The World Economic Forum and major corporations last month launched its “Defining and Building the Metaverse” initiative, with corporate stakeholders jockeying for a role in defining, developing — and profiting — from the technology.
As the initiative’s name implies, its stakeholders are still in the process of defining exactly what the term “metaverse” means.
However, according to the WEF, in part, the metaverse involves a moment “at which our digital lives — our online identities, experiences, relationships, and assets — become more meaningful to us than our physical lives.”
One person involved in the talks, Julia Goldin, LEGO’s chief product & marketing officer, expressed optimism about how the metaverse could aid in children’s development:
“To us, the priority is to help create a world in which we can give kids all the benefits of the metaverse — one with immersive experiences, creativity and self-expression at its core — in a way that is also safe, protects their rights and promotes their well-being.”
While the talks focused somewhat on how to definitively define the term “metaverse,” there was also a great deal of focus on who should be involved in — and potentially profit from — its development.
Those involved in the talks positioned themselves to “develop and share actionable strategies for creating and governing” an “interoperable and safe” metaverse.
There also were extensive discussions on providing “guidance on how to create an ethical and inclusive metaverse, engaging organizations across the private and public sectors, including business, civil society, academia and regulators.”
The WEF described the initiative as “bringing together leading voices from the private sector, civil society, academia and policy” to “define the parameters” of the metaverse’s future development.
A May 25 session — “Shaping a Shared Future: Making the Metaverse” — included the following panelists:
- Chris Cox, chief product officer of Facebook’s parent company, Meta.
- Peggy Johnson, CEO of Magic Leap, described by the WEF as “a spatial computing company building the next computing platform.”
- Philip Rosedale, founder of Linden Lab, which developed the “Second Life” virtual world, acquired in April by Meta.
- Andrew R. Sorkin, financial columnist for The New York Times and co-anchor of CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”
- Omar Sultan Al Olama, minister of state for artificial intelligence in the United Arab Emirates, appointed in 2017.
Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs who was formerly deputy prime minister of the U.K., said the “multistakeholder initiative” aims to assume a leading role in establishing and shaping the metaverse.
The WEF said early stakeholders will play a particularly significant role in this process:
“‘Defining and Building the Metaverse’ is the world’s foremost multistakeholder initiative to develop and share actionable strategies for creating and governing the metaverse.
“By providing a space for global leaders in industry, civil society and government, the initiative will share and accelerate insights and solutions that will bring the metaverse to life.
“By joining the initiative, members are playing a vital role in defining and building the metaverse.”
Building a ‘metaverse’ that hasn’t yet been definitively defined
Though as its name implies, part of the initiative’s goal is to define “metaverse,” the WEF did offer this highly broad, general definition:
“ … a future persistent and interconnected virtual environment where social and economic elements mirror reality. Users can interact with it and each other simultaneously across devices and immersive technologies while engaging with digital assets and property.”
This expands on the “simplest” definition of the metaverse provided by the WEF, which described it as “a unified and persistent virtual environment accessed via extended reality (XR) technologies.”
The WEF said the metaverse is most usefully seen “as a lens through which to view ongoing digital transformation,” based on the belief that “virtual worlds, incorporating connected devices, blockchain and other tech will be so commonplace that the metaverse will become an extension of reality itself.”
More specific definitions of the metaverse, however, “can develop in many ways, depending on research, innovation, investment and policy,” the WEF said.
According to the WEF, the metaverse “can be categorized into three schools of thought,” which include:
- The metaverse “as a product or service.”
- The metaverse “as a place where users can connect, interact, and transfer themselves and their belongings across multiple digital locations,” such as “gaming and creator platforms.”
- The metaverse as a moment “at which our digital lives — our online identities, experiences, relationships, and assets — become more meaningful to us than our physical lives” — a definition described by the WEF in its article as “compelling.”
Despite the WEF’s ambiguous definition of the metaverse as a concept, the organization is definite in predicting its impacts and its value for major (and real-world) corporations and businesses:
“This will have significant impacts on society. Just as the internet and smartphones transformed our social and commercial interactions, the metaverse could change the way people and businesses communicate, and operate, in innovative yet unpredictable ways.”
The WEF’s new initiative will focus on two key areas, or “action tracks:” metaverse governance, and the generation of “economic and societal value.” The WEF “will explore themes across regulatory frameworks, technology choices and economic opportunities.”
More specifically, “metaverse governance” refers to a commitment by members of the initiative to recommend “governance frameworks for interoperable, safe and inclusive metaverse ecosystems.”
According to the WEF, “this entails finding harmonization between regulation and innovation in order to develop interoperability while preserving user privacy and safety.”
In turn, “generating economic and societal value” will involve members of the initiative sharing and accelerating “insights and solutions that will bring the metaverse to life.”
The WEF said that “in doing so, they will map new value chains and business models across industries, identifying elements and use cases that provide economic opportunity.”
Industry ‘stakeholders’ eye profit-making potential of ‘metaverse’
The initiative’s “generating economic and societal value” action track belies what may lie at the heart of the WEF’s efforts to set the rules of engagement in the metaverse while it is still in its nascent state.
More than 60 corporate “stakeholders” have signed on to the initiative thus far, including several Big Tech firms, such as Meta, Microsoft, Taiwanese consumer electronics firm HTC, and Sony Interactive, accompanied by Walmart, the LEGO Group, as well as academics and representatives of civil society.
Many of these stakeholders may be enticed by the growth potential of the metaverse market, which Bloomberg predicted will grow to $800 billion by 2024.
Examples of this are already evident. For instance, according to the WEF, the popular Fortnite video game “sells over $3 billion of digital cosmetic items to players each year, making it a larger apparel company by sales than several global fashion houses.”
Given the market potential, it’s not surprising executives from several Big Tech companies, and from the WEF itself, warmly praised the WEF’s new initiative.
For instance, Jeremy Jurgens, the WEF’s managing director, stated:
“‘The Defining and Building the Metaverse’ initiative provides the industry with an essential toolkit for ethically and responsibly building the metaverse.
“This will help ensure that we can fully harness this vital medium for social and economic interconnectivity in an inclusive, ethical and transformative manner.”
Meta’s Clegg added:
“The metaverse is at an early stage in its development. Done well, the metaverse could be a positive force for inclusion and equity, bridging some of the divides that exist in today’s physical and digital spaces.
“That’s why the ‘Defining and Building the Metaverse’ initiative will be so valuable. It mustn’t be shaped by tech companies on their own. It needs to be developed openly with a spirit of cooperation between the private sector, lawmakers, civil society, academia and the people who will use these technologies.
“This effort must be undertaken in the best interests of people and society, not technology companies.”
Brad Smith, president and vice chair of Microsoft, remarked:
“While the metaverse is in its nascent stage, we believe it has the potential to deliver enhanced connections for everyone.
“As an industry it is incumbent upon all of us to ensure this new paradigm is developed in a way that is accessible for everyone, puts the needs of people first, enhances human connection and is developed securely with trust built in by design.”
Cher Wang, founder and chairwoman of HTC, described the metaverse as “inevitable,” saying:
“The metaverse is the next inevitable step in the evolution of the internet but will require comprehensive collaboration between all ecosystem stakeholders to make it an open, safe and secure environment.
“As such, this Forum initiative is a robust start to addressing the key technology and policy fundamentals to enable the metaverse to fulfill its boundless potential.”
Similarly, Magic Leap’s Peggy Johnson expressed excitement over the transformations the metaverse could deliver, including in areas such as healthcare:
“At Magic Leap, we are excited about how technologies like augmented reality will transform the way we live and work, especially in growing fields like healthcare, manufacturing and the public sector.
“To realize the potential of these technologies, a thoughtful framework for regulation that protects users and facilitates future innovation is required, supported by all stakeholders, including businesses, consumers, government, NGOs and academia.”
Yat Sui, co-founder and chairman of Animoca Brands, a Hong Kong-based game software company, described the metaverse’s potential in the realm of “digital ownership”:
“Animoca Brands is pleased to be a part of the inaugural metaverse initiative launched by the World Economic Forum and we look forward to a dialogue with our industry colleagues as we navigate the potential of true digital ownership in the open metaverse.”
Others, such as Dr. Inhyok Cha, CEO of South Korean IT service management company CJ Olive Networks and group chief digital officer of CJ Corporation, praised the WEF’s new initiative for its potential to help stakeholders overcome “unforeseen complexities:”
“The rapid advancement and adoption of the metaverse will create unforeseen complexities in terms of governance, ethics, social and industrial effects.
“Thus, the need for collective intelligence to anticipate, analyze, design, experiment on and constantly revise governance measures and frameworks will be crucial.”It’s Time to Follow the Science. Join our Campaign!
Who will govern the ‘metaverse’?
Inhyok’s remarks reflect questions also acknowledged by the WEF about who will “govern” the metaverse, and in what manner.
Specifically, the WEF describes metaverse governance as “a multifaceted challenge which needs to consider interoperability, privacy, safety and security.”
According to the WEF, “real-world governance models” represent one possible option for metaverse governance.
However, far from referring to constitutionally defined institutions of governance, with checks and balances, the WEF cites Facebook’s “Oversight Board” as an example of such a “real-world governance model.”
However, according to the WEF, “not all legislators are satisfied” with such models, citing, for instance, new regulations such as the European Union’s Digital Services Act, which will police content moderation and “disinformation” on social media platforms.
Tech companies eager to develop the technologies of the future ‘metaverse’
For Big Tech companies, the potential profitability and revenue streams offered by the metaverse go hand in hand with the companies’ ability to develop the technologies that will be used to create the metaverse.
Indeed, the WEF tells us “major technology companies including Apple, Google, Meta Platforms (Facebook), Microsoft, Niantic and Valve are developing the tech that will shape the future of the metaverse.”
The WEF goes on to add that the metaverse will be shaped by three potential technological innovations, including “virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and brain-computer interfaces (BCI).”
While VR and AR may be familiar to many, BCI represents the most ambitious of these three technological tracks — and may belie the true intentions of the WEF and the “stakeholders” of this new initiative.
Specifically, BCI aims “to replace screens and physical hardware entirely.”
The WEF refers to technology such as Neuralink, that “requires neurosurgery to implant devices in the brain,” as an example of BCI.
Alibaba Group President J. Michael Evans during the meeting gushed over “individual carbon footprint trackers” — resembling “personal carbon allowance” technology previously reported on by The Defender.
Michael Nevradakis, Ph.D., is an independent journalist and researcher based in Athens, Greece.