What is the “Metaverse”?

What is the “Metaverse”?

Introduction to the Metaverse

Ever since Facebook announced that it would change its name to Meta Platforms and focus on the Metaverse, the word has been plastered everywhere. It has become the new “cyberspace”. But what does it even mean? There appears to be a lot of confusion around this term, so let’s start with what the Metaverse is not. It is not virtual reality. We already have a term for that: “VR”. It is not simply user generated worlds – so, no, Roblox and Second Life are not the Metaverse. VR Chat is not the Metaverse either (though it is perhaps close to being a precursor – more on that later). Nor is it simply hanging out online playing games, and watching streams (no kidding, I’ve heard someone say that since people spend a lot of time hanging out online together that the Metaverse is already here). So let’s be clear about this: the Metaverse currently does not exist. Right now it is purely conceptual, so when someone tries to sell you on a company or product being connected to the Metaverse, they are almost certainly trying to sell you snake oil (or they are just clueless).

So we’ve established that the Metaverse currently doesn’t exist, and that a number of things that people confusedly call the “Metaverse” are not actually that. So, what is the Metaverse really then? Like I wrote earlier, right now it is just an idea, but it is a grand idea with a lot of promise if it can come to fruition.

The key idea around the Metaverse is that it will be an open system, like the Web, where everyone can host their own content with full autonomy, but with a system to allow worlds to link together (just as today websites can be hosted anywhere, and can be connected by the use of URLs). I do imagine the Metaverse to be similar to what VR Chat currently is, in that it will be accessible both in VR and through a traditional flat interface, and that it will have many worlds in a 3D space that allows for complex social interaction. You will be able to move between the worlds either alone or with friends, and you will be able to use the same avatar across all of them, so that you never lose the sense of presence in the virtual worlds, no matter where you go.

The promise of the Metaverse

So why do we even want the Metaverse? Is it just a dystopian nightmare where people forgo real world social interaction for a quick fix from an illusion? Well, I’m sure some people will feel that way, but I tend to have a much more positive outlook. I think the promise of the Metaverse is to provide an online social space that feels much more like the real thing. It will give people the social fix that they crave, but unlike social media of today it will feel more natural and will reduce some of the more toxic elements. Most people are less inclined to call someone a moron to their face (even when that face is their avatar) than they are to some pseudonymous text on the screen. Then there is the commercial aspect too, with the ability to host VR store fronts in a shared space, that allows for much more organic discoverability than anything we have today.

I’m not going to go into much more detail about the potential uses of the Metaverse in this post, as that topic is far too broad, and perhaps something for another post down the line. The question of if it ends up being a net good for society or not, I think will probably continue to be debated for a long time to come (just like some people still argue about if the Internet has been a net positive experiment), but regardless of that I think it is almost inevitable that it will be brought into existence. The idea is simply too powerful and too pervasive to be ignored.

Where to from here?

In order for the Metaverse to become a reality and not just a dream in the minds of futurists a few things need to happen. First we need some open standards that different teams across the world can build around. Much like how HTTP and HTML were crucial to getting the Web off the ground early on. Existing web technologies like HTTP and REST may well serve as the backbone to this, but there will need to be an additional layer on top that allows for the easy creation of interactive 3D worlds. 3D interchange formats like USD (universal scene description) already make some of this possible, but there will also need to be a universal scripting language to allows for interactivity in a way that is cross compatible across disparate worlds (given how universal JavaScript has become, it will be a likely choice of language). There will also need to be at least one (though preferably more than one) authoring tool for creating worlds and avatars. I imagine this looking much like a modern game engine like Unity or Unreal. While 2D documents (like the HTML of the web) can be easily written directly in code/markup, rich 3D worlds require complex editor tools to create.

All of this will have to be tied together in a browser of sorts, an open application that is able to load and display Metaverse worlds, and allow the user to travel between them. The key is that this has to be open, and that there will need to be a choice of Metaverse browsers available to users. Anything that is a closed system (like VR Chat, or Facebook Horizons) cannot qualify. Once these pieces fall into place we will be able to talk about the birth of the Metaverse, and we will be able to begin to unleash the great potential that it has to bring the world even closer together, to allow people to connect in new ways, and to improve our lives in ways that we cannot even imagine yet.

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