How the metaverse is about to change your world

We caught up with metaverse expert James Coop to talk about why – and when – it’s going to change everything.
Alice Cooke
James Coop.jpg
  • Bill Gates has said that AI will be more revolutionary than the metaverse and Web3

  • But Meta's chief product officer, Chris Cox, says the metaverse will become as essential as the smartphone

  • James Coop, founder, disruptor, and metaverse aficionado, says not only is there room for both to change the world, but they’re intrinsically linked

This story first appeared in our subscriber-only weekly Blueprint newsletter. Receive exclusive interviews and analyses like this, direct to your inbox every Sunday, by subscribing to IE+.

While interacting with a Reddit user last week, Bill Gates said that the metaverse and Web3 are revolutionary, but not to the same extent as AI.

So has Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg splurged his riches chasing a pipe dream? Is the concept of a digital universe where everybody logs in to connect, work, and play simply not catching any traction anymore?

Meta's chief product officer Chris Cox doesn’t think so. In fact, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last week, he said he believes that the metaverse will become as essential as the smartphone.

James Coop, founder, disruptor, and metaverse aficionado, agrees. His most recent launch, Art Asylum operates in the metaverse, so you could argue he’s already put his money where his mouth is. 

So to find out how and when we can expect the universe to rock our worlds, we caught up with him to find out more. 

Interesting Engineering: Can you explain the metaverse to the uninitiated? James Coop: It’s a collective term for an interconnected group of virtual shared spaces – imagine a massive open-world computer game that gives you a new way of searching and browsing the internet, without a browser. You can use it to ‘travel’ anywhere and see and experience things in 3D. 

IE: What are the main challenges standing in the way of mass adoption?

JC: Everyone will need a connected device that will allow them to take advantage of everything the metaverse has to offer. So it’s primarily a question of developing and scaling that technology to the point where it’s accessible and affordable for everyone. 

But the wheels of this are already very much in motion. The technology is advancing at an incredible rate and the prices are already decreasing, so it won’t be long. In fact, in a matter of years you’ll be able to buy technology that enhances the metaverse experience, such as haptic gloves. So it’s coming.

There’s also a level of confusion surrounding the metaverse that needs to be overcome. The metaverse as a term refers to the idea of going through an open world, but there are lots of different metaverses, and the idea is that eventually, they will all be inter-connected. 

That’s the real dream of it. You should be able to jump from studying 15th-century Florence cities to watching otters playing in a river in Scotland at the touch of a button. 

IE: The billions of funding going into its development would suggest that it’s going to do great things. Where do you think we’ll see these coming through, primarily?

JC: The scope of projects you could tackle using the metaverse is infinite. In terms of education, as just one example, imagine the benefits of being able to take a class around a rainforest ecosystem or a satellite orbiting in space, and how much more they stand to learn from being immersed in the experience. I’ve seen a full 3D render of the temples in Luxor, Egypt, and it is truly incredible what the technology is capable of in terms of detail.

Facebook has been pushing the use case for its social possibilities in particular, whereby groups of friends can ‘meet up’ and watch a film together or watch a live performer. You’re able to see the live movements and reactions of your friends around you, and as the AR, VR, and haptic technologies improve, the level of definition on that will mean it really will feel like you’re sitting together as a group. So that stands to be something of a game-changer.

For the entertainment industry, it opens up some amazing possibilities too – we have already seen people dancing at live music concerts together from the comfort of their homes. Travis Scott did this last year and a few thousand people turned up virtually, it was pretty cool. And take something like ABBA’s virtual tour – that could easily be imported into a metaverse so that you could watch it from home. 

There’s a business case too – global team meetings, for example – U.S. Vogue famously held their AGM on it last year. They all sat in a specially-created pink world watching the latest runway collections. You can basically connect your global operations like never before, without flying them anywhere.

In simple terms it’s the concept of Speilberg’s Ready Player One coming to life – you can go anywhere and do anything. Which is why the gaming industry is, unsurprisingly, all over this and hard at work developing a raft of metaverses. 

IE: What are your thoughts on Bill Gates suggesting that AI is the next big tech shift, as opposed to the metaverse?

JC: The two are not mutually exclusive and the development of one doesn’t take anything away from the other. Quite the opposite in fact – the more AI technologies develop, the more the metaverse will be able to do. AI has the power to radically enhance the metaverse, so I am right behind those developments. 

AI will speed up the adoption rate of the metaverse too, so it’s all intrinsically linked. 

IE: Do you think the negative press surrounding the metaverse will have any bearing on its advancement?

JC: Not at all. There are enough people that know what it can – and could – do and are willing to put their time and money behind its development. Every time there’s a paradigm technology shift, there’s bad press about it. People are fundamentally scared of change… but you can win them around.

When we first invented steam trains, everyone was scared of them and said it wouldn’t work. In 1880, Henry Morton, president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, called Thomas Edison’s electric lightbulb invention a “conspicuous failure”. Even Dr. Spencer Silver, the guy who invented Post-It Notes, had a hard time convincing everyone they were a good idea. 

But for every naysayer, there are also people willing to take a leap of faith; the first airplane passengers, the first person to go in a submarine, the first person to put their bank details on the internet – it all starts with a degree of belief and backing, and this will be the same. 

IE: What do you think is going to happen in the next few years that will move us toward mass adoption of the metaverse? 

JC: We’re about to see an incremental yet seismic shift. I’ve seen technologies at tech shows where you’ve got guys making a version of Google Glasses but with both AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) on it, and you can switch between the two. That’s already available, so this is coming. 

All the money that’s been (and continues to be) raised for web3 projects that you’ve heard about in the press, is now being put to use – it’s building season. 

There are so many paths for this embryonic technology that are currently being explored, and in a few years’ time we’ll see some absolutely amazing stuff come to fruition. Watch this virtual space. 

Quickfire Questions

Who or what inspires you?

Great explorers, Roman emperors. The latter because — in some cases — what they were able to achieve in terms of technological advancement really was against all odds. I would also say I am inspired by people like John D. Rockefeller. The way he was able to mobilize an entire industry and take full advantage of the available technology was incredible. 

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

I quite often have the seeds of an idea ruminating around my head when I go to sleep, so when I wake up I want to work on it, develop it, immerse myself in it, and get going with it. That’s just the way my brain works. 

What makes you smile?

Everything. I always see the bright side of things, so I smile a lot. 

What unnerves you?

Being restricted or forced to do anything I don’t want to do — I am a big believer in free will. I am also not great with authority, which is why I tend to start my own companies. I thrive on the fear of the unknown. 

What annoys you?

Inefficiency. Stasis – anything too repetitive.

What one thing could you not live without?

Really good food.

What’s your greatest achievement to date?

I started a jewelry company and when it sold its first item, that felt pretty momentous. Launching a sustainable seafood company in America was also quite an achievement, so maybe that.

What is your biggest regret?

I have had a couple of business ideas that have failed. It's hard to let go when you know the concept was on-point but the timing to market just wasn’t quite right, and it’s then very humbling to see others in the space succeed.

What would you say to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

My career is incredibly exciting and interesting, and it takes me all around the world – but it’s not for the faint-hearted. A lot of it comes down to self-belief, so I would say if you want to start a company or break new ground and do something that nobody’s done before, you have to have an unerring faith in your ability to achieve it, even through all the inevitable ups and downs. It’s hard to let go, but sometimes it's the right thing to do.

What advice would you give your younger self? 

Be less stubborn. Listen to mentors and travel more. As an experiential learner, seeing different cultures opens doors to endless opportunities. I was told by a mentor of mine to document/journal my mid 20-30's. He called those your “Amex years”, i.e. a time when you see and experience so much of the world. By writing those experiences down you’re able to not only remember them all but look back at them fondly. I love that concept.

This story first appeared in our subscriber-only weekly Blueprint newsletter. Receive exclusive interviews and analyses like this, direct to your inbox every Sunday, by subscribing to IE+.

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