"Metaverse": behind virtual worlds, very real issues

The Oculus Quest VR headset at Facebook's F8 Developer Conference, Tuesday, April 30, 2019, in San Jose, California.

AP - Tony Avelar

Text by: Léopold Picot Follow

10 mins

The metaverse, these more or less absolute virtual worlds, are old dreams of IT, that some already consider as materialized and others as still to be realized.

Those fantasized by the Gafam are in any case up to their means: disproportionate.

As are the resulting economic, legal and environmental issues.

RFI takes stock with experts.

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Monday, October 18, Facebook announced

the creation of 10,000 jobs

in Europe over the next five years.

Ten thousand additional little hands, for a company which had just under 60,000 at the end of 2020. The goal?

Help Mark Zuckerberg's company to materialize the realization of its metaverse, a digital virtual universe parallel to ours.

It is difficult to define its outlines: the concept, born from science fiction (see box), has inspired many video game or social network projects, making it difficult to isolate a single definition for this term.

More or less developed metaverse

Hence the interest in clearly distinguishing the different types of metaverse. This word is the French contraction of

meta universe,

meta-universe, understand “beyond the universe”. In all cases, therefore, are metaverse worlds which are not in our physical, tangible universe. Going to Puy-du-Fou is not entering a metaverse: you can have the impression of being in a parallel medieval universe, of course, but this latter remains physical, governed by the laws of gravitation, by the unfolding time.

Metaverse is all developed in the digital world, computer code determines what can be done there. The human being interacts with these worlds via an interface, a screen, a virtual reality headset, by directing an avatar, a “

pixel puppet 

”, to use the term used by psychiatrist Serge Tisseron. François-Gabriel Roussel, honorary lecturer in Information and Communication Sciences, guest on

RFI in Decryption

, thus defines the metaverse as

virtual, digital, persistent worlds 

”. They open the field of possibilities and in this, are worlds in power, they are

virtual with an imprint on the real

. So is it possible in

Second Life

, one of the first video game metavers, to direct his avatar in another world, to interact thanks to him with avatars of people on the other side of the planet and therefore to have an influence on the real world .

Metaverse is also comparable to

open-world

, these video games in which the character you are leading can move in very large spaces, except that the level of interaction with other real individuals is higher.

In

Fortnite

, the famous video game, there has been a kind of metaverse since 2020, where players can chat with each other, watch trailers or even attend concerts of artist avatars, like those of the American singer Ariana. Grande or rapper Travis Scott.

But the Fortnite metaverse has only the name for Caroline Laverdet, lawyer at the Paris bar and specialist in the law of virtual worlds.

Fortnite has a playful dimension, with a scripted frame.

There are exchanges between avatars, but a framework set by the publisher limits the possibilities.

In Second Life, fifteen years ago, there was real freedom, a space created by millions of users

”, nuances the lawyer.

Metaverse is also persistent, as it continues to work even after the user has logged out.

The Metavers of the Gafam, the El Dorado of total immersion

For the purposes of this article, the “Metaverse”, with a capital M, describes a specific type of metaverse.

The one dreamed of by large digital companies, as imagined by the greatest thinkers of science fiction.

It differs from others by its degree of immersion and substitution for reality.

The objective is to extend reality to the digital space: until now, the metaverse had not yet had a fundamental impact on the functioning of societies.

If you still haven't understood the concept of the "#Metaverse" which has become so dear to #Facebook, you have a pretty interesting glimpse into the world of the movie "Ready Player One (2018) by #Spielberg. My nephews like it. , but me, is it age scares me.


https://t.co/Bylplml2ej

- Riadh Guerfali (@Astrubaal) October 20, 2021 The metaverse doesn't convince everyone.

In theory, it would be possible in a Metaverse to create a business that produces value, to provide services, to party, to philosophize around a fire with friends that one would never have really met ... but also to fly, to fight Godzilla or to go on a pirate ship.

“ 

Overall, in these universes, we can both replicate experiences that exist in reality, virtualized, or free oneself from its earthly physical limits to imagine other types of experiences.

It will be at the discretion of the developers

 », Explains Julien Pillot, expert in the strategies of the digital giants at the microphone of Clémentine Pawlotsky on RFI. All this thanks to a medium, virtual reality headsets, and, in the future, all other devices that will reproduce the five senses, from smell to touch.

What is the interest for the Gafam (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) or the BATX, their Asian alter egos (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and Xiaomi) to embark on the Metavers race? Find new outlets for a market they dominate. Facebook, for example, hopes to increase the turnover of

its subsidiary Oculus

. “

There is a double interest for Facebook to be a pioneer of this Metaverse

: on the one hand, because it is part of its DNA to connect people; on the other hand, because the key to the Metavers will most certainly be virtual reality headsets, and it turns out that Facebook is a major supplier of these headsets

 ”, continues Julien Pillot.

Facebook bought virtual reality headset maker Oculus in 2014 for $ 2 billion.

AP - Marcio Jose Sanchez

Frédéric Bordages, independent digital expert and head of the Green IT collective, rather sees an additional hold on our lives.

The challenge for Gafam is to get even more turnover by trying to mobilize even more useful time of our brain.

These companies do this by adding uses that did not exist before.

The metaverse will compete with television and other leisure hours devoted to reading, to interacting with others,

 ”he regrets.

For now, the Metavers remains an El Dorado: creating a real digital space where billions of avatars can each interact with their environments, where the world is sufficiently palpable, fragrant and alive to make it credible, is a technological feat still far away. to be realistic.

A risky technological challenge for the planet

Because if the Metaverse is a parallel digital world, it needs a physical attachment ... more prosaically, servers that run the simulation. These servers must be able to be connected with tens of millions - even hundreds in the long term - of virtual reality headsets, via fiber or 5G. They must also be able to process a colossal amount of information: modeling an entire world is immeasurably more intensive in computer calculations, in lines of code to transmit than to produce a Twitter or Facebook information feed. Without counting the innovations to be developed to accentuate the immersion of the individual, in terms of odor or touch production.

At the microphone of RFI, Julien Pillot is rather confident on the subject: “ 

In the current state of technology, it is clear that this is part of the fantasies, fantasies pursued by a whole bunch of people. But still, this gives a course on which we will be able to agree, on which we will encounter some technological pitfalls, also of an economic nature, because we must invest to give substance to this Metaverse, and this investment calls for returns on investment.

"It is therefore likely that this new universe, as it is dreamed, will not be the ones produced by Facebook and the other companies launched in the course of the next few years. Theirs will only be early versions.

A young boy walks home from school in front of the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana near Rustenburg, South Africa, in 2014. Platinum is a strategic mineral for producing flat screens and hard drives. AP - Themba Hadebe

The question is whether there will be the material resources to create the following, more immersive versions.

The Metaverse will need an enormous amount of metal resources, which will be added to the development of 5G and the tens of billions of connected objects that it carries.

Frédéric Bordages asks: “

The profitable reserves of rare metals will be able to supply industries for another thirty years, to manufacture wind turbines, electric cars… why also develop virtual universes which are not essential?

Should we not mobilize our digital resources, which will become more scarce, to heal ourselves, model the climate, pass on to future generations the knowledge acquired by humanity?

"

What laws for the Metaverse?

In addition to environmental issues, there are other questions of a legal nature. Will the Metavers be a legislated digital space like any other? Caroline Laverdet considers that the law applies: “ 

It is not because we are in a virtual world that the law does not apply. It is true that some users, because they are behind an avatar in a virtual world, forget that the law is something to which they are subject.

 "

The specialist in law in virtual worlds also concedes that the legislator still has to sew up certain holes in the legislative net. “

First of all, there is the international problem, all countries do not have the same rules for legislation on the Internet. Then, when you want to dress an avatar, you may want to recreate brands, make counterfeits, therefore problems in terms of intellectual property. There may also be issues in terms of labor law, criminal law ... Different fields are intended to apply, and the reflection on this subject is particularly exciting.

For example, the question of virtual inheritance. On Facebook, steps are currently being taken in the event of the death of a user. What about the Metaverse? Who inherits if a virtual entrepreneur dies while collecting thousands of virtual currency, convertible into real money? The editor? The entrepreneur's spouse? And if his avatar led a double life, which spouse is the prime?

On the political side, however, Frédéric Bordages does not have the impression that elected officials have yet become aware of the environmental and legislative issues that a Métavers represents. “

The Metaverse is a term that the body politic does not know. This is very new, and as much French and European politicians are far ahead of the challenges of digital supervision, more traditional, as the notion of virtual reality is not yet on the radar of political decision-makers.

"

The projects of Métavers will exceed, by far, the current video game metavers.

While they are not yet real, they are already economic and environmental issues, sovereignty issues for States, which must follow the subject closely so as not to legislate late, as was the case for social networks.

Science fiction, an oracle of innovation?

Thomas Michaud

is a researcher specializing in the study of the imagination and its impact on innovations. 

What role did science fiction play in the development of metaverse? 

The concept of metaverse was defined by Neal Stephenson in his novel

The Virtual Samurai

in 1992. However, it is this original vision that guided many computer engineers and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley in the years 2000 and 2010 to tend towards the creation of a metaverse.

Today, announcements from Zuckerberg and other companies show that the project is maturing. 

Does gender influence all stages of innovation in this area? 

A little ! In 1982, William Gibson developed the notion of cyberspace, which stimulated reflection on the construction of the Internet. Then there was this idea of ​​metaverse and avatars, in 1992, which imagines that you can immerse yourself in a virtual world with a helmet. Ernest Cline then wrote 

Ready Player One

in 2011, adapted by Steven Spielberg to the cinema in 2018. He deepens the concept and the film allows to see concretely what could look like a metaverse. The book was even distributed by the founder of Oculus to thousands of his collaborators. 

What are the warnings of authors who have been interested in metaverse? 


Who will control the metaverse, a company, a state, an association? It is the question of governance that arises, which was already posed for the internet and which will arise in the Metavers. Ernest Cline fears that a dystopian company controls the metaverse to make it a business, to control the population and not to emancipate it. A common criticism is that spending too much time in the Metaverse will end up being completely alienated from it. In

Virtual Revolution

, a resistance movement is organized to force people out of this prison that the virtual world would constitute, and in the end, it is a failure because everyone wants to stay in this virtual world.

► To go further: “Innovation, between science and science fiction”, Thomas Michaud, ISTE, 2017

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