ILLUSTRATION: DAN MATUTINA
Microsoft has taken a low-key approach to the metaverse and its development. At Ignite this year, it outlined how its vision for this new way of thinking about the internet will emerge and what it intends to do with it.
The metaverse is the hypothesized next iteration of the internet, supporting decentralized, persistent online 3-D virtual environments. This virtual space will be accessible through virtual reality headsets, augmented reality glasses, smartphones, PCs, and game consoles.
First coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science-fiction novel “Snow Crash,” the metaverse he describes is a virtual reality-based successor to the internet. In the novel, people use digital avatars of themselves to explore the online world, often as a way of escaping a dystopian reality. Here we are just about 30 years later and that vision is on the way to becoming a reality. However, what is emerging is something that is closer to the digital world and workplace that exists now than anything Stephenson imagined all those years ago.
While a number of companies have been working on different aspects of it in recent years, over the past couple of weeks, San Francisco-based Facebook and Redmond, WA-based Microsoft have spent a lot of time talking up this new future. In fact, the vision of a digital future is so important that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has rebranded Facebook, changed the name of the company to Meta. He explained and defined the metaverse as a hybrid of today’s online social experiences, sometimes expanded into three dimensions or projected into the physical world. It will let users, he said in a letter he posted online, share immersive experiences with other people even when they can’t be together. However, Zuckerberg didn’t really go into the practical details or explain the how’s and whys of it.
Microsoft, on the other hand, has taken a more lowkey approach and outlined how it will be pull existing technologies into its vision of the metaverse. In fact, over the course of the two days Ignite conference, Microsoft unveiled or launched, according to its own figure about 90 new services and updates. From a technology perspective, the foundation blocks of all these additions are Microsoft Cloud and the company’s vision for a digital workplace.
In a blog post summarizing the Microsoft vision, Frank X. Shaw, corporate VP of communications for Microsoft points out that the Microsoft Cloud will provide a comprehensive set of resources designed to power metaverses, with IoT capabilities that enable customers to create “digital twins” of physical objects in the cloud.
It will also use Microsoft Mesh to build a shared sense of presence on devices and use AI-powered resources to create natural interactions through speech and vision machine learning models. In fact the Mesh element of it is very close to the original idea of the metaverse. Using Mesh, everyone in a meeting can be present without being physically present using personalized avatars and immersive spaces that can be accessed from any device, with no special equipment needed.
When comparing Meta — formerly Facebook — and Microsoft’s approaches to the metaverse, it’s clear Microsoft has a much more grounded and realistic vision argues an analyst at data analytics/consultancy company GlobalData:
Meta is set to grab a large portion of the $51 billion revenues from VR that GlobalData expects will be generated by 2030. Facebook led the consumer VR headsets market in 2020 and registered 255 VR-related patents between 2016 and 2020. And, as Meta, the company also plans to launch an enterprise-grade headset in Q4 2021. However, VR hardware and software have not been widely adopted. This is attributable to several issues, including latency, nausea, high prices, privacy concerns, and a lack of compelling content. While technologies such as 5G, cloud services, and motion tracking should help to address latency and nausea issues, improving content and developing effective data privacy practices will be paramount for VR’s success (more on data privacy in a moment). For these reasons VR is not yet ready to take on the task of the metaverse.
Microsoft seems to have understood better than Meta how people actually use technology. All you need to use Mesh. With this approach, Microsoft is keeping its focus on available capabilities and enterprise applications over Meta’s vision of total lifestyle adoption. Microsoft Teams also currently has over 145 million daily active users, whereas the total cumulative installed base of VR headsets is less than 17 million. From these numbers alone, Mesh for Microsoft Teams has a possible user base of more than eight times the number of users Meta could hope to reach with its VR headsets.
Facebook’s promises of protecting data’s privacy in the metaverse will not be enough to reassure most future users, the article argues.
Microsoft, on the other hand, is a market leader in data privacy and, when ranked by the 10 themes that matter most to the social media industry, is in second place overall, according to GlobalData’s Social Media Thematic Scorecard. Meta is ranked 21st overall out of 35 companies on the scorecard, and its activity with regard to data privacy will be highly detrimental to its future performance.
Besides new issues like hyper-personalized ads, the metaverse will still face the old problem of content moderation, the article suggests — only now spread across a massive scale. And the article ultimately argues that, the metaverse will suffer from the same issues that plague the current version of the internet unless the right actions are taken by those that end up with control…
Microsoft’s better position as a future leader in the metaverse comes with responsibilities, and Microsoft needs to be prepared to face them…