In January, dressed in a crisp white shirt and slacks, with a tidy, consciously androgynous hairstyle, Christina Ku, a director at NTT Docomo Ventures, the Silicon Valley investment arm of the Japanese telecom conglomerate Docomo, gestured to the whiteboard behind her as she took her team through a breakdown of her investments and exits. Ku spoke confidently and authoritatively, unfazed when one colleague flickered out of existence, and two more arrived outfitted in Colonel Sanders-esque suits. All in a day’s work when you’re meeting in the metaverse, she says.
There’s been massive investment in the metaverse, even before Facebook rebranded itself as Meta in October 2021. The global metaverse space was valued at $38.85 billion in 2021 by market data platform Statista, which estimates that number will balloon 22% in 2022 and rise to $678.8 billion by 2030. “Investors [are] pouring capital into the space,” says Fred Schebesta, a futurist and cofounder of Hive Empire Capital, a blockchain investment fund. “We’ve never seen such a rapid explosion of growth.” Ku, an investor in the space, has been trying to move all of her meetings—and some reluctant colleagues and entrepreneurs—to the metaverse, which she defines as a digital world interaction and immersion.”
Ku’s been fascinated with the potential of the metaverse for years. In many ways, it began with Pokémon, she says. Like millions, in 2016 Ku became obsessed with Niantic’s Pokémon Go mobile game. She snagged a rare Koffing in Tokyo’s Haneda airport, a couple of Psyducks in Austin, and hunted down a Mudkip during a crypto conference in Croatia.
Her San Francisco neighborhood was a hotbed for rare Pokémon, and “friends visited just so we could catch them,” she recalls. This augmented reality experience across multiple physical spaces demonstrated a wider application for technology that had previously been relegated to the “hardcore gamer” sphere. The rollout of Virtual YouTuber concerts heightened her excitement. In March 2020, she watched, enthralled, as Kizuna AI streamed a concert in 5G, noticing how thousands of fans responded to the VTuber in real time. “The way that realities and communities merged was fascinating,” Ku says.
Ku’s investments in early to mid-stage startups reflect her excitement—her portfolio includes WaveXR, which develops VR music concerts for celebrities; Light Field Lab, which designs holographic hardware; and Arcturus Studios, which develops 3D video capture tools.
Her metaverse all hands-meeting in January was not without hiccups—some of her 15 or so colleagues who attended struggled with the user interface of their newly issued headsets, and with navigating around Meta’s Horizon Workrooms. But Ku still found it beneficial. “We are investing in the metaverse, so it makes sense that we would eat our own dog food,” she says, admitting that Workrooms’s avatar fashion was “limited” and that her headset grew uncomfortable during the three-hour session.
Even with these limitations, she says the metaverse is especially attractive in a business context. “Everybody was democratized,” she says. The relative conformity of people’s avatars made it easier to “focus on what they were saying, and how they interacted with you.” In Ku’s opinion, the unconscious biases so inherent in most interactions—age, sex, height, etc.—were noticeably absent.
She’s been pushing business contacts to have meetings in the virtual world. A couple of months ago, Ku toured an NFT gallery with the founder of a stealth startup; both parties logged on via their VR headsets. “Walking” through the gallery together brought the concept to life, she says. “I wouldn’t have been as excited if he’d just shown me a presentation.” But despite her prodding, she’s had relatively few metaverse meetings—even with metaverse-pitching startups. She says that mostly they send her video demos or Decentraland links.
Ku finds the widespread reluctance to meet in the metaverse frustrating. If startups were able to pivot their pitches to Zoom during COVID-19, why not the metaverse? It would streamline her whole process. “I can meet 10 CEOs in the same [amount of] time” it would take to meet one in the real world, she says.
In her metaverse evangelism, she’s even tried loaning VR headsets to some of her VC friends at other firms, but most won’t even unbox them. “They’re uncomfortable because they don’t understand it,” Ku says.
But I’m game for a virtual meeting. In March, I boot up my PC, update my Oculus Rift drivers, and head over to Rec Room, a social VR game, to meet Ku for a follow-up interview. The bright primary colors of the Rec Room universe feel dizzying—we’re here because I couldn’t get VRChat or Spatial, two popular meetup spaces—to play nice with my setup.
For my avatar, I opt for shoulder-length brown hair instead of my regular blond, a tidy mustache, and a fitted red dress with a Peter Pan collar. Then I wander around the main lobby waiting for Ku to arrive, stumbling across a plushie furry-esque store, a laser tag arena, and a bunch of kid-size avatars that throw Frisbees at my head while humming a song from Encanto.
“Where are you?” I text Ku, and a message appears on my avatar’s virtual watch, teleporting me to her “dorm room.” The sudden locomotion makes me queasy. Ku’s room is generic, auto-filled with a wastepaper basketball hoop, bunk bed, and avatar mirror. Ku’s avatar, outfitted in an orange-and-white basketball jersey, with sweatbands on her wrists, looks around the space and laughs. “I don’t see dorm rooms being a part of business interactions,” she says. “But it is roomy.” I see what she means. I’m just glad everything has stopped spinning.
We stand in front of her mirror as she walks me through the avatar design process. “One of the appeals of the metaverse is that you can have different identities, different personalities, different personas,” she says, cycling through an array of skins: a sports fan, a world traveler, a van lifer. “They’re all different versions of yourself. All of these personas could be me.”
Of course, it’s still early days for this whole space—and before we get better tech, a bunch of housekeeping needs to be worked out: compliance, 5G connectivity, and content moderation being the most pressing, she says. Then there are the innovations that level up the game; Ku has met startups developing touch and smell metaverse add-ons. “This adds to the multilayered sense of the metaverse,” she says.
Even as more companies head back to the office, Ku says the global return to IRL interactions has no bearing on this trend, noting, “People have gotten a taste of what is possible.” In many ways, the Great Resignation is proof of people’s desire to keep—or keep elements of—this new normal. Ku says we’re not at the metaverse inflection point yet but it’s coming; she predicts buying a headset will become as commonplace as buying a laptop or phone. “People are changing the way they think about personal interactions,” she says. “There will always be a place for in-person, but the metaverse can remove a lot of that. This is the future.”