I wrote Charlie Fink’s Metaverse in 2017. It was “An AR-enabled Guide to VR and AR,” so in this context I was using the Metaverse as a metaphor for the connection of everything in immersive tech, which the book seeks to explain. People liked the title, and the book did well. I would never have predicted five short years later that we’d be talking about the actual Metaverse from science fiction.
A byproduct of being ill-defined and popular, is that everyone wants a piece of you. Microsoft, Nvidia, Epic Games, HTC, and just about everyone in the immersive sphere has offered up their own definition of the Metaverse. Dealers in NFTs, digital land, promoters of Web3 and pay-to-play crypto games, all have their view of the putative Metaverse and their role in it. I’m not sure it matters who is right.
Let’s see if we can unravel some of these other threads.
The Watershed Event
October 28, 2021, is a day that will be remembered for a grand and prescient unveiling of our connected future… or as a launch point for the biggest business failure in human history.
This day marked the premiere of Facebook’s expansive vision of a future Metaverse. What was to be a video keynote for shareholders was delivered with all the trappings and production quality of a science fiction movie. Starring Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, it featured a supporting cast of executives awkwardly trying their best to enthuse over avatars, e-sports, shopping, games, live music performances, ping pong in the park with invisible people, and sharing intimate augmented visits with grandma.
Like a lover tattooing his arm to demonstrate commitment, Zuckerberg concluded the movie by changing the name of Facebook to Meta. He reiterated his company’s previous pledge to invest upwards of $10 billion – per year – to produce the movie’s sequel: an actual Metaverse.
If you haven’t seen this movie, stop reading and go watch it.
What Is the Metaverse?
The Metaverse was a term first coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 dystopian novel Snow Crash. It’s a combination of two Greek words: meta, meaning “beyond” and verse, as in “universe.” Ernest Cline set his dystopian best seller, Ready Player One, in a seemingly infinite connected virtual world called the OASIS, a VR experience so deeply immersive, cheap, and easy-to-use that every business, person, and institution spontaneously set up shop there, making its fictional creator, Gregarious Games, the most valuable company in the world.
“You can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it,” said Zuckerberg. “And you feel present with other people, as if you were in other places, having experiences together that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example, or different types of fitness.”
The Meta movie shared spectacular but aspirational visions of the Metaverse, acknowledging the final form, if there is one, could be a decade or more away. Metaverse-like pieces abound if you know what to look for, but these are still specific to individual applications. Spatial worlds like Meta’s Horizons, Microsoft’s AltSpace, or Epic’s Fortnite. We lack the technology to support more than a thousand simultaneous avatars (give or take) in a single simulation. Of course this will gradually improve, one app at a time. Rather than bursting upon the scene, the new Metaverse will appear slowly.
“Although the full vision for the Metaverse remains hard to define, seemingly fantastical, and decades away,” says Metaverse investor and thought leader Matthew Ball, who is also writing a book about the Metaverse. “The pieces have started to feel very real. And as always with this sort of change, its arc is as long and unpredictable as its end state is lucrative.”
Why Are We Talking About The Metaverse Now?
Were it not for Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus in 2014, its subsequent investment, and its name change to Meta, we would not be talking about the Metaverse today.
Presence is the defining quality of VR. While VR is not the Metaverse, and the Metaverse is not VR, they are mutually inclusive. You can’t have one without the other. When we need to be together and truly present, though distance or disease might hold us apart, VR is the solution. The Metaverse is device agnostic, but only VR offers presence.
Meta’s financial commitment to XR (VR, AR, wearables, hearables, BCI, etc.) and to the Metaverse, has enabled it to hire the best engineers in the world, costs be damned. This talent has been poached from Microsoft, Google, Apple, and others who are slow-walking XR. Everyone wants to work on a well funded, high paying moonshot. Apple reportedly gave its immersive engineers additional incentives to protect them from predation.
While all this is happening, there’s been a concurrent speculative land rush into cryptocurrency, digital possessions, play to earn blockchain games like Axie-Infinity, and digital real estate plays in Sandbox and Decentraland. Together these constitute Web3, a decentralized approach to turning the Internet into the Metaverse that would redistribute the Internet, or the Metaverse, to a decentralized network. These innovations are often conflated with Metaverse.
Timing is Everything
Timing is everything in tech. General Magic’s smartphone went nowhere in 1994 because no one yet had a mobile phone or personal computer. Despite the best efforts of Blackberry, smartphones didn’t really become a thing until after the iPhone was introduced in 2007. Before then phones were for phone calls.
If you are reading this book in 2023 or later, it is possible the putative Metaverse has already descended into the “trough of disillusion,” a spot on a continuum created by analysts at the Gartner Group to track the development of new technologies. A new technology like the Metaverse creates excitement among investors, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and the press when introduced. A year later, the very same people wonder out loud if they were wrong about the timing, or even the whole idea.
The coming decade will see more technology driven changes in society. Computer literacy, programming skills, and 3D content creation will be in even greater demand, as the Metaverse, and spatial, 3D computing, begins to assert itself, albeit built upon the inferior technology of the current Internet.
Today the Metaverse is in the eye of the beholder, but it is, in whole or part, the future of computing.
My New Metaverse Book will be published by Quintess in the fall.