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What is the Metaverse?
This isn't just Ready Player One...
In the last two years, the metaverse has gone from a concept many derided as a myth of science fiction or the misguided, excessively optimistic outlook of small circles of technology to a mainstream term attracting billions of dollars of investment and pretty much every large company in the world. But along with all this hype and the emergence of the metaverse from the corners of tech-land, it’s become entirely evident that there isn’t yet a consensus of just what the metaverse is or what it can be – so let’s set the record straight.
So what the heck is the metaverse? “The metaverse is the augmentation of the internet with real-time 3d,” as Marc Petit, the VP and GM of Unreal Engine at Epic Games told us on season 1 of Into the Metaverse. It’s “the internet built by game developers,” as Ryan Gill, the CEO of Crucible, told us.
And as Nvidia’s Rev Lebaredian reminded us, the internet isn’t defined by the devices with which you access it; it’s defined by the interconnectedness between computers and making all of the data and content available to everyone. “The metaverse is a continuation of that.”
The Internet in 3d – Not Necessarily VR
One of the biggest misconceptions of the metaverse stems from science fiction. Whether it be from Snow Crash, Ready Player One or any other form of sci-fi, most of the general public directly associates the metaverse as a platform with a virtual reality headset or some other similar device. So let’s debunk this – the metaverse is not a VR headset, it is not any one device. Saying that the metaverse is just another term for VR experiences is analogous to saying that a personal computer is the internet – doesn’t that just sound dumb? Yes, you use a PC to access the internet but a PC by itself does not constitute the internet.
What is truly fascinating about the metaverse is that in all likelihood, the average consumer in a decade or more won’t be fully aware that they are interacting with what we are today calling the metaverse – to them, it will just be the internet. As my co-host Yon so rightfully pointed out, when his wife accesses the metaverse, she’s just going to call it the internet. Because the metaverse is not a revolution, it’s not something new, it’s an evolution – it’s the convergence of lots of different technology trends – including real-time 3d software, spatial awareness, potentially blockchain, digital identity and ownership – into this next iteration of the internet.
Long-time Into the Metaverse listeners or followers of our other work may have heard us talk about this great quote from the CEO of Unity Technologies, John Riccitello, about the penetration of real-time 3d today. He estimates that roughly just 2% or so of the world’s content today is made with real-time 3d. And that with the emergence of the metaverse, potentially this can reach 50% of all content being created using real-time 3d in a decade.
It's entirely evident that the main difference between the current iteration of the internet – the social-mobile era – and the metaverse era is the implementation of real-time 3d. And since game developers are really the only industry with decades of experience implementing real-time 3d to build virtual worlds, it’s not surprising that the metaverse is emerging from the gaming industry, with these proto-metaverse gaming platforms like Roblox, Fortnite, Minecraft and others. But over time, this will expand beyond the gaming vertical into all aspects of digital content.
A Social Movement at Its Core
One of the biggest drivers of the metaverse is that it is truly a social movement and driven by consumers. No single platform will be able to define, control or shape the metaverse. Why? In the current social-mobile era of the internet that is controlled by several large platforms, content is pushed to us through these narrow funnels and we have very little control over discoverability and finding diverse voices. Algorithms and computers have just as much say in what we consume as do our personal preferences.
In the metaverse era, where everything is game-like, it will be a lot harder for algorithms and platforms to push content to us that we don’t want to view. Have you ever spent a large amount of time in a bad video game? Or did you try it and give up on it quickly because it was poorly made, there were technical glitches, or some other reason? Well, in the metaverse era, the whole internet will be like these games – it theoretically becomes a lot harder for bad content, unwanted content to rise to the top via algorithms as consumers will be much more empowered to walk with their feet.
What’s really at stake, as Rev from Nvidia told us, is the democratization of real-time 3d development. And as we further empower creators with the democratization of real-time 3d, we have the potential to shift the power scales among large internet platforms back towards creators and consumers.
As Yon likes to say, the metaverse is the next iteration of human-social experiences in the internet. Or as my former colleague and our final season one guest Rebecca Sin of Bloomberg Intelligence told us, the metaverse is a shared virtual space, a place for socializing, not just a place to go to, but a place where you interact and engage meaningfully with others. Or as Andrew Schwartz of Nike likes to say, “the metaverse isn’t a place you go, the metaverse is a place you do.”
Open, Interoperable – and Decentralized?
Maintaining an open sense of collaboration in developing the metaverse and ensuring that, once we reach scale, that these platforms are interoperable appear to be table stakes for the success of the internet. My optimistic view of empowering consumers and creators and shifting power away from platforms cannot happen if we don’t build from an open foundation with interoperability at its core.
Fortunately, some of the leaders in the space, including Epic Games and Nvidia, as well as many startups are believers, evangelists and drivers of the open, interoperable cause. As we build towards this vision of the metaverse, we must not lose sight of these guiding north stars or else we will end back up with what we have today – an internet controlled by a few large platforms, walled gardens that control what we access and when and how we access it.
With the discussion of open and interoperable metaverse platforms always comes the discussion around the implementation of decentralized networks, those powered by blockchain and other technologies collectively referred to as web3. Yon and I both believe that blockchain and web3 are powerful trends and can play a meaningful role in the future of the metaverse, but we also firmly understand that this might not be the best choice for all platforms and all consumers.
As I have said for some time, we need to separate out the business decisions of running an open, interoperable platform with the technical decisions of which technology to use to enable these business decisions? Can interoperability eventually be achieved using open standards technology that is not based on blockchain? Probably yes!! So rather than making a direct conclusion, like many do, that interoperability means blockchain and NFTs, let’s collectively pause and understand that this is far from a certainty.
How Long Until the Metaverse is Here?
Although today we have metaverse-like experiences within games and other platforms and we are seeing heavy investment to build these next-generation internet services, the metaverse in its truest form is still many years away, likely a decade or more. As Mario Stefanidis from Roundhill Investments told us on season one of Into the Metaverse, “The metaverse is the successor to the current internet; it’s going to be an interoperable, synchronous, persistent series of virtual spaces that bridge both the physical and digital worlds. It’s way beyond our current reach due to technological limitations but there are companies that are defining that outer layer of the metaverse.”
And as Craig Donato, the Chief Business Officer of Roblox (one of the may companies building that outer, consumer-facing layer of the metaverse) told us, we’re still in the very early innings.
Building towards our ultimate vision of the metaverse – a truly open, interoperable, persistent, shared space that can house millions of concurrent users – is a marathon, not a sprint.
Hopefully, this piece helps debunk misinformation and misunderstanding about what the metaverse is – and more importantly, what the metaverse is not. The metaverse is not a device, it is not a company, it is not an NFT, it is not a blockchain. The metaverse is the internet, it is a social movement, it is the empowerment of creators and developers.
Yon and I will continue to press this with future guests on Into the Metaverse, as we seek to continue building a consensus amongst the brightest minds investing in, building and experiencing the metaverse. You can follow our conversations on your favorite podcast channels: