Behind the boom for this new 3D internet, full of experiences, lies years of development of virtual reality glasses and open software, not to mention 5G technology, cryptocurrencies and even the effects of the pandemic. We hear from one of the creative directors who has collaborated with Meta in the organisation of virtual concerts.
When Edgar Martín Blas (Madrid, 1978) tested a prototype of the Oculus glasses in 2014, the same year that Facebook bought the company for $2 billion, he felt that “something big” was coming. He left his position as creative director at Tuenti-Telefónica and the following year founded, along with five other partners, what is now Virtual Voyagers, a company of explorers of the new metaverse.
Without having a physical headquarters, and working with a network of professionals in the sector, the company has already managed 230 projects for more than 80 brands, such as Ferrari, Disney, Ikea, Inditex, Mastercard and even Facebook, which has recently changed its name to Meta, triggering media and business interest in the coming virtual worlds.
What exactly have you collaborated on with Facebook?
Together with Supersphere in Los Angeles, a company that specialises in filming real 360° performances and broadcasting them on Facebook’s Horizon Venues virtual reality platform, we developed an engine to create fully virtual concerts. We generated everything from scratch, for example, a flying saucer as a stage, animated characters, fireworks and even the spotlights, which can be controlled from a real table. The singers are also real – Jaden Smith and Steve Aoki, among others, have been involved – and the whole combo is broadcast live in that protometaverse on Facebook, where you can watch the show for an hour and a half with your avatar, move to a private room with your colleagues, etc. At the moment, it is an initial prototype.
Is the change of Facebook’s name to Meta really a bet on the metaverse or is it an image wash because of its recent scandals?
It’s both. On the one hand, there is that image wash, because they needed it, just as Google created Alphabet partly for the same reason. But I don’t think it’s really something that has just happened overnight. He’s been working with thousands of people and investing millions of dollars in this for years.
Someone is going to have to master this whole world that is coming, and Facebook knows that the internet as we know it, with banner-saturated websites, is being left behind and a 3D one full of interactions and experiences is coming. The pandemic has also accelerated everything.
The pandemic has also accelerated the arrival of the metaverse. The coronavirus showed that virtualisation was starting to work, people needed to go beyond clicking and watching flat screens, they wanted to go to classes, to attend concerts, to have experience. And Facebook has seen that this is the moment because somebody is going to have to dominate this whole world that is coming. They know that the familiar internet, with banner-saturated websites, is going to be left behind and this three-dimensional internet full of interactions is coming.
But what is the metaverse?
It is not easy to pin down the concept, but in essence, it would be a new 3D internet. Until now, we have seen everything boxed inside a screen, but the metaverse breaks those limits and offers us the possibility of entering interconnected worlds (the metaverses), where you can interact with other people or their avatars. And, above all, it gives you experiences, not just information as before, i.e. you can do activities such as training, dancing, attending shows, going for walks, learning virtually in the best universities…
Another very important milestone has been the acceptance by many companies – including Facebook – of openXR as the metaverse protocol. It is an open programming system that provides access to both virtual reality [VR] and augmented reality [AR, where a virtual part appears on top of the real one] platforms and devices and makes them compatible with each other. It would be like html on the traditional internet. There is also the webGL standard for rendering 3D graphics in any browser. Then there is the emergence of 5G technology.
What does 5G bring to the metaverse?
It is the key to access it. There is a lot of talk about 5G but, beyond its high data transmission speed, what it has is a very low latency [a delay] between the request I make and the server’s response. In the world we know, to watch series or things like that, that doesn’t give you much because you’re still watching them the same, but in the virtual world it makes perfect sense: you have to manage thousands of avatars that communicate with IP voice, make gestures and are, for example, at a concert in real-time. There is a lot going on at once and it is important to process all this information from the metaverse in a low latency environment.
How can we access these new meta-universes?
Currently, there are three ways, depending on the hardware we use. The most basic would be approximately 10% virtual access via traditional screens, such as your mobile phone or computer. At the opposite extreme would be the totally immersive experience, 100% virtual, through visors that are getting better and better, although they have the handicap that you are isolated and people usually only last one or two hours in this totally virtual world.
Mixed reality, 50%, with a transparent glass goggle, will allow us to see the real world and the virtual world at the same time […]. You will be able to have experiences like a virtual trainer in your living room, a pet dinosaur frolicking among your furniture or making a video call with someone in front of you.
But in the middle would be the most powerful thing: mixed reality, 50/50, with a transparent glass goggle that will allow us to see both the real world and the virtual world perfectly intertwined. It will be able to detect everything around you at a 3D level, such as your house or a city, and it will ‘paint’ the graphics or animations on top of it. You will be able to live experiences such as a virtual trainer in your living room, a pet dinosaur frolicking among your furniture or making a video call with someone in front of you. We’ll be able to use it all day long because, as you don’t lose reference to the real world, it doesn’t isolate you. We’re still in the early days, but this is already very powerful and will accelerate everything.
When will we have these glasses?
There are already some prototypes, like Magic Leap’s photonic chip glasses. The glass itself has chips that can modify the frequency of photons that reach your eyes. This ‘tricks’ your brain into seeing the virtual layer integrated with the reality around you in a very natural way.
However, we are still in the same situation as when the first mobile phones came out. The big step could come from Apple introducing its mixed reality glasses in 2022. It has one of its biggest departments working on them and, when they come to market, they could give the metaverse a huge boost.
What other companies have entered this world?
Boom, a lot! In addition to Apple and Facebook, which plans to hire 10,000 people in Europe to build its metaverse, there is also Microsoft, Nvidia (with its Omniverse platform to connect 3D worlds), Google (which is hiring engineers to build mixed reality glasses and a metaverse operating system), Disney with its Marvel and Star Wars products. Can you imagine? There will be people who don’t want to leave the virtual world of Star Wars. Aspects as human as exploration or belonging to a group are also pillars of the metaverse.
The big step could come from Apple introducing its mixed reality glasses in 2022. It has one of its largest departments working on them and, when they come onto the market, they could give a brutal boost to the metaverse.
And then there are the big video game companies, such as Epic Games, which is going to invest 1 billion in this. In fact, one of the turning points in 2020 was rapper Travis Scott’s concert in Fortnite, his popular video game. Tens of millions of people attended live, many more than Queen’s greatest tour. At the moment it is a proto-metaverse, but it is already being used massively by teenagers and twenty-somethings, who in a few years’ time will be consumers.
Interest in the metaverse is reaching a national scale. South Korea is going to allocate more than 20 billion dollars to promote an alliance of Korean companies, including Samsung, to lead and position themselves in this field. Just as Silicon Valley was the world’s innovation hub for the internet, a similar global race is now beginning for the metaverse, where cryptocurrency companies will also enter in force.