What is The Metaverse

 These days it seems like everybody and their corporate parent company is talking about “the metaverse” ;as the next big thing that’s going to revolutionize our online lives. But everyone seems to have their own idea of what “the metaverse” means—that is; if they have any real idea what it means at all.

The Metaverse
The Metaverse

The term “metaverse” was originally coined in Neal Stephenson’s seminal 1992 cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash. In the book, the Metaverse (always capitalized in Stephenson’s fiction) is a shared; “imaginary place” that’s “made available to the public over the worldwide fiber-optics network” and projected onto virtual reality goggles. In it, developers can “build buildings, parks, signs, as well as things that do not exist in Reality; such as vast hovering overhead light shows, special neighborhoods where the rules of three-dimensional spacetime are ignored; and free-combat zones where people can go to hunt and kill each other.”

Meta (formerly Facebook) CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his colleagues mentioned the word “metaverse” 80+ times in under 90 minutes during last week’s Facebook Connect keynote presentation, where the company announced its new name. But Stephenson has made it abundantly clear that “there has been zero communication between me and FB & no biz relationship.” That means Facebook’s interpretation of “the metaverse” might end up being quite different from what Stephenson originally described.

While Meta’s rebranding drives most of the metaverse conversation these days, the nearly 30 years since Snow Crash appeared have seen plenty of online networks that embody some or most of what Stephenson’s book describes. These efforts to create “the metaverse” have included numerous online games ;and gathering places that captured some of the metaverse’s most important concepts without ever using the term.

“But here we are,” as Oculus consulting CTO John Carmack recently put it. “Mark Zuckerberg has decided that now is the time to build the metaverse; so enormous wheels are turning and resources are flowing and the effort is definitely going to be made.”

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So is the metaverse the next big advance that will revolutionize the way we all connect with each other? Is it just a repackaging of existing technologies into a new catch-all concept? Or is it just the latest buzzword marketing term?

The answer to that depends on what you mean by “metaverse.”

Defining the metaverse

In his Facebook Connect keynote last week, Zuckerberg said that “the best way to understand the metaverse is to experience it yourself; but it’s a little tough because it doesn’t fully exist yet. ” From where we’re sitting, asking people to try out some nonexistent thing doesn’t seem like the best way to convey ;a full understanding of your bold new corporate direction.

Elsewhere in the keynote, Zuckerberg described a grandiose vision of the metaverse as an; “even more immersive and embodied internet” where “you’re gonna be able to do almost anything you can imagine— ;get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create—as well as entirely new categories that don’t really fit ;how we think about computers or phones today.” That helps a bit, but any description that includes the words “almost anything you can imagine”;  is so broad as to be almost meaningless.

After breaking down Meta’s vision—and looking at the history of the metaverse both as a concept and as embodied multiple distinct online spaces—we’ve identified the following elements that, taken together, seem to define a metaverse. Anything that has any business using the term will include one or all of the following:

A shared social space with avatars to represent users

This basic building block of the metaverse concept is what Zuckerberg is talking about when he calls for a more “embodied” Internet. On a web site or social media network, you might be represented by a username or thumbnail picture. In the metaverse, you’re represented by a customizable avatar that can move, speak, and/or perform animated actions.

These kinds of avatars have been common in all sorts of online gaming and social spaces since the ’90s (anyone remember Habbo Hotel?). But an avatar’s fidelity and abilities can vary greatly from service to service. Recent advances in virtual reality have enabled users to truly embody their fantastical avatars, seeing through their virtual eyes and using hand-tracking controllers to gesture and interact with virtual items. Spaces like VRChat show just how elaborate those VR avatars can now be.

The Metaverse
The Metaverse

A persistent “world” for the avatars to inhabit and interact with

In some cases, this means a virtual world that mimics the space constraints and land scarcity of the real world, as seen in Second Life‘s discrete plots of land. In other cases, it just means users sharing specially created spaces for a particular game or a special time-sensitive event; like recent multimedia concerts held in Fortnite.

In an idealized metaverse, every single user shares a single virtual world, where items and property persist for everyone between online sessions. For technical reasons, though, many modern metaverse-like spaces end up splitting users into sharded servers where a small subset of users can interact.

The ability to own virtual property as you would physical property

This can mean anything from a Neopets JPG that’s associated with your account to a collection of powerful gear in World of Warcraft. In either case, your virtual property stays linked to you and doesn’t disappear between sessions.

Recently, people have tried to use non-fungible tokens as a decentralized way to track and establish ownership of virtual goods; independent of any controlling authority or corporate server. In theory, such NFTs could allow virtual goods to be moved freely between metaverses controlled by different companies. In practice, the level of standard-setting and inter-corporate cooperation necessary for this kind of portability writ large remains a pipe dream.

The ability to create your own virtual property

Allowing users to make their own metaverse content can be seen as a boon both for users—who get to shape the virtual world to their whims—;and for the metaverse makers—who don’t have to spend a lot of time and effort creating every single virtual object from scratch. Games like Minecraft and Roblox show how metaverses that provide relatively simple building blocks can harness network effects and player creativity to produce a huge variety of in-world creations.

But filling a metaverse with virtual objects isn’t as simple as just saying “let the users do it. ” Questions of control, moderation, and copyright infringement can take on outsized importance here; especially if your metaverse is controlled by a corporation that wants to draw value; from all that user-generated work (and if the users want to share the profits).

The Metaverse
The Metaverse

The ability to exchange and/or sell your virtual property

This can range from things like no-longer-grey-market currency exchanges for World of Warcraft gold farming to strictly regulated full in-universe economies like those in EVE Online. Somewhere in the middle you have games like Second Life, where disagreements over player “ownership” of the virtual land created by publisher Linden Labs have been argued in US courts.

A shared universe of IP from multiple major companies

This element of the metaverse idea was heavily popularized by Ready Player One, the 2011 novel and 2018 movie featuring a virtual world that combined elements of countless nostalgic media properties, from Joust and Dungeons and Dragons to WarGames and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Media consolidation aids this concept, allowing for virtual worlds where Gandalf could fight Bugs Bunny through the unexpected largesse of common corporate parent Warner Bros. But crossovers that reach past a single corporate walled garden are becoming more common, too: characters from Nintendo, Microsoft, Sega, Square Enix, Capcom, Namco, Konami, and more all interact in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, for instance. Meanwhile, Fortnite has played host to official crossovers from Disney/Marvel/Star Wars, John Wick, DC Comics, Ghostbusters, God of War, Halo, the NFL, and many more.

The Metaverse
The Metaverse

Full 3D telepresence via VR or AR glasses

This is seen by many as the last step in achieving a “full” metaverse. Virtual and augmented reality could allow us to advance past the “magic windows” of our flat screens to ;a world where one actually feels a sense of “presence” with other 3D avatars occupying the same location. “It’ll feel like you’re right in the room together making eye contact; having a shared sense of space ;and not just looking at a grid of faces on a screen,” as Meta put it in its keynote.

Early efforts like VRChat and Meta’s own Horizon Worlds and Horizon Workplaces already serve as strong proof-of-concept examples of how this could work. But sharing a room with 16 other avatars in Horizon is “a far cry from the; metaverse of our visions,” as Carmack pointed out last week. Many technical problems will need to be overcome to have a VR metaverse with “thousands of people milling about” ;and wandering in and out of virtual rooms at will, as Carmack envisions.

Whose the metaverse is it, anyway?

Besides these generalized building blocks, it’s also important to differentiate between “a metaverse” and “The Metaverse.” While they sound similar, changing the article preceding “metaverse” can heavily impact the meaning.

The difference has to do with control. Broadly speaking, any corporate entity or group of programmers can create “The metaverse” that meets any or all of the above criteria; just as anyone can create a social network. In these cases, a single entity manages the servers; polices user conduct, and sets rules for how the virtual world works.

On the other end of the spectrum is a completely open architecture; where different entities and interoperable servers connect to a single shared Metaverse—the Metaverse—via a shared set of broadly agreed-upon standards. Successes like the world wide web and email show how this is possible in the wider online world; but similar efforts to establish metaverse standards have mostly failed to catch on.

Stephenson’s Snow Crash described something of a hybrid approach between these two poles. An individual user’s view of Stephenson’s Metaverse is “the graphic representations—the user interfaces;—of myriad different pieces of software that have been engineered by major corporations,” he wrote. But the virtual world those pieces of software live in is controlled by the Global Multimedia Protocol Group; which developers need to work with to “get zoning approval, obtain permits, bribe inspectors, the whole bit.”

While plenty of companies are building “a metaverse” of sorts, the end goal for many of them seems to be taking control of “The Metaverse,” the singular place where everyone shares their online lives. Right now, it seems vanishingly unlikely that any single corporate-controlled metaverse will become that popular, though. Absent some sort of workable decentralized standard emerging; we’ll likely see dozens of balkanized metaverses fighting for mind share ;and market share without allowing for much interaction between them.

What problem are you solving?

Depending on how strict you are with the above definitions; there are plenty of existing online structures that could be described as metaverses. Many have grown out of the world of gaming; where the idea of sharing a virtual space with other characters represented by avatars is a long-established fact of life.

Clive Thompson argues persuasively that Minecraft is already a metaverse in every way that matters. Epic’s Tim Sweeney sees Fortnite as the central pillar of the company’s own metaverse. The multi-billion dollar Roblox lets users create millions of shared public “experiences” (don’t call them “games”) under a single standard. A lucky few Roblox creators even make a full-time living creating those spaces (which include unofficial Squid Game recreations that skirt IP laws deftly).

The Metaverse
The Metaverse

Second Life, VRChat, and EVE Online could all be considered metaverses in their own right. Even a simpler online game like Grand Theft Auto Online is a metaverse in a sense. As Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick recently told GamesIndustry.biz:

If… you define metaverse as an engaging digital landscape where you can present yourself as an avatar; where you can talk to people ;and hang out with people; where you can bicycle, surf, motorcycle, drive, compete, tell stories; be told stories, have live events, sit at a casino table… well, then we already have metaverses here at Take-Two.

In this sense, “the metaverse” isn’t some amorphous futuristic idea that nobody can really understand. It’s just something that countless companies are building today.

When Meta and others talk about “The Metaverse,” though, they’re going a bit beyond that basic definition. The metaverse of Zuckerberg’s vision isn’t just a place for people to hang out as avatars but ;a full-blown revolution of the online experience, offering a space where people will spend the bulk of their online lives. Meta and others see the future metaverse as so compelling ;that it will largely or completely replace the “flat” Internet we know; and it will be used for everything from corporate meetings to shopping to massive social gatherings.

This vision of the metaverse has been relatively common in fiction for decades now. And there are some signs that younger generations are more comfortable replacing real-world gatherings with virtualized ones; just ask the 12 million people who saw a Travis Scott concert in Fortnite last year.

But for any online or real-world function that you think will occur in a future metaverse; you first have to ask what problem the metaverse solves for users. Yes, holding a corporate meeting with VR avatars could offer some utility over the awkward video wall of today’s Zoom meetings (or the travel needed for real-world meetings). But even with likely advances in the comfort of VR headsets and the verisimilitude of VR avatars; that sort of all-encompassing VR gathering might seem overwhelming to employees used ;to tabbing away to other tasks during Zoom meetings.

And sure, shopping in a simulated virtual world holds some promise, whether it’s test-driving a car in Fortnite or simply buying artificially rare virtual goods as an online status symbol. But questions remain about how individual users can monetize their own creations or; how much of a cut needs to be taken to keep the metaverse up and running.

Some foresee a metaverse where everyone can make money via play-to-earn schemes or boutique virtual item creation. But examples like Roblox show us that virtual worlds usually have the same economic stratification as the real world, where only top-tier creators (or those who got in on the ground floor) can actually make a decent living. In this sense, Stephenson was probably prescient in Snow Crash. “By getting in on it early, Hiro’s buddies got a head start on the whole [metaverse] business,” he wrote. “Some of them even got very rich off of it.”

Right now, companies are following their FOMO and looking for that first-mover advantage in the coming metaverse, staking a claim to a brave new virtual world before the scaffolding for it is even fully built. While elements of Stephenson’s metaverse idea will continue to show up in countless online worlds; that doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily be living in a single, self-contained VR metaverse any time soon.

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