Entertainment

Matthew Ball on the metaverse: We've never seen a shift this enormous

The leading metaverse theorist shares his thoughts on the sudden rise of the concept, its utility for the enterprise and what we still get wrong about the metaverse.

Matthew Ball

Matthew Ball has become the leading theorist for the next version of the internet.

Photo: Gabor Jurina

“Read Matthew Ball.”

Talk to anyone in AR, VR or immersive entertainment about the metaverse, and they’ll sooner or later drop his name. Ball’s work has been hailed by Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Sweeney and Reed Hastings, just to name a few of his better-known fans, and his work has been called a must-read for anyone who wants to know about the next big thing.

The former Amazon Video executive-turned-VC began writing essays about the metaverse in early 2019. He has since become the leading theorist for the next version of the internet. His book, “The Metaverse And How It Will Revolutionize Everything,” is coming out this month, and Ball sat down with Protocol this week for a chat about all things metaverse.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

When you published your first essay about the metaverse in early 2019, it was still a pretty obscure concept. Two years later, Facebook changed its name to Meta, and everyone was talking about the metaverse. Did this pace of change surprise you?

Yes and no. I have never experienced a buzzword become as dominant as rapidly as the metaverse did. Seven of the 11 largest companies on earth have either renamed themselves, made the largest acquisitions in Big Tech history, reorganized or prepped their largest and most significant product launches in decades around this field. I think that's unprecedented. We've never seen a shift this enormous.

But the overall transition of investments and corporate strategy doesn't surprise me. When I started writing the piece based on my experiences in Fortnite and Roblox in 2018, you could feel that transformation happening. We know that in 2018, [Facebook gaming executive] Jason Rubin wrote an internal memo saying that the metaverse was theirs to lose. We know that in 2015, [Facebook] looked at buying Unity.

In 2015, Tim Sweeney was talking about the metaverse, and in 2016, he was warning of its extraordinary significance to civilization. This has been actively in investment for at least half a decade. The rise, though surprising, reflects how much was happening behind the scenes up until that moment.

How much did it matter that Facebook changed its name to Meta, and Zuckerberg identified the metaverse as the future of the company?

Having what was at the time the seventh largest company on earth say “this is our future” — and warning investors, signaling to partners, telling employees, telling prospective employees this was their future — was pretty extraordinary and forced everyone else to take it seriously.

At the same time, I think historical context is helpful. We had in 1995, and then reiterated in 1998, the internet tidal wave memo at Microsoft. This was Bill Gates telling everyone, “The internet is the most significant transformation in the history of computing.” They didn't rename themselves, but the articulation was nevertheless as significant. So we have had examples of that before.

What are the biggest misconceptions about the metaverse?

First, the idea that the metaverse is immersive virtual reality, such as an Oculus or Meta Quest. That's an access device. It would be akin to saying the mobile internet is a smartphone. In addition, we know that virtual reality headsets, at least as mainstream devices, are quite a ways off. They may ultimately become the best, most popular preferred way to access the metaverse. But they're not the metaverse. They're not a requirement.

We also hear a conflation with video games, virtual worlds. This makes sense, given the best examples of interconnected virtual worlds of extraordinary diversity are in Roblox and Minecraft. But it would be a lot like saying that the consumer-facing AOL portal is the internet, and reflective of the enormity of the internet's opportunity.

The last is a belief that the metaverse replaces everything. We’re in the mobile era, but we're still using personal computers. I have a hard line into my household network, and all of the data transmission is on fixed-line infrastructure running on TCP/IP.

We should think of the metaverse as perhaps changing the devices we use, the experiences, business models, protocols and behaviors that we enjoy online. But we'll keep using smartphones, keyboards. We don't need to do all video conferences or all calls in 3D. It's supplements and complements, doesn't replace everything.

Still, your book claims that the metaverse will “revolutionize everything.” It’s easy to see it have a massive impact on gaming and Hollywood, but a lot of industrial applications aren’t quite as obvious. Sure, using VR and 3D may make sense for construction and manufacturing, but do they really need avatars and an interoperable metaverse?

Many of the leading use cases for the industry are more focused on single-instance simulation. XR surgery, or a building simulation. But when you have the ability to daisy-chain simulations to communicate and exchange information, utility increases.

We always knew that network effects were important with communication technology. We've known that since cell phones, since the postal system. And yet we nevertheless underestimated the importance of network effects in the interim, and [weren’t able to predict] that just having a common identity system à la Facebook would produce one of the world's most powerful companies.

And so you're right to say that some of these applications don't strictly require interoperability, but we have certainly learned that there's extraordinary value from doing so. We can identify some of the instances in which the use cases are advantaged by it, i.e., rather than just you doing one enterprise simulation, we connect all of ours for collaboration. But lastly, we've learned not to underestimate what we can't yet predict.

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