everyone-is-talking-about-the-metaverse-these-companies-have-an-early-lead.

Everyone Is Talking About the Metaverse. These Companies Have an Early Lead.

Text size

Success in the metaverse success will take more than just virtual-reality goggles.


Roman Chazov/Dreamstime


Facebook

CEO Mark Zuckerberg isn’t known for his charisma or sense of humor. But he has forged a reputation as a relentless tactician, with a record of making big bets well before others see the opportunity.

So when Zuckerberg says Facebook (ticker: FB) is essentially shedding its social-media roots, investors should pay attention. Last month, during Facebook’s earnings call, Zuckerberg said that Facebook’s future is in the metaverse. Don’t laugh. Like it or not, the metaverse is here, and you might even already be in it.

The metaverse, to Zuckerberg and other enthusiasts, is the next major realm of computing and the next vision for the internet. The buzzword refers to a virtual environment in which users can interact with each other and their world, letting people play games, work, socialize, or consume content, to name a few potential uses. It’s like being inside the internet, versus just connecting to it.

Even boosters admit the metaverse is in the early stages. Venture-capital investor Matthew Ball has grappled with the concept and arrived at a few key attributes that include continuous and live operation, spanning digital and physical worlds, and containing a functioning economy.

Ball is already betting big on the metaverse. He recently helped launch the

Roundhill Ball Metaverse

exchange-traded fund (META), whose top holdings include

Nvidia

(NVDA),

Tencent Holdings

(700.Hong Kong),

Roblox

(RBLX),

Microsoft

(MSFT), and

Unity Software

(U).

Zuckerberg himself has staked big money on the metaverse, dating back to the company’s 2014 acquisition of virtual-reality headset maker Oculus Rift for $2 billion.

He’s no longer alone in his interest. Mentions of the metaverse in earnings transcripts and other corporate documents are up five times this year compared with 2020, according to data from Sentieo. Roblox, the recently public videogame company, mentioned the term 15 times in its IPO filing.

On an earnings call earlier this year, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella talked about a big opportunity in the convergence of virtual and physical worlds. He said

Airbus

(AIR.France),

Toyota Motor

(TM),

L’Oréal

(OR.France),

Intel

(INTC), and the U.S. Army were among its customers that are “transcending space and addressing complex challenges using mixed reality.”

Not everyone is taken with the metaverse hype. Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Grand Theft Auto publisher

Take-Two Interactive Software

(TTWO), says the company’s games have long allowed people to inhabit characters, express themselves, and be entertained. “Whether those worlds become places where you buy real estate, or transact business, remains to be seen,” he says, noting the term metaverse “means different things to different people.”

Whatever the metaverse turns out to be, Big Tech is already positioning itself to participate. Here’s how the companies stack up:


Alphabet

(GOOGL) is arguably in the best position to win in the metaverse. The company owns the most popular smartphone operating system in the world, Android, important for future hardware. Its self-appointed role of organizing the world’s information—largely through search, for now—is essential for the next iteration of the internet. It also has a batch of hardware businesses that connect people to the internet, from recently acquired Fitbit to smart-home unit Nest. Its long-shot bets, including its Waymo self-driving unit and its healthcare efforts, are bringing the software company closer to the physical world.


Amazon.com’s

(AMZN) Echo hardware and Alexa virtual assistant have become popular in homes across the U.S. The hardware, but especially the virtual assistant, could play an important role in helping people navigate the metaverse, as well. Amazon Web Services, the company’s wildly profitable cloud-computing arm, will likely play a big role in powering experiences in the metaverse, much as it does today with the web and other parts of the internet.


Apple

(AAPL) hasn’t directly addressed the metaverse in its corporate earnings calls and events, but CEO Tim Cook has been raving about augmented reality—a likely metaverse component—since 2016. Ultimately, its strengths in consumer hardware and software are likely to be its competitive advantage in the metaverse, too—as long as you’re willing to stay within Apple’s universe.

Facebook may have reawakened interest in the metaverse, but the company actually has more ground to make up than its rivals. Its dominant networks rely on other operating systems—a vulnerability that’s become clear during its recent privacy battle with Apple. The company’s best asset in the metaverse is its Reality Labs business, which houses its virtual- and augmented-reality efforts. Its Quest virtual-reality headsets are gaining traction, and the company has promised to launch smart glasses soon. Facebook, to be sure, has the resources to catch up. According to Evercore analyst Mark Mahaney, it will spend about $5 billion this year on metaverse research and development.

Microsoft, more than any other company, is already living in the metaverse. As Nadella’s recent comments show, the company is pitching current clients on the benefits of mixed reality. The company also has the gaming bona fides that could be a key factor in a future metaverse. It owns Xbox and Minecraft, a virtual world loved by gamers. Its slogan? “The World Is Yours for the Making.”

Write to Max A. Cherney at max.cherney@barrons.com