Over the past couple of years, the concept of the metaverse has catapulted into the mainstream. Consequently a whole range of media companies are busy trying to figure out exactly what it is, how it will look, and what their place in it will be.
But the metaverse is still very much under construction. We’ve had a few tasters of what life in the metaverse will be like, from live concerts in Fortnite and Roblox to virtual reality hangouts. But the ultimate vision of the metaverse as a persistent, live virtual world marked by interoperability, a fully functioning economy, and user-led creation, is still a way off.
Most literature on the metaverse agrees that it won’t be completely built or ‘owned’ by any one company, in the same way that no one company ‘owns’ the internet. But those who guide its initial formation and build its infrastructure will likely be able to reap significant rewards further down the line.
But who is actually working to build the metaverse? While many believe the usual suspects will jump in sooner or later, here’s a look at who has officially thrown their hat in the ring:
Company type: Social network
They say: “In the coming years, I expect people will transition from seeing us primarily as a social media company, to seeing us as a metaverse company,” Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO.
If you’ve read any article about the metaverse released in the last month, there’s very strong chance Facebook was mentioned.
Facebook has been invested in VR for a while now through its acquisition of Oculus, and as the biggest social media company in the world, it always looked likely to play a role in social metaverse spaces.
But the company officially announced its intentions in its Q2 financial results earlier this year, pledging that it would soon become a metaverse-first business. It has since committed $50 million in global research, and pledged to hire 10,000 engineers in Europe to aid its efforts. And rumours are swirling that the company will rebrand in the coming days to reflect its commitment to the metaverse.
Facebook hasn’t detailed exactly what it plans to build – though the company acknowledges that no one single company will build the metaverse. Its early focus seems to be on researching how exactly the metaverse should look, and how issues around interoperability and ethics should be approached.
But on the company’s most recent earnings call, Zuckerberg made reference to building “the foundational platform for the metaverse”, and connecting that work to Facebook’s investment in VR. So it looks like the company has ambitions to build VR-based experiences that will make up a significant part of the metaverse.
Company type: Video game developer, publisher, and engine
They say: “We see that as Fortnite evolves, it’s evolving beyond being a game,” Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO.
Epic Games, creator of the hyper-popular game Fortnite, has long been seen as one of the prime candidates to build the metaverse.
This is partly because Fortnite has been home to a lot of metaverse-like experiences. The game began hosting virtual concerts a few years ago, showcasing its potential as a virtual social platform. And the introduction of Fortnite Creative has introduced a host of new user-creation tools, preparing the way for the user-generated layer of the metaverse.
Epic Games seems to have a lot of the right pieces in place. The company also owns Unreal Engine, a game engine used in a wide range of video games – not just those made by Epic. Such a tool, already trusted by third-party developers, could be invaluable for constructing the 3D world of the metaverse.
And over the past year, Epic Games has become much more vocal about its intentions. Sweeney has given interviews with publications including the Washington Post and VentureBeat, outlining his vision.
While Epic will look to create its own 3D worlds which will exist within the metaverse, Sweeney has frequently spoken about the need for standards for representing 3D worlds – in order that the metaverse can be accessed and built upon by a number of different companies (in the same way that web standards allow different browsers to access web page, without any one browser ‘owning’ access to the internet).
So it looks likely that Epic will look to help craft the standards and protocol which keep the metaverse free and open – principles which are core to Tim Sweeney’s metaverse vision.
Company type: Video game developer
They say: “Some people refer to what we’re building as the metaverse… We’re shepherds of the metaverse,” David Baszucki, CEO.
Roblox, with its sandbox gameplay which gives players the ability to create their own mini-games and experiences within Roblox’s platform, already bears a few hallmarks of a metaverse maker. It has always catered to social experiences, rather than just goal-oriented gameplay, and has recently followed Fortnite into running live in-game concerts.
Some people see Robox in its current state as something of a mini-metaverse. Players have a persistent avatar that stays with them whenever they jump into a new mini-game or experience, as well as an in-game economy.
And the company itself has already started referring to itself as a metaverse (despite the fact that it doesn’t fit the full description yet).
Most of Roblox’s talk around the metaverse suggests it isn’t working towards building an open, neutral platform in the same way Epic and Facebook do. Roblox instead seems set on building its own metaverse, where it sets the rules and runs the economy. It is possible, though, that Roblox’s own world could plug into a wider metaverse at a later date.
If Roblox wants to build its own metaverse, it will have a task on its hands bringing in the “billions” of players it says it one day hopes to reach. For much of its history, Roblox has been most popular with children and teenagers – partly fuelled by its Lego-like childish aesthetic.
The company has been making progress, announcing an update to its avatar creations system which will allow much more realistic in-game characters. And executives have spoken before about Roblox’s ultimate pursuit of photorealism.
Company type: Game engine
They say: “We believe in the emergence of the metaverse and that Unity will be a major player in defining and helping lead its creation and operation,” John Riccitiello, CEO
Unity, like Epic Games’ Unreal, is a video game engine used by third-party developers, as well as film studios, to build 3D worlds. And the company believes that this positions it well as an architect of the metaverse.
Speaking on an earnings call earlier this year, CEO Riccitiello said the company is focussed on tools for building “3D, real-time and interactive” content, saying that through these tools, Unity will “support and shape” the metaverse.
Riccitiello’s vision for the metaverse seems to be centred around creating infrastructure and standards which are able to connect up somewhat separate 3D worlds, rather than creating one consistent top-level 3D world from which other games and experiences will be accessed.
“We don’t think that one company will represent the metaverse as, say, for example, it was imagined in Ready Player One,” he said on the earnings call. “We believe there’s going to be hundreds of thousands of destinations in the metaverse.”
As a game engine already used and trusted by a number of developers, Unity could help facilitate this interoperability. If two different living worlds are both built within Unity’s engine, that makes it easier to pull characters, items, and even landscapes from one of those metaverse worlds to the other.
Company type: Computer hardware and software
They say: “With our metaverse stack, you can start with the digital twin, building a rich digital model of anything physical or logical, whether it’s assets, products, a complex environment spanning people, places, things and their interactions,” Satya Nadella, Microsoft
Microsoft’s 2014 acquisition of Minecraft means it already owns a game which, much like Roblox, looks primed to transform into – or connect up with – a wider metaverse.
Minecraft, like Roblox, has grown popular through its facilitation of user creation. But unlike Roblox, it has yet to develop its own in-game economy, or to directly encourage big social events like in-game concerts.
And indeed, Microsoft’s metaverse ambitions seem to primarily lie outside of Minecraft – at least for the time being. Satyna Nadella is instead focused on Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing system.
That’s likely because Microsoft is looking towards business use-cases for the metaverse, rather than social and recreational spaces (Nadella has previously talked about the ‘enterprise metaverse’). Through Azure, Microsoft has built tools to create ‘digital twins’ of real world items, which can then be placed in metaverse environments.
Sam George, Corporate VP of Azure, spoke of some of the use cases. “The possibilities are endless,” he said. “A retail store where the shopping experience is optimized in real-time and shelves are always stocked. A supply chain that tracks and reduces carbon emissions. A process manufacturing line that adjusts for variations in natural ingredients and automatically detects and compensates for operational bottlenecks.”
And indeed, Microsoft already has contracts with companies including Mars and AB InBev, who have signed up to its enterprise metaverse.
But while Microsoft’s tools currently sit quite separate from the more consumer-focused metaverse tools being built elsewhere, they would likely slot into a consumer-facing metaverse further down the line.
Company type: Graphics cards manufacturer
They say: “If the last twenty years was amazing, the next twenty will seem nothing short of science fiction. The metaverse is coming,” Jensen Huang, CEO
NVIDIA made its name with its GeForce line of graphics cards, popular among gamers (and more recently crypto miners).
Over the last ten years it’s moved from its more behind the scenes role, releasing handheld games consoles and its own cloud gaming service. Now it’s set its sights on the metaverse.
Fairly uniquely, NVIDIA has already released a product geared entirely towards the metaverse, called NVIDIA Omniverse, making its vision for its role in the metaverse fairly easy to decipher.
NVIDIA positions itself as the thread which will sew together separate metaverse worlds. Described as a “metaverse for engineers”, Omniverse allows developers to bring together disparate game engines and development tools into one platform – with the ultimate aim being that assets can be seamlessly moved from one engine to another. Epic Games’ Unreal Engine is already compatible, as are various Adobe tools, and the popular simulation software ‘Blender’.
Omniverse itself hasn’t created the framework for doing this. It uses ‘Universal Scene Description’, software developed by Disney’s Pixar studio which provides a standardised way of describing and visually presenting 3D worlds, allowing disparate development tools to be interoperable.
But NVIDIA hopes that by providing a platform to make this interoperability more seamless, it can play a significant role in advancing the metaverse.