Hey kid, see you in the metaverse?
Sep 24, 2021

Hey kid, see you in the metaverse?

Companies are expanding their technology into multiple digital planes to reach, and retain their connection with, the youngest among us.

Next month, Epic Games will shut down Houseparty — the group video-chatting app that became popular in the pandemic. The company said instead it’s going to focus on the “metaverse.”

Hmm. The metaverse. What is that exactly? That is a topic for “Quality Assurance,” where we take a second look at a big tech story.

There’s disagreement about what the metaverse will be, making it, frankly, a little hard to explain. But people say it’s essentially the next evolution of the internet, a virtual world you’d move through with, some say, just one identity, not a bunch of separate logins or accounts. And you could do things in it like attend a virtual concert, sit in a virtual conference room or go to a virtual shopping mall.

I asked Alexander Lee, a reporter at Digiday covering esports and gaming, who would want this. He said it’s partly a generational thing. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Alexander Lee: Nowadays, you know, people are using the internet and they’re entering virtual worlds like Roblox basically from the moment they can start to read and use these devices. Children are kind of the main audience or user base of a lot of these “proto-metaverse” platforms right now. I mean, there are 14- or 15-year-olds who have learned how to code and are already raking in thousands of dollars with their own businesses on these platforms. To me, again, I don’t think it’s whether people want it or not. I think the companies that are trying to build a metaverse are correctly anticipating that people, and especially people in these younger generations, will just not see a barrier between the things that they do and accomplish in physical space and the things that they do in virtual space.

Alexander Lee poses in front of a river background wearing a denim shirt.
Alexander Lee (Courtesy Amanda Williams)

Marielle Segarra: Will the economy of the metaverse be integrated with our real-world economy? Or is it going to kind of stand on its own?

Lee: I think it will be integrated into the economy of the real world. My prediction is that cryptocurrency in some form will be the fundamental unit of transaction in the metaverse, but that will still be tied to the real economy because fundamentally the value of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies comes from the exchange of them with traditional physical currencies. So in that sense, the economies will certainly be connected. And then, of course, nonfungible tokens, NFTs, will be kind of the fundamental unit of private property in the metaverse.

Segarra: Yeah. But it’s funny. Like, why would you want to just re-create what you can already do in real life?

Lee: I think accessibility is one big reason. If you think about people who are disabled and can’t leave their homes, maybe people who are socially disabled or have some kind of mental disability, I think opening up virtual events, and perhaps integrating physical events with virtual events, could be huge for those people. And also just for people who can’t maybe afford to travel or to attend expensive concerts, for example. If there is a concert experience in the metaverse, that could be a great way for someone to watch their favorite artist in something that approaches the experience of actually going into the arena and watching them live.

Segarra: Is Houseparty in the metaverse now? I noticed, they said they’re shutting down because they want to focus on communication on a metaverse scale. So I don’t really get it. Like it wasn’t in the metaverse before?

Lee: No, I wouldn’t describe Houseparty as a metaverse platform. I mean, Houseparty was fundamentally a video-chat platform. I think in order for it to be more of a metaversal socializing platform, there needs to be more ways to bring in those nonverbal elements of communication that are so important in the real world. And I don’t just mean like nodding or raising your hand. I also mean the natural and seamless ability to pull someone into a side conversation without interrupting the flow of the main conversation. Right now, video-chat apps like Houseparty and Zoom really feel like they’re seminars, with one person presenting at a time, and that’s just not how real conversation happens. I think for it to be more metaversal, it needs to be more, more organic.

Segarra: Yeah, I mean, because one thing I’m thinking about is, like, during the pandemic, we couldn’t see many people in person for a while. And so I was glued to my phone and my computer as a lifeline, like my only connection to other human beings for a while. And I don’t ever want to go back to that. But are there people who feel the opposite?

Lee: Right now it does feel like, yeah, the last thing that we want to do is exist virtually and be in Zoom calls for the rest of our lives. But one of the key differences is that I think metaverse platforms will allow us to more and more accurately re-create exactly the experience of existing in the physical world on the internet. If you look at things like Horizon Workrooms, it’s a platform that Facebook released in August. The idea is that you can use Oculus headsets in order to feel like you’re co-working in the same room as another person who may be wearing their Oculus miles away from you. To me, it’s a much more organic and seamless way of interacting digitally than things like Zoom. But let’s just, you know, fast-forward 20 years to the future. If we can use [virtual reality] technology or just immersive digital technology in some ways, then I think the fatigue and just the stress that comes with living digitally, the way that we have over the pandemic, would be reduced pretty significantly.

Segarra: Do you think the pandemic accelerated the development of the metaverse?

Lee: I think it accelerated the development of the metaverse in that Facebook started to develop tools like Horizon Workrooms. Like Epic Games, for example, purchased Houseparty, and they’re just in general trying to take advantage of the fact that people are grasping for ways to socialize digitally. But, I think more importantly, there have just been widespread societal and cultural changes as a result of the pandemic. So technologically, I think there was some acceleration, but really, I think the most important impact of the pandemic was just culturally preparing people for digital life and virtual life.

Related links: More insight from Marielle Segarra

There’s been a lot written about the metaverse — what it is, what it’s not, what makes it different from the regular ol’ internet. We’ll link to a couple of stories that attempt to explain it.

One way to think about it, beyond what we’ve said already, is that right now most people experience the internet in a two-dimensional format. We are generally audience members watching a screen or typing text to each other. In the metaverse, you could still do that but you could also participate in virtual reality, as an avatar. And you could move around and interact with other folks in real time.

And here’s a story from Adweek with 10 things you need to know about the metaverse. One of those things? It’s probably best not to overthink the metaverse! Too late for me.

Alexander Lee talked about accessibility and how the metaverse could make it easier for people with disabilities to do things like attend a concert.

Britney Wilson is director of the Civil Rights and Disability Justice Clinic at New York Law School. She has cerebral palsy, and she walks with arm crutches and uses a motorized scooter to get around. Wilson said that during the pandemic she watched a lot of concerts that were livestreamed online.

Britney Wilson: All of a sudden, I can watch it directly from my living room and not have to worry about even if I buy a concert ticket, somebody standing in front of me and my view being blocked, things like that.

And livestreamed concerts are not exactly the same as metaverse concerts, but you could see the same logic applying.

Metaverse concerts are already happening, by the way. A couple of big names, like Travis Scott and Ariana Grande, have done them through the video game Fortnite.

And to be clear, these are not like videos of Grande performing on a stage somewhere. Instead, you see an animated avatar of the singer with her long, purple ponytail wearing a glittering crop top, skirt and knee-high boots. And she’s singing and dancing around in these imaginary, otherworldly locations — on a shimmering globe in outer space, in a pink bubble. She even sprouts wings and starts to fly at one point.

So yeah, stuff she couldn’t do so easily on a real-life stage. Or on Zoom.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
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