The Metaverse is Already Here: The World Wide Web
The world wide web is our first metaverse. While the internet was developed in the 1960s- long before the term metaverse was coined by science fiction writer Neil Stephenson in his book Snow Crash in 1992- it acts as the original metaverse, albeit a 2D one.
The internet, and all the game stores, worlds and social platforms that we already have, are just a microcosm of the metaverse that will one day be persistent digital destinations, with interchangeable currencies, varying privacy and data regulations, payment systems, digital goods- even if just text, videos, audio files, and images at the moment- and the ability to jump between one site and another with a single verifiable ID.
A lot of these infrastructures and principles that exist in the 2D metaverse will take up residency in the 3D metaverse that is already developing too. Let’s take a look at how this next generation metaverse may emerge and what it might look like.
A Vision of the Next Metaverse
During VentureBeat’s 2021 Summit on the Metaverse, run by Dean Takahashi, the popular vision of the metaverse presented was an interconnected spatial web of mixed reality and fully digital worlds that are persistent, hosting limitless numbers of people simultaneously.
This vision also hints to a level of underlying infrastructure that will be necessary to support such a metaverse with ubiquitous technological, economic, and social pillars.
Here are just a few of the factors up for consideration in this context :
- Interchangeable, transferable and interoperable digital goods
- Convertible currencies
- Digital ownership
- Verifiable identity
- Ethical code of conduct
- Standardization of privacy protocols and protections
- Environmental considerations- powering the metaverse
- User sovereignty
The convergence of 5G, cloud computing, blockchain and NFT gaming technology, among developments in computer processing power, graphics cards, code-free creation suites, AI, and computer vision, are blending the perfect storm for this to happen. Let’s take a look at some of these points in more detail.
The Challenge of Hosting Limitless Users on a Single Server
A major obstacle of an open metaverse is the capacity to hold unlimited users in any single online destination. When too many people join a single destination at once, the server crashes.
By distributing the data among multiple machines, these multiple databases can store larger amounts of data, and additional requests from joining users.
However, when one dataset is too large to be stored in a single database, sharding occurs. This means that suddenly, another version of the destination is created, and the latest user to join the server will arrive in a newly cloned destination.
In most cases, like Fortnite, VRChat, AltspaceVR and a number of other multiplayer games or social worlds, sharding occurs after around 40-90 users join a server. Some open worlds such as Sinespace (which you may better recognize for their product Breakroom) have hosted up to 500 avatars simultaneously, but this means the level of graphics and interactions must be carefully considered so as not to sacrifice quality of the experience.
Games like Fortnite and Roblox handle this by enabling players to drop randomly into a server, or, players can have private or pre-arranged servers where specific users meet or invite others by username to a unique server.
As we work our way towards a metaverse where limitless users can engage in one server, or a collective server, this type of highly organised user interface for collaborating and community organization will be key.
We might be just a few years away from having tens of thousands of users in a single server. Until then, the 3D metaverse will continue to exist in independent city states of sorts, with NFT’s (Non-Fungible Tokens) making the first border crossings between platforms.
Will the Augmented Reality or Virtual Reality Metaverse Come First?
The Augmented Reality Metaverse
While the internet created the world wide web as a metaverse apart from our real world, augmented reality is turning the real world into the metaverse. It’s bringing the digital into the tangible world, and it’s quite likely that this augmented reality metaverse will be the next to develop.
There are many companies already underway here. Niantic with the widely popular Pokémon GO leveraged maps and physical world locations to bring their users around the world outdoors to play. While most players didn’t actually ever use the AR version of the game, it was still a great success in terms of scale and potential.
Mojang Studios also played a large role in demonstrating the scale of an open AR world. Sadly, in January 2021 they announced the shutdown of their augmented reality mobile game Minecraft Earth, which let players interact with Minecraft superimposed on the real-world. The pandemic was cited as a part of its decision to end the program as free movement and collaborative play became near impossible, but the actual use of AR amongst Pokémon GO players may be another indicator that consumers aren’t yet convinced that AR offers a compelling experience beyond selfie filters.
Google maps is also in a good position to develop an open AR metaverse, combining computer vision with digital maps of the real world to provide real-time information and wayfinding. The ability for consumers to engage with Google Maps, and customize it with pins and preferences is another indication of how a ubiquitous, interactive AR metaverse may emerge.
Charlie Fink, who in 2019 published Convergence, How the World Will be Painted with Data, is also bullish on AR at scale. In the book he outlines how AR is seeping into every smartphone and workplace, and merging with 5G and AI technologies to unleash a wave of innovation that will enable wearable, invisible, latency-free and ubiquitous computing.
As Apple’s AR headset launch draws inevitably closer, Google acquires AR glasses maker North, and Facebook’s Aria R&D project is sleuthing our behaviors for its next platform upgrade, AR will move from mobile devices and onto our faces as lightweight AR glasses.
With lens makers like Mojo Vision hard at work, AR glasses could also be a passing fad as the technology rapidly minaturaizes.
More intuitive user interfaces moving towards a Zero-UI, and multimodal interfaces with full-body tracking, hand tracking and gesture recognition, eye tracking, conversational voice control interfaces in addition to touch interfaces and better hardware such as eye glasses will make the augmented reality metaverse more plausible in the near future.
The Virtual Reality Metaverse
Where augmented reality brings the digital into the real world, virtual reality brings us into the digital world. In order to become viable as the next metaverse, virtual reality must present a better (or at the very least equivalent) experience than 2D alternatives.
Mixed Reality headsets that make use of a pass-through camera will be the way forward as ease of use means blending the digital and physical worlds and easily transitioning between the two.
While there are already over 3 billion compatible AR devices in the market, VR headsets are still too expensive and too bulky for the VR metaverse to scale. There are some amazing experiences out there, but not nearly enough. Even on the festival track we see the same experiences and creatives on the global circuit year after year.
This means that the tools, accessibility and audience is still in development. It makes a lot more sense for the metaverse to start as a PC/Mac experience first, then AR, then VR.
Even with user adoption on the rise, primarily driven by Facebook selling their VR headsets at a loss to reduce consumer cost and throttle competition, VR has a long way to go as we continue to learn how to make good content in this new medium, and also undergo infrastructure growing pains for the metaverse.
Is Blockchain Technology Ready for the Metaverse?
Blockchain and NFTs
In the physical world, we can bring a car out of one parking garage and put it in another parking garage, sometimes with fees, sometimes for free. It’s likely we’ll see a similar model in the metaverse when transitioning our goods from one ecosystem to another.
Ideally, virtual borders will be open and tariff free, but in order to maintain ecosystems and track the flow of goods and services, the metaverse will likely develop regulations for a fully functioning economy.
Blockchain and NFTs are presenting a foundation to establish virtual economies, mirroring the functions of real world currency, but with decentralized monitoring that brings greater security and authenticity to transactions, goods, and services.
Unique identifiers tracked on the blockchain can be used to transport digital goods in and out of virtual ecosystems, but it also raises the question of privacy for companies, and individuals. As every movement is tracked and verified, protocols for privacy and security will either become governed by physical world regulatory bodies, nuanced by each platform, or a combination of the two as we see today.
As an example of this, Epic Games has taken up Apple and Google, questioning whether a revenue cut of 30% is necessary to run a digital storefront when 8% is really all that is required. In a similar manner, walled gardens are likely to evolve in the metaverse where companies will want to benefit from goods and services in their ecosystem, imposing transaction fees or tariffs.
Users will flock to worlds with good content, fair ecosystems, strong community, tools and resources. The social platform ecosystem will get a whole lot more competitive than Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and Twitch.
In the same way that users gravitate towards experiences they feel comfortable in, it’s likely they will also develop a sense of citizenship in virtual worlds, as new age netizens who have a much greater stake in their digital footprint.
Today, the majority of the items we buy or create online and in virtual words don’t really belong to us, but this will change.
As discussed, blockchain is a great solution, but it is not without its challenges too.
Blockchain needs to be implemented locally to be optimized for real-time efficiency. This is a very unexplored space and, at the moment, the blockchain is simply not fast enough to handle the quantity and speed of transactions that happen moment to moment within our 2D and 3D emergent metaverses.
IMAGE: How Foundational Technologies Take Hold
Who Will Make the Metaverse?
It’s unlikely that any one stakeholder will develop the metaverse single-handedly, but let’s look at a few parties who are developing the infrastructure for a VARverse (virtual and augmented reality metaverse).
Roblox, Epic Games with Fortnite, just to name a couple contenders, have the reach and scope that already makes them significant players in the metaverse race.
On the upside, these companies have massive teams and resources, however, these companies will likely require major system overhauls to integrate or transform into a VARverse ecosystem.
Startups that are agile, in touch with their user base, and developed by younger, diverse teams and founders are just as likely to succeed as big companies.
There are also startups that believe that no one company will create the metaverse.
These startups are intentionally creating segments of the metaverse that are open-sourced, compatible, and intended to function alongside other companies and their technologies. For example, identity verification, transaction technology, avatar technology and much more.
Startups will also drive new business and interaction models that are more in line with a digital first economy and societal needs.
User Generated Content
Platforms like VRChat, AltspaceVR, Sansar, and Dreams draw some of the most talented creatives to build worlds, games and social spaces, but this doesn’t mean that they will create the next metaverse.
For example, Dreams, Playstation’s creator platform, is greatly loved by creators, however there are very few audiences within the ecosystem to play their games. This trend is true for other platforms that focus on user generated content, but generally lack a specific overall purpose and ways for users to monetize their work.
Rampant content creation comes with additional problems for the vision of an open metaverse that would require a consistent foundational design module. Open-world compatibility standards will need to be met for full integration.
On the other hand, as we’ve seen with SideQuest, user driven innovation drives bigger companies to remain flexble(ish) and listen to their users. These trends in UGC will create healthy competition as users develop their own solutions.
Automated content filtering systems could be a solution to enable UGC contribution, as it remains difficult to solely rely on individuals to build in a cohesive way.
Until UGC standards are created, it’s more likely that highly curated worlds with specific purposes and in-built monetization models for users will be far more successful.
Currently, many platforms based on user generated content are having a bit of an identity crisis that make them a jack of all trades but master of none. This is unappealing to users who encounter the same frustrations as when scrolling through Netflix- too much content (and a lot of crap).
The Gamification of Real Life
When talking with TechStars Music Managing Director Bob Moczydlowsky, it was established that social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, are really just well designed games. Users collect points (likes), XP (followers), develop content, receive rewards (recognition), and experience additional elements of addictive game design.
If we can say that the internet is already the first metaverse, can we also take a step back and say that life is already gamified too?
Games like The Sims, Second Life, Civilization, and even FPS games to some extent, mimic our real lives, but with hyper accelerated timelines.
In real life for example, we develop our skills, rack up currency (hopefully), get jobs or ‘roles’, take care of our partners or provide for families, have companions, customize our look… just like in games.
The digital word enables all this but with massive time dilation and hyper-accelerated reward cycles. Instead of waiting 4 years to graduate, a couple years for a promotion, weeks for a level-up, these can be accomplished within seconds or minutes, triggering a dopamine release- the chemical that stimulates pleasure- and our enjoyment of certain activities.
As more and more of our lives and commerce (see CBC Massey Lecture # 2: The Market for Our Minds go digital, how will this affect our psychological development and behaviors?
It will depend on the type of metaverse that emerges, and how people partake in it. This can range from any extreme we see today, but it could also be an opportunity to explore a new, commercially backed, socially supportive, perhaps even universal basic income on a global scale- which raises another question: sovereignty.
While digital platforms are leaning towards open and compatible ecosystems, physical borders and operations are likely to continue to exist for centuries to come.
In the meantime, there’s a lot we can learn from studying user behavior in games and the emerging 3D Metaverse.
Adopting Standard Principles
As identified with the Roblox image above with troll behavior (or perhaps in this case just a childish interaction on a platform for teens and pre-teens), adopting a set of principles will be integral to the evolution of a positive, progressive and fair metaverse.
In early prototype events with my startup Ristband, we found that having a host to moderate events created an incredibly positive environment. This type of simple and effective method of positive reinforcement will continue to play an integral role in the development of the metaverse.
This type of positive reinforcement is no new theory either. Psychologist Albert Bandura’s famous Bobo doll experiment in the early 60s established the social learning theory, that people learn largely by observing, imitating, and modeling.
It’s for this reason that I included the Roblox image where a kid (or maybe adult) advises me to take a piss- because for anyone who takes the time to explore some of these worlds and games, there’s a lot of this type of behavior. Again, half of kids in America under 16 are playing Roblox, watching and learning from one another. Is this the type of environment that contributes to positive growth?
As a 3D metaverse develops, users and independent groups will likely have far more leverage in creating standard principles that are adopted by the governing bodies or companies. This is because we are beginning to understand the effects of digital and social tools and interactions.
By the time kids crawling around now are grown up, they will have had their entire lives tracked, traced, analyzed, processed, shared, filtered… and hopefully our interest in privacy and social impact will grow just as quickly.
IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Extended Reality is one of these movements that is making steps to build an ethical foundation for the metaverse as the technological infrastructure continues to evolve.
Otherwise, as we see today, ethical and privacy regulations are more of a predictable business expensive than a genuine concern in our current state of surveillance capitalism.
The 3D Metaverse: Are we There Yet?
After more than a year of a global pandemic, everyone has suddenly become digital natives, forming new habits that bring the destinations of decades away a decimal point closer in time.
As we’ve already witnessed with the first metaverse, the 2D internet, the evolution of the metaverse will be a continuous progression, arriving even before we realise it is here.
This metaverse imagined by industry professionals, as persistent, unshareded, with simultaneous users, infinite scale and hyper real graphics, may be over a decade away but analysing the technology and societal effects we see in digital behaviors and trends today will enable us to create a better future tomorrow.
It’s unlikely that my generation (millennial) will define the first fully-functioning metaverse, but younger, digital first natives who will exponentially develop the technology and communication models for a Metaverse that will be far greater than we have ever imagined.
Bonus material: virtual concerts, what they are, the state of the industry, and the opportunity. All in 5min: