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What will the social graph look like this year? What is it going to look like two years from now, and how is it going to be built?

To answer that question, Elena Arponen, CEO and co-founder of Quicksave Interactive, Bruce Grove, CEO and co-founder of Polystream, and Si Lumb, metamedia futurist, joined Wanda Meloni, CEO & Principal Analyst at M2 Insights, for the “Breaking the Fourth Wall” panel, on day two of Into the Metaverse event — and they talked about how evolving technology, post-pandemic socialization trends, and more are breaking down the fourth wall between those who make games, those who play them, and those who watch them.

“With Polystream, we’re developing Fantom, which is about thinking not just about how we get players into games or how we watch games, but we want to put people inside of games,” says Grove. “And we can now really think about it not just from the player’s perspective, but what does it mean from the spectator’s perspective? What does it mean to attend events, attend games, and join in with your friends? That’s what we’re building and working on — connecting all these pieces and breaking that fourth wall.”

Analysts say the last year has accelerated our move into virtual spaces by five years, he notes. With the pandemic, people are joining each other in spaces beyond gaming, like concerts, sports events, and conferences, and that has created a huge shift in moving our worlds online.

“What we’re going to see is, increasingly, how do we want to be able to move between all of these different experiences?” he says. “How do we make it seamless to go from a conference to a music event to a sports event, play the game, watch the game? This year we’re going to see a big emphasis on taking part, but not always taking part as a player.”

“The existing social graphs will play a strong role this year and in the coming years, because people have spent a lot of time building up those social graphs,” Arponen said. “Certainly you can make new friends and build new graphs, but I do think it will be important to have the interoperability for these existing social environments — where you can bring your network easily to these new places, and they’ll be working together.”

The key thing is the portability of those networks, Lumb said. He points to the way people often have had to reconnect across platforms, sometimes time after time. He notes how his social group has moved from a social work IRC that grew large enough to move to a company Slack space, to a Discord channel when part of the group left the company.

“We’ve taken the graph, but every time we remade those connections,” he said. “[That’s the] challenge for the coming year, and there will be lots of people trying to solve this.”

Xbox Live and PlayStation have social components, the Epic Games Store allows you to log in with a number of social graphs, Steam has connectivity — so how do you find a way to interconnect these virtual spaces, find the network of other games to play?

“It’s something that absolutely has to be solved by technology companies,” Lumb added. And with the pandemic bringing older folks into virtual spaces to stay connected, he says, “we’ll see so many generations to attend virtual experiences. That human behavior is then portable. If we can solve some of the tech things, there’s a glide path into this stuff that should make the acceleration, just catalyze it even further. I think we’ll see rapid progress in 2021.”

“We’re working on how we connect them,” Grove says. “How do we make it easy for people to go into these spaces? We want to extend it beyond the player. We want to make it so that if you want to jump in a game just to wander around, maybe become an NPC or maybe use it as a social environment — that extends into how we’re using games and game technology.”

You can see this with how Unreal and Unity are being used to develop technology that goes beyond games — technology that moves into cross-media and transmedia, being used for film and TV, he said.

“What does it mean if we create all these spaces that can now also become interactive?” Grove said. “If we can use the cloud, we can create these huge enormous open worlds, and then make it very easy for people to join in.”

The cloud will offer the ability to connect the devices that connect users, allowing social graphs to cross many different places, move seamlessly between them, because it’ll be easier when we can offload a lot of the compute.

“We can create big universes, we can create networks and infrastructure,” Grove said. “We can just say, whatever device I’m on, however I want to connect, I want to jump into that space right now. I don’t need to be part of that ecosystem already. I can just join it because I’ve been invited, and I can become a part of it.”

The problem is the broad variability in access to devices. VR headsets are still not ubiquitous, and while the penetration of smartphones is enormous, the capabilities of devices still vary widely.

“The question is, sure, you can offload to the cloud, and the cloud’s provided an advantageous opportunity given the prevalence of decoder silicon for video, to allow us, with the improvements in networking and the close proximity of data centers, to get something that’s very good with modern cloud gaming,” Lumb said. “But it’s still far away, and so there are some elements of the speed of light you get stuck with. So the question is, what can we do that’s hybrid, that uses end points that are closer to the user and the devices in the user’s hands?”

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