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Southeast Asia’s place in the metaverse

Imagine living in a virtual reality world where you can have your avatar play video games, shop, hang out with friends, attend concerts and weddings and even travel the world — all without leaving your home. 

These are just a few of the scenarios envisioned in a future metaverse.

The metaverse is the convergence of two ideas that have been around for many years: virtual reality and digital second life.

For technophiles, the metaverse is what they have dreamt about. It represents a nirvana: a place to immerse yourself in any digital surrounding, and participate in any physical reality.This is at any time – and to be able to see and feel anything, even if you are thousands of miles away from that physical place.

Interest in metaverse has gone through the roof ever since Facebook announced that it was changing its name to Meta and going all-in on bringing metaverse to life. 

Interest has piqued to such levels that in 2021, the team of lexicographers at Collins and Oxford included it as one of the Tech Word of the Year.

But is it the first time, the Metaverse or virtual world is getting introduced to people at large? The answer to that is no.

Over the past couple of decades, several virtual worlds have been created in line with this concept. 

Arguably, the most famous amongst them is Second Life, a platform created by Philip Rosedale in 2003 that, as the name suggests, allows people to create their own avatars and lead a second life in a virtual 3D world. With over 900,000 active users to this day, it is touted as one of the first examples of the metaverse.

However, whatever has been built in the past was rudimentary, whereas now there is a huge amount of excitement as there’s a feeling that the technology is nearly there, with advancements in VR gaming and connectivity coming close to what might be needed.

Experts have coined it as the future of the ‘internet’ and no-one wants to be left behind.

Games are the first frontier

It is very much possible that we might have experienced it while gaming. 

For example, if you have played the game ‘Fortnite’ then you would have experienced it.

When Epic was developing Fortnite, its plan was not to create a metaverse. But what started in 2017 as a tower defence-style game where players fought zombies exploded, just a year later, into an international phenomenon, that was unbelievable.

As millions of players flocked to Fortnite Battle Royale, a game mode that is a bit like “The Hunger Games,” the company rushed to add social features, like voice chatting and dance parties. 

In financial documents made public, Epic said Fortnite made more than $9 billion in revenue in 2018 and 2019 combined. Players spend money to dress up their characters in superhero costumes and banana suits.

Now, Epic markets Fortnite as not just an interactive experience but as a metaverse.

Roblox, a platform where independent developers create games popular with children, maybe the nearest and most expansive vision of the metaverse.

In the first quarter of 2021, people spent nearly 10 billion hours playing Roblox, according to the company’s earnings report, and more than 42 million users log in each day. 

Players also spent $652 million on the site’s virtual currency, Robux, which can be used to purchase hats, weapons, hot air balloons and other digital items for their characters. After going public on March 10, the company’s valuation shot to $45 billion; as of this week, it’s closer to $50 billion.

Other game makers are quickly following suit, with VR variants of popular games like Activision’s Call of Duty Warzone, World of Warcraft and Take-Two’s GTA San Andreas.

Microsoft acquisition of Activision Blizzard, an American video game holding company, for $68.7 billion in cash. It is one of the biggest acquisitions in the gaming industry so far, making Microsoft the third largest gaming company in terms of revenue.

Is it all about games?

Even though there are so many ideas about what the metaverse might be, most visions see social human interaction as the core. 

The immersive environment of the metaverse opens a wide array of possibilities for consumer-facing companies for example from training future surgeons to rolling out product demos to retail employees, there are plenty of business applications.

The leadership of tech company Nvidia believes that investing in metaverse simulations of such things as manufacturing and logistics will reduce waste and accelerate better business solutions and Microsoft is positioning its cloud services to be the fabric of the metaverse, using its Mesh platform to enable avatars and immersive spaces to thread into the collaboration environments, such as Teams, over time.

With post-Covid hybrid or remote working environments, many of these more creative virtual business experiences are likely to become even more relevant to how companies connect to their people and to their customers.

Considering this, Facebook has been experimenting with a VR meetings app called Workplace, and a social space called Horizons, both of which use their virtual avatar systems. 

Another VR app, VRChat, is entirely focused around hanging out online and chatting – with no goal or purpose other than exploring environments and meeting people.

Apart from this, there are a few more interesting concepts that are evolving in the metaverse.

An emerging leader in the space, The Sandbox, owned by Hong-Kong based Animoca Brands, is a virtual world where players can build, own and sell their creations and games. 

Users can buy digital real estate as NFTs called LAND using a cryptocurrency called SAND, which is built on the Ethereum blockchain.

Decentraland, built by the foundation with the same name, is another popular metaverse where users can buy virtual land as NFTs, using the MANA cryptocurrency. Late last year, popular brands like Samsung, Adidas, Atari and PwC appeared in Decentraland by investing in virtual property on the platform. 

Recently, Animoca Brands partnered with K-pop agency Cube, to partner with K-pop artists and offer entertainment services in the metaverse. With its monthly active user base crossing 1 million, the platform garnered an investment of $93 million, led by Softbank’s Vision Fund 2.

Zuckerberg’s Meta also launched their first offering, Horizon Worlds, in North America in December 2021. Calling it a ‘social experience where you can create in extraordinary ways, the platform has also gained significant traction in the last quarter, with a tenfold increase in the number of users to over 300,000 by March end.

Much like Meta in the USA, Tencent in China is also accelerating its plans to participate in the metaverse. According to Bloomberg, Tencent is planning to acquire Black Shark, a leading gaming handset manufacturer, to further their metaverse ambitions.

While these projects have brought the concept of the metaverse to the world globally, there has been another region that is carving its own place in this space, and that is Southeast Asia.

Leading players in SEA

The underpinnings of the metaverse have already taken the gaming industry by storm because gaming is where virtual experiences have been the most immersive. And, therefore, we look at leading players, gaming companies’ name appear at the top.

Sky Mavis, the creator of Axie Infinity, a popular NFT-based play-to-earn (P2E) game where players breed, battle, and trade digital pets called Axie, is the leading player in this category.  NFT-based P2E games are decentralised, meaning that the players own the in-game assets that they purchase and can generate real-world rewards for their in-game activities.

Axie Infinity has amassed players worldwide, with more than 1.8 million daily active users logging into the platform in August. It also has helped create income-generating opportunities for underserved people worldwide; 25 per cent of players are unbanked, and 50 per cent have not previously used cryptocurrencies.

As per a recent survey conducted by Milieu, 50%+ respondents across SEA nations have shown a desire to purchase things in the metaverse.

Axie Infinity claims to have achieved US$33 million in everyday transactions, for a total volume of over US$2 billion. 

In October, the Vietnamese company scored US$152 million in a Series B financing round and has already achieved unicorn status.

Others have followed suit. Yield Guild Games (YGG) is another leading metaverse promoter in the SEA region. YGG SEA is an official sub-DAO of YGG, which launched as a decentralised autonomous organisation in July 2021.

YGG SEA leverages the parent’s infrastructure and assets to serve communities within the region to join the metaverse through localised investment, education, and on-the-ground services.

Another gaming company, Sipher aims to unify state-of-the-art blockchain tech, artwork, storytelling, and multiplayer gaming with decentralized financial technologies. Its vision is to create an expansive world that attracts and keeps the player base engaged for years to come as new worlds, characters, and factions are introduced.

YGG SEA claims it has helped more than 2,500 players and investors in the region to generate additional revenue streams. The regional guild plans to increase the customer base to about 10,000 by 2022. In December, the Philippine company announced fundraise of US $15 million.

Sipher intends to create an ecosystem where people can play for fun while earning rewards for their time spent in-game. It also provides the community with ownership of in-game assets, which directly contributes to the growth and success of the gaming industry.

Other leading gaming companies promoting the metaverse are Guildfi, and Cosmic Guild.

Apart from gaming, they are few players who are driving different initiatives to improve use case of a metaverse in other segments.

One of them is OFF. OFF’s goal is to create an open ecosystem for avatar-based micro verses, and its first product is an NFT-based social metaverse platform, called MYTY.

MYTY is a decentralised social platform where people can escape the limitations of the physical world using NFT avatars. Its MYTY Camera app converts CryptoPunks NFT into avatars. It enables users to show up as the visuals of their own NFT avatars in Discord, Zoom, and other webcam-based applications.

OFF is currently working on “Ghosts Project”, the first collection of NFT avatars designed in partnership with MrMisang, the top artist in SuperRare. Ghosts Project, which is a prequel to MrMisang’s original series Modern Life is Rubbish, is being optimised for face tracking and motion tracking. It is designed to show the full capacity of MYTY’s avatars’ full-body tracking, including nodding, raising hands, and various emotional expressions.

SHR Ring, a blockchain technology company, has created an ecosystem for a shared economy where users can store personal information and transact securely through the encrypted self-sovereign ID solution. Based on its own blockchain tech, any individual user’s identity and documents are verifiable, and they can decide who can access the information. Through the ShareRing app and platform, customers can get services from multiple industries.

Recently, SHR Ring announced the start of the application period for grants for researching the metaverse, NFTs, and digital identities. The funding will be managed by a new innovative research division called the ShareRing Lab. The company has raised $3.8 million USD from one investor, Alpha Sigma Capital. Its decentralised marketplace uses ShareToken as a trusted digital utility token for paying for services worldwide.

These are just a few of the many leading startups, with probably several being set up at the time of writing this.

Way Forward

The metaverse as a concept remains keenly debated. 

Critics claim it is a bubble that is likely to eventually burst, while proponents believe it is only a matter of time before every company, brand and individual has their own presence in the metaverse.

While how much the metaverse permeates our day to day life remains yet to be seen, it is hard to deny that it is going to be hard to ignore. Southeast Asia, a region that has gotten a head start in this space, has a great chance of being at the forefront of this revolution.