A CFO Guide to Navigating the Metaverse!

Do you like to watch golf? In person, standing by the side of the course? Seated comfortably in front of a television screen? Or – just possibly – fully immersed inside a computer-generated world?

If that last one seems a bit of a stretch (or just maybe you don’t have any clue what it means), you’re not alone. But newly-launched Australian startup Play Today wants everyone to have a taste of golf, in ‘The Metaverse’.

What’s ‘The Metaverse’? Probably you’ve been hearing the word quite a bit over the last eighteen months – ever since Mark Zuckerberg decided to change the name of his gargantuan social media business from ‘Facebook’ to ‘Meta’. But for all that posturing, neither Zuck nor any of the other established names in tech have really bothered to explain in detail exactly what they mean when they throw this word around – or why they believe it so important to their business that it merits a complete rebranding.

The word ‘metaverse’ first appears in the pages of Snow Crash, a very influential (and very funny) science novel by author Neal Stephenson. Thirty years ago, Stephenson imagined himself forty years earlier, watching I Love Lucy in black and white in the Golden Age of Television – then projected himself forward forty years: What would we be watching in the 2030s? And how would we be watching?

Already in the early 90s, a fledgling Internet connected most of the universities in the USA, Europe and Australia. Stephenson took that reality and maxed it out – an Internet that went everywhere, into everything, connecting everyone, everywhere, all at once. That idea – with a lot of neat tech thrown into the mix – formed the foundation for his ‘Metaverse’. 

Imagine a website that’s not a two-dimensional page, but a three-dimensional place as interactive and richly realised as any game (like Fortnight or Call of Duty), a place where everyone could come together. Stephenson’s Metaverse reads like a weird cross between Chadstone Shopping Centre (the largest mall in the Southern Hemisphere) and the MCG (its largest stadium). You go to the Metaverse to buy, to sell, to see or be seen, to enjoy the spectacle, the random encounters – and the presence of billions of others.

That vision, though 100% fiction, mobilised a generation of engineers with one goal in mind: to make Stephenson’s Metaverse real. It turns out that’s not easy. Even thirty years later, with computers that are at least a few thousand times faster (and those are just the supercomputers we carry in our pockets, not the ones sitting on our desks), we haven’t yet cracked how to bring everyone into a space together at the same moment in time. We can nearly do that with text – think of how noisy Twitter gets when there’s a major sporting or political event – but doing that in 3D, in a way that looks real, remains beyond even the outer edges of our capabilities.

Why? Some of it has to do with us: when we make something that looks nearly real, our brains become very finicky – if it doesn’t look real enough, it falls into the ‘uncanny valley’, and we reject it as something that looks ‘creepy’. All of the Metaverse has always been a poor representation of reality, and that’s one reason it’s never attracted large numbers of users.

There’s another big barrier to the Metaverse: connecting lots of folks simultaneously in an interactive 3D world requires more computer power than anyone – even Amazon or Google or Microsoft – can bring to bear. Multiuser video games connect anywhere from few tens of people to a few hundred – then they max out. Connecting billions remains an elusive dream.

Despite these unsolved problems, some amazing progress has been made. Two years ago, Google unveiled Project Starline, a breathtaking videoconferencing system that records and transmits not just a flat 2D image of a person, but captures them in all of their full four-dimensional (3d dimensions plus time) glory. Project Starline creates the illusion that someone is in the room with you – and you react authentically as if they’re really there. It’s a huge step forward – but now we need to do that at scale, with millions, and, eventually, billions of others.

Which brings us back to Play Today and their new golf Metaverse; you can watch the NSW Open championship inside their Metaverse, but that’ll just be 2D video projected into a 3D world. What we need – and will eventually have – are sports broadcasters who can capture a sporting event just as Google captures people with Project Starline. Then we’ll have a golf match that makes you feel as though you’re standing on the edge of the green, or tennis that makes you feel like you have the best seats at centre court, or a footy match that places you and your friends in the centre of the action. That sporting Metaverse – when it gets here – could be the true successor to high-definition television.

Is there any reason to use the Metaverse in business? Possibly. We all do a lot of online meetings today, yet it’s often difficult to brainstorm creative tasks online. The Metaverse could be a more creative medium for communicating. This is exactly what both Microsoft and Meta have been working on. Meta’s Horizon Worlds creates a meeting space for 10 people, though it’s janky and (for now) more trouble than it’s worth. Microsoft looks to be taking a different path, retooling their now-ubiquitous Teams app to support 3D ‘avatars’ (that’s what we call the 3D model of ourselves in the Metaverse). In May, you’ll be able to join a Teams call via video, or as an avatar. That could to lead to more frequent miscommunication; avatars lack much of the facial and body language nuance that we read so eagerly both in person and on screen. Lose that and we lose much of what we tell one another without using words.

By the end of this decade, technologies like Project Starline will be built into our smartphones, laptops and tablets. We’ll be able to beam ourselves into meetings in the Metaverse and do meaningful work with peers all around the world – everyone, everywhere, all at once. Today, it’s more promise than reality. It’s taken thirty years of engineering to turn Stephenson’s dream into that promise; but we still have a ways to go. When we can join an online meeting and feel as though we’re really there, that’s when we’ll know that the Metaverse has started to fulfill its promise.