Metaverse has set off a capital boom, but it may be more dangerous than “The Matrix”

How far is “Meta Universe” from us?

After the spread of the new crown epidemic around the world, UC Berkeley graduates were unable to attend the normal graduation ceremony last spring. But more than 100 students thought of a rather creative solution-they spent two months in the game “Minecraft” rebuilding the campus, including more than 100 important buildings. Although the virtual game interface is used, many details are extremely real: the cartoon characters that flood into the stadium can correspond to real students outside the screen, and the principal of Berkeley is also the real student who speaks. Every student is in the game. Throw the hat high in the air.

This ceremony attempts to break the boundary between reality and virtual world, but it is not yet a meta-universe in the true sense. The ideal virtual world proposed by geeks is more immersive and all-encompassing. Metaverse, composed of two parts: Meta (beyond) + Universe (universe), comes from the novel “Avalanche” published by science fiction writer Neil Stephenson in 1992. In the book, the protagonist puts on the eyepieces and headphones, connects to the computer, and then enters a fictional space. It is parallel to the real world, but has a similar set of operating rules-land can be developed, and business requires money and permits. People have a clone in this world, entertaining, trading, and living.

The game platform “Oasis” in “Ready Player One” is considered by many to be the closest to the meta-universe sample. A few years ago, this concept was still in the movie. Since last year, the technology circle and the capital circle have begun to seriously think about how to move this “new world” into reality.

In March of this year, Roblox , an American game company , went public. Its stock price soared 54% on that day, and its market value exceeded US$40 billion. It mentioned in the prospectus that “meta universe is realizing”, which accidentally detonated the American technology circle and became the hottest term. In July, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said that he would build Facebook into a meta-universe enterprise within five years. There has also been a meta-universe boom in China, and capital has bet on the meta-universe. How far is the “oasis” from us today?

Hidden password for internet transformation

In January 2020, American venture capitalist Matthew Bauer published a popular article in the industry, explaining in detail what is Metaverse. He believes that Metaverse is not just a virtual space, virtual economy, a game or UGC (User Created Content) platform. There is an always-on real-time world in Metaverse, in which an unlimited number of people can participate in it at the same time. The operating economy spans the physical and digital world.

With the attention that Roblox was listed on, many companies decided to take Metaverse as a development goal. In May of this year, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that the company is working hard to create an “enterprise meta-universe.” In July, the American game company Epic Games stated that it had raised $1 billion in funds to be used in Metaverse. The global chip giant Nvidia has also opened up the real-time simulation and collaboration platform Omniverse for exploring the meta-universe.

The meta-universe boom soon spread to China. Zhang Daoning, the founder of the domestic VR company NOLO (Beijing Lingyu Intelligent Control Technology Co., Ltd.), noticed that in the past six months, the domestic game field, VR hardware field, and some social applications and Internet companies have discussed Metaverse most frequently. It is reported that Wuyuan Capital has three teams looking at the meta universe field, which is currently the most radical among pure financial VCs. Sequoia Capital has set a KPI internally and will invest in 50 meta universe game companies within this year.

Tsinghua University’s New Media Research Center (hereinafter referred to as “Tsinghua New Media”) recently released the “2020-2021 Metaverse Development Research Report” (hereinafter referred to as the “Report”). The universe has a high degree of attention. China ranks first in search volume, followed by South Korea and Singapore.

Wang Ruxi, one of the chief authors of the “Report”, a postdoctoral fellow at Tsinghua University, discovered that compared with the definition in “Avalanche”, the concept of meta-universe that everyone emphasizes now has two updates, emphasizing the combination of virtual and real, and paying more attention to UGC. “The new concept of the fusion of virtual and real is that it is technically feasible, and the other is that there are more ways to play and bring new commercial application scenarios. Therefore, Metaverse’s emphasis on the fusion of virtual and real has inspired the technology circle.” Wang Ruxixiang “China News Weekly” analysis.

Roblox, which detonated the concept of meta universe, is a multiplayer online game creation platform for children, where children can freely create, interact and explore. Wang Ruxi believes that one of the biggest features of this game is the user-led ecology. The games on the platform are self-made by players. Users are no longer passive consumers but also content producers, and there is also a strong relationship among consumers. Social attributes. Roblox focuses on Metaverse, and many people think that Metaverse is feasible and can break the status quo of the Internet industry.

Metaverse has set off a capital boom, but it may be more dangerous than "The Matrix"

(Video screenshot) Roblox’s game interface.

To a certain extent, the popularity of Meta Universe also reveals the anxiety of capital and Internet companies. “At present, the traditional content of the mobile Internet is saturated. In the past, regardless of game or Internet manufacturers, they limited the scene content for user experience. However, the model of Douyin has proved that users have the autonomy to create content, which is definitely the future trend. The UGC characteristics of Metaverse and its infinite continuity will attract more users’ time and attention, which is a huge temptation for Internet companies.” Liu Zejing, an analyst at West China Securities, told China News Weekly.

Supporters of Metaverse believe that this virtual world may conceal the password for the transformation of the Internet, and everyone does not want to miss this opportunity. Yikai Capital’s Meta Universe research report pointed out that Meta Universe can bring an order of magnitude improvement in terms of user scale, per capita usage time and per capita payment, thereby creating greater commercial value than the mobile Internet.

However, in the opinion of some researchers, the current meta-universal fever in China has already bubbled. Dr. Xiang An Ling of Tsinghua New Media and his team are paying attention to Baidu search data. On September 8th, 25 meta-universe concept stocks skyrocketed. The number of searches per day is close to 90,000, an increase of nearly 100 times. Subsequently, the Shenzhen Stock Exchange issued a letter of concern to some companies.

Xiang Anling noticed that in the primary market, Meta Universe also has a certain bubble. Since the beginning of this year, Metaverse has become a starting point for some VR/AR technology companies and game companies to attract venture capital, claiming to be doing Metaverse, but in fact it is just the tip of the iceberg, or supporting technology, hoping to attract investors through conceptual packaging. Investors are well versed in the routines of the capital market, and they also need this new concept to hype new trends. However, she believes that this bubble needs to be viewed more rationally. To some extent, this is the concept and model innovation in the early stages of technological development. Any technological development is a process of de-bubbling.

The technical problem of meta-universe immersion

Even without the concept of “meta universe”, with the development of 5G, big data, and AI, the trend of combining virtual and reality is unstoppable.

Wang Ruxi noticed that after the outbreak of the new crown epidemic, online office has become popular, and more importantly, society’s perception of the virtual world has also undergone a deeper change. “The virtual world is no longer an unimportant or playful thing. As important as the real world”.

A notable manifestation is the renaissance of the virtual reality terminal market. In 2014, the VR industry leader Facebook acquired Oculus for US$2 billion and began to lead the development of the C-side VR/AR industry. After 2015, due to poor product experience, the VR industry fell into a trough, and a large number of companies closed down. Until September 2020, Facebook launched the Oculus Quest 2 VR all-in-one machine, which is very popular among players. In March of this year, Facebook announced that Quest 2 sales exceeded all previous Quest series combined.

Zuckerberg firmly believes that more than 10 million users is an inflection point, and the content and ecosystem of VR will have explosive growth. Today, this number may come sooner than Facebook expected. In Zhang Daoning’s view, the sales of Quest 2 are amazing. Around 2016, HTC, the most popular manufacturer at the time, sold more than 400,000 VR devices throughout the year. “This has given a boost to the development of the VR industry. It not only represents a milestone in the VR market, but also means that virtual reality has become an important platform for driving the next change.”

At the same time, the VR industry is also supported by domestic policies. The “14th Five-Year Plan” pointed out that the VR/AR industry should be listed as one of the key industries of the digital economy in the next five years.

Giants such as Apple, Huawei, and Tencent are also deploying VR/AR. According to reports, the long-rumored Apple AR-VR glasses will be launched in the second half of 2022. At the end of last year, Tencent Chairman Ma Huateng also put forward the concept of “True Internet”, “it means the integration of online and offline, the integration of physical and electronic means.” The “True Internet” also relies on virtual reality technology, and Tencent is also widely deployed in the VR field. VR entrepreneurial projects are once again favored by capital. In January, iQiyi VR received hundreds of millions of yuan in Series B financing. Chinese VR manufacturer Pico received 242 million yuan in B+ round of financing, and was acquired by Bytedance at a price of more than 9 billion yuan at the end of August.

Metaverse and VR will meet this year, and it is difficult to tell who has accomplished who. But as the “key” to the meta-universe, the advancement of VR has allowed the technology circle to see the possibility of achieving this utopia.

Zhang Daoning introduced to China News Weekly that after 2016, VR entered a cold winter. First, it was expensive. At that time, VR equipment had to be equipped with a computer, and the price of a set was even more than 15,000 yuan. Quest 2 is an all-in-one machine. A major reason for its popularity is the price reduction. Compared with the previous generation, the official price is reduced by 100 US dollars, and the price is set at 299 US dollars. The price cut this time is so large that it is considered by the industry to have reached a consumer-level level. VR equipment has changed from wired to wireless, and its portability has improved, making it easier for consumers to accept it. In terms of performance, Quest 2 has been significantly upgraded in terms of resolution, refresh rate, memory, processor and other configurations, enhancing the user experience.

But to lead to the meta-universe described by the technology circle, the existing VR technology is far from enough. Zhang Daoning introduced that the current headset is still a big helmet, and its portability is still not good. Unless experienced gamers or geek enthusiasts, ordinary people will not use it as a daily entertainment choice. The miniaturization of VR equipment has become a consensus for future development. For example, like sunglasses, but it still depends on the development of micro-display technology. Zhang Daoning and his team are also making the handle smaller by optimizing positioning technology. His ideal handle is as light as two rings, but it still takes time. In addition, although the performance of Quest 2 has been significantly improved, the computing power of the chip is still insufficient, and it is difficult to render a sense of immersion like a computer. The industry believes that cloud-based collaborative computing is the future of VR. “Most of the computing power is placed in cloud computing. For example, some high-real-time computing power such as clothes in the game and surrounding scenes can be placed on the device.”

From the data point of view, the meta-universe is still in a very early conceptual stage. The emergence of a thousand yuan machine may become a turning point in the popularization of VR. But this is far from enough. The C-side VR relies more on the high-quality content ecology. Even though there is already an explosive game “Half-Life: Alyx”, the number is too small to accumulate users. Liu Zejing, an analyst at West China Securities, believes that with reference to smart terminals, price is not the most important factor affecting purchase willingness. As long as the product experience is good enough, high-quality content will keep up, spurring more people to buy VR and forming a closed loop.

The immersion of the meta universe should not only be in sight and sound, but also in the needs of touch, pain and other sensing. This is also the direction that the VR industry needs to develop in the next step. The technical difficulties that Metaverse needs to break through are not just VR terminals. In the ideal metaverse, the number of interactive users exceeds hundreds of millions, and they have created massive amounts of data, even 5G is difficult to support. According to the change cycle of communication technology, 6G will arrive in 2030 at the earliest. At the same time, the characteristics of Metaverse, such as immersion, low latency, and anytime, anywhere interaction, put forward higher requirements on the stability and low cost of computing power and algorithms.

“The supporting technologies of Metaverse involve many levels, including VR/AR, smart wear, biometrics, digital twins, etc. The low-cost popularization of these technologies has a long way to go, and there are also many uncertainties. .” Xiang Anling told China News Weekly. In addition to the problems in the technology research and development process and the maturity cycle, external factors such as epidemics, bilateral relations, international relations, and industrial decoupling will all have an impact on the future development of technology.

Complicated system worries

In a sense, the online game “Second Life” launched in the United States in 2003 is the prototype of the meta-universe “without VR glasses”, and the game’s inspiration even comes from “Avalanche”. Players shop, work, do business, save money, fall in love, and get married. There are more than tens of millions of registered users. Toyota, GM, Adidas, Unilever and many other companies are also expanding their commercial territory in the game. IBM has purchased dozens of islands, and Sweden has established an embassy in the game.

Metaverse has set off a capital boom, but it may be more dangerous than "The Matrix"

(Video screenshot) The game interface of Second Life. 

At that time, one of the pioneers of “Second Life” was that when shopping in the game, players had to use a certain exchange rate to convert legal currency into “Linden coins” in the game, and people could also deposit their virtual currency into the game. The bank in China, the bank is operated by real players and provides interest to customers. But this model triggered a storm later. Some banks refused to pay high deposit interest in accordance with the agreement and were complained by players. Subsequently, the platform closed more than a dozen virtual financial institutions, but it caused even greater chaos. The bank was “empty” and players were unable to withdraw money. According to a report in IT Times, a certain virtual bank caused depositors to lose $750,000. Later, the game company stipulated that institutions accepting deposits in “Second Life” must have actual government registration documents or financial institution licenses.

When the virtual world is linked with the real world, how to supervise it caused controversy at the time. The painful lesson of “Second Life” is a lesson for Metaverse.

The concept of meta-universe is out of the circle due to games, but the technology circle has long reached a consensus that meta-universe is far more than just games, and will extend to all walks of life, and the challenges it brings are far beyond those of “Second Life”. Technology and digital infrastructure are only part of it, and a complete set of social operating rules is needed to support them-legal norms, ethical values, economic systems, currency systems, cultural systems, etc.

Ji Zhihui, founder of Shiyou Technology, told China News Weekly that there are many companies deploying Metaverse, but the bigger problem lies in the construction of a social system. No company has experience in this matter, and it cannot be done by a single company. All the manufacturers in the industry chain are involved. If the game is run by a certain company in the end, it is not Metaverse.

Compared with technology, it is more difficult to implement these systems. Looking forward to the meta-universe in the present, creating digital twins and digital integration is still inseparable from the sovereign state framework of the real world. “On the one hand, some countries want to promote the development of the meta universe, but on the other hand, the core spirit of the meta universe is contrary to the sovereign state.” Wang Ruxi said.

Take virtual currency as an example. The blockchain-based digital currency and economic platform prevail in Metaverse. However, different countries have different regulatory policies on virtual currency, and there are many obstacles to the free circulation of currency. In addition, the above report mentioned that to a certain extent, Metaverse also provides a more concealed manipulation space for the financial harvesting of giant capital, and financial supervision also needs to be extended to the virtual world. Such risks have long been verified in “Second Life”, and the researchers suggest that they need to be supervised. However, from the current perspective, no matter who supervises, it is a centralized organization. For this reason, the Tsinghua New Media team believes that the public and social nature of the meta universe makes complete decentralization a false proposition to a certain extent.

In addition, researchers worry that the management and regulation of intellectual property rights will also be more complicated. “Metacosm space requires a large number of users to collaborate and create, and the confirmation of collective copyrights needs to be guaranteed. Metacosmos will also involve applications that cross the boundary between virtual and reality. For example, some users adapt and transform real life people, objects, scenes, stories, etc. To become a virtual digital person. After the transformation, whether to infringe the real-world counterpart’s portrait rights, music, pictures, copyrights, etc., still needs a lot of discussion.” Xiang Anling told China News Weekly.

Xiang Anling also reminded that the personal data involved in Metaverse is more granular, including the user’s identity attributes, physiological responses, behavior paths, social relationships, interpersonal interaction, property resources, the scene in which they are located, and even emotional states and brain wave patterns, etc. information. How to collect, store and manage these data resources? How to reasonably authorize and compliant applications? How to avoid being stolen or abused? How to realize power confirmation and accountability? How to prevent new forms of crime based on data in the meta-universe form? These put forward higher requirements for the construction of the future normative system of the meta universe.

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