And that's the goal of artificial intelligence, to be that social bridge between the people."
Avatars will be able to touch and change things in the environment and crowd reactions to DJs will also influence the scenery. "Prism is an ever-evolving world that changes under the influence of sound frequencies … (and) music," said Sasha Tityanko, deputy CEO and art director, for Sensorium, which plans a public launch by June.
Holograms are hot
Back in "meat space" – the real world – at the Avatar Dimension holographic studio, banks of 4K-capable cameras capture images of my face, body and motions. The process takes only minutes to create a moving 3D hologram.
Inside the round enclosure shrouded with green fabric are an array of 66 cameras. Most capture color, while others are infrared cameras.
Invisible lasers bombarded my body, and those infrared cameras pick up the constellation of dots as they hit me. "That becomes the basis of the 3D mesh that is then covered and wrapped with a video texture to create our volumetric assets," says general manager and technical director Ben Schwartz.
Previous methods of creating digital characters involve time-consuming motion capture sessions – cameras track bodies wearing what looked like wetsuits covered with balls – and computer-created animations.
One of five studios worldwide working with Microsoft to create 3D humans and objects used in movies, games and other virtual and augmented reality environments, Avatar Dimension focuses on corporate and government clients, many of whom want holographic video to be used for immersive training and education.
But being close to Washington, D.C., offers the potential to possibly do video capture of historical figures such as President Joe Biden or Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and presidential adviser, says head of production Sovanna Mam.
Microsoft already uses holograms and is developing mixed and extended reality (XR) applications, which combine the real world with augmented reality and virtual reality aspects. Just as Xbox Live connected video game players across the globe, so can a new platform called Microsoft Mesh let people "interact holographically with others with true presence in a natural way," said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella during an online keynote last month.
Microsoft Mesh would let users connect and work together remotely using devices such as Microsoft's Hololens 2 headset, with avatars and realistic holograms to represent them. A real world example: The U.S. Army recently signed a deal with Microsoft worth up to nearly $22 billion for more than 120,000 augmented reality headsets. The Integrated Visual Augmentation System being developed and tested for the headsets lets soldiers train, rehearse and fight. What one soldier sees using night vision, for instance, could be transmitted to others' heads-up displays or soldiers could see the same avatars of civilians or hostile entities through the device and train for armed combat with realistic avatars.
It's not much of a leap to foresee Microsoft and other tech companies creating next-gen photo booths where you can have your own hologram made or where you can livestream yourself into a classroom or a meeting in the future.
“There will be a day, reasonably soon, where your own hologram can be in a story – a game, an entertaining show, or even as a global teacher of knowledge," said Perrin Kaplan, an advisor and member of Avatar Dimension's board of directors. "Gone will be the days where an artist must create your character. In the metaverse, you will simply and literally be you."
Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.