With the Metaverse hype cycle at full blast, experts take the long view

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The newfound prominence of the Metaverse has led to heightened scrutiny, with some observers rolling their eyes at what they perceive to be the tech industry’s latest buzzword du jour. But to those who were already working toward the Metaverse, the concept — a persistent and expansive “successor state” to the modern internet — transcends the ups and downs of this hype cycle. They believe the Metaverse is no mere buzzword — it’s an evolution of the internet that is already underway.

The Metaverse took center stage on July 22, when Mark Zuckerberg claimed that Facebook would pivot to being a “Metaverse company” in an interview with The Verge. Some media pundits were skeptical about the hype surrounding this announcement, jumping to give their take on the Metaverse. On July 29, Jim Cramer went on CNBC to provide a particularly inscrutable definition of the concept. “It is a hologram,” Cramer blustered.

The Metaverse is neither a new concept nor a hologram, but it can be difficult to boil down to an elevator pitch. “It’s hard to wrap your head around something that’s so new and so different,” said Christina Wootton, vp of brand partnerships at Roblox. “As we slowly get more and more used to it, I think people will start to see why it’s so important — and why it’s real.”

The most accessible entry point into the Metaverse is massively multiplayer video games. Many Fortnite players got their first taste of the proto-Metaverse during last year’s virtual Travis Scott concert, a shared experience that allowed players to simultaneously experience a custom-coded virtual concert inside a freeform digital world. The concert was attended by more than 12 million people and remains an oft-cited example of the Metaverse’s capabilities.

Compared to a true Metaverse, however, the Travis Scott concert was a mere shadow on the cave wall. Players could only interact with up to 49 other users at a time, and the experience was closed off to users without Epic Games accounts — it was not interoperable in the way that a true Metaverse would be. According to Victor David, CEO of digital item production firm Epik, the Metaverse will be far more expansive, allowing users to move between platforms and virtual worlds without needing to shed their digital identities or eschew experiences. In other words, it will be a virtual universe that boasts all the features of the real world — and more. “What if next time, Travis Scott can do his concert in Fortnite and Roblox and Minecraft and everywhere, all at the same time?” David said.

As people warm up to the idea of a truly persistent virtual world, some companies are scrambling to put a Metaverse spin on seemingly unrelated services or products — a popular source of criticism among Metaverse skeptics. To the uninitiated, it is far from obvious why a company like Coca-Cola might be interested in auctioning off themed non-fungible tokens.

“I do understand what people are saying when these use-cases make no sense or these companies that really have no business doing anything related to video gaming or blockchain or Metaverses are starting to talk about it,” said Janine Yorio, head of Metaverse real estate investment fund Republic Realm. “That does give us all pause — but it doesn’t take away or detract from where I think the market is headed.”

Indeed, Yorio and her compatriots at established Metaverse companies are taking the long view: that the Metaverse is inevitable due to widespread cultural changes that are already well underway, including the expansion of gaming and the shift to digital life sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic. “My own children are guilty of playing hours and hours a day — you literally have to yank the computers away from them,” Yorio said. “And I don’t think that’s a behavior or affinity that’s going to die away. It is as much a part of their socialization as mobile phones are to ours.”

In the aftermath of Mark Zuckerberg’s endorsement of the Metaverse, a slew of new start-ups, venture capital funds and self-identified expert consultants have cropped up to take advantage of this latest burst of Metaverse hype. But according to those who have been tracking it for years, the eventual development of the Metaverse is not contingent on the success or failure of these companies, or even of their own Metaverse-minded concerns. They believe the Metaverse is happening without a doubt — and there’s no time like the present to get involved.

“There’s always this whole backlash to all these crazy ideas — who’s going to go rent out a room in their house, right?” David said. “All these crazy ideas seem so absurd, but then they ultimately make sense.”

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