Why the metaverse was all the buzz at Web Summit 2021

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Metaverse talk onstage at Web Summit 2021

Web Summit 2021 was all abuzz with talk of the metaverse, with Meta CPO Chris Cox, musician Zara Larsson and other experts showing us what we can expect from the digital network in the coming years.

Bloomberg calculates that the metaverse is an US$800 billion market opportunity. That makes sense, when you consider its scope. The metaverse will converge social media, ecommerce, gaming and work software on a platform augmenting reality with digital information.

It’s something straight from the sci-fi realm brought to life, before our very eyes.Is it any wonder the metaverse took more than its share of the Web Summit 2021 hype?

Although there were dozens of other topics up for discussion at the event, it was the metaverse that was on everyone’s lips.

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Transforming the (real and digital) world

“The metaverse will change everything that we do. It’ll change the way we live, the way we communicate, and the way we connect with each other,” said Dan Burgar, co-founder of Shape Immersive. “If we do this right, we can really change the world with this technology.”

Closing out Web Summit 2021, Dan led a panel of entrepreneurs in a discussion on the metaverse space. The panel touched on many of the themes conversation around the platform raised throughout the tech event.

Amy Peck, founder and CEO at EndeavorVR, noted that the metaverse will expand the creative economy, putting more people in touch with the tools and resources needed: “We can all be creators in this new world. The tools to create will really be democratised.”

This area had already been the focus of an onstage discussion with musician Zara Larsson, who has partnered with online sandbox environment Roblux to promote her new album, and to host fan meet ups and dance parties. Zara has also sold virtual merchandise – such as avatars of her with accompanying outfits, hairstyles and signature dance moves – on the metaverse.

Zara Larsson speaking about the metaverseMusician Zara Larsson speaking about the metaverse at Web Summit 2021. Image: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Web Summit (CC BY 2.0)

“You can do basically whatever you want. There is no limit to creativity,” said the music artist, who has – to date – made a seven-figure sum from selling this digital merchandise.

Ivan Nikitin, product director at Sensorium Galaxy, said the point of the metaverse is also “to take the chunk of time you dedicate to social media … and make it better; more social”.

In blending reality with the digital world, we can theoretically connect and interact more easily with loved ones all over the world. This is a point picked up on by the CPO of Meta, Chris Cox, when he discussed the metaverse on Centre Stage at Web Summit.

“[The metaverse] should not replace real life … But for things that it can improve upon … Take productivity; take a family who can’t be together – things that we see billions of times a day around the world – and make that a bit better. That’s a big deal and that’s why we’re doing it,” Chris said.

Guarding against digital consequences

But, in spite of all the excitement around the metaverse, those in the conversation remained realistic about the pitfalls of this new piece of technology – especially given its potential power.

Amy noted that many of the big tech companies, Meta chief among them, are integral to creating the metaverse, and that many of these companies have a notable history of misusing consumer data.

This is leading to concerns that the metaverse – which will attract millions of users from all over the world to work, play and socialise – may turn into a giant data farm.

“The rhetoric [with Meta’s launch of its metaverse platform] is that the metaverse is for everyone. Is it though? I think we need to take control of our data. We need to think about … what experiences we want and how we want to interact with this digital landscape as it becomes more and more connected with our real lives,” Amy said.

Metaverse talk at Web Summit 2021Image: Eóin Noonan/Web Summit (CC BY 2.0)

Ivan also noted his worries about the tech. It’s likely easier than we imagine, he suggested, to find ourselves in a scenario in which the metaverse blends so totally into our real lives that we lose sight of how to interact in the real world.

“It’s definitely not a replacement for real life, and it’s the responsibility of everyone working in that field to keep that balance,” he said.

Part of this responsibility will fall on tech companies housing their own metaverse platforms. However, he said, government bodies should also be involved in regulating how interactions in the metaverse carry over to the real world.

Creating a framework that limits the power of tech companies to hoard user data, and allowing regulatory bodies to control the flow of negative content, are key to getting the tech right. But, if tech and society succeed, the metaverse could be the most exciting place you visit in 2022.

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Main image: Eóin Noonan/Web Summit (CC BY 2.0)

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