ESSEC Alumni: How were you led to work on the metaverse?
Adrien Basdevant: I've always been passionate about the impact of technology on society. I began by writing books, including an essay titled "The Empire of Data" about algorithms and the law. Then, I continued to explore these topics as a member of the French Digital Council (CNNum), where we reflect on these issues with a multidisciplinary collective of researchers.
EA: What were the objectives of the mission on metaverse development that you participated in?
A. Basdevant: This was an exploratory mission entrusted by the Ministers of Economy, Culture, and Digital, and conducted with Rémi Ronfard, a research director at Inria, and Camille François, a researcher at Columbia University. The goal was to clarify the debate on a subject prone to confusion, by presenting the stakes for France, identifying opportunities as well as risks, and proposing a common horizon around which to rally the national ecosystem.
EA: How do you define the metaverse?
A. Basdevant: The metaverse is an online service providing access to real-time shared and persistent 3D space simulations, in which one can collectively experience immersive events.
EA: Do you have concrete examples of metaverse applications?
A. Basdevant: Metaverses will be diverse. Some will be built on blockchains, others not. Access can be with or without VR headsets. Some will target the general public, with components of social networks or video games - similar to Epic Games' project, which invested over two billion dollars in a major partnership with Lego. Others will target professionals, like those promoted by Nvidia or Microsoft for industrial use.
EA: At present, what are the main challenges of the metaverse?
A. Basdevant: The report is over a hundred pages long, so there are numerous challenges! In summary, at the heart of the matter, there is a fundamental soft power challenge: the metaverse opens the door to a new era of cultural and media creativity. However, many technological challenges, particularly in terms of standardization, interoperability, and training, need to be addressed before reaching that point, including 3D modeling and coding. There are also economic, societal, and environmental challenges. For example, where to invest in technological components? How to avoid replicating the same attention-capturing logics we know from the internet? How to reconcile these innovations with energy efficiency?
EA: At this stage, how does France position itself regarding the metaverse?
A. Basdevant: We interviewed over 80 sector players in the country. These hearings highlighted a great deal of confusion regarding the term "metaverse." Everyone has their own definition: "it's immersion," "it's the internet," "no! it's the web," "it's a combination of technologies"... However, one constant remains: the metaverse has been met with skepticism since Facebook/Meta's marketing campaign in 2021.
EA: What is France's potential in the metaverse sector?
A. Basdevant: France has many assets to leverage, as evidenced by the success of major companies like Ubisoft, Dassault Systèmes, and Ledger, as well as the multiple acquisitions of innovative startups by American groups - Pixyz by Unity, Clay AIR by Qualcomm, and Sketchfab, co-founded by our comrade Alban Denoyel, by Epic. The French immersive creation sector has also given rise to globally recognized manufacturing studios: Atlas V, Small, Backlight Studio, Stage11, Innerspace, Emissive...
EA: Under these conditions, what is the current state of the metaverse sector in France?
A. Basdevant: Pioneers and gems of the French metaverse are divided into two ecosystems. On one side, there's an ecosystem that gathers virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality (or extended reality); on the other, there's an ecosystem bringing together blockchain, Web3, and NFT.
EA: Is France ahead of the rest of the world on this subject, especially compared to Silicon Valley?
A. Basdevant: Beyond the projects of Facebook/Meta that have garnered a lot of attention, major players in Silicon Valley now adopt diverse strategies and visions for the future of immersive technologies. A significant portion focuses on applications for professional audiences. Others, like Snapchat, Niantic, or Apple, bet on augmented reality rather than virtual reality, often expressing strong criticism of the dystopian aspect of the latter, accused of isolating users from each other and the world around them. But the most interesting initiatives seem to come from South Korea, a country that positioned itself very early and particularly ambitiously on the subject.
EA: Your report outlines the axes of a "metaverse strategy" for France. What do you mean by that?
A. Basdevant: We use this terminology humorously to emphasize the plural possibilities and multiple horizons of immersive social technologies, and to encourage imagination and creativity on these subjects. We propose an open exercise, the "Mona Lisa Metaverse," which consists of thinking about all possible variations of the Mona Lisa: a Mona Lisa in virtual reality, that one could explore with a Lynx headset by moving through the different original layers of the painting; a Mona Lisa in augmented reality, allowing young visitors to the Louvre to tag the artwork and see in an immersive gallery the creations of other artists and amateurs; a Mona Lisa as tokens, enabling fundraising and the formation of a DAO for Friends of the Mona Lisa... Beyond the playful aspect, using the Mona Lisa Metaverse helps to better explain the variety of metaverse formats and distribution channels - but also to highlight the predominance of certain access controllers ("gatekeepers") who are often absent from discussions about value capture in the cultural sector and encourage more regulation.
EA: Your report puts forward 10 proposals. Can you summarize them?
A. Basdevant: We believe that the metaverse offers an opportunity to regain leadership positions in global digital services. Therefore, we call on the state to send a message of confidence to entrepreneurs and investors through a public policy to support the sector, of which France 2030 and public procurement organization will be central elements. We also believe it is necessary to develop a rigorous analysis of the various value chains of the metaverse to best guide strategic investment areas and identify risks of loss of sovereignty or value leakage. Finally, we recommend funding interdisciplinary research initiatives to develop experimental metaverses guided by societal needs (culture, health, education, environment), while providing the means to assess their sociotechnical risks through empirical studies.
EA: Among your proposals, you mention an adaptation of legislative texts like the GDPR. What exactly are you referring to?
A. Basdevant: The metaverse relies on data capture technologies - for example, augmented reality glasses and phones, or virtual reality headsets, scan users' entire environment. This raises significant and potentially new privacy issues. Some countries, like Chile, have taken preemptive measures by establishing "neuro-rights," which enshrine the freedom to decide who is allowed to monitor, read, or modify your brain.
EA: Still, on the regulatory front, you encourage France to get involved in developing international standards in this area. Why - and how?
A. Basdevant: The future of immersion technologies is not yet determined, and much will depend on the technical standards that will prevail in the coming years - akin to what happened in the past with the internet. Therefore, we urge France to reinvest in negotiation bodies on these issues (W3C's "Immersive web" working group, Metaverse Standards Forum consortium...) to participate upstream in the development of standards rather than suffer the consequences downstream.
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