Since Facebook discussed the metaverse at Facebook Connect in October and officially rebranded the company to Meta, the metaverse has been the hot topic of the tech industry, and one of the most overhyped and misunderstood concepts.
The metaverse is supposed to be a virtual 3D universe where you can do just about anything you could in the physical world, including live, work, and play — and things you cannot do, like traveling to other planets.
The most common analogy to the metaverse is the virtual Oasis presented in the book and movie “Ready Player One.”
However, reality is not as pleasant as science fiction.
What Should We Expect?
The term metaverse is itself a problem.
What is actually being discussed is a virtual world or virtual universe if you combine multiple virtual worlds. The concept of virtual worlds is nothing new. Great examples of existing virtual worlds are some of the huge multiplayer games like Minecraft, World of Warcraft (WoW), and Eve Online.
These three games share several common attributes. They allow anonymity of the user, they promote creativity, and they have a functioning economy. The anonymity and creativity are key attractions for players because they permit them to be anyone or anything they want, and to do whatever they wish. A functioning virtual economy is like the glue that binds everything together just as it does in the physical world.
There are other virtual environments like VRChat, but they often lack the formal economy. Because of rules and limitations, players often develop unauthorized solutions, such as a currency for VRChat or using independent servers to play WoW games. Hence, the creativity. In most cases, players would prefer to have a completely open platform that allows anyone to develop solutions.
However, this also allows the “anything goes” mentality that can allow the worst of the worst to come out in some people, including some of the criminal activity seen in the real world, enabled through the games’ loopholes and hacks.
There is potential for creating safe environments, but that requires a significant amount of control, which is the very thing some players despise. However, this is the most likely area that commercial platforms will develop.
Virtual platforms have practical applications for a wide variety of applications, such as education, travel, work, religious celebrations, social events, interviewing, shopping, real estate, movie screenings, concerts and even esports.
These platforms will need to be more secure, with rules, consequences for breaking the rules, and some level of requirements for public recognition and authentication (no anonymity). However, these platforms will be very fragmented by the applications, the platforms, and the participants.
Because of the jockeying for market share by the various companies developing the platforms, it will be slow and challenging to develop industry-wide standards. As a result, there is no clear way for these to interact with each other, much less how they could interact as a single virtual universe/metaverse.
In contrast, interoperability issues will be quickly overcome by the open-source community.
Despite these safe and commercial opportunities, the development of the large and successful worlds will be driven by the open-source community, around two primary applications.
The first is gaming. With more than half the global population (yes, more than four billion people) already engaged in some form of electronic gaming activities, there is critical mass and huge revenue opportunities.
The other opportunity is pornography. No matter how you size it up, porn has always driven the development and adoption of new media technology. That will only help to accelerate virtual worlds.
Combine these drivers with the three key criteria of anonymity, creativity, and a functioning economy, and you have growth driven in uncontrollable and unruly ways.
The Tech Is Here and Getting Better
One thing is clear, it is possible to have successful virtual worlds today. It doesn’t require virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) glasses, or full haptics suits.
However, as we have seen with VR and other gaming peripherals, as the technology advances and game/application developers integrate these advances into the player experience, adoption will quickly follow.
Audio, graphics, controls, and haptic feedback will all be key technologies for developing a truly immersive experience in future virtual platforms and applications.
Likewise, within these environments there will be a growing interest in developing, purchasing, selling, and trading almost every form of product or services; requiring the need for development tools within these virtual environments, or at least the ability to import and export virtual goods, and a functioning economy that ultimately interacts with the real world.
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and blockchain seek to enable this, but these systems add more rules and expenses that many players will not accept and will likely be bypassed in many ways by the open-source community.
Youth Will Drive the Direction
Like most technology, everyone will have an opinion. Many from older generations will frown on the direction of the virtual universe, while most in the younger generations will embrace it.
Although the outlook for the virtual universe or metaverse (if you insist on using the term that Facebook has hijacked and helped to completely overhype) is rather grim, you must remember that it is the younger generations that will seek to embrace and enable it, as many feel that anything goes.
Some people refer to this as “the Grand Theft Auto mentality” and find it to be perfectly acceptable. Add to that, many prefer the virtual environment over talking in person or over the phone. They also place the value of electronic devices above many other items such as cars.
With an overpopulated planet, one area where humanity will grow will be through the virtual universe(s). Unfortunately, it will look more like the lawless Old West or “Forbidden Zone” than an organized society. So, don’t expect to walk into a “Ready Player One” vision of the Oasis anytime soon.