I wrote Charlie Fink’s Metaverse in 2017. It was “A guide to AR-enabled VR and AR”, so in that context I was using the metaverse as a metaphor for connecting everything in immersive technology, which the book seeks to explain. People liked the title, and the book did well. I never would have predicted five years later that we would be talking about the true sci-fi metaverse.
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 have come up with their own definition of the metaverse. NFT resellers, digital lands, Web3 promoters, and paid crypto games, all have their views on 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 the starting point for the greatest business failure in human history.
The day marked the premiere of Facebook’s expansive vision of a future metaverse. What was to be a video keynote address for shareholders was delivered with all the trappings and production quality of a sci-fi movie. Starring Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, it featured a cast of executives doing their best to get excited about avatars, esports, shopping, gaming, live music performances, ping- pong in the park with invisible people and the sharing of augmented intimate visits. with grandma.
Like a lover tattooing his arm to demonstrate his commitment, Zuckerberg concluded the film by changing Facebook’s name to Meta. He reiterated his company’s previous commitment to invest more than $10 billion – per year – to produce the sequel to the film: a real Metaverse.
If you haven’t seen this movie, stop reading and go watch it.
What is the Metaverse?
Metaverse was a term first coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 dystopian novel Snowfall. It is a combination of two Greek words: meta, which means “beyond” and towards, as in “universe”. Ernest Cline established his dystopian bestseller, Loan player onein a seemingly endless connected virtual world called OASIS, a VR experience so deeply immersive, cheap and easy to use that every company, person and institution spontaneously settles there, making its fictional creator, Gregarious Games, the most valuable company in the world.
“You can think of the metaverse as the Internet incarnate, where instead of just viewing content, you’re there,” Zuckerberg said. “And you feel present with other people, like you’re in other places, having experiences together that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example, or different types of fitness.”
The Meta Movie shared dramatic yet ambitious visions of the Metaverse, acknowledging that the final shape, if there is one, could be a decade or more away. Metaverse-like items abound if you know what to look for, but they’re always specific to individual apps. Space worlds like Meta horizons, Microsoft AltSpaceor Epic’s Fortnite. We lack the technology to support more than a thousand simultaneous avatars (more or less) in a single simulation. Of course, it will improve gradually, one application at a time. Rather than bursting onto the scene, the new Metaverse will slowly appear.
“Although the full vision of the Metaverse remains difficult to define, seemingly fantastic and decades away,” says Metaverse investor and thought leader Matthew Ball, who also writes a book about the Metaverse. “The rooms started to feel very real. And as always with this kind of change, its arc is as long and unpredictable as its end state is lucrative.
Why are we now talking about the metaverse?
Were it not for Facebook’s 2014 acquisition of Oculus, its subsequent investment, and renaming to Meta, we wouldn’t be talking about the Metaverse today.
Presence is the defining quality of virtual reality. Although 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 really present, even if distance or illness can separate us, virtual reality is the solution. The Metaverse is device independent, but only virtual reality provides 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, to hell with the costs. 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 extra incentives to protect them from predation.
While all of this is happening, there has been a simultaneous speculative rush into cryptocurrencies, digital possessions, games to win blockchain games like Axie-Infinity, and digital real estate games in Sandbox and Decentraland. Together they make up Web3, a decentralized approach to turning the internet into a metaverse that would redistribute the internet, or metaverse, to a decentralized network. These innovations are often confused with Metaverse.
Timing is everything
Timing is everything in technology. General Magic’s smartphone didn’t go anywhere in 1994 because no one had a cell phone or personal computer yet. Despite Blackberry’s best efforts, smartphones only really became a thing after the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. Previously, phones were just for phone calls.
If you’re reading this book in 2023 or later, it’s possible the putative metaverse has already sunk into the “disillusionment trough,” a spot on a continuum created by analysts at the Gartner Group to track the development of new technologies. New technology like the Metaverse creates excitement among investors, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and the press when introduced. A year later, the same people are wondering aloud if they got the timing wrong, or even the idea itself.
The next decade will see more technological changes in society. Computer literacy, programming skills and 3D content creation will be in even greater demand as metaverse and spatial 3D computing begin to take hold, albeit based on the inferior technology of the internet current.
Today, the metaverse is in the eye of the beholder, but it is, in whole or in part, the future of computing.
My New metaverse book will be published by Quintess in the fall.