The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find it, Who Will Build It
- 元宇宙 Metaverse
Technology frequently produces surprises that nobody predicts. However, the biggest developments are often anticipated decades in advance. In 1945 Vannevar Bush described what he-called the “Memex”, a single device that would store all books, records and communications, and mechanically link them together by association. This concept was then used to formulate the idea of “hypertext” (a term coined two decades later), which in turn guided the development of the World Wide Web (developed another two decades later). The “Streaming Wars” have only just begun, yet the first streaming video took place more than 25 years ago. What’s more, many of the attributes of this so-called war have been hypothesized for decades, such as virtually infinite supplies of content, on-demand playback, interactivity, dynamic and personalized ads, and the value of converging content with distribution.In this sense, the rough outlines of future solutions are often understood and, in a sense, agreed upon well in advance of the technical capacity to produce them. Still, it’s often impossible to predict how they’ll fall into place, which features matter more or less, what sort of governance models or competitive dynamics will drive them, or what new experiences will be produced. By the time Netflix launched its streaming service, much of Hollywood knew that the future of television was online (IP TV had been deployed in the late 1999s). The challenge was timing and how to package such a service (it took another 10 years for Hollywood to accept all of their channels, genres and content needs to be collapsed into a single app/brand). The popularity of video game broadcasting and YouTubers still elude many in the media industry, as does the idea that the best way to monetize content might be to give it away for free and charge for optional $0.99 items of no consequential value. The acquisition of media conglomerate Time Warner by landline internet giant AOL was set in 2000 based on the idea media and tech/distribution needed to converge, but was unwound in 2009 after it failed to produce much benefit. Nine years later, it was then bought by mobile internet giant AT&T under the same premise.While many technologists imagined some sort of “personal computer”, its attributes and timing were so unpredictable that Microsoft dominated the PC era that began in the 1990s rather than the mainframe domineer IBM. And while Microsoftclearly foresaw mobile, it misread the role of the operating system and too much of the hardware, hence the rise of iOS and Android globally (and Microsoft’s shift from the OS layer to the app/services one). In a similar sense, Steve Jobs’ priorities for computing were always “right”, they were just too early and focused on the wrong device. More broadly, the two most dominant cases of the early Internet were instant messaging and email, and yet the importance of social apps/networks was still unexpected until the late 2000s. And for that matter, all of the prerequisites for building Facebook existed pre-Y2K, but Facebook didn't come along until 2005 – and even then, it was an accident.Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of those in the technology community have imagined a future state of, if not quasi-successor to, the Internet – called the “Metaverse”. And it would revolutionize not just the infrastructure layer of the digital world, but also much of the physical one, as well as all the services and platforms atop them, how they work, and what they sell. Although the full vision for the Metaverse remains hard to define, seemingly fantastical, and decades away, 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.To this end, the Metaverse has become the newest macro-goal for many of the world’s tech giants. As I outlined inFebruary of 2019, it is the express goal of Epic Games, maker of the Unreal Engine and Fortnite. It is also the driver behind Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR and its newly announced Horizon virtual world/meeting space, amongmany, many other projects, such as AR glasses and brain-to-machine communications. The tens of billions that will be spent on cloud gaming over the next decade, too, is based on the belief that such technologies will underpin our online-offline future.Ultimately, you’ll find many of the same items in the offices of Big Tech CEOs. However, the most well-worn is likely to be a copy of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which first described and essentially coined the terms “Metaverse” and “Avatar”. And there are many reasons why.CHAPTER 1: WHAT IS THE “METAVERSE”?The most common conceptions of the Metaverse stem from science fiction. Here, the Metaverse is typically portrayed as a sort of digital “jacked-in” internet – a manifestation of actual reality, but one based in a virtual (often theme park-like) world, such those portrayed in Ready Player One and The Matrix. And while these sorts of experience are likely to be an aspect of the Metaverse, this conception is limited in the same way movies like Tron portrayed the Internet as a literal digital “information superhighway” of bits.Just as it was hard to envision in 1982 what the Internet of 2020 would be — and harder still to communicate it to those who had never even “logged” onto it at that time — we don’t really know how to describe the Metaverse. However, we can identify core attributes.The Metaverse, we think, will...
There are a few other ideas that may be core to the Metaverse, but are not widely agreed upon. One of these concerns is whether participants will have a single consistent digital identity (or “avatar”) that they will use across all experiences. This would have practical value but is probably unlikely as each of the leaders in the “Metaverse era” will still want their own identity systems. Today, for example, there are a few dominant account systems – but none have exhaustive coverage of the web and they often stack atop one another with only limited data sharing/access (e.g. your iPhone is based around an iOS account, then you might log into an app using your Facebook ID, which itself is your Gmail account).There is also disagreement on how much interoperability is required for the Metaverse to really be “the Metaverse”, rather than just an evolution of today’s Internet. Many also debate whether a true Metaverse can have a single operator (as is the case in Ready Player One). Some believe the definition (and success) of a Metaverse requires it to be a heavily decentralized platform built mostly upon community-based standards and protocols (like the open web) and an “open source” Metaverse OS or platform (this doesn’t mean there won’t be dominant closed platforms in the Metaverse).Another idea relates to the fundamental communications architecture of the Metaverse. This is described in more detail later in the piece, but while today’s Internet is structured around individual servers “talking” to one another on an as-needed basis, some believe the Metaverse needs be “wired” and “operated” around persistent many-to-many connections. But even here, there’s no consensus around exactly how this would work, nor the degree of decentralization required.It’s also helpful to consider what the Metaverse is often, but incorrectly, likened to. While each of these analogies is likely to be a part of the Metaverse, they aren’t actually the Metaverse. For example, The Metaverse is not…
- Be persistent – which is to say, it never “resets” or “pauses” or “ends”, it just continues indefinitely
- Be synchronous and live – even though pre-scheduled and self-contained events will happen, just as they do in “real life”, the Metaverse will be a living experience that exists consistently for everyone and in real time
- Have no real cap to concurrent participations with an individual sense of “presence” – everyone can be a part of the Metaverse and participate in a specific event/place/activity together, at the same time and with individual agency
- Be a fully functioning economy – individuals and businesses will be able to create, own, invest, sell, and be rewarded for an incredibly wide range of “work” that produces “value” that is recognized by others
- Be an experience that spans both the digital and physical worlds, private and public networks/experiences, and open and closed platforms
- Offer unprecedented interoperability of data, digital items/assets, content, and so on across each of these experiences – your “Counter-Strike” gun skin, for example, could also be used to decorate a gun in Fortnite, or be gifted to a friend on/through Facebook. Similarly, a car designed for Rocket League (or even for Porsche’s website) could be brought over to work in Roblox. Today, the digital world basically acts as though it were a mall where though every store used its own currency, required proprietary ID cards, had proprietary units of measurement for things like shoes or calories, and different dress codes, etc.
- Be populated by “content” and “experiences” created and operated by an incredibly wide range of contributors, some of whom are independent individuals, while others might be informally organized groups or commercially-focused enterprises
- A “virtual world” – Virtual worlds and games with AI driven characters have existed for decades, as have those populated with “real” humans in real time. This isn’t a “meta” (Greek for “beyond”) universe, just a synthetic and fictional one designed for a single purpose (a game).
- A “virtual space” – Digital content experiences like Second Life are often seen as “proto-Metaverses” because they (A) lack game-like goals or skill systems; (B) are virtual hangouts that persist; (C) offer nearly synchronous content updates; and (D) have real humans represented by digital avatars. However, these are not sufficient attributes for the Metaverse.
- “Virtual reality” – VR is a way to experience a virtual world or space. Sense of presence in a digital world doesn’t make a Metaverse. It is like saying you have a thriving city because you can see and walk around it.
- A “digital and virtual economy” – These, too, already exist. Individual games such as World of Warcraft have long had functioning economies where real people trade virtual goods for real money, or perform virtual tasks in exchange for real money. In addition, platforms such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, as well as technologies such as Bitcoin, are based around the hiring of individuals/businesses/computational power to perform virtual and digital tasks. We are already transacting at scale for purely digital items for purely digital activities via purely digital marketplaces.
- A “game” – Fortnite has many elements of the Metaverse. It (A) mashes up IP; (B) has a consistent identity that spans multiple closed platforms; (C) is a gateway to a myriad of experiences, some of which are purely social; (D) compensates creators for creating content, etc. However, as is the case with Ready Player One, it remains too narrow in what it does, how far it extends, and what “work” can occur (at least for now). While the Metaverse may have some game-like goals, include games, and involve gamification, it is not itself a game, nor is it oriented around specific objectives.
- A “virtual theme park or Disneyland” – Not only will the “attractions” be infinite, they will be not be centrally “designed” or programmed like Disneyland, nor will they all be about fun or entertainment. In addition, the distribution of engagement will have a very long tail
- A “new app store” – No one needs another way to open apps, nor would doing so “in VR” (as an example) unlock/enable the sorts of value supposed by a successor Internet. The Metaverse is substantively different from today’s Internet/mobile models, architecture, and priorities.
- A “new UGC platform” - The Metaverse is not just another YouTube or Facebook-like platform in which countless individuals can “create”, “share”, and “monetize” content, and where the most popular content represents only the tiniest share of overall consumption. The Metaverse will be a place in which proper empires are invested in and built, and where these richly capitalized businesses can fully own a customer, control APIs/data, unit economics, etc. In addition, it’s likely that, as with the web, a dozen or so platforms hold significant shares of user time, experiences, content, etc.