Los Angeles Times

Is Hollywood ready for 3-D internet?

Matthew Ball offers a road map for the wild future of fun, games, reality in ‘Metaverse.’

- By Ryan Faughnder

Whether you like it or not, the metaverse is coming. Hollywood had better get ready.

That’s one of the many takeaways from investor and author Matthew Ball’s new book, “The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolution­ize Everything,” which attempts to provide a road map for the metaverse and explain what it means for the future of the internet.

There’s been a lot of talk about the metaverse and how it will affect entertainm­ent, even though there’s still a lot of confusion about what it actually is. For the record, the easiest way to think about it is as a future version of the internet where users can move seamlessly through virtual worlds in 3-D.

For the layperson, Ball’s book may be just as helpful in the way it explains what the metaverse is not and disentangl­es some of the futuristic jargon. Is the metaverse the same thing as Web3? (No, though the two concepts are often conflated.) Are NFTs and cryptocurr­encies going to be involved somehow? Are blockchain­s, or decentrali­zed digital ledgers, required to build a metaverse? (Maybe; it’s complicate­d.) Does everyone need one of those VR headsets to participat­e? (Not necessaril­y.)

Entertainm­ent companies are making preparatio­ns and coming up with game plans. Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Chapek has spoken about the metaverse as part of the “canvas” for creatives. The Burbank entertainm­ent company has already hired people to work toward this idea of “next-generation storytelli­ng,” where audiences might see, for example, ways for their Disney parks experience­s to connect with what they’re doing on streaming service Disney+.

Ball has been writing about the metaverse for years, starting well before Mark Zuckerberg decided to rename social media giant Facebook as Meta and pivot the company to focus on the next generation of the internet.

In “The Metaverse,” which publishes this week, he traces the origins of the metaverse concept, which gets its name from Neal Stephenson’s novel “Snow Crash” but which actually has roots far wider. Its depictions in pop culture span William Gibson’s conception of cyberspace in “Neuromance­r,” the Wachowskis’ “Matrix” films and the novel and movie “Ready Player One.”

I spoke with Ball about what it will mean to have a true metaverse and whether we should really believe in its promise. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why write a book about the metaverse now?

I started writing about the metaverse based on my experience­s in 2018, playing a lot of “Fortnite” and building on the Roblox platform. I was familiar with the term, which dates back to 1992, but it was my experience­s that led me to believe that this seemingly fantastica­l, long-considered idea was becoming a practical business opportunit­y. Over the subsequent three years, I continued to research the field, invest in it and produce some experience­s related to that idea. And that affirmed my belief that it was imminent and that it was unfolding in front of us. And then, of course, the surge of the term, kicked off by Microsoft and Tencent and most notably by Facebook, reaffirmed that.

You describe games like Roblox and “Fortnite” as prototypes for the metaverse that have gotten certain people used to this idea of experienci­ng virtual worlds and buying virtual goods. How will a full-blown metaverse differ from these systems?

It’s a bit like comparing Yahoo or AOL in the ’90s to the internet today. Those were primarily consumer experience­s designed to catalog the internet as we knew it, but it was not very representa­tive of the internet of 2022. And especially not the extent to which it tapped deep into our economy in enterprise and industrial applicatio­ns. We can think of some use cases for the metaverse in extended-reality surgery, the applicatio­ns of 3-D simulation and virtual presence in education in how we use it to operate a building or design to the infrastruc­ture. But often, we can’t precisely predict how it changes society or consumer experience­s.

There was nothing in the technical definition of the internet in the 1990s that clearly expressed how life would be in 2022. How TikTok would impact the Billboard charts. That a college hot-or-not would become the world’s largest identity system in Facebook. That Snapchat, born of ephemeral sexting, would become another one of the world’s largest communicat­ion platforms. And so I think that’s the challenge, and for some it’s a disappoint­ing answer.

Many want to hear, “What exactly is life in 2032 in the metaverse?” We can think of some of the enabling difference­s with 3-D simulation, for example, potentiall­y some applicatio­ns in healthcare, architectu­re and education. But we’ve also learned that most of it is actually not that predictabl­e.

What is the role of entertainm­ent companies in the creation or applicatio­n of the metaverse? How well is a company like Disney poised to succeed in this new space?

Disney is so fascinatin­g because their expertise, relevance and contributi­ons to the budding metaverse are overlooked by most. Jensen Huang, the founder and CEO of Nvidia, one of the most valuable companies globally, has said that USD, a file format created by Pixar in 2015, is the HTML of the metaverse. Disney was not only the first studio to embrace virtual production with virtual reality headsets in “The Lion King” at scale but also to shift to pure virtual production for films or series like “The Mandaloria­n.”

The second season of “The Mandaloria­n” actually swapped out its real-time rendering engine Unreal for Helios, a proprietar­y rendering engine produced by Disney’s Industrial Light & Magic. Their theme parks now deploy Unreal Engine in multiple different experience­s. And so while Disney doesn’t have gaming assets, it’s actually very clear that they have many of the technical competenci­es.

But more broadly, when we think about the virtual plane of existence where the impossible is possible, it’s likely that many of us are going to want to use that to enrich our connection to the stories and characters we love most. The most successful seasons of “Fortnite” are the “Star Wars” and Marvel seasons. And as more technologi­es have come available that support more interactio­n, higher volumes, greater intimacy, we’ve seen the strongest and most beloved franchises become stronger and more beloved. The metaverse, as another medium for expression, exploratio­n, creation and storytelli­ng, will strengthen companies like Disney, even if it also enables new stories and intellectu­al property that thrive.

Who will be the winners in this space?

Epic Games is such a compelling company because they aggregate hundreds of millions of users, operating services, the underlying game engines, the content experience­s, serving as a platform for brands while enabling many other content companies to produce new interactiv­e experience­s of their own. That’s a really compelling opportunit­y.

I think one of the most challengin­g aspects here, however, is every time we shift into a new computing era, it’s essentiall­y impossible to imagine anyone but the current players thriving. They have thousands of engineers, tens of billions of dollars of cash and operating platforms. The idea that they would be displaced by a company that is overlooked, small or may not even exist yet is hard to imagine, partly because there’s no specific thing to imagine. And yet time shows that often it’s the new leaders that win.

The leaders in the arcade era — your Atari, your Bandai Namco — did not lead in console, and the leaders in console platforms and publishing weren’t the leaders in PC gaming. Neither were leaders in mobile, and none of those players built the Robloxes and Minecrafts that are now the most popular games on Earth. So as we look at this new medium, there will be many that endure and some that partially adapt. But time tells us that often it’s a brand-new entertainm­ent company, at least in gaming.

You write about the difference between Metaverse and Web3, terms that are often used interchang­eably. What’s the difference?

Web3 and the metaverse are often conflated for good and bad reasons. Web3, by definition, succeeds web 2.0, the era we’re in now. The metaverse is described as a successor to the internet. Two things which follow the same thing are doubtlessl­y going to be intermixed in the minds of many. In addition, some people imagine that the blockchain is essential to building the metaverse technicall­y. Others refer to the principles of Web3 as being essential to building a successful, thriving, healthy metaverse. I distinguis­h them by talking about the metaverse as a predominan­tly real-time, 3-D experience. Web3 and blockchain­s are primarily describing distribute­d databases, servers and computatio­n.

The metaverse sometimes gets lumped in with NFTs and cryptocurr­ency — all stuff that’s been both interestin­g and overhyped. Why should we believe in the future of the metaverse?

First and foremost, many of the longest advocates and leading executives in the space don’t believe in blockchain­s and have often overtly criticized them. Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney, for example, has been building toward the metaverse and had more of an impact on it than almost anyone else and has said that the whole field is full of an intractabl­e mix of scams. He does not seem to believe it’s necessary. And so to claim that not believing in one means that you can’t believe in the other is disagreein­g with those who are actively building and investing in it.

The second thing is to recognize that NFTs might have been primarily speculativ­e, they might have limited utility, they might have been argued to do what they actually can’t do. That’s separate from whether or not it ref lects a growing cultural acceptance of virtual-only goods, virtual-only currency, which existed for decades. “Fortnite” has, for several years, generated more revenue annually than any other game in history, and almost all of that revenue was for cosmetics. That cosmetic revenue exceeded that of many of the largest fashion brands in the world, such as Prada and Gucci. You don’t have to believe that NFTs or blockchain or cryptocurr­encies matter to recognize the more than $25 billion that has been spent over the past five years on virtual clothes in a single game.

The companies working hardest on this, like Facebook, are some of the most powerful in the world. I worry about the increasing corporatiz­ation of the internet, where a few companies control not just the content but also the infrastruc­ture, which would be the opposite of the ideal of a decentrali­zed Web3.

Yes, and I think if there’s one thing we’ve really come to appreciate is that the internet was not a corporate product. It was not designed to sell a widget, present an ad, collect a byte of data, but to facilitate collaborat­ion between researcher­s, and that openness and that spirit is why the internet has been such a positive force for society. The protocols upon which the internet is based are effectivel­y a public good, not a for-profit. And yet, it does seem unlikely that the metaverse develops in a comparable way; it will instead, or is likely to, be built for commerce.

It’s one of the reasons why I thought to write this book. I absolutely believe that the metaverse is coming. We may use a different term. It may take longer than we expect. It’s probably going to be different than we expect. But I absolutely believe it’s coming. And the best way to positively shape its outcome is to best understand what it’s likely to be, what technologi­es it depends on and when they’ll arrive, and then to be active, cognizant contributo­rs to its developmen­t. So by encapsulat­ing everything that I had learned that I had seen tried, articulati­ng the challenges and advances we require, so that we can do that better.

 ?? Gabor Jurina ?? “I ABSOLUTELY believe the metaverse is coming. We may use a different term. It may take longer than we expect . ... But ... it’s coming,” says Matthew Ball.
Gabor Jurina “I ABSOLUTELY believe the metaverse is coming. We may use a different term. It may take longer than we expect . ... But ... it’s coming,” says Matthew Ball.
 ?? Liveright Matthew Ball Liveright: 352 pages, $30 ?? The Metaverse And How It Will Revolution­ize Everything
Liveright Matthew Ball Liveright: 352 pages, $30 The Metaverse And How It Will Revolution­ize Everything

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