This Metaverse Thing

A number of years ago, I knew this guy who ran a business rendering custom characters in real life, building molds of World of Warcraft character avatars1 out of a factory in Asia to sell to players who wanted to see their in-game hero adorn their desks. Though hardly the first physical representation for a virtual object, the physicality felt a bit like the virtual world impacting the real one, perhaps a precursor to modern 3D printing with even higher fidelity and quality.

His business popped into my head as I kept on coming across chatter on our current infatuation with the “metaverse.” It originated as a sci-fi concept—unfortunately coloring the term with images of nerds logging onto the internets to escape from their meatspace dystopian confines—but it doesn’t feel particularly well-defined in 2021, other than as a catch-all for the next chapter of internet connectivity and virtual socialization. Companies and apps that are supposedly working on it include: Facebook, Microsoft, Epic Games (i.e., Fortnite), Roblox, etc. If we include some level of AR/VR integration in the full metaverse experience, we can add onto the list Snap, with their experiments on augmented reality glasses, and Apple, since they’ve been rumored to be building AR hardware in secret.

The best overview I found on what the metaverse can be is from a venture capitalist who’s been mulling it over for years and has a series of book-length articles on the topic. His definition:

The Metaverse is an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations that support continuity of identity, objects, data, and entitlements, and can be experienced synchronously by an effectively unlimited number of users, each with an individual sense of presence.

Which honestly sounds a lot like the internet today but with more 3D plus a bunch of interpolation between all the walled-garden apps owned by all the aforementioned companies. The idea is that instead of the internet feeling like a virtual resource to tap into when needed, the metaverse is all-encompassing; you will be spending more hours of your day virtually as opposed to physically, and thus invert the importance of the two domains.

In a fantastic sci-fi way, this is the stuff of Ready Player One. But reading that description again…and it doesn’t feel like we’re actually that far off from the having the virtual world be at least as important as the physical one. Between video games, all types of media—social included—delivered via screens, remote working in the pandemic, and the rise in ubiquity of smart phones around the world through the last decade, and the attention spent in virtual realities at this point has actually overtaken that spent within, uh, meatspace reality2.

The leap from what we have now into that vision of the metaverse would then really be the interoperability between all the disparate online services, breaking down the walled garden apps that define how we use the internet today. The big companies above thinking about the metaverse conceptualize it as a platform that they build and that others run on top of; the seamlessness of the user experience comes from integrating within the Oculus app store, or the Microsoft services ecosystem, or hopping between games built within Roblox’s world and tools. This arrangement lets one company set the rules of its world, establish and enforce an economy, and evolve the touchpoints from third-party apps as well as eventually how they operate with each other. It’s still a walled garden, just a more-encompassing one with an added feeling of presence via avatars and 3D spaces and other “in-world” touches. It doesn’t even take much imagination to make this prediction; the sci-fi metaverse trope is almost always a virtual world controlled by an unsavory, SuperMegaEvil corporation3.

A more interesting take I’ve recently read incorporates the idea of the blockchain and decentralized ownership of assets into the metaverse, as a way to eventually interoperate between apps. Blockchain technologies and associatedly, smart contracts, have this well-known problem known as the oracle problem: the entire digital system as only as trustworthy as the input into the sytem, but tracking the physical world requires these oracles to provide real-world data, which means oracles become are vulnerable to attack. In the digital metaverse, however, the assets themselves are digital and so it sidesteps the problem entirely. Indeed, the project Loot is exploring this idea of creating tokens, purely to be consumed by other apps, via NFTs.

Just as my kids, who have grown up to associate cameras and photos primarily with smartphones, I suspect the possibilities of how we evolve into the metaverse will be most explored by those metaverse natives, those who have grown up in a world with abundant virtual currencies and NFTs and AR/VR embedded in all their devices. In reading through a lot of this, I’m realizing that I’m too old to immerse myself in this brave new world of the metaverse—or, for the time being, multiple metaverses.

  1. It kinda worked because there was enough of a WoW player base—so you know this was a while back.

  2. Assuming that a third of your life is invested in sleeping.

  3. The protagonist needs someone to protagonize against, after all.

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