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The Metaverse in a Fragmented World

Andy Yee wrote . . . . . . . . .

Heralded as the next chapter of cyberspace, the metaverse transforms the internet of information to one of experience through immersive, three-dimensional interactions. While we are still in the early days of the metaverse, the blending of physical and virtual environments has the potential to revolutionize social interactions, business models, and politics, with significant impact for society and the economy. In the areas of education, healthcare and urban planning, the use of immersive technologies for international collaboration is also compelling. Economic consultancy Analysis Group estimated that the metaverse economy could be worth more than US$3 trillion in a decade.

Though described to be an interconnected network of immersive virtual worlds, the metaverse as we know it comprises multiple metaverses created by different platforms. Like the internet, the metaverse is not a monolithic technological creation, but a constellation of systems, protocols, hardware, applications and organizations, making it a complex sociotechnical ecosystem with a wide range of public and private actors.

Major global powers, including China, Europe and the US, see the metaverse as the next strategic battleground to shape the rules of a new technological domain. Major technology platforms such as Meta (previously Facebook) and Tencent are betting big on its economic opportunities. Cities such as Dubai, Shanghai and Seoul are unveiling metaverse development plans. And cypherpunks – people who advocate for the use of cryptography to bring social and political change – are pushing for a decentralized metaverse to escape a capitalist dystopia.

To make sense of this immensely complex ecosystem, it is best to understand the metaverse as a space subject to competing ideals and political pressures. If we can learn anything from the evolution of the internet, it is that the metaverse is subject to the same technical, governmental and commercial sources of fragmentation.

Internet scholars Kieron O’Hara and Wendy Hall discerned that at least four internets have emerged: the Silicon Valley open internet, the highly regulated European “bourgeois” internet, the Chinese authoritarian internet, and the US commercial internet. We can therefore equally envision a future of at least four metaverses, namely the open cypherpunk metaverse, the civil European metaverse, the authoritarian Chinese metaverse, and the commercial US metaverse.

THE OPEN CYPHERPUNK METAVERSE

The concept of the metaverse is rooted in the cypherpunk ideals of Silicon Valley. It originated in the 1992 Neal Stephenson science fiction novel Snow Crash, which features a character escaping reality into an immersive virtual world by night. Today, cypherpunks harbor a deep distrust of metaverses promoted and controlled by corporations and governments. They advocate for a decentralized alternative metaverse built on peer-to-peer and open-source technologies, eliminating surveillance and censorship and guaranteeing individual autonomy.

In an extreme scenario, such a highly aligned and autonomous digital community may even gain political power through collective action. Entrepreneur and essayist Balaji Srinivasan argued in his new book The Network State: How to Start a New Country, published this year, that technologies such as Bitcoin, Web3 and the metaverse allow people to exit legacy arrangements and form new groups more easily than ever before. This leads to the possibility of a network state, whereby a community originating in the cloud can crowdfund territory in the real world and negotiate for diplomatic recognition to become a true state.

THE CIVIL EUROPEAN METAVERSE

In recent years, Europe’s political preference for a civilized bourgeois cyberspace has served as a counterbalance to the commercially driven view of the US. Through major frameworks such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the Digital Markets Act (DMA), and the Digital Services Act (DSA), the European Union has developed global regulatory influence for minimizing bad behavior, protecting privacy, and guarding against dominant platforms on the internet.

Being more intertwined with the real world, the metaverse is expected to accentuate the downsides of the internet, including privacy protection, online harassment, hate speech, cybersecurity, addiction and competition. We can therefore expect Europe to extend its internet regulatory approach to the metaverse. For example, a Council of the European Union paper recommended that Europe take the lead in tailor-made policy tools and innovative political thinking to safeguard the metaverse. Partly driven by Europe’s increasing scrutiny, Meta announced the creation of 10,000 jobs in Europe to showcase the metaverse’s benefits.

It is unrealistic to envision a completely interoperable and interconnected metaverse

THE AUTHORITARIAN CHINESE METAVERSE

Underpinned by its Made in China 2025 and China Standards 2035 strategies, China takes a long-term view in shaping technical standards of foundational technologies as a source of geopolitical influence. It has been promoting a vision of the internet that enables centralized and fine-grained controls to ensure that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideals are upheld.

China sees the metaverse as the next internet battleground, in particular guarding against the development of a decentralized economy that would remain outside of state control. Its strategy encompasses both the foundational and the application layers of the metaverse. At the foundation layer, it is aggressively developing its own central bank digital currency and Blockchain Services Network (BSN) to ensure that transactions in the metaverse are centralized. At the application layer, it is bringing together key metaverse companies via the state-backed Metaverse Industry Committee to shape standards and applications in the metaverse.

If this state-centric vision of the metaverse is realized, it has the potential to strengthen the rule of the CCP through the granular control of reality. Not only can it offer the possibility to create altered versions of the real world for its citizens, different levels of virtual reality with different levels of access for different groups can also be created, with tight control over how access is distributed.

THE COMMERCIAL US METAVERSE

While sharing similar ideological roots of the open metaverse, the commercial metaverse spearheaded by big US technology platforms is a sociopolitical force of its own, given the platforms’ reach and resources. A large portion of consumers will experience immersive virtual worlds through centralized technology platforms, which are making significant investments in the metaverse. In 2021, Meta alone invested US$10 billion to build metaverse hardware and software. In early 2022, Microsoft announced the acquisition of video game company Activision Blizzard for US$69 billion as a key component of its metaverse strategy.

Accompanying this tremendous prowess is the role of these platforms in framing the socio-political debates pertaining to the governance of the metaverse. We can foresee the commercial metaverse sitting uneasily with the open, civil and authoritarian versions of the metaverse. On the one hand, these technology platforms will champion US liberal values in contrast to their Chinese counterparts, which are under the authoritarian state’s tacit control. On the other hand, commercial motivations may drive them towards developing capacity for surveillance, prediction and behavioral influence, putting them in direct conflict with the open and civil versions of the metaverse.

WHOSE METAVERSE?

By now, it is clear that at least four metaverses are emerging. Of course, these four visions will not exist in pure forms and will share similarities. For example, the European civil metaverse will want to nurture its technology companies, and the Chinese authoritarian metaverse will care about data protection and privacy. It is also possible that newer and more niche versions will emerge. However, as these four visions are each underpinned by powerful ideological and institutional backing, it is likely that they will mature over time and coexist with each other in uneasy tension as the dominant categories.

In a world broken down along geopolitical lines, it is unrealistic to envision a completely interoperable and interconnected metaverse. Similar to the way we describe the internet as the splinternet, it will be more appropriate to describe the metaverse as the paraverse – parallel virtual worlds with different norms, rules and algorithms with only limited linkages. The fragmentation of the metaverse will deepen further in the coming decade. In the end, the dawning virtual environment will mirror many of humanity’s divisions and fault lines in the physical world.


Source : Asia GLobal Online

虛擬宇宙 漸露勢頭

作者: 謝國生, 何敏淙 . . . . . . . .

不論在線上線下,「元宇宙」(Metaverse)都是城中熱話。何謂元宇宙?簡單來說,它是結合了虛擬實境(Virtual Reality)、擴增實境(Augmented Reality)、混合實境(Mixed Reality)、人工智能、區塊鏈(Blockchain)、社交網絡、網媒、網購等元素的新版互聯網。

元宇宙的誕生

雖然意指未來,此詞卻早於1992年的科幻小說《雪崩》(Snow Crash)中首度出現。2021年10月底,臉書母公司Facebook, Inc.正式易名為Meta Platforms, Inc.(商業名稱為Meta),並宣稱元宇宙為下一個前沿技術,供使用者日常生活、工作、娛樂之用。

元宇宙涵蓋虛擬世界和物質世界,日後人類在元宇宙內將可打破物理法則完成更多工作和活動,例如透過虛擬「分身」參加會議等等。在農曆新年期間,香港就在虛擬平台Cryptovoxels舉行了全港首個元宇宙年宵(Mart in Metaverse),讓參加者在虛擬市場購物和遊玩。

元宇宙用途極廣,可用作商務溝通、遙距醫療以及透過虛擬實境參觀物業單位等。筆者相信,未來各大企業將會結合「實體」和「虛擬」兩方面。微軟行政總裁納德拉(Satya Nadella)提出了「數碼分身」(Digital Twin)概念,即企業的實體廠房、辦公室、伺服器中心等,會全部複製到企業的日常運作系統,另備一個數碼模型(「分身」)。數碼分身能隨時模仿企業在實體世界的運作,針對在現實世界中可能發生的問題,及早作出改善建議,從而提升競爭力。

虛擬地產雛形

目前世界上已經有數個元宇宙虛擬平台,包括沙盒(The Sandbox)和Decentraland,當中的交易通常以加密貨幣或非同質化代幣(Non-Fungible Token;簡稱NFT)進行。數碼藝術家Beeple的作品《每天:前5000天》(Everydays : The First 5000 Days)就以NFT進行交易,去年在佳士得拍賣會上以近7000萬美元成交。除了錄像、音樂等數碼藝術,NFT交易市場還包含虛擬不動產的交易。NFT交易平台OpenSea更供用家買賣虛擬土地和房屋。

虛擬土地就是元宇宙中的地產,每塊地以獨一無二且不可複製的NFT來區分每筆交易。土地供應商(賣家)和用戶(買家)可在平台買賣虛擬土地,作居住或商業用途。為了確保數碼不動產保值,元宇宙的土地數量有限,而且供應也不可能增加,所以只有一部分人有機會購得。例如在Decentraland裏只有9萬幅地,每幅長、寬大約50英呎(15.24米)。限量供應的概念與比特幣相似,即有限的虛擬貨幣流通後,達到一定數量就不會再增加。故擁有虛擬業權可視為資產地位和身份象徵。

有人不禁會問:如此購得的土地或物業究竟有何用途?這裏不妨用元宇宙集團(Metaverse Group ),一家專注於虛擬平台的房地產公司為例。集團在Decentraland購買的土地位於時尚區,可用作潮流活動的場地。只要透過建設優質土地、內容,配合別出心裁的營運方式吸引用戶,就可為虛擬空間製造價值。通過建立並營辦商場、大學、醫院、美術館等,用戶可在元宇宙獲利。在不同平台購置虛擬土地,就好比在不同城市買地,各有定價標準。不過在元宇宙買賣土地需要使用平台認可代幣,比如Sandbox的Sand或Decentraland的Mana等,虛擬土地經轉讓或出租後便能產生價值。

2021年6月,虛擬地產商Republic Realm在Decentraland買了259幅地,花費大約等同90萬美元。根據追蹤NFT交易數據的網站DappRadar,這是Decentraland當時最昂貴的NFT土地交易。後來元宇宙集團更以240萬美元在Decentraland購買116塊土地,面積較Republic Realm購入的土地小。

同年12月,香港新世界發展集團宣布購買沙盒中一幅虛擬地皮,計劃建造創新中心;據報地價約為500萬美元,刷新Republic Realm早前在沙盒創下的430萬美元成交紀錄。由此可見,虛擬地皮有價有市!

在不少人心目中,元宇宙也許只是虛擬遊戲而已,投資虛擬房地產未免匪夷所思。正如三、四十年前,一般人還搞不懂互聯網到底是什麼,在踏入本世紀之際,社交媒體的應用還未普及;但時至今日,互聯網在工作、學習、購物等方面已是我們生活的一部分。虛擬土地價格一再飆升,買賣這類房地產可視作投機活動,畢竟有關交易只在虛擬世界內獲得認可,本質上是購買平台所提供的服務。一旦平台營運出現問題,投入的資金很可能化為泡影。

開拓融資空間

根據市場調查機構Emergen Research 2021年11月的研究報告,元宇宙這新興產業在未來10年內,將以每年43.3%的複合增長率高速發展,相關的概念股亦已陸續出現。同年6月,投資公司Roundhill Investments推出了Roundhill Ball Metaverse,一個以虛擬實境和擴增實境為主題的基金,為市場提供投資元宇宙的機會。該基金旗下管理的資產至今已上漲至9.16億美元之多。在2021年11月,加拿大單日內推出了兩項元宇宙交易所買賣基金(Exchange Traded Fund;簡稱ETF)。截至同年12月28日,全球元宇宙ETF資產已飆升至22億美元,其中大部分在2021年第三季推出。

根據美國ETF供應商ProShares提交美國證券交易委員會的文件顯示,該公司計劃推出ProShares元宇宙主題ETF(ProShares Metaverse Theme ETF),以追蹤Solactive元宇宙主題指數(Solactive Metaverse Theme Index)表現。該指數由元宇宙相關產品和技術的公司組成,蘋果、Meta和輝達(Nvidia)是當中權重最高的股票。

概念亦有可為

坊間或有疑問:元宇宙是騙局嗎?畢竟,在經歷2015年發行虛擬實境概念股和2021年加密貨幣起飛後,投資者才懂得以較審慎的態度看待這些新興概念股。須知元宇宙只是一個概念,還須種種技術(如:5G通訊、人工智能)加以配合;從這個角度而言,元宇宙並非騙局。

當前元宇宙就恍如一個原始世界,很多事物和生態還處於構建階段,可塑性甚高。市場普遍認為元宇宙將令線上模式出現鋪天蓋地的改變。事實上,只要元宇宙社區創建完善,就能吸引用戶和消費者。相關的企業自然會有發展潛力,各式各樣的商機亦會應運而生。

放眼未來,元宇宙的走勢仍是未知之數,但筆者認為,目前現實世界已開始與虛擬世界融合。任何新概念股均存在風險,虛擬資產交易也不例外,而且這些交易在多國更仍未受法律規管。不過在新冠疫情衝擊下,受限於社交距離措施、民眾減少外出,大眾唯有在虛擬世界聚會,甚至舉行婚禮,這無疑助長了元宇宙的發展。不容忽視的是,元宇宙的經濟模式可望於未來數年充分發揮,一如電子郵件和社交媒體,將為大眾提供一個與現實生活銜接的虛擬空間。


Source : HKU

Metaverse Real Estate Sales Top $500 million, and Are Projected to Double This Year

Robert Frank wrote . . . . . . . . .

Sales of real estate in the metaverse topped $500 million last year and could double this year, according to investors and analytics firms.

Real estate sales on the four major metaverse platforms reached $501 million in 2021, according to MetaMetric Solutions. Sales in January topped $85 million, the metaverse data provider said. It projects that at this pace sales could reach nearly $1 billion in 2022.

The recent surge in sales was sparked by Facebook’s Oct. 28 announcement that it was rebranding as Meta to focus on the metaverse. Real estate sales surged nearly ninefold, to $133 million, in November, according to MetaMetric. Sales growth has faded since then, yet January’s sales total will still be more than 10 times the January 2021 levels.

A report from BrandEssence Market Research found that the metaverse real estate market is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 31% a year from 2022 to 2028.

“There are big risks, but potentially big rewards,” said Janine Yorio, CEO of Republic Realm, a metaverse real estate investor and advisory firm.

‘Big Four’ dominate the space

Republic Realm paid a record $4.3 million for land in the largest metaverse real estate platform, Sandbox. The company is developing 100 islands, called Fantasy Islands, with their own villas and a related market of boats and jet skis. Ninety of the islands sold on the first day for $15,000 each and some are now listed for resale for more than $100,000.

For investors, the big question is how to assign value and risk to an asset whose scarcity is artificial and whose future is a blank slate. Over a dozen platforms are now selling real estate in the metaverse, with new ones sprouting up almost weekly. So far, real estate sales have been concentrated on the “Big Four” — Sandbox, Decentraland, Cryptovoxels and Somnium. There are a total of 268,645 parcels on the four platforms, all of varying sizes.

Sandbox dominates the market, with 62% of the available land on the four platforms and three-quarters of all land sales in 2022, according to a report from Republic Realm. Sandbox’s 166,464 parcels each sold for the ether equivalent of $12,700 in December. The parcels are 96 meters by 96 meters (106 yards by 106 yards).

Decentraland has 90,600 parcels, which are 16 meters by 16 meters, and sold for the ether equivalent of $14,440 apiece.

Location may still matter

A rush of companies, major brands and investors are pouring into the new land craze, hoping to get in on the ground floor of the next digital Manhattan or Monaco. Yorio said land value in the metaverse will be determined by what owners do with a property — like designing a popular attraction, museum or feature —rather than location.

“You can teleport anywhere so location isn’t as important,” she said.

Yet other investors say that just like in the real world, location in the metaverse is everything when it comes to real estate. Prices for parcels near Snoop Dogg’s planned partnership and virtual world in Sandbox are fetching a premium, along with parcels near the Atari development.

Andrew Kiguel, CEO of Toronto-based Tokens.com, recently raised a $16 million fund to invest in metaverse real estate, almost all of which has been allocated to buying land and hiring staff. The company recently spent $2.4 million for land in Decentraland’s fashion district, where the company plans to host fashion events and retail shops.

Kiguel said he is about to announce deals with two North American apparel brands where he is renting space on his property to develop storefronts or experiences. Kiguel said the real opportunity in metaverse land is commercial — renting space and hosting events for companies looking to advertise to a younger digital audience. He said he’s been in talks with accounting firms, investment banks, podcasts and mutual funds to build a presence in the metaverse.

“We’re even talking to companies about putting up digital billboards in virtual conference rooms where people can meet,” he said.

Tokens.com purchased 12 waterfront properties in Somnium that it thinks will increase in value because of its scarcity and visual appeal, Kiguel said.

Still, others say metaverse land is just the latest iteration of the crypto ponzi scheme, luring unwitting investors into projects that may eventually prove worthless. While real land has natural scarcity — hence the old saying “They’re not making any more of it” — virtual land is easily created with code. There is no limit to the number of new metaverse platforms that can launch. Even the big existing platforms can create more land, as Sandbox did when it decided to increase its parcel sizes.

Many point out that previous versions of virtual land grabs, like in “Second Life,” fell far short of their promises.

“Metaverse land sales are generally a pyramid scheme and have been for more than 20 years,” said Edward Castronova, professor of media at Indiana University. “The Metaverse is El Dorado for internet startups. They chase it into the jungle and die.”

While older investors may scoff at metaverse land, Kiguel said, younger consumers and investors are instantly able to see the appeal.

“The problem a lot of people have is that there are generations that have a difficult time attributing value to things that are digital, that you can’t hold and that don’t have weight,” Kiguel said. “The younger generation has no issue with it. Like with NFTs, blockchain technology allows for something to be digital, irreplaceable and scarce. You can hold it, store it, display it and sell it.”


Source : CNBC

Chinese Buyers Join Metaverse Land Rush

Jiang Yaling wrote . . . . . . . . .

Artist Huang Heshan started building virtual houses as an art project. Now, a boom in interest in virtual property has got him selling them for very real money.

His project TooRichCity is a virtual city led by a fictional middle-aged bald man who is not shy about showing his belly, and composed of tottering towers made of 3D-rendered concrete and rustic, campy shop signs Huang collected in China’s lower-tier cities and villages.

Huang initially imagined TooRichCity to be an “intellectual property” that could be franchised as a movie or TV series, but he added a metaverse angle to it this July while preparing for a creators’ event. It proved to be a lucrative move.

He sold 310 “houses” — digital images of buildings in the form of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, unique units of data stored on a blockchain — within two days for 400,000 yuan ($63,000), mostly to young buyers. Each buyer received a property certificate and an invitation into a group for owners on social app WeChat, like any house buyer in China. The main difference is that property owners in TooRichCity cannot yet experience their estate, except by admiring a picture of it.

As the offline housing market in China hit a “historic” low point with the fall of property giant Evergrande, according to Beike Research Institute, virtual real estate is a hot commodity, driving front-page articles and hot conversations on social media. The domestic trade publication China Real Estate Business listed “metaverse property” first in an article on the “top 10 industry news of 2021.”

Facebook’s recent name change to Meta has helped fuel hype for metaverse products of all kinds. Meanwhile, “metaverse property” remains a loosely defined term. While believers look forward to one day owning houses in a Matrix-like simulated world, the market now includes everything from digital images of houses traded as NFTs to virtual reality houses in games.

Hot properties

Much of the enthusiasm around metaverse property is being driven by the success of Decentraland and The Sandbox, virtual worlds that offer users the right to buy virtual land and customize it as a sort of localized video game, with land records kept on a blockchain. A fitting comparison would be if you reimagined the video game Second Life for the blockchain generation.

The U.S.-developed projects have attracted eye-catching investments from celebrities, including the American rapper Snoop Dogg and Singaporean Mandopop star JJ Lin. These deals also made headlines in China, and over recent months several high-profile Hong Kong investors — such as Adrian Cheng of New World Development and the real estate firm Sun Hung Kai Properties — have also bought into The Sandbox.

Now, a growing number of people on the Chinese mainland are scrambling to buy up real estate inside Decentraland and The Sandbox. Carson, an early Chinese investor in The Sandbox, told Sixth Tone that metaverse property is attracting three kinds of people in particular, namely, “The opportunists, the investors, and the idealists.”

Owners of virtual land in The Sandbox or Decentraland can use them to build custom “worlds” — essentially, video games made with a set of tools provided by the platform. “Metaverse property represents the right to choose your own lifestyle,” Carson said.

Carson, who prefers to be referred to by his pseudonym in the blockchain world, self-identified as an idealist. Carson is a member of a crypto community that jointly runs a Sandbox world called LuluLand. He’s a council member of LuluLand’s “decentralized autonomous organization.” LuluLand recently held a Christmas party at which users played online games including hide-and-seek and participated in treasure hunts for prizes like snowman NFTs.

It is not a world everyone in China has access to. Buying land on platforms like The Sandbox takes cryptocurrency, and all cryptocurrency transactions have been banned since September. Determined Chinese residents need a virtual private network and overseas bank account to buy in.

For this niche group, real estate NFTs have so far proved lucrative. Over the last two months, the price of land in The Sandbox has increased over thirteenfold from around $1,175 to $15,612. It is not known how much of this money came from Chinese players.

Despite an ongoing crackdown on cryptocurrency mining and trading, the Chinese government has not banned NFTs or the metaverse, pointed out Winston Ma, an adjunct professor at NYU Law School.

“However, when NFT includes the term ‘token,’ and the NFT trading market sees exponential growth of volume, it’s hard to imagine that NFTs can develop in China without being associated with cryptocurrency — and the related regulations,” Ma said.

Domestic brands

There are other ways to join the hype within China. You can get the virtual reality experience without the property deed, or the property deed without the virtual reality experience.

Hu Qiaohao has a “metaverse property,” as he called it in vlogs on Bilibili and Xiaohongshu, with a panoramic view of Earth that cost just around 3,000 yuan: there is a bedroom, a living room, and a mini-fridge containing 3D images of his favorite drinks. The key to his virtual home is a virtual reality headset from Beijing-based VR start-up Pico Interactive, which was recently acquired by Chinese tech giant ByteDance for 5 billion yuan.

Every Pico user can access and customize a virtual home in their headset, including purchasing virtual furnishings, and invite other Pico users over. There’s no way to sell a virtual Pico house to someone else unless the owner resells their headsets.

“When you log in, you see an immersive space that we call home; you can talk to others and play interactive games,” the VR industry professional told Sixth Tone. “Real estate companies could build commercial streets, and when people have their virtual avatars, they can go shopping together and watch movies like they do in real life.”

Meanwhile, a digital product with a metaverse twist saw a boost in attention and value last year, before being flagged by market regulators for creating market-moving hype.

Virtual houses — 3D renderings that serve as the user’s home base — from Chinese life simulation mobile game Honnverse spilled into secondhand trading app Xianyu for resale after the game launched in late October.

Some early users got virtual homes through a lucky draw during beta testing, before deciding to flip them. One priced their 3D glasshouse for 980 yuan; another offered a chalet for 999 yuan.

One user from the southern province of Guangdong, who listed a virtual seaside villa for 2,999 yuan, told Sixth Tone he had a dismissive view of Honnverse despite wanting to turn a buck from it.

“This is all fake. I believe in the metaverse, but Honnverse and metaverse are two different things — having a property in Honnverse is like FarmVille,” said the user, who refused to disclose his name for privacy reasons. He said he received over a dozen inquiries in the first few days of listing the property.

Stock of Honnverse’s creator In My Show surged after CEO Li Meng released a public letter envisioning a metaverse future, with its market cap rising 500 million yuan between Nov. 18 and Nov. 19.

But the boom did not last long. On Nov. 20, the Shanghai Stock Exchange accused the company of misleading investors by describing its plans outside official channels. Xianyu removed all products mentioning Honnverse after two weeks, including the Guangdong user’s seaside villa.

Following the incident, he mused, “With real houses, it’s all about ‘living in, not speculation,’” referring to an anti-speculation slogan. “Are they going to let us play games with digital ones?”.

Long road ahead

In addition to regulatory uncertainties, aspiring metaverse property owners need to be aware of technological limits.

“We are still a bit far away from the ultimate metaverse,” Chen Dongyao, assistant professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, told Sixth Tone. “An immersive user interface experience is one of the key missing pieces from a technology perspective,” he said.

“Metaverse could be the ultimate application to orchestrate a wide range of the latest computing technologies such as VR, AI, and 5G. I believe [it] has great potential,” Chen added. A team he recently led invented a wearable and untethered on-body hand-tracking system called MagX, allowing users to employ natural gestures in interactive scenarios within the metaverse.

Chen sees hardware as the driving force to improving the user experience. VR headsets are as close as most people can come to a metaverse experience, but they are often “cumbersome and awkward,” he said, adding that the science and business world should also work to develop hardware and explore applications beyond gaming.

Poor user experience and a lack of content are two of the most prominent issues in the market adoption of VR and AR, but that is changing as more creators and developers join the industry. Market research firm IDC has predicted that China will become the world’s largest consumer market for AR and VR by 2024, accounting for 36% of the world market.

But technology won’t attract users unless there’s something to see, so metaverse companies are also courting content creators. Artist Huang’s team is in talks with The Sandbox and Decentraland to bring the TooRichCity IP onto a blockchain-enabled platform, so that prospective house buyers can tour their property and residential compound. He imagines buyers one day running small businesses, selling street food or mending bicycles — common trades in China’s lower-tier cities, where Huang got inspiration for the project — via digital avatars.

For some investors, technology development isn’t the point. It doesn’t matter what equipment is ready because “imagination matters the most,” said Yan Suji, founder and CEO of Mask Network, an Ethereum-based encrypted messaging application.

There are many ways to make financial bets on the metaverse, but the concept of property may be easier to understand than others for retail investors, he said.

Yan has invested in a “digital construction company” that relies on the “play-to-earn” model made famous by Axie Infinity, in which users perform repetitive tasks in order to earn tokens and NFTs.

It’s all in the cloud, but so are many offline real estate purchases, said Yan. “You imagine Evergrande would never breach its contract, so you buy a house that will be completed in three years,” he said. “If you are willing to buy that, what are you not ready to buy?”


Source : Sixth Tone

Chinese Label Debuts Its First Virtual Musician Amid Metaverse Hype

Luo Meihan wrote . . . . . . . . .

Leading Chinese record label Modern Sky announced plans to accelerate its virtual businesses this year as the metaverse — a digital concept using various forms of virtual and augmented realities to mirror real-life social interactions — mania gains momentum in the country and elsewhere.

Shen Lihui, founder of the two-decade-old independent label, said last week that the company’s strategy for 2022 included developing virtual musicians, organizing virtual music festivals, and selling original digital works in the form of non-fungible tokens, or NFT. Modern Sky also released its first virtual musician, Miro — a combination of the words mirror and miracle — over a year after launching its first virtual artist label with musicians mostly adapted from real stars or famous online characters such as the one from the dress-up game “Shining Nikki.”

Virtual idols have been thriving in China over the years, with its market value reaching 3.46 billion yuan ($540 million) in 2020, up 70.3% from the previous year, according to the consultancy group iiMedia. The metaverse hype was expected to push its market value to nearly 107.49 billion yuan in 2021.

In recent months, other music and entertainment companies have been eyeing into metaverse, with Tencent Music announcing the launch of TMELAND, claiming it to be China’s first interactive virtual music festival, last month. Zhejiang Huace Film & TV also said it would set up a specialized metaverse business department dedicated to virtual images, NFTs, and digital studios.

Zhang Yi, CEO of iiMedia, told Sixth Tone that major Chinese music platforms are buoyed by the metaverse rush and are focused on developing virtual concerts, virtual stars, and their catalogs in order to better cash in the world of digital music.

“Celebrities can pose massive risks to music companies,” Zhang said, referring to a slew of scandals involving entertainers over the past year. “A (more digital) focus can cater to the young audience’s needs, improve popularity of platforms and accumulate more virtual idol IPs, which is beneficial to platforms’ short-term publicity, revenue, and long-term development.”

This year, Modern Sky will also launch a virtual version of its popular Strawberry Music Festival, featuring virtual artists and allowing users to access the virtual world and interact with participants online, according to Shen.

Despite the burgeoning trend, experts have raised concerns about rushing to jump into the metaverse universe. Earlier this month, a Chinese think tank warned of metaverse-related risks in the virtual idol sector, saying the country lacks regulatory requirements or any documents to guide companies interested in investing in the “digital utopian ideology.”


Source : Sixth Tone

Infographic: 什么是“元宇宙”?

Source : 新华网

Baidu Joins Metaverse Bandwagon with ‘Land of Hope’, an App for AI Conference

Che Pan wrote . . . . . . . . .

Baidu’s first metaverse product, called the Land of Hope, will launch later this month, as the Chinese internet search giant joins its peers in a rush to develop the technology that is already drawing critical attention from Beijing.

The new metaverse app, known as Xi Rang in Chinese, will launch on December 27 as a virtual site for the Beijing-based company’s three-day artificial intelligence (AI) developers’ conference this year, Baidu said in a statement on Friday.

This will be the first Chinese conference to be held in a metaverse space, the tech firm said. It also boasted that its platform would be able to handle 100,000 participants interacting at the same time.

“The metaverse is still in a very early stage of development,” said Ma Jie, vice-president of Baidu and head of Xi Rang, adding that it will take a long time for the whole community to build and improve it together.

The metaverse has drummed up a lot of hype this year as some have heralded it as the next iteration of the internet. The technology can be loosely defined as a shared immersive 3D space where people interact virtually.

The concept gained more widespread attention in October, when Facebook renamed itself Meta. The company said on Thursday that it will open its virtual reality (VR) product Horizon Worlds to anyone older than 18 years old in the US and Canada.

Amid heightened excitement of the metaverse, companies around the world have voiced commitment to the concept.

Chinese tech giants, especially gaming giants Tencent Holdings and NetEase, have sought to assure investors of their interest in the nascent market, which is projected to be worth US$800 billion by 2024, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. China’s three state-owned telecoms companies – China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom – also partnered in November with several tech companies to form the Metaverse Industry Committee, China’s first industry group dedicated to the concept.

However, Chinese firms have remained more cautious in their endorsements of the metaverse amid signs that it could be a politically sensitive topic. A state-backed think tank has warned about national security risks associated with the metaverse, and a state-run newspaper said investors should not pour money into the “immature” concept.

Ni Zewang, chairman of state-backed investment firm Shenzhen Capital Group, said in an interview last week that the metaverse is unable to create value “without an actual application scenario”. He suggested that the market was in bubble territory and that it could hurt the development of the industry.

When launched, Xi Rang will be one of the first Chinese metaverse products to make it to market. Baidu said the virtual world is a Wonderland-like planet, where users can encounter monks trained in Shaolin kung fu and cartoon characters like Transformers’ Optimus Prime.

Baidu’s metaverse efforts are aimed at developing an engine that can also provide AI and cloud computing capabilities to other metaverse products, the company said.


Source : SCMP

Why You Should Care About Facebook’s Big Push into the Metaverse

Shirin Ghaffary wrote . . . . . . . . .

It’s the next big breakthrough in technology. It’s a joke. It’s a marketing strategy. It’s a techno-dystopian nightmare. It’s the metaverse — defined most simply as a virtual world where people can socialize, work, and play — and Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes it is the future of the internet and of his trillion-dollar company.

Although “metaverse” became a buzzword after Facebook changed its company name to “Meta” last month, many people are still trying to understand what exactly the metaverse is and whether the futuristic technological concept is something they should take seriously.

Many critics and skeptics have mocked Zuckerberg’s plan to change Facebook from a social media company to a metaverse company. Some critics say that by focusing on the metaverse and renaming itself while the company is reeling from a PR crisis, Facebook is distracting from the problems it creates or contributes to in the real world: issues like harming teens’ mental health, facilitating the spread of disinformation, and fueling political polarization.

Even some of Facebook’s own employees, according to internal company communications viewed by Recode, are concerned about the metaverse — as reflected by questions several employees asked ahead of a weekly staff Q&A on Facebook’s internal communications platform, Workplace. One question, which was highly upvoted by employees, was, “How could we avoid a dystopian reality, where the metaverse is used as an ‘opium for the masses?’” Another highly ranked question asked, “How will we meaningfully put safety, integrity, and responsibility first in the Metaverse? We barely are able to cover the real world today.”

Other observers have noted that Facebook’s metaverse idea isn’t new — plenty of other companies, like Roblox, Nvidia, and Microsoft, have also been building out virtual worlds with virtual or augmented reality tech. And others point to how undeveloped the technology is — in the version of the metaverse that Facebook has built so far, the digital avatars it offers as stand-ins for our physical bodies are cartoonish, awkward, and often legless.

Even if these criticisms and questions stand, Facebook’s investment in the metaverse is something we should take seriously. Mark Zuckerberg sees the metaverse as the “successor to the mobile internet,” an invention that reshaped all our lives by allowing us to go online anywhere, and made it possible for Facebook’s current business to exist. If the metaverse becomes everything Zuckerberg wants it to be, it could similarly shake up the world, shifting our existence from being rooted in the physical world to one in which our digital presence increasingly supplements our real one.

In response to concerns about the metaverse, Facebook, which recently renamed itself Meta, pointed to a statement from a September blog post by Facebook executives Andrew Bosworth and Nick Clegg that reads, in part, “Meta is not going to build, own, or run the metaverse on its own. We are starting conversations about our vision for the metaverse early, before some of the technologies even exist. … We’re discussing it now to help ensure that any terms of use, privacy controls or safety features are appropriate to the new technologies and effective in keeping people safe.”

Facebook also said it’s doesn’t want to be the only one developing the metaverse. “This won’t be the job of any one company alone. It will require collaboration across industry and with experts, governments and regulators to get it right,” reads another line from the blog post.

The company is betting a lot on this concept succeeding. It’s putting some of the brightest engineering minds in the world to work on this project, acquiring virtual reality and augmented reality companies, hiring over 10,000 people to work on it, and backing the initiative with tens of billions of dollars. And Zuckerberg, who ultimately has unilateral control over his company, seems genuinely excited about it.

While the timeline is still unclear, it’s likely we’re headed toward a future where we could all be using some yet-to-be-determined version of the metaverse to go online. And Facebook is determined to play a major role in building and shaping this new realm, meaning that even if Facebook doesn’t single-handedly own the metaverse (as it has insisted it won’t), it’s still striving to wield control over it. That means Facebook may one day have even more influence over our daily lives.

Today, Facebook still has to operate under the parameters set by Apple and Google, which make and control the world’s dominant smartphone operating systems. But in this new world that will likely rely on VR/AR headsets and digital sensors, Facebook is striving to create its own rules and operating platform.

So even if you’re not itching to jump into the metaverse anytime soon, you should pay attention to it, and to how Facebook is investing in it.

So what is the metaverse, really?

On a philosophical level, the metaverse, as Zuckerberg and others have defined it, is a way for us to make our virtual lives more seamlessly integrated with our real ones.

It will be “like we’re right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are, we’ll be able to express ourselves in new joyful, completely immersive ways,” said Zuckerberg in an October speech during which he demoed his vision of the metaverse.

The idea is to create a more immersive internet, in which we’ll use tech like AR and VR to spend our time engaging in virtual spaces and experiences rather than the physical world. The term was first coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, but now, Zuckerberg and many other tech executives want to make it a reality.

Matthew Ball, a technology investor who wrote a definitive series of essays about the metaverse, explained it to me in part like this:

“Right now the internet is primarily something that is ‘push.’ You are pushed information, you receive an email, you receive a notification, you then pull up your device to access that.” The difference with the metaverse is that it’s an “embodied engine” you are “already within, rather than reaching out,” Ball said.

Practically, that means this world will disengage us from our physical realities: the office, the living room, the outdoors. We will instead plug into our headsets or otherwise be immersed in another environment.

Depending on how you see it, that could mean an improvement to your life; your surroundings or your physical appearance can be updated virtually. Or it can be read as a dystopian concept, as though the metaverse is for people who are escaping the grim circumstances of the real world (which is how it was envisioned in the novel Snow Crash).

For now, though, any conversation about the metaverse is largely hypothetical. Facebook will be the first to tell you that it’s still in its infancy. Zuckerberg has said that it “does not fully exist” yet, and that we have just the “building blocks” — like Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2 headset, which costs $299 and has significantly lowered the entry price point for VR devices. For comparison, an HP Reverb G2 Virtual Reality Headset currently costs $450, and the HTC Vive Cosmos goes for upward of $600.

But to take this hypothetical conversation to another level, I stepped into Facebook’s metaverse using a loaned Oculus headset. The first time I tried it out, I was impressed. The graphics have come a long way since I last used a VR headset (just a few years ago), and that made my experience transporting. But in a reflection of how young the technology still is, I found it impractical to use for long stretches of time, especially outside of an entertainment or gaming capacity.

Before I got started in the metaverse, I shifted furniture around in my apartment so I could explore without bonking into corners. After I put on the Oculus VR goggles, I moved on to the most important step: setting up my digital avatar.

Facebook gave me options to customize my avatar with features like skin tone, clothes, makeup, eyebrows, and even facial wrinkles. After spending 20 minutes tweaking my avatar to look more like me, I settled on a cartoon version of me that looked close enough. Then I headed to my default Oculus 3D home screen, a virtual room that looks like a tropical hotel lobby with palm trees, hanging egg-shaped chairs, and views of red rock mountains in the distance — a definite upgrade from the decor of my 500-square-foot studio apartment.

In its current form, my options for stuff to do in the metaverse were limited to activities like playing games, watching VR videos, and attending meetings. I played some games and watched YouTube videos in 3D; the highlight was dancing with a robot with gummy arms that beckoned me to twist and twirl with it.

Then I took a mock work meeting using Meta’s VR meeting software, Horizon Workrooms, which gave me a glimpse of how Facebook is envisioning the future of work in virtual worlds.

As I sat in a virtual meeting room with my cartoon avatar, I was able to do some things I couldn’t on a video call: I could turn my head toward my meeting mate and hear her voice more loudly than when I turned away; I could pinch my fingers to draw a note on a virtual chalkboard wall (although this was a bit challenging to get right), and I could see meeting participants all hang out in the same “room” together, rather than their heads cropped into a mosaic of side-by-side 2D boxes like they would be on a Zoom call. But there were clear drawbacks — mainly, that my avatar didn’t have any legs (because the headset can’t pick up your leg motions the way it can your head and hands, there are no legs in the Horizon Workrooms app), and I looked less professional than a normal video or picture of myself.

After I spent a few hours in the metaverse, more drawbacks of this new world emerged. For one, I started to sweat and feel nauseated. My headset weighed on my face. Anytime I wanted to play a game in this space that Facebook hadn’t developed itself, I had to go through the process of creating a new avatar from scratch. The initial wonder I had felt started to drain away. It’s hard to imagine myself wanting to hang out in the current version of Facebook’s metaverse for long stretches of time.

That being said, technology develops quickly, and it’s easy to imagine a world where all the practical problems I had with the metaverse are solved with lighter headsets, advanced hardware, and improved avatar graphics. But there are major technical challenges for Facebook to sort out here, and they’re going to take investment.

Why Facebook is going after the metaverse

Those are investments Facebook is willing to make because it sees the metaverse as the successor to the mobile internet. The technology creates an opportunity for Zuckerberg and Facebook to get ahead of the competition.

Unlike Apple or Google, which created iOS and Android, Facebook doesn’t control an operating system. Facebook has famously feuded with Apple over the fees the company charges for purchases made on iPhone apps, and the general control it exerts over companies like Facebook via its terms for developers.

For Facebook, this is a chance to become less reliant on Apple and Google.

“Not only is there an extraordinary opportunity for Facebook to build value in the metaverse, but it also provides them another opportunity to establish something that they lack and that has been a hindrance for years,” Ball told me. “For any of these major tech companies that have the assets, resources, capabilities, and interest in the metaverse, it absolutely makes sense for them to be investing in it.”

However, some close to the company see Facebook’s investments in virtual reality as a diversion from fixing the company’s tedious real-world problems.

It’s a “lot more fun to build a metaverse” than it is to answer the tough questions Facebook is facing about issues like political polarization, the spread of misinformation, or teenagers’ mental health, Brian Boland, a former vice president of partnerships and marketing at Facebook, told me.

And that makes sense: For Zuckerberg and his company, the metaverse presents an opportunity to shift Facebook’s mission back to building something new, rather than only fixing a troubled existing product.

Facebook could become an even bigger part of our lives

If the metaverse as Facebook envisions it succeeds, it would mean that the company will become even more powerful than it is today.

Right now, the two tech giants that effectively control entry to the mobile internet, Apple and Google, set some parameters around Facebook’s business.

Facebook designs its mobile app software to run on Apple’s and Google’s operating systems. In turn, Apple and Google take a 30 percent cut of any financial transactions that take place in Facebook’s iPhone app (a policy Facebook has long denounced). Apple also can pressure Facebook about its content policies, like in 2019, when tensions flared between the two companies after Apple threatened to kick Facebook out of the App Store if it didn’t do a better job preventing people from using its platform to traffic domestic workers in the Middle East.

The metaverse presents a potential future where Facebook won’t have these constraints anymore. If Facebook succeeds at being a pioneering founder of the metaverse, then it would be the company building and selling virtual reality headsets used to access that metaverse, and it could control a major app store distributing metaverse apps. This would all give Facebook a level of control and influence over the future internet that it doesn’t have today on the mobile web.

At an immediate level, that means even more people would use Facebook, and they would do so in a way that’s more immersive and interactive than how they use its current products.

If you think Instagram or Facebook’s main app can suck people into filter bubbles of engrossing, endlessly scrolling content, imagine people plugged into headsets, focused only on the Facebook-engineered alternate reality they’re in.

And if you’re already concerned about Facebook’s impact on privacy, the metaverse would open a new world of data sources that the company could track: finger movements, facial movements, and in the future, potentially brain reading. While Facebook has shut down the facial recognition tech it once used on its main platform, it said it will continue to potentially use it in the metaverse, as my colleague Rebecca Heilweil reported earlier this month.

Facebook says it’s taking privacy, moderation, and safety concerns seriously, pointing to a blog post earlier this month by soon-to-be Meta CTO Andrew Bosworth that reads, in part, “technology that opens up new possibilities can also be used to cause harm, and we must be mindful of that as we design, iterate, and bring products to market. We want everyone to feel like they’re in control of their VR experience and to feel safe on our platform.” The company says it’s collaborating with outside partners including civil rights groups, government agencies, and nonprofits to make the metaverse safe, and has funded related outside research.

Facebook’s efforts could end up normalizing spending time in the metaverse the way it normalized sharing our private lives on the internet. Already, during the pandemic, the lines between our “real” life and our digital life have become more blurred, as billions of people around the world have depended on technology in unprecedented ways to connect with other people through interactive games, mock office settings, and escapist television.

“The pandemic led to extraordinarily more time [spent] in virtual worlds, and the destigmatization of time in those virtual worlds,” Ball said.

Of course, it’s not at all clear if Facebook will succeed in its metaverse ambitions. When Google attempted to take VR/AR products mainstream with Google Glass in 2014, it failed because the tech was seen as uncool and privacy-invasive.

Facebook will have to convince people to give up their time in the real world for participating in the metaverse instead, and to trust Facebook — a company mired in privacy and political scandals for the past five years — to be their stewards of this new realm. Users could instead use competing metaverse products from Microsoft, or perhaps Apple, which is reportedly working on its own VR/AR efforts. They could also choose to opt out of the new technology entirely.

And political scrutiny will likely also be an issue. As my colleague Peter Kafka has written, regulators who are concerned about Facebook’s potentially monopolistic power in the economy may start turning their attention to the company’s many new VR/AR acquisition efforts.

In light of all these unknowns and potential challenges, it’s too soon to say whether the metaverse will indeed become the next version of the web, and even if it is, whether Facebook will be the dominant player. But it’s still an important experiment worth paying attention to. If the relentlessly ambitious Zuckerberg is devoting thousands of employees and billions of dollars to pursue the idea, the odds are high that the metaverse will be more than a passing, oddball whim from a billionaire tech CEO.


Source : Vox

What Is the ‘Metaverse’ and What Does It Have to Do with Facebook?

Elizabeth Howcroft wrote . . . . . . . . .

Facebook said on Monday that it will hire 10,000 people in Europe to help it build a “metaverse.”

The concept of the metaverse is quickly becoming a buzzword in technology and business.

But what does it mean?

WHAT IS THE METAVERSE?

Metaverse is a broad term. It generally refers to shared virtual world environments which people can access via the internet.

The term can refer to digital spaces which are made more lifelike by the use of virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR).

Some people also use the word metaverse to describe gaming worlds, in which users have a character that can walk around and interact with other players.

There is also a specific type of metaverse which uses blockchain technology. In these, users can buy virtual land and other digital assets using cryptocurrencies.

Many science fiction books and films are set in fully-fledged metaverses – alternative digital worlds which are indistinguishable from the real physical world. But this is still the stuff of fiction. Currently, most virtual spaces look more like the inside of a video game than real life.

WHY IS IT TAKING OFF?

Fans of the metaverse see it as the next stage in the development of the internet.

At the moment, people interact with each other online by going to websites such as social media platforms or using messaging applications. The idea of the metaverse is that it will create new online spaces in which people’s interactions can be more multi-dimensional, where users are able to immerse themselves in digital content rather than simply viewing it.

The accelerated interest in the metaverse can be seen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As more people have started working and going to school remotely, there has been increased demand for ways to make online interaction more lifelike.

WHO IS GETTING INVOLVED?

The idea of the metaverse is attracting a lot of interest from investors and companies who are keen to be part of the next big thing.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in July that the company will try to transition from being a social media company to a metaverse company in the next five years or so.

The term is popular in Silicon Valley, with Microsoft also having mentioned converging the digital and physical worlds.

The popular children’s game Roblox, which had its New York Stock Exchange debut in March, describes itself as a metaverse company. Epic Games’ Fortnite is also considered to be part of the metaverse.

Musicians can do virtual concerts within these platforms. For example, in September millions of people watched the singer Ariana Grande virtually perform in Fortnite, Epic Games said.

The world’s biggest fashion companies have also experimented with making virtual clothing, which people’s avatars can wear in metaverse environments.


Source : Global News