In this blog mini-series, we’re looking at the recent boom in communications regarding the metaverse from industry leaders; what are their goals? How will they arrive in the metaverse? How will it impact users? In this first part, we look to Silicon Valley.
Perhaps making the smallest moves, considering the size of the company, Microsoft are keeping their cards reasonably close to their chests. Only trumpeting a combination of Microsoft Teams and the metaverse generally, the Seattle tech giant is sticking to what they do best – office software. With this taster of the metaverse, Microsoft is offering an upgrade to their popular Teams software using Mesh integration, launching in 2022.
Mesh for Microsoft Teams will bring users together in a virtual space where everything from a casual coffee, to crucial business plans, can be shared. Mesh allows users to set up a digital version of themselves who can attend meetings, or even social gatherings. Microsoft has reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic and the needs which that created.
According to Jeff Teper, Microsoft corporate vice-president, These tools are ways “to signal we’re in the same virtual space, we’re one team”. He sees the change as a chance to “take formality down a peg and engagement up a peg”. Microsoft Technical Fellow Alex Kipman and his team have spent years creating immersive spaces with global professional services company Accenture. Together they built a virtual campus where employees gathered for coffee, presentations and parties. Kipman notes “As a company whose focus is on productivity, on knowledge workers, it’s something that customers are really asking us for.”
Mesh-enabled spaces have been in development for several years. Alongside Accenture, Tipman created a space which he called the ‘Nth Floor’ – a place only accessible in virtual reality. He found that he would bump into colleagues recreating the natural conversations usually found in-person, perfect for a world so shifted by a pandemic. The concept expands with each new space being created; corporations creating meeting rooms for new starters in the company or lecture halls for CEOs to address employees.
The vision is slow and steady and Microsoft will build off of Mesh and the Teams coupling. It’s here they will experiment with new technologies and services to enable members of a team to work together, while separated by miles. Large digital tables will hold architecture models, entire walls can be transformed into screens for a presentation.
Microsoft wants these digital spaces to represent users using advanced AI and machine learning. We’ll see the small changes in body language, silent agreement between users will be seen in incremental changes in the avatar, making the metaverse a great place to work together. The key message is that the public can use this innovation without investing their money into new hardware. Everything Microsoft wants to achieve can be done with anything from a £250 laptop to a £5,000 VR system. It’s the avatars – our digital selves – which are so crucial.
So where does the vision go from there? Kipman wants to transform solitary experiences into accessible content placed all over the world, engaging groups instead. Mesh gives users pockets of the metaverse in which to exist in their own way. What will start out as office software, could soon transform school and college attendance or employees discussing their next project from all corners of the world.
Microsoft seems poised to rule the metaverse as their manifesto doesn’t rely solely on one technology or one specific piece of hardware. Their first leap into web 3.0 focuses on what the company does best and allows users to interact on their own terms. Plus, with over 1.3 billion active Windows 10 users, Microsoft has a great opportunity to form the metaverse around their consumers.
Meta (Formally Facebook)
Meta’s view of the metaverse seems to be technology heavy; in Mark Zuckerberg’s recent founder’s letter he specifically notes a focus on both virtual and augmented reality. In fact, in some instances he pitches the idea of holograms attending concerts which, with today’s technology, would be impossible. This shows that Meta is playing the long game and hinting at what could exist down a very long road, but they’re ideally placed to concentrate on virtual spaces.
Meta has spent the past ten years buying companies, positioning them as a foundation on which to build the metaverse. In 2014 Zuckerberg’s social giant bought out Oculus, a virtual reality business. In the same year, they also bought WhatsApp, the ‘go-to’ messaging app for smartphone users, aside from Facebook’s own Messenger app. Before either of those deals were settled, the company had purchased Instagram in 2012. These buyouts mean that Meta owns four of the most downloaded apps of all-time and the leading VR hardware developer.
Meta doesn’t just own the Oculus brand, they own many leading VR software developers also, producing both games and interactive apps. Meta also owns facial recognition software (face.com). And immersive audio technology (Two Big Ears). Oh, also, emotion detection apps (Face Metrics), a natural language processing app (Bloomsbury AI) and technology which translates movements into digital signals (CTRL-labs). Anyone with any knowledge of the traditional idea of the metaverse, can add all of these together and see what Meta is planning.
This is a hard lean into technology driving their vision. Zuckerberg has been seen on stages wearing VR headsets connected to large processor backpacks and his Connect 2021 explanation of the metaverse was accompanied by a one hour video divulging tech advancements.
So what about full immersion through VR? Zuckerberg has shown himself within VR worlds and recently Meta released information on their haptic gloves, which replicate physical sensations within the digital world; for example, if you pick up a digital cup in the metaverse, the glove mimics how it would feel in real life. It’s clear that Meta wants to lead the technological revolution. Zuckerberg, in his letter, states “While most tech companies focus on how people interact with technology, we’ve always focused on building technology so people can interact with each other.”
Zuckerberg reiterates his vision of everyone living alongside the metaverse, “Our hope is that within the next decade, the metaverse will reach a billion people, host hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce, and support jobs for millions of creators and developers.” It’s this quote which may speak to businesses and entrepreneurs loudly. The early stages of the metaverse we are already seeing is primed for financial growth using cryptocurrency and the sale of virtual land and NFTs.
Facebook, for better or worse, have positioned themselves as masters of advertising through advert placement and devoting pages to businesses. If this tactic is used effectively, it could be businesses who pull consumers towards the metaverse by tailoring smarter and more interesting advertising to this new online world, whether that be through AR placing objects within your home through your phone, or in VR watching trailers for the latest blockbuster surrounded by your friends.
One thing to keep in mind is the installed user base. Much like Microsoft, Meta, through Facebook, already has billions of people at their fingertips. However, only a tiny fraction of them will already own VR headsets, and a small portion know their way around AR on a smartphone. If they gamble on people buying into the technology, the Meta metaverse will need to walk before it can run.
Silicon Valley Conclusions
We have two powerhouses of social technology aiming for the metaverse in their own ways; one utilising existing technology and the other attempting to push the boundaries. Both have huge user bases ready to embrace whatever comes next, but it’s how those communities break down into demographics which might be key. Facebook is heavily skewed towards an older audience nowadays, whereas Microsoft has Windows users on billions of PCs which are used by all ages.
Microsoft seems open to moving slowly, perhaps testing the waters before diving in. Meta appear to be paving the road years before it will be travelled. Ultimately, the metaverse will belong to neither corporation, but how they present themselves and how they interact with potential users may make or break their involvement in web 3.0.