For better or verse

money-glitz | Karen Ng and Agencies 8 Nov 2021

With Facebook rebranding as Meta, the market for the metaverse - which enables users to work, play, shop, and even speculate in virtual assets in an immersive digital world - is expected to be worth as much as US$800 billion (HK$6.24 trillion) in three years.

Coined by American sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson in the 1992-published Snow Crash, the word "metaverse" combines the prefix "meta" - meaning beyond - with "universe" and is generally described as the future of the cyber world built upon virtual reality.

The market of this social technology is estimated to expand to US$800 billion by 2024, and boom to US$2.5 trillion in 2030, according to Bloomberg.

Fueled by movies such as Ready Player One that show virtual worlds where humanity spends most of its time hooked up to a machine, the gaming metaverse is the one that is most familiar to the public.

Chip company Nvidia, with its roots in graphic cards for video games, opened a software platform namely Omniverse for creating virtual spaces in August. Meanwhile, it is trying to acquire Arm from SoftBank which would bring it the much-prized semiconductor designs used in most smartphones and other devices.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says "the metaverse is the next frontier," showcasing the ambition of many tech companies while stating that the metaverse will not be built by a single company, and that Facebook will collaborate with policymakers, experts, industry partners to unlock the creative economy.

Zuckerberg believes the metaverse would be accessible across VR, AR, PC, mobile devices and game consoles, where people will be able to appear as cartoon avatars of themselves.

And though there are fears that the metaverse could signal a dystopian future, and throw up challenges for the economy, tech companies are battling to gain a foothold in this digital world.

In September, Facebook committed a two-year US$50 million investment in global research and program partners to develop metaverse products responsibly. And two weeks before Facebook transformed into Meta, the firm announced a plan to hire 10,000 people in the European Union over the next five years to help build the new worlds. It is also devoting another US$150 million in immersive learning to train the next generation of creators.

Other tech conglomerates are taking a step forward to join the competition.

Microsoft is testing the feature of avatars in its chat and conferencing program Teams and will be available in the first half of 2022. TikTok owner Bytedance is rumored to try to acquire Chinese VR hardware maker Pico at 9 billion yuan (HK$10.95 billion). Tencent, meanwhile, is said to be establishing an "F1" studio under its unit to make metaverse games while it has registered trademarks related to "metaverse" in the mainland in the past few months.

"I think Facebook has made this early name change to essentially secure the new trademark legally as soon as possible as more brands become interested," a UK-based crypto investor known as Pranksy told Reuters.

The official company name will be Meta Platforms and the stock will trade under the ticker symbol MVRS in Nasdaq starting December 1.

Shares of Facebook have risen about five percent since it revealed its rebranding on October 28, while Canadian material science firm Meta Materials spiked as much as 24 percent on the same day, as investors apparently mistook it for the social media giant.

Another Meta - this time is the Meta PC that produces custom personal computers in Arizona - asked Facebook to pay them US$20 million last week. Although the company has not yet secured the trademark "Meta" since its filing in August, it said it is willing to give up the name to Facebook with a cost to cover the expenses of rebranding itself.

However, former Apple executive Tony Fadell, who helped develop the iPod and iPhone, reckons people are overhyped on the metaverse: "I still doubt it will become popular. I think it will be in business and the industry is sought after, but it is difficult to impress consumers and get the emotion that makes them want to stay in this environment."

It is also worth noting that as the metaverse cuts across physical borders and the virtual economy can affect the real economy, it could pose all kinds of risks for governments which want to regulate the digital world for economic and information security reasons.

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