In 1900, a German chocolate factory named Theodor Hildebrand & Son released a series of postcards outlining their vision of the 21st century. Titled ‘Germany in the year 2000,’ the postcards showed trains pulling houses and towns on tracks, people flying with winged contraptions, and families floating through the air via mini zeppelins. The images are laughable, a shot of insight that never saw the light of day. But the pull of these postcards is not its inaccuracy; they provide a window into how our past generations hoped for the future of their children, based on their understanding of the world and the technologies present at their time.
If anything, the postcards also show the difficulty with predicting the future of the metaverse.
My point is that our understanding of the future is tied to our knowledge of the present. It is not a particularly new insight, but it is an important one to stress. Nowadays, science fiction novels focus on a network of knowledge because of the internet, and our future is imagined as an extension of that network – which is why many people see the metaverse as a successor to the internet. Germany in 1900 imagined trains pulling locations because it was the technology present at the time. Personal flying machines were also designed with their knowledge of how similar machines work.
Our predictions are also influenced by the services provided in our present. Could a German in the 20th century predict that a whole virtual economy can be built, where virtual currencies can be farmed and sold for real-life benefits? Or an entertainer that can stream their content on their own channel, where anyone can either tune in or re-watch on demand? Similarly, we cannot be sure of the new services that a future metaverse may bring.
But let us back up slightly – what do I mean by the metaverse? It is difficult to describe what it would look like, but many agree on its core attributes, such as an expansive universe of activities and functions operating with unprecedented compatibility with disparate systems. Some believe that we are already in a metaverse of sorts, where we have digital lives and transactions and operate via a virtual economy. We operate in a pseudo and premature version, yes, but it will pale in comparison to the all-encompassing version that will arrive in the next few decades.
Many game companies say that they run a metaverse of sorts, where players can interact and play in a virtual world – and more recently, it has become a marketing term. While true, it pales to the larger kind in the future. Instead of high walls and rigid rules, the true metaverse would (hopefully) be much larger and have interoperability between all the worlds. Calling a video game a metaverse is like saying you control your home, when there is a massive world outside your jurisdiction and control.
According to Matthew Ball in his must-read essay, the metaverse will be persistent and synchronous, with no cap on concurrent participants; have a fully functioning economy; span across digital and physical worlds; contain content created by contributors; and offer unprecedented interoperability of data and assets. Think of it as our world, but in a new reality – sort of. But as he noted, we do not know if all these elements would be in the final version, or if new and more important factors influence its shape. We ultimately do not know what it will be.
Monthly unique users who visit Roblox and its ‘metaverse’ (2020)
In any case, our discussions of the metaverse are marred by our present. Any in-depth predictions of its potential will be riddled with inaccuracies, and people in 2100 may likely chuckle in the same way we saw ourselves in 1900. Having said that, we see little chunks of its infrastructure appear here and there today, as junior versions of their final forms. A persistent universe and entertainment hub like Fortnite; a layer of augmented reality accessible by glasses; and virtual realities where people form their own identity. All may form a part of the future metaverse, or they may not. But I am confident that the disparate pieces will not converge together into one singular metaverse – at least, not all of them. These are all separate from the core idea of one metaverse.
My main argument is that we are conflating multiple definitions of the metaverse into one monolithic version. And yes, there may be one singular metaverse; but I want to argue that smaller (but no less significant) metaverses will complement it as well. The essay will parse through what we currently know, though a lot of it is disentangling the confusion to reorientate it towards a clearer vision. The future will hold two kinds of metaverses:
- Multiple micro-metaverses, where a new reality is applied to fulfil a particular role. For example, the AR mapping technologies where an augmented layer is applied over the physical. While micro-metaverses will act like separate realities, their scope and roles will be minor and dedicated to focused tasks.
- A singular macro-metaverse, a successor of sorts to the internet which will drastically restructure the digital infrastructure of our world. This would be like the world of Ready Player One (with some major differences that this article will touch on).
Once defined, I will make a stab at analysing a potential micro-metaverse (augmented reality), and expand on what a macro-metaverse might look like.
What is the VR/AR metaverse?
The trouble with defining the metaverse is that it can mean, well, basically anything. The word itself is a portmanteau of ‘meta’ (meaning beyond) and ‘universe’ – and many activities can be counted beyond our own reality, from mapping to gaming. Fortnite and Roblox both operate in their own metaverses; contained worlds of their own with their own rules, habits, and value attached to items and gameplay. Minecraft is the same, where players can either be the sole person in an infinitely expanding world or operating in a server with friends. Video games provide a powerful parallel to real-life; a group of friends abiding by laws and having fun.
Another version of the metaverse comes from augmented reality. Kevin Kelly argued that AR glasses will provide a window to a new world, a Mirrorworld, where ‘our physical reality will merge with the digital universe.’ Facebook already sees it as the next computing platform, investing in creating mapping tools that will create a one-to-one copy of the world. The ramifications are massive, but we will touch on them later in this article as we explore property rights in a digital space. For now, the reader should recognise that the two metaverses – in gaming and augmented reality – are largely two distinct metaverses that serve different functions.
Number of concurrent players who joined the Chapter 2 Season 5 finale, feat. Galactus (2020)
Yet at the same time, people push for a singular metaverse in the future. Again, we do not know what the future metaverse would look like; we are the Germans of 1900. But we can be certain that not all functions in a new metaverse are not strictly necessary. Mapping out the real world does create a separate metaverse, but it would be incompatible with Fortnite where they own their maps. Popular culture immediately thinks of the Ready Player One universe; a persistent world with its own economy and politics, where people can cultivate their own identity and earn a living. But there is no reason to believe that it is tied to the real world; it is more likely to be part of an ever-expanding virtual metaverse untied to the land of Earth.
I agree that we will see a version of a singular metaverse – a macro-metaverse, which will form a key part of our world and make as seismic an impact as the internet. But alongside this, I also see an array of smaller micro-metaverses that serve functions. These metaverses are still huge and influential; mapping the world and then owning the virtual layer will prompt the fastest land and property rush since the early years of the USA. But they serve smaller functions, separate from the macro-metaverse which people fixate upon.
A micro-metaverse example: Augmented reality (AR)
Think of our current mapping technology as one or two layers over our real world. By switching on our satnav systems, we can receive a birds-eye view of nearby junctions and their traffic levels, as a speed or scenic route is mapped out for us before we head for our journey. The technology is largely taken for granted now. But consider this: forming the network of satellites and the underlying technologies took decades of work as engineer-built layers of infrastructure on top of one another. I still recall the wonder of seeing Google Earth for the first time, being able to goinfl anywhere on the planet and hopping from place to place.
The next evolution of mapping technologies takes the underlying network and associates locations with new data. Searching for review in your local area is a simple metaverse of sorts, where people can contribute their own comments and thoughts about their local area. Ingress, published by Niantic in 2012, took the same locations and added opportunities to collaborate with players around real-world locations. The concept evolved (and exploded in popularity) with the release of their next titles, Pokemon Go and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. All the games associated already-established markers on maps with gameplay events and features. That is one layer.
AR will unlock the next few layers. Instead of a superficial layer of reviews and points of interest, AR will bring a layer of depth as we can work with the virtual layer of the world. Instead of reviewing a restaurant on Google, owners may encourage visitors to paint their reviews on the virtual walls of their location, for anyone with AR glasses to see. Or it can unlock new types of games where virtual items can be hidden in places like shopping malls or the local chip shop, to be collected for in-game points. Fast-food chains can advertise their menus in not just real life, but in the virtual layer as well – perhaps with virtual games that can only be played in their physical locations, catching burgers that float through the air. Basically, as Daniel from ReSight remarks, the AR camera will become ‘a visual browser and [will] change how we consume AR content.’
I mention all of this because, if AR glasses are to arrive, they will need the underlying infrastructure in place for them to be useful and fun. Facebook knows this and is building LiveMaps, calling it ‘the core infrastructure that will underpin tomorrow’s AR experiences.’
Facebook’s interest largely comes from advertising, as it will shift once we have a virtual layer to reside in. This brings in new questions about property rights: who owns what in a physical space? Dominic Collins, CEO at Darabase, explains: ‘The future of outdoor media will be at least in part AR-based, and like traditional outdoor media it will be important to engage the physical property owners on whose buildings and land the AR advertising is being displayed. This is required from a regulatory, best practice and increasingly legal standpoint too. For all the billions that are being spent on so-called ‘Digital Twins,’ it cannot be at the detriment of the Physical Twin if immersive is truly to become the next major digital platform.’
New types of games, collaboration opportunities, and a rush of new spaces to advertise. Together, they form a new kind of micro-metaverse where people can collaborate in a shared space.
But is this the next version of the macro-metaverse? I argue no. At best, the mapping technologies would provide more contextual information for people to see when they visit real-life locations. We can visit Buckingham Palace and see more information on the Royal Family, but we will not be able to manipulate the space further (provided that location-based property controls are in place). A deeper macro-metaverse would have a persistent economy in place, or a way to enter new worlds that have interoperability between one another. AR glasses open a gateway to more information in an area but it does not unlock a new world that people can reside in forever.
(Side note: I predict that we will see an incident where the virtual layer of a religious monument will be defiled in some way, prompting for further regulation of the virtual layer).
In all of this, it is best to think of it like an extension of the internet. Yes, the internet has shaped what we do in life and connected us together. While new online forums and communities have formed to share beliefs and idea, we do not consider it a metaverse. We think of it as an extension of ourselves, a tool we can dip into from time to time to service our wants and needs. When we shop online, we do not think of ourselves stepping into a new world. We are using it to buy something for it to be delivered home. The closest we come to dipping into a new metaverse is when we play a video game like Minecraft or Fortnite – but even then, it is a primitive version that does not have widespread connections to other services, restricted within its own boundaries.
It will be a micro-metaverse. An expansive and useful tool that users worldwide can dip into and contribute, but one that will be surface-level compared to the true metaverse that we may see in the future. A bubble universe of sorts that we will use from time to time, just like the internet today. But vastly different from the macro-metaverse we will see someday.
The pieces of the macro-metaverse
So far, we have explored one micro-metaverse, which we will use from time to time. But now we come to the major one; the macro-metaverse, where we will see a paradigm shift in the way we live and work. As I mentioned, it will be difficult to predict what the macro-metaverse would look like and what functions it would have. But we can still see the bits and pieces coming into place, and we can analyse these pieces to grasp the shade of potential ideas. Or at least, we can have a go.
For example, we can assume that the macro-metaverse will not be instanced to have 100 people running in one go, but be persistent with millions occupying the same virtual space. Instancing is an important part of video games so that they can run stable games for their players, but attending a virtual concert with just 100 people feels less eclectic than the raves of thousands that life can bring. That is why RP1, a Delaware-based company, is attempting to build the infrastructure that lets more people enjoy the same space. (The name RP1 comes from the book Ready Player One, something I find a bit much, but others may appreciate). ‘Existing platforms require massive infrastructure to achieve large numbers of concurrent users,’ CEO Sean Mann said at GamesBeat. ‘Despite the impressive hardware that has been thrown at the problem, the best current systems still break their user bases up into shards in which only a small handful of users can directly interact. If what you are attempting is a true Metaverse, that’s not going to cut it.’ Better, the company wants to grow its platform in an environmentally stable way.
Speaking of infrastructure, who controls the macro-metaverse? Companies building it deserves a cut of the profit, but it certainly should not be monopolised. Think of train companies supplying tracks in a country. While they deserve a cut of the finances for supplying the method of transportation, it should not be so large that it makes business difficult. A more modern example is the Apple and Google stores on mobile phones. The companies receive a cut of in-app purchases, and regulators are investigating whether they are abusing their position of power or simply providing a fundamental service of their products.
That is why Tim Sweeney, CEO at Epic Games, said that companies should be guided by ‘enlightened self-interest’ when building the macro-metaverse. It should not be controlled by one corporation, but by everyone and be shareable by everyone. The more open the platform, the more users can interact with one another. Then Metcalfe’s Law starts to roll over: the value of a network goes up based on the number of users in it. If it is one company with rigid walls, then the expanded network effects are less likely to happen.
The sentiment is hopeful, but still difficult to swallow. Any company building the metaverse would want a significant stake in its use and control. Asking companies to collaborate to build a singular metaverse, where they all share in its success, would be difficult to follow and maintain. It is likely that some sort of government intervention may be needed to ensure how fair it is, but technological progress tends to surge faster than legal ramifications.
Then there is currency. It is possible that the macro-metaverse’s currency would have elements of blockchain, where it is deregulated and linked to users to ensure it is not fraudulent. The currency would also work across multiple worlds, regardless of where they are. But creating the currency is rife with issues and concerns, and any currency would be heavily scrutinised – perhaps to the point where it will not launch at all. Or at least, I do not think so.
At the heart of the macro-metaverse is that much of the content would be created by users. Like the life of YouTube and social media platforms, users create the content that drives people towards engagement. The same is true for the macro-metaverse, where people will hop into it to see the creations that users make and, subsequently, make money from. Roblox is a great example, where hundreds of users make a living from creating worlds on their platform. But again, I worry about how much of the pie companies would take if they hopped on the platform to sell their creations.
All these pieces will come together to create a new macro-metaverse in the future, and this is about as much as is predictable. But the rest is in the air.
Exploring the metaverse
Like many, I am interested in seeing what the new metaverse will bring. A confluence of today’s technologies will create a hodgepodge of new benefits which we can only speculate on today, based on the disparate pieces we can analyse.
My concern is the wrong message coming out today. Many companies want to build the metaverse and become the go-to service providers for its infrastructure. If companies act in ‘enlightened self-interest,’ we can worry less. But any company with profit goals will always be tantalised to grab the opportunity, to rake in the money as users become reliant on their services. If that happens, users will lose out. Also, companies have many different versions of the metaverse in the future, confusing the dialogue further – hence why I divide between several micro-metaverses and one macro-metaverse. The great prize is the latter, but riches will be made in the former.
Like many, I will chart the development and see where it will go. But unlike others, I do not expect it to arrive in the next three of five years: it will be decades of progress, guided by the technologies of today. Anyone who tries to give a full prediction of the future, rather than a small glimpse, will look like the people of our past drawing family sky-blimps in postcards.