Metaverse in the making
Next iteration of the internet supports a decentralised 3D virtual environment
Jumping into a virtual avatar to interact with friends and colleagues, buying digital clothes and accessories for avatars and purchasing virtual land plots for future development may have sounded far-fetched years ago, but these features are now available. Welcome to the metaverse.
The name metaverse hit the spotlight after Facebook announced in late October the rebranding of the company's name as Meta to reflect its direction towards the metaverse helping people connect, find communities and grow businesses.
The metaverse is touted as the next iteration of the internet, supporting a decentralised and persistent online 3D virtual environment where people can engage with each other in an immersive experience.
This virtual space can be accessed through virtual reality (VR) headsets, augmented reality (AR) glasses, smartphones, PCs and game consoles.
Related use cases are being developed in the gaming, business, education, retail and real estate spheres.
Adidas sells digital apparel for avatars on Zepeto, a social metaverse platform.
The metaverse is bringing together AR/VR developers, content creators, marketers and others to celebrate the industry's momentum and growth, exploring what the metaverse could feature in the next decade, from social connections to entertainment, gaming, fitness, work, education and commerce.
Apart from Facebook, other global tech giants such as Microsoft, Tencent and Alibaba are making forays into the metaverse, while Amazon and Google are believed to be keeping tabs on this development to find ways to get involved.
How fast the metaverse will gain crucial momentum remains to be seen, but businesses and individuals can explore new opportunities in this surging internet trend.
Policymakers are expected to monitor the phenomenon to prepare infrastructure to support it as well as tackle unlawful activities capitalising on this virtual world.
Akaradet Diawpanich, chairman of Cryptomind, a pioneer in digital asset financial services and investment product development, said the metaverse is part of the new internet wave called Web 3.0, which offers user-centric features that allow people to carry their own identity and data across platforms.
This differs from the Web 2.0 era, in which platforms own user data while consumers need to sign up to create their own accounts on different platforms, he said. Web 1.0 involved people browsing for information online.
The metaverse incorporates blockchain, cryptocurrencies, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), open systems and devices.
"Metaverse could gain momentum in 3-5 years," said Mr Akaradet. "Digital natives aged below 15 could be the early adopters of this technology over the next three years."
People from different parts of the world can participate in a virtual concert in the metaverse.
He said the metaverse is a digital world in parallel with the physical one. Users in the metaverse can purchase brand-name digital clothes for their avatars or even virtual land.
Users may try to find prime virtual locations, such as the Silom area, said Mr Akaradet.
One of the major metaverse platforms is The Sandbox, which offers players and creators a decentralised platform to create immersive 3D worlds and game experience as well as to store, trade and monetise their creations.
The Sandbox users secure ownership by producing virtual spaces and items in the game via NFTs and trade them using the cryptocurrency SAND.
It is now expanding its business reach to fashion, architecture, virtual concerts, virtual shows and art galleries as well as virtual museums. The Sandbox recently raised US$93 million from investors led by SoftBank's Vision Fund 2.
US game platform Roblox is another potential metaverse player.
Roblox allows users to create, exchange and use games themselves, while all the transactions are made through its digital token, Robux. It has an average of 43 million users per day, gathering a huge number of digital natives.
South Korea's Zepeto, a virtual social platform where users interact, play and create content as 3D avatars, also caught the metaverse wave with popular global brands such as Gucci, Adidas and Ralph Lauren foraying into the platform to sell digital apparel for avatars.
According to Mr Akaradet, lifestyle brands can capture business opportunities in the metaverse by offering limited digital items for avatars, in which value can be added to users' identities.
Southeast Asia, he said, could experience a metaverse boom. Vietnam already has some metaverse game startups.
Thailand can capitalise on the metaverse wave via job opportunities, said Mr Akaradet, highlighting designers and developers of virtual land, people who are skilled with AR/VR, game developers, artificial intelligence (AI) experts and NFT traders.
Investors need to carefully study digital asset investment to minimise risks, while individuals can catch up with the trend by reskilling and upskilling, he said.
Digital pieces of real estate are presented in The Sandbox.
"The metaverse is a decentralised world that can provide opportunities for capable Thais, especially in terms of marketing approaches. This is unlike the past when Silicon Valley was the heart of new innovations," said Mr Akaradet.
Policymakers and regulators need to support sandbox schemes where new products and services can be tested, rather than seeking control through licensing, he said.
Tuong Nguyen, senior principal analyst of global research firm Gartner, told the Bangkok Post the metaverse is both hype and real.
He said there is a lot of hype surrounding the metaverse following the announcement by Facebook and other firms of their focus on this trend.
Mr Nguyen considers the current state an "emergent metaverse", which means it still does not exist today, but rather provides a glimpse into what the metaverse may be in the future.
"Given how big this shift is expected to be, it will potentially introduce a new set of leaders, while displacing some from the previous era," he said.
"Countries can start now by evaluating different use cases and applications of the metaverse to understand how it applies to their people and government. This includes related technologies and trends such as AI, edge computing, AR/VR and the Internet of Things."
Mark Raskino, distinguished vice-president analyst at Gartner, wrote on Gartner Blog that one day business will be conducted in a fully immersive 3D visual metaverse.
"Let's call that phase of economic advancement 'metaversial business'," he said.
Referring to the metaverse trend, Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group chief executive Suphachai Chearavanont told the Bangkok Post the company is studying this opportunity.
Mr Suphachai said VR is the next evolution of e-commerce.
Metaverse features are being developed by many players, but more needs to be done to understand online users' behaviour, he said.
"It is hard to say which forms of the metaverse will be successful," Mr Suphachai said.
"CP is trying to find a way, but we have to connect it with our Makro, Lotus and 7-Eleven stores in a way that would boost our competitiveness."
Siam Piwat, the owner and operator of malls Siam Paragon, Siam Center and Siam Discovery, recently announced its parallel world strategy, including an upcoming app that will integrate offline and online worlds, giving customers access to fresh shopping experiences.
The company has a plan to evolve towards the metaverse in the future, aiming to draw deeper connections between the physical and virtual worlds.
Pairoj Waiwanijchakij, vice-chairman of VVR Asia, a provider of AR/VR and mixed reality solutions, said the AR-based metaverse is likely to gather steam in three years, while the VR-based metaverse would shine in 10 years.
The metaverse will be a boon for user engagement, leading to sales opportunities in e-commerce, said Mr Pairoj.
"The metaverse will change economic, political, social and cultural spheres," he said.
Virtual assets in the metaverse will have increasing value, with no physical boundaries to purchasing and ownership, said Mr Pairoj.
"The metaverse will unlock the constraints of the physical world that have limited resources, such as land and property," he said.
The metaverse creates new carriers, such as designers and developers of new features in this virtual world.
"This is a major evolution we need to prepare for," Mr Pairoj said. "It may come faster than we think. It may pose challenges in terms of consumer protection, justice and anarchism."
Pathom Indarodom, a member of the Creative Digital Economy Committee at the Thai Chamber of Commerce, said the metaverse is taking shape because there is a complete ecosystem, encompassing blockchain, cryptocurrency, 5G and digital natives.
It could take at least three years to grow the Alpha generation and make VR glasses costing around $100 to support the metaverse experience, he said.
People need more affordable devices, said Mr Pathom.
He said businesses should think about creating their own metaverse platforms, while policymakers should open the door for the private sector to drive the metaverse forward.
The government should support sandbox programmes to test metaverse-related technology and watch out for scams and other suspicious activities, said Mr Pathom.
"One user may be a good person in one metaverse platform, but could be a bad guy in another," he said. "We can have our own metaverse ecosystem rather than relying on foreign global platform operators. Otherwise it will be the same as the huge spending we do now on foreign social media giants."
When the metaverse gathers steam, this will create a new virtual world in parallel with the physical world, said Mr Pathom. Businesses can create "digital items" that can be used in the metaverse, he said.
The metaverse must not be created in a closed system, said Mr Pathom.
"It must be created in an open system to ensure success," he said.