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Metaverse and Health Care – A View From 50,000 Feet

by MIKE MAGEE

dystopian

[disˈtōpēən]

ADJECTIVE

1. relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice.

NOUN

1. a person who imagines or foresees a state or society where there is great suffering or injustice.

There are certain words that keep popping up in 2021 whose meanings are uncertain and which deserve both recognition and definition. And so, the offering above – the word “dystopian.” Dystopian as in the sentence “The term was coined by writer Neal Stephenson in the 1992 dystopian novel Snow Crash.”

One word leads to another. For example, the above-mentioned noun, referred to as dystopian by science fiction writer Stephenson three decades ago, was “Metaverse”. He attached this invented word (the prefix “meta” meaning beyond and “universe”) to a vision of how “a virtual reality-based Internet might evolve in the near future.”

“Metaverse” is all the rage today, referenced by the leaders of Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple, but also by many other inhabitors of virtual worlds and augmented reality. The land of imaginary 3D spaces has grown at breakneck speed, and that was before the self-imposed isolation of a worldwide pandemic.

But most agree that the metaverse remains a future-facing concept that has not yet approached its full potential. As noted, it was born out of science fiction in 1992, then adopted by gamers and academics, simultaneously focusing on studying, applying, and profiting from the creation of alternate realities. But it is gaining ground fast, and igniting a cultural tug of war.

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Let’s Meet in the Metaverse

By KIM BELLARD

I really wasn’t expecting to write about the Metaverse again so soon, after discussing it in the context of Roblox last March, which itself followed a look at Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney’s vision for the Metaverse last August.  But darn that Mark Zuckerberg!

Not many noticed when Mr. Zuckerberg told Facebook employees in June that the company would become focused on building a metaverse, but he got some attention when he expanded on his vision for The Verge in late July.  Then last Monday Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s head of AR/VR, confirmed a product group had been formed to bring it about.  And, finally, in an earnings call last Wednesday, Mr. Zuckerberg and his executive team couldn’t stop gushing about the importance of the metaverse to the company, and the world.

So, yeah, the metaverse is in the news.  And, once again, I worry healthcare is going to be late to the party. 

I won’t go into too much detail about what the metaverse is; for those who want a deep dive, there’s Matthew Ball’s nine part primer, or you could just read Ready Player One.  Mr. Zuckerberg described it to The Verge as follows: “you can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it.”  In the earnings call, he clarified: “The defining quality of the metaverse is presence – which is this feeling that you’re really there with another person or in another place.” 

Depending on your age/preferences, the concept of “an embodied internet” is either chilling or thrilling.  Maybe both.   

It’s potentially a big deal.  Gene Marks, writing in Forbes, says, “business interactions will forever change.”  The Conversation’s Beth Daley goes further, stating “creating a virtual world for users to interact with their friends and family is not just a fancy vision, it is a commercial necessity.”

It’s not VR, it’s not AR, it’s not 3D internet, although all those may be part of it.  It’s not gaming, it’s not entertainment, it’s not social network, although all of those will be part of it too.  Mr. Zuckerberg promises: “It’s going to be accessible across all of our different computing platforms; VR and AR, but also PC, and also mobile devices and game consoles.”  Not to overstate it, but he sees the Metaverse as the “next generation of the internet.”  Mr. Zuckerberg also described it as “the next computing platform.”

He is openly telling people that the goal is for Facebook to transition to a metaverse company, “within the next five years or so.”  Analysts on the earnings call pressed Facebook to confirm an estimate of a $5b investment, but only got an admission that, yes, the investment was “billions.”

Significantly, for Facebook, Mr. Zuckerberg believes: “this is going to be not something that one company builds alone, but I think it is going to be a whole ecosystem that needs to develop.”   As Mr. Zuckerberg said in The Verge interview, “Hopefully in the future, asking if a company is building a metaverse will sound as ridiculous as asking a company how their internet is going.”

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Roblox and Healthcare’s Metaverse

By KIM BELLARD

As neither a gamer nor the parent of a gamer, I’ve been proud that I’ve stayed even mildly in touch with the cultural phenomenon that gaming is.  I’ve written about, for example, the Metaverse, Fortnight, and e-sports.  Still, I somehow managed to be completely oblivious to the existence of Roblox, until they went public this week and was valued at $45b, larger than Electronic Arts (which I had heard of). 

Once again, I think there are lessons for healthcare.

P.J. McNealy, CEO of Digital World Research, described Roblox to NPR as: “Minecraft meets Nintendo, which meets Lego and mobile phones enable a whole bunch of it.”  Whatever the metaphor, Roblox is booming.  It was valued at $4b a year ago, but the pandemic was very, very good for it. 

Half of America children use Roblox.  Two thirds of its users are 16 and younger, and most of them were spending lots of time at home last year.  It is now estimated to have 37 million unique daily users, spending some 30 billion hours on the site last year.  It is available in 180 countries, in 11 languages.

What makes Roblox particularly unique is that it is not a game developer; it is a platform where users develop the “experiences”.  Roblox describes its mission thusly:

Roblox’s mission is to bring the world together through play.  We enable anyone to imagine, create, and have fun with friends as they explore millions of immersive 3D experiences, all built by a global community of developers.

It claims 8 million developers have created 20 million experiences — and that it paid over $300 million to them.  The games are free but users can buy and spend an in-game virtual currency (Robux), which can be exchanged for actual money (Roblox shares 30% of the revenue with developers).  At least one developer made over $1 million in a single year; over 1200 made at least $10,000, with over 300 making over $100,000. 

Mr.  McNealy believes the IPO will allow Roblox significant expansion:

This money will either give them an opportunity to build more content for the for the platform or to go to adjacent platforms like music or partnering with Spotify or movie service.  That’s where this is going to go.

CEO and co-founder David Baszucki isn’t content with the younger market, wondering: “So how do we make it possible for Roblox to connect with everyone in the world?”  Alex Hicks, cofounder of Roblox studio Red Manta, sees such potential, telling Polygon: “Lots of kids already know what Roblox is, but they’re just scratching the surface with the older audience.” 

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