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The Metaverse and the Internet's Original Sin

Tien Tzuo
CEO, Zuora

Unity, the company that makes the visualization technology behind some of the biggest video games and movies in the world (Cuphead, Pillars of Eternity, Blade Runner 2049, Ready Player One), recently acquired Weta Digital, Peter Jackson’s special effects company. In the short term, this means game developers and visual effects artists will soon get access to the same tools and expertise used to create the apes from Planet of the Apes and the dragons from Game of Thrones. In the not too distant future, however, this acquisition will help launch Unity into…(drum roll please)…The Metaverse.

“We believe we are just at the beginning of an enormous need for rich, interactive, compelling, 3D content — in games, in movies, and far beyond,” Unity announced in a blog post. “We want to use the cloud to give content creators super powers by making these deep tools available, accessible and more. It will take some time to realize this complete vision, but please see this as our first step.”

Unity is a fascinating company. Yes, it makes amazing tools for video game designers and special effects houses, but it also offers those capabilities to automotive designers, architects, aerospace engineers, and government agencies. In short, Unity helps people create compelling and immersive digital environments. Virtual places where people can trade, interact, play, watch concerts, host corporate events, the list goes on.

Which brings us to the metaverse. Or is it web3? Right now the hype cycle is in full swing. “The metaverse remains more aspirational than real,” says the Wall Street Journal, “and its biggest supporters don’t expect it to be built quickly.” But a few basic descriptors are coming into view.

Here’s an analogy that might prove useful: digital twins. In the book, we talked about how the manufacturing industry is busy creating all sorts of digital proxies for real-world objects (airplanes, automobiles, buildings) for monitoring and optimization. Now imagine if those digital twins started interacting, and creating new digital objects. Now imagine you have your own digital twin that can walk around amongst those digital objects. That’s the metaverse.

It will be much more decentralized than the current Internet. It will be much more immersive, allowing us to navigate through all kinds of environments via defined digital identities. It will enable brand new markets based on digital goods. But perhaps more importantly, it will hopefully free us from the Internet’s original sin: advertising.

Back in the nascent era of “information wants to be free,” early Internet entrepreneurs settled on advertising as a business model almost by default. In a strange new environment whose primary commodity (information) was supposed to cost nothing, advertising offered a familiar business model.

“So Facebook was born free, with ads, and Google was born free, with ads,” says Jaron Lanier, an early pioneer in virtual reality, in a Fast Company piece called The Case for Paying to Use Google and Facebook. “In the beginning, it was kind of cute–you would see ads for your local dentist.”

But we all know what happened next. Advertising plunged everyone into a race to the bottom, either through lowest-common-denominator clickbait or intrusive profiling. As it turns out, we were paying for this new form of information all along, only with our personal data instead of our money.

Fortunately, other companies like Netflix chose a different path; quite simply, they decided to ask people to pay for the information they created. And that’s the reason why today we’re living in a golden age of TV while our social media is still awash in misinformation. Early experiments in virtual reality like Second Life also found success with subscriptions:

“The subscription model of Second Life is one reason that you don’t have misinformation and anti-vax stuff,” said author Tom Boellstorff in a recent Time Magazine piece on what the Metaverse can learn from Second Life. “None of this metaverse stuff going forward has to be a particular corporate ad-driven model.”

Today, no one would want to live in a 3d version of Facebook. I think we all want a metaverse where we can subscribe to services that keep us safe, keep our creators fairly compensated, and create new worlds of opportunity for all sorts of communities. “

We can’t have a system where if people want to communicate, the only way that’s possible is financed by a third party who wants to manipulate them,” says Lanier.

Amen to that. This is going to be a process of transition. We won’t all be leaping into the metaverse at a predetermined date, like jumping into a new swimming pool. But the good news is that the monetization possibilities will be incredibly diverse, because of all the payment innovation that’s happened over the last decade: NFTs and digital goods, auctions and markets, subscriptions and services, microfinance and loans.

In short, the metaverse won’t be born as an empty commodity desert that’s full of billboards.

Which is not to say that advertising will go away entirely, of course. But hopefully, it will be used more intelligently and less intrusively. It won’t be an exercise in demographic saturation. Here digital publications like The New York Times and others offer a way forward: advertising as a targeted additional revenue stream that doesn’t violate subscriber relationships.

That will leave creators with a simple challenge: Building the best service possible based on the needs and wants of their customers. Constantly developing, constantly iterating, always staying in Beta. That’s the mindset that will hopefully make the metaverse a much healthier place to live in than our current situation.

I’m looking forward to it!

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