The Past, Present, and Future of The Metaverse(s).
I’ve been dabbling in virtual worlds for almost 30 years, and when Facebook (Meta) announced their intentions in building the ultimate metaverse, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it meant for the future of our connected world.
Quick History Lesson
Before we understand what a ‘metaverse’ is, let us backtrack a bit — way back to 1991 when the internet was invented. British computer scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, published the very first website on August 6, 1991. He had the dream to link together information with hypertext that could be viewed via a web browser. Years later he created the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which became the international standards organization for the World Wide Web. The Web is still the most important technological invention of modern times.
The internet inspired Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, which first coined the phrase metaverse — a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space. Snow Crash had a huge impact on entertainment and technology — the book was even required reading at a plethora of tech startups.
The concept of a virtual world that humans inhabit as avatars might have seemed a bit futuristic in 1992, as it would take another 11 years until a rudimentary version would be possible. In 2003 Philip Rosedale (aka Philip Linden) launched Second Life.
Second Life was a massive community of people who socialized in a 3D world and participated in a variety of games, tasks, and adventures. A few years after Second Life was created, Roblox burst onto the scene in 2006. Ten years later, in 2016, a new metaverse launched on mobile phones — the creation of Pokemon Go. Fortnite, which launched in 2017, now has over 350 million players — making it the biggest and most active metaverse in the world.
One thing was for sure, huge communities of daily active members were climbing into their avatar skins and spending hours upon hours in virtual communities.
When Facebook announced that they were going all-in on the metaverse and changed their name to Meta, the world took notice. We watch a lot of CNBC and the financial markets were obsessed with this (new to them) word. But for anyone who has dabbled in this space, the thought of a company like Facebook owning “the metaverse” was plain wrong. First, there isn’t one metaverse — there are dozens and will soon be thousands, then maybe millions.
So if Facebook is building a metaverse, a Roblox has one — and Pokemon, Fortnite, Decentraland, and the list goes on — will and can there be only one? The quick answer is NO. Right now, there are massive walls around each metaverse. Without a way of connecting all of the various metaverses, it’s a pipedream to think that it’s a possible fertile future.
Another massive hurdle for the existing idea of the metaverse is accessibility. Virtual Reality (which most people think IS the metaverse) is not an easy medium to interact with. While an incredibly immersive experience, it’s expensive and currently not enjoyable to withstand hours upon hours in a headset. Augmented Reality on the other hand is a lot more accessible (we all can access it with a modern smartphone) but lacks the immersiveness (I believe I just made that word up) that VR brings. So with many variations of metaverses, is this just a Web 3.0 pipedream?
Ownership & Standards
I asked my 16-year-old daughter recently, “Who owns the internet?” She paused, thought about it a second, and responded, “Google?”. I explained to her that no one technically owns the internet, but everyone owns the internet. One of the main reasons the internet flourished was the lack of ownership, accessibility, and open standards.
So what would have to happen for the metaverse to be developed the same way the Internet originally was? No owners, open standards, and a shared interest for mutual growth. While Meta (Facebook) and Roblox are most interested in building their own, closed-circuit metaverses, Nvidia and other companies are more interested in building the backbone of the metaverse. Nvidia, for example, has been banking on the Omniverse, building out tools to create and connect virtual worlds. The pure definition of the Omniverse is a collection of every single universe, multiverse, metaverse. So in theory, it’s the container of everything. Could this be a reality soon? Let’s take a look.
The Future Vision
So, my friends, I present to you a vision of what the meta/omniverse could look like with the right open standards.
Imagine if you will, an Omniverse that seamlessly connects people around the world, with any device or screen, in real-time into an ever-persistent, always-on series of intreconnected virtual worlds.
To look at how this series of inter-connected worlds could work, let’s look at Disneyland. Each land could be its own metaverse. Fortniteland, Pokemonland, Robloxland. Each world or metaverse could have its own theme, look/style, interactions, and community — but will also follow the guidelines and protocols that would be set forth by a governing committee that doesn’t have any financial or personal gain in the overall Omniverse.
Since the Meta/Omniverse will be a 3D rendered virtual world, your physical representation will be required. Over the last few years, we’ve all become very comfortable with the use of an avatar to represent us. Apple, Snapchat, Meta, each allow for the creation of an avatar, and the ability for it to emote. But for this interconnected series of worlds to work, there must be one avatar creator that allows your avatar to travel between worlds or metaverses without hassles. With an open standard for avatar creation, your avatar could transform its visual look to each metaverse. The dream would be for our digital self to seamlessly travel across the Omniverse and retain the core essence of your avatar.
Volumetric capture and full-body scanning will add to ‘presence‘ ’in the metaverse. Right now, most avatars are cartoony versions of yourself — but in the near future, we will see highly realistic avatars. Nvidia’s Omniverse Avatar is attempting to create highly realistic avatars of people. This will be a natural evolution in the various metaverses where it’s applicable, but societies like Animal Crossing might never want a realistic human in its highly stylized world.
Additionally, millions of people are purchasing and acquiring clothing and digital goods in each metaverse, so it seems archaic for it to be locked into just one ecosystem. People spend an insane amount of money within video games buying outfits, skins, weapons, and other digital goods. Consumers spent over $9 billion in Fortnight in the first few years on digital goods. In fact, the digital goods market is already growing twice as fast as the physical goods market — it’s already a $950 BILLION market and will keep growing.
Entertainment in the Metaverse(s)
I think most people can agree that a major cultural milestone of the last decade was the Travis Scott concert in Fortnite — which was followed by his other cultural moment of murdering 10 people at his Astroworld concert, but I digress. Content will be the major draw of attracting new and continual communities to the metaverse.
It’s safe to assume that there will be a lot more entertainment taking place in the metaverses. First showings, one-of-a-kind drops, and experiences you can only have in a virtual environment will make people flock to virtual worlds.
The real opportunity for creating compelling content within the metaverse is using IP from the real world that we already love. If there was one massive omniverse, it would most likely look a lot like Ready Player One — which was filled with a massive amount of pop culture IP cross-pollination. This is the metaverse we want and the type of entertainment we love.
Reality (Real, Virtual or Augmented)
Currently, there are so many incredible things happening in the digital world — NFTS, and metaverses to name a few. Virtual Reality is having its second or third (or is it fourth?) chance at life with the Oculus Quest 2 headset selling incredibly well during the pandemic. We are also on the verge of some major technological developments in the Augmented Reality space with companies like Niantic enabling people to build “real-world” metaverses with their Lightship platform.
Generally, the core idea of a metaverse is something of a dystopian dream — a virtual world that provides escapism from a less than desirable daily reality. I guess I am not disgruntled enough (yet) with our current world to want to live entirely in a virtual one. I love video games, and I love the escapism it provides, but I can only do this for an hour or two a day. I couldn’t imagine spending an entire day in a virtual world doing everything I would normally do in the real world. While the Oculus Quest 2 is the best headset on the market, I can’t imagine spending more than a half-hour at a time in it.
Remember that scene in Back to the Future 2? Marty eats dinner with his family in the real world, all while being in a virtual world. It’s very similar to seeing a family out to eat at a restaurant and everyone is staring down at their phones — our current reality isn’t too far off.
The concept of the metaverse being solely in virtual reality is an extremely flawed concept as well. One of the greatest things about the internet is the level of accessibility. I can access the internet from any connected device — from phones to TVs to computers to VR glasses. Being locked up inside, strapped to a headset is extremely depressing. One of my favorite recent technology meets pop culture moments was Pokemon Go. Seeing dozens of people (kids, teenagers, adults) running all over the place, trying to catch Pokemon was so refreshing. Sure most of the time you were staring down at your phone, but it was also inherently social and physical.
Technology will continue to improve and become more accessible. Once VR and AR are seamless to the viewer, the real potential for metaverses will flourish. Now it’s primarily a novel concept for gamers, virtual reality enthusiasts, and techno nerds. Let me be clear, those markets are big and growing bigger every day, but for the omniverse to become the vision we’ve seen outlined, it will take time, major technological improvements, and some incredible content.
For the record, I am a big believer in the power of an always-on virtual world that is either built over or within our existing world. I’ve played video games most of my life. I’ve been interacting with online communities since I could dial into a BBS. A lot of people have been hailing the rise of the metaverse as Web 3.0 — the next evolution of the web. While there are many reasons why this won’t happen overnight, it’s worth noting that the amount of interest, money, and smart people that are pouring into this sector — it’s gonna be big. Worldwide spending on AR and VR is forecast to be around $72.8 billion by 2024. With money comes significant change.
Just like in the real world, we will have to deal with all of the bullshit we deal with daily: racism, theft, sexual predators, fake news, corruption, scams, sexism, etc etc etc. If we create a new, ever-present, Omniverse will there be laws and regulations like real life, or will it be like the dark web? Tech companies like Google, Meta(Facebook), and Twitter have had a rather dodgy history policing their own societies, so why would the metaverse be any different? We have to learn from what went right with the internet and what went horribly wrong.
As humans begin to do more and more digitally, it makes sense for the way we connect, internet, and spend time together to evolve. If you’re like me, you’ve been dreaming of this for a long time. Over the next decade, we will see a massive influx of money, innovation, and tragedy as companies race to be a part of the “metaverse”. Facebook planted a flag and the rest of the world is either racing to catch up or blazing way ahead in a spaceship they already created.
For now, please continue to dream, explore and examine. We are at the foot of a massive virtual mountain that we can’t begin to fully understand, so proceed with caution and optimism. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again:
It’s a fantastic time be to alive. I can’t wait to continually participate in the creation and community building of virtual worlds and the content and technology that powers them.
Stay safe and enjoy this digital renaissance.