Another Layer of Reality: Metaverse Now

With improved connectivity and computing, a network of 3D virtual spaces will soon compete for our attention. What it will look like, how it will function, and who will build it will be determined in the next few years. 

This year’s graduation ceremony at Taipei’s Ren Ai Elementary School was held online. It wasn’t a crude video stream prepared as a last-minute COVID-19 precaution, but rather a multimedia production that took months to complete. Parents downloaded an app and selected a personal avatar before they entered a virtual auditorium where they could choose their own seats, wave to friends, and even take a break in the lobby. 

The technology for Ren Ai’s graduation required five years of development, with funding from HTC, a Taiwan mobile phone maker that diversified into virtual reality (VR) and is now a top-three VR headset maker globally with its “VIVE” product line. The ceremony, which was held on the virtual platform XRSPACE, provides a glimpse into the future of public life, which will most likely be remote and virtual but still involve social interaction.  

Educators are undoubtedly interested in virtual or remote learning as public health scares continue to loom, causing disruptions to the academic calendar. The reliance on Zoom meetings and Google classroom programs in the past couple of years made it clear that remote education is often not interactive or entertaining enough to hold the attention of unsupervised elementary children.  

“Poetic (AI) A Decade Retrospective Immersive Data Painting of Metaverse by OUCHHH” allows visitors to get lost in digitally produced art.

While XRSPACE is still a crude 3D platform with bland characters and spaces resembling clipart, computer rendering, AI data processing, and faster connection speeds promise to make the future much more exciting. The next few years will see a transition from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0 that will usher in the metaverse, a term referring to a network of 3D virtual worlds allowing social interaction. 

To the uninitiated, Hollywood hits such as Free Guy (2021), Ready Player One (2018), and The Matrix (1999) provide the best visual representation of life in the metaverse. But for those who want a closer look, a  replica of the stream-of-data artistic style of The Matrix can be viewed at “Poetic (AI) A Decade Retrospective Immersive Data Painting of Metaverse by OUCHHH” at the Huashan Culture and Creative Park. 

Ouchhh, an Istanbul-based art collective, has close associations with the Matrix film franchise and recently designed installations for the 2022 film The Matrix Resurrections. Most recently, the group has become an artistic collaborator, contributing imaging to the trailer for Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1 (2023). 

Ouchhh is not just capturing the hearts of major Hollywood producers –  it also won over the public with the debut of its “Poetic (AI)” in Paris in 2018, attracting around one million visitors over seven months. The exhibition later went on a worldwide tour, with Taipei as the latest stop. The show is held in four different exhibition halls, each with velvet black-out curtains at the entrances and exits, and overhead projections covering every available inch of wall space and flooring. It’s an immersive experience unlike any other.  

The exhibit distinguishes itself from installation art of yesterday in that it uses AI processes for computation and visual rendering to project simple short non-narrative films on a wall.  

In another exhibition hall, 2,000 artworks by Van Gogh, which have been analyzed, broken down into brush strokes, and later AI-processed for 504 hours, are displayed as immersive artwork representative of the late master. Another exhibit called “Ocean Data_Bordeaux Bassins of Lights” uses millions of data points from the ocean to create an underwater-like experience that mimics the flow of tides and currents.    

Just as fascinating as the exhibition itself is the audience’s eagerness to immerse themselves in the work. Sitting inside a 360-degree projection, the audience isn’t judging this metaverse dramatization at arm’s length but is immediately drawn in, leaving little headspace for contemplation or reflection.  

The art of gaming  

While the metaverse is now entering the fringes of society through appearances in films and museums, gamers have already been gobbling up immersive, online experiences through massively multiplayer role-playing games (MMORPG) for the past 20 years. This gaming segment is represented by well-known games such as World of Warcraft, released in 2004 by Activision Blizzard. The game and its sequels are so popular that they attract hundreds of thousands of players at any given time, with annual revenue through subscriptions rivaling the box office sales of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters.  

Activision Blizzard is a world-leading gaming company with iconic games like Diablo (1997), Call of Duty (2003), World of Warcraft (2004), and Overwatch (2016). The latter is a first-person shooter game played in teams of six, often featured as an eSport played by professional teams in front of a live audience in stadium-sized arenas. These matches are often televised with live commentary and eye-staggering cash prizes provided by sponsors eager to invest in gaming. 

Paul Chen, managing director of Taiwan-Korea for Activision Blizzard, remembers pre-COVID times when part of his work involved recruiting eSports players, offering salaries some three times that of a typical civil servant to stay up all night and play sessions lasting 8-10 hours. Unfortunately, the pandemic put a stop to such large-scale events, and Chen worries that the return to pre-COVID times might never come. But not all is bad for the company, as the past three years of social isolation for many have led to a greater need for at-home entertainment. “I believe our business has grown some 30% during pandemic times,” says Chen. 

While Taiwan is sandwiched between much larger gaming markets in Asia, such as Korea, Japan, and China, Chen says it’s highly relevant to international gaming despite its limited population size. 

“This market is important because China blocks the release of some games and now limits play to three hours a day for those under 18,” he says. “Many in China get a VPN and go to Taiwan servers to play online. The influx of players from China is also because they can read and speak the same language in a similar environment and also use the same payment method, such as Union Pay or Alipay.”  

Regardless of the presence of overseas gamers, Taiwan has quite a healthy gaming population, which Chen estimates to be around 10 million people, meaning nearly half of the domestic population is regularly playing games, ranging from Candy Crush on mobile devices to consoles such as Sony PlayStation, X-box, or Nintendo Switch.  

“I believe that one of the core beliefs of companies building the metaverse is that it needs to be accessible on any device, anywhere, any time,” says Chen. “Right now, VR (virtual reality) doesn’t have a killer app driving it. You could say that Pokemon Go was a killer app for AR (augmented reality), but it hasn’t been sustainable or played over a long term.” 

He believes the cornerstones of the metaverse will be social interaction and gaming. As for what it will look like, he gives examples of friend interactions, shops, and something similar to the early days of the internet when only a handful of large companies like AOL, Yahoo, and MSN offered search functions, news, and email. 

“It will be a ‘winner takes all’ environment much like the early days of the internet, but eventually, there will be convergence amongst three to four major players,” says Chen. He believes his company is an expert in creating captivating VR experiences and access for players and online communities but has struggled to translate this into more engagement outside of games. As for rivals like Facebook (recently renamed Meta), Chen says it doesn’t only have deep pockets but also data and info as players need to use their Facebook account to log in to its metaverse platform Horizon Worlds.  

Activision Blizzard is well placed to take over a large swath of metaverse after its acquisition by Microsoft (pending regulatory approval estimated around June 2023). This aligns the company with a leading PC operating systems provider as well as with X-box, which has a lucrative game as a service (GaaS) subscription base. Chen believes even more consolidation will take place in gaming. 

“The next five years are a very interesting time for the metaverse as major players will jockey for position,” he says. “Google and Amazon will be involved as well as Apple, although it has been averse to gaming.”  

Chen believes competing platforms and behavior norms in the virtual world, such as cyber-bullying and shaming, might make for a rough patch ahead. But while the future is uncertain, he’s assured the future metaverse will be distinctly divided between those who make “platforms” and those who make “content” for these platforms. 

First Step is AR 

A good example of a local “content” provider is Taipei-based Speed 3D. The company’s office is comparable to that of any other tech start-up: colorful pictures of staff lining the walls, whiteboards, and a self-serve coffee or kitchen area. But what makes it unique is a half-dozen arcade-like photo booths in the lobby. These aren’t simple photo dispensing machines but PICBOTs, which allow users to choose background images or funny face filters like colorful wigs or battle armor.  

Speed 3D was founded in 2014 by Marvin Chiu, a former MIS engineer who searched for a more creative way to make a living. What began with 3D printing evolved into an Insta3D app with the PICBOT photo booth, which was launched in 2020. Chiu is an expert in augmented reality (AR), which is beginning to become mainstream through the rise of social media face filters, Pokemon Go, and the recent emergence of 3D billboards in Asian capitals. 

Marvin Chiu’s company SPEED 3D is the first and only AR technical
collaborator with Meta in Taiwan, and it also produces AR Camera Effects.

Chiu leads an 18-person office that aims to be a one-stop shop for AR needs and services. This could include designing an AR template for a local company’s marketing campaign, such as overlaying a logo on a video or picture image, or helping companies take their first steps into the metaverse.    

“We have had telecoms and other companies ask us, ‘what is the metaverse?’” says Chiu. “They may not believe in the metaverse, but they still want to do something. To them, it’s a big game, and they need a platform, and they need to have avatars for this.” Recently, seven customers approached Chiu looking to build a retail metaverse space or special avatar generators.   

His company is the first and only AR technical collaborator with Meta in Taiwan, and it also produces AR Camera Effects for Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. So far, it has developed 700 distinct filters and a roster of 200 prominent brands. Speed 3D caters to an aspect of the internet called professionally generated content (PGC). Developing special filters like ad logo layovers can assist corporate branding and help companies dip their toes in the metaverse.  

The company primarily focuses on 3D face detection to generate 3D avatars. The head-to-body ratio of the avatar is three-to-one, making it slightly comical and perfect for social media purposes. “The metaverse has a gaming side and also a social side as everyone can be involved,” says Monica Hsueh, global marketing manager of Speed 3D. “How do we put this together and connect with one another is something that platform and content providers are trying to figure out?”  

“Our timeframe for the metaverse is hardware focus in 2021, software/tool focus in 2023, and content in 2027,” says Chiu. “Right now, AR and VR are not very mature as headsets require lots of battery consumption and still can’t compete with features available on mobile phones such as the gyroscope, which is useful for gaming.” 

From Chiu’s perspective, much more work is needed to make the metaverse something that people will want to experience and interact with every day. “We began working with Facebook a year after they began this initiative in 2017,” he says. “We know they have a 10-year roadmap for AR and VR, so we are probably right in the middle of this plan as it will happen in 2027.” 

While we may only get a glimpse of the metaverse right now, it’s clear that it’s an unstoppable trend that will soon be competing for our increasingly valuable and limited attention.