Updated: Sep 11
cracked bell hoarding grace
since the first saint rang it –
it will curse you to the trees,
bird-brain among branches.
– From, Sweeney Astray,
by Seamus Heaney
Is Tim Sweeney... the CEO of Epic Games... nuts?
Is he as crazed as the Mad Sweeney of Seamus Heaney's great poem... cursed to live the rest of his days lost amid the thickets of his own mind?
Sweeney, you see, recently reflected on the state of the much maligned metaverse, a concept he still very much believes in: “Unfortunately,” he noted, “a lot of people tried to attach themselves to that trend without really delivering the goods. But if you look at the trend, it’s continuing to grow, and it continues to look like exponential growth.”
What’s that? The metaverse lives on!? And its growth could eventually be... exponential?
What if Mad Sweeney is... right?
Sweeney’s own company is an important part of the trend he’s pitching. This past March, Epic Games continued building an online economy, the cornerstone of the future metaverse, by introducing new tools in Fortnite that will help players create and make money from their own games on the Epic Games platform.
Together, Epic Games and Roblox have tens of millions of participants. Their user-generated content and digital economies could help show the way to a future consumer metaverse. While Craig Donato, chief business officer at Roblox, is obviously another metaverse believer, and Roblox continues to expand into varied immersive online experiences, Donato points out that a “full-fledged metaverse” is still far away: “We’re very much in the first or second inning,” he says.
Matthew Ball, author of The Metaverse: And How it Will Revolutionize Everything, identifies the point at which unrealistic predictions about immersive online worlds took off – it was back in November, 2021, when Mark Zuckerberg announced he was restructuring Facebook around metaverse-centric technologies and changed the company name to Meta Platforms: “This was more about timeline mismanagement. The intense focus on the metaverse within a short period of time, with some arguing it was here now or was about to be, was bound to disappoint many.”
As I noted in a blog last August, the audacious vision of a future metaverse was always supposed to take time to manifest, and getting there could be as challenging and manic as dragging giant bluestones weighing upwards of two tons 175 miles from the craggy hills of Wales to Salisbury Plain to construct Stonehenge.
According to Pitchbook, Metaverse-related start-up investment is about a quarter of its peak in the first half of 2022: start-ups raised about $664 million in venture capital in the first five months of 2023, tumbling from more than $2.93 billion versus what they raised in the same period in 2022.
An analyst named Doug Creutz at Cowen & Company looks at those numbers and claims that, “The metaverse investment fad — it came and went, and now people are focused on AI. The people who were hopping on it because it was a sexy thing to talk about have hopped back off.”
This seems like an odd thing to claim. It ignores the broader strategic picture. After all, isn’t AI in a sense a metaverse-centric technology? As I noted in my Stonehenge-inspired blog:
Intriguingly, the evolving metaverse also will drive increased demand for AI, even as advances in AI drive forward the metaverse, a flywheel of almost stupefying possibility. And as most companies continue to seek to integrate AI capabilities into their operations, an array of tech firms will play a key role in providing the underlying infrastructure and tools to make the integration of AI effective and impactful.
Or as Zuck himself put it during an April call with investors: “A narrative has developed that we’re somehow moving away from focusing on the metaverse vision. So I just want to say upfront that that’s not accurate. We’ve been focusing on both AI and the metaverse for years now, and we will continue to focus on both.”
A recent piece from The Information echoes this idea, making an elegant case for the synergistic tech ecosystem that’s emerging around us:
The technology hype cycle would have us believe that the metaverse—so recently the darling of digital trendsetters—is on the decline, its place usurped by generative artificial intelligence. Yet this narrative, while superficially attractive, is a fiction. The truth is that emerging technologies are part of a synergistic ecosystem. Rather than heralding the demise of the metaverse, generative AI may well prove to be its catalyst, fueling accelerated development in extended reality technologies on the part of both metaverse platforms and metaverse citizens.
In other words, the turn toward the metaverse was always understood by its proponents to be a massive, long-term endeavor that might seem crazed, an adventure to build the scaffolding for a novel spatial computing platform that’s akin to spending years dragging massive stones on the road to Stonehenge. But along the way, AI tools will weave themselves into the project, becoming ever more accessible and usable. In turn, it will become much easier for anyone to become a coder or a world builder.
Indeed, as the aforementioned article in The Information puts it: “Generative AI makes it possible to generate code for platforms such as Unity or Unreal Engine that can be used to create and render detailed 3D objects. But that’s just the beginning of what might be possible. We could be in the midst of… a YouTube moment for XR, when the barriers to content creation rapidly drop away.”
Last week’s announcement of Apple’s Vision Pro will be an early testing ground for this theory. If developers start building useful apps for Vision Pro, a strange-looking new device but one that’s seamlessly integrated into the entire Apple ecosystem, even skeptics might be won over: “Having all of your iPhone contacts, iMessages and iOS settings integrated into a mixed-reality headset from the moment you turn it on could mean the difference between a device you actually use every day, and a novelty toy you shove into a closet after a few weeks.”
Consumers have spent more than $1.5 billion on apps and games in Meta’s Quest app store. It’s not a lot yet, relatively speaking. But Mark Zuckerberg always said that building the consumer metaverse would take time, lots of investment, hard work, and collaboration. But as Zuck put it during a recent chat with Lex Fridman, “stacked breakthroughs” are already creating value and transforming our way forward. Most obviously, OpenAI’s ChatGPT seems to augur much more to come. For some, “AI’s arrival has actually clarified the coming metaverse.”
But why confine ourselves to the consumer metaverse? Because according to the results of a new study by Nokia and EY released this morning, “an industrial metaverse revolution is already underway.”
This is a bold claim. Could industrial and enterprise metaverses already be here? While Nokia and EY are not unbiased sources, it seems that, “early metaverse adopters are achieving improvements in capex and opex reduction that exceed their expectations by 15% and 6% respectively…. On average, 80% of those who have already implemented metaverse use cases believe they will have a significant or transformational impact on the way they do business. Only 2% of respondents see the metaverse as a buzzword or a fad.”
Or perhaps the likes of Tim Sweeney, Mark Zuckerberg, and Tim Cook are all bird-brained fools... voices crying out from a wilderness of large language models... madmen entangled in the branches of their own neural networks.
It seems nobody knows for sure where this audacious project may lead.
I wonder what ChatGPT thinks....
Image credit: from kingdompoets.blogspot.com (March, 2017)