Everyone has fantasized about living and interacting in a reality different from their own at least once in their life. The metaverse is a digital technology that fulfills such fantasies by allowing its alter ego to walk around a 3D virtual space in real time and interact with others in the same space.
Many tech companies have clung to the concept. The metaverse as an online service is expected to be the next big thing after today’s social networking services, which primarily enable communication through text, images, and videos.
Ahead of the trend, the parent company of leading U.S. social networking service Facebook changed its name to Meta, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on Oct. 28, indicating that he was focusing on developing the metaverse.
Immersed in an alternate world
“Metaverse” is the name of the virtual online space that appears in the novel Snow accident (Bantam Books, 1992, latest edition of Spectra) by American science fiction author Neal Stephenson. The term combines the prefix “meta” (meaning “beyond”) and “universe”, but a clear definition has not been established.
In the broad sense of immersing yourself in another world, the role-playing game Dragon Quest, which is considered a national game in Japan, can also be considered a kind of metaverse. Many players have found themselves engrossed in otherworldly adventures while listening to classical-style music composed by Koichi Sugiyama, who passed away at the end of September 2021.
During the technological revolution of the 1990s, Japan was a leading country in the concept of metaverse. In 1990, Fujitsu officially launched Fujitsu Habitat, an online chat service with 2D graphics, which became the forerunner of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG).
In 1997, at the initiative of the Ministry of Trade and Industry (currently Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry), NTT Data Communications (now NTT Data) carried out tests of its space virtual 3D Machiko, which could also be used for e-commerce. After the service was released in March 1998, it hosted a total of 300 stores and had 75,000 users at a time. This was back when the internet worked through phone lines instead of fiber optic lines, so young users would chat and shop online late at night and early in the morning when phone charges were paid.
Changes in the gaming industry
In 2003, the “Second Life” app, developed by the American company Linden Lab, became a hot topic when users started swapping land and Toyota and Nissan opened stores in the virtual space. But the boom didn’t last because of the limited internet speed and computer graphics at the time.
The recent buzz around the metaverse can be attributed to changes in the gaming industry as well as advancements in communication technology.
Most mainstream games are “open world”, which means it is up to the player to decide what to do or how to play.
A player can choose a scenario that involves defeating enemies and saving the world, or having an otherworldly experience by collecting rare items. The secret of the popularity of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Nintendo’s hit game for home consoles released in 2020, is that gamers can enjoy a wide variety of activities, such as collecting bugs, fishing, and making clothes and furniture for sale .
To widen the range of possible player actions, the game world needs to be designed down to the smallest detail, including settings that change over time, the ecology of plants and animals, and the behavior of each resident. This know-how can be used to create an alternative virtual reality similar to the real world.
This fall, Square Enix AI & Arts Alchemy, based in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, a subsidiary of Dragon Quest creator Square Enix who studies artificial intelligence, will offer an endowed course at the University of Tokyo. It aims to create a “global model” that can predict the future by combining AI and simulation technology.
Overcome language barriers
The metaverse, which is a recreation of reality, could serve as a testing ground to study how new technologies such as automated driving are affecting society. University of Tokyo Professor Yutaka Matsuo, a leading expert in AI research, describes it as “the second step from AI research to social implementation.”
Language barriers will not be an issue in the Metaverse as various technologies, such as machine translation, will also be available. There may be a future where the moment we want to know something, our alter egos in the metaverse will search on our behalf and send us the information we want.
NTT is focusing on using the metaverse in its IOWN (Innovative Optical and Wireless Network) concept for next-generation broadband communications, while Facebook has announced that it will employ 10,000 highly skilled people across the European Union in over the next five years. Devices like virtual reality (VR) glasses further enrich the metaverse experience. Expectations are high for metaverse services to become an anchor point in next-generation technology.
The pandemic proliferates metaverse events
au by KDDI hosted the Virtual Shibuya at the 5G Halloween Festival 2021 at Virtual Shibuya, a 3D recreation of the Shibuya area of Tokyo and a company-created metaverse in May 2020, where live music and comedy performances could be enjoyed until October 31. 40,000 entered the metaverse for last year’s event.
Restrictions on large-scale events during the pandemic have caused an increase in metaverse events online. In September, the Tokyo Game Show 2021 Online, one of the world’s largest gaming exhibitions, set up a metaverse place where people could wear virtual reality glasses and become avatars. Participants walked around the venue wearing virtual reality glasses and saw “life-size” game characters up close.
The pandemic has also prompted companies to showcase their latest tech by hosting tech events in the Metaverse.
(Read it Sankei Shimbun report in Japanese on this link.)
Author: Katsutoshi Takagi