The elusive definition of the metaverse
The term metaverse is credited to the science fiction author Neal Stephenson, whose 1992 book Snow Crash described a persistent shared virtual reality space where users were represented as avatars. Science fiction very often inspires inventors, but it is less often that those ideas come into form so presciently.
While many agree on the broad definition, it seems like everyone working on it has a different vision for what the metaverse will be, depending on the market they serve and their view of the technology upon which it might rest. Gaming companies like Roblox and Epic view the metaverse as an augmentation of existing multiplayer experiences, while enterprise-focused applications like Autodesk and Nvidia are building tools for immersive and collaborative design. Facebook, which changed its parent company name to Meta Platforms, naturally sees the metaverse as central to social interaction in the future, defining it broadly as “a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you.”1
As the technology develops, there will likely be a collection of metaverses rather than just one, in much the same way that the internet consists of countless websites serving various purposes such as banking, e-commerce, entertainment, and social interaction. As Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of Epic Games, the developer of Fortnite, noted: “I think when we talk about the metaverse, what we’re going to see is something that’s not quite what we’re talking about now, and we don’t even know what it is until more and more parts of it have emerged.”2
Similarly, just as the internet can be accessed by a wide range of devices including computers, phones, automobiles and wristwatches, onramps to the metaverse will span a range of technologies from immersive virtual reality (VR) headsets and augmented reality (AR) glasses to computers and smartphones.
The metaverse at play
While virtual reality technology remains a work in progress, online multiplayer video games played on consoles, computers and mobile phones already embody many facets of what the metaverse seeks to achieve. That players might create alternate identities that are persistent and evolve over time has long been the domain of online multiplayer games like Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and more recently Take Two’s Grand Theft Auto and Epic’s Fortnite. Similarly online games are inherently social, with players communicating over voice and chat to existing friends as well as those they meet within the game.
Most notably, games like Minecraft and Roblox embody a central theme of the metaverse, which is that the user not only interacts with the content, but also contributes to its creation. Building upon the success of independent mini-games played within Minecraft like Pixel Painters and EggWars, Roblox consists of thousands of games produced by external developers who earn revenue from in-game purchases.
The metaverse at work
In some respects, office workers have already been living in the metaverse since spring 2020, as work and homelife blended together on and offline. The forced migration from the office to the home-office spurred a wave of mass collaboration technology adoption. Zoom Video Communications went from being a relatively obscure tool used only by enterprise software users to becoming a global household name overnight. In 2020, video meeting minutes on Zoom rose 31-fold to an annualized 3.2 trillion minutes. For perspective, it would take one person more than 6 million years to watch that much video. Metaverse meeting solutions seek to improve on the video call with a greater focus on interactivity and collaboration.
Demonstrating the potential for technologies adjacent to the metaverse are digital twins, already in use today. Architects and engineers have long created both digital and physical models to help inform and refine their final designs before construction or production begins. A digital twin extends this process by computer-modelling external data, including expected load conditions, material characteristics, and weather among other factors. For instance semiconductor designer Nvidia has created a software platform they call the Omniverse to model not only static objects, but also processes in motion. For example, Amazon has used Nvidia’s Omniverse to simulate warehouse performance before these are built, in order to maximize throughput.
The metaverse at school
Distance learning technologies have been in use for years, well serving underserved remote areas for instance and providing a vital solutions as schools closed during the pandemic. However, lacking both supervision from teachers and social interaction with friends, few would argue video conferencing produced the best outcome for students.
Although enterprise spending on collaboration and productivity software was already strong before the pandemic, this was less the case for schools. Sensing an opportunity to bridge the gap, venture investors have since increased focus on education technology. In 2021, global venture funding for education technology rose 29% year-over-year to USD 20.8 billion, a figure that is nearly three times greater than in pre-pandemic 2019.
Figure 1 | Global education technology venture funding, USD billions
Source: Holon IQ
With a focus on interactivity, collaboration, and on creating a the experience of being present, the metaverse holds great promise to improve online education by bringing students and teachers together in a way that feels more realistic. As studies have shown, students’ understanding and recall of a subject is greater when the learning process includes active participation rather than passive.3 That said, many educators express caution with the inclusion of the metaverse in the classroom. Noting the high volume, but small degree of high quality mobile education applications, the Brookings Institute recommends that institutions take the lead in designing guidelines to ensure scholastic best practices are factored within the development of metaverse experiences geared towards learning.4
Implications for investors
Following a pattern familiar to most technology investors, interest in the metaverse quickly reached a peak in the hype cycle, and – understandably, given the lack of tangible progress – has since faded into what researchers at Gartner describe as the ‘trough of disillusionment’. Despite the term’s long history, public interest in the metaverse was muted until last year. Google search trends data shows a small jump in relative interest for the term ‘metaverse’ around the time of the Roblox initial public offering in March 2021, followed by a significant surge in October 2021 when Facebook announced plans to focus on developing the technology while also changing its corporate name to Meta Platforms. However, more recently, the metaverse hype has faded and search interest has declined 78% from its October 2021 high.
Figure 2 | Worldwide Google search interest in the term ‘metaverse’
Given the still elevated hype, the early stage of development, and the lack of a clear set of winners today, investors looking for opportunities in the metaverse may be best served by enablers and adjacent technology with existing use cases and streams of profitable revenue.