The Metaverse, explained, kind of

So you may have heard about NFTs in some form or another. You may also have heard of the metaverse (if you haven’t, you will). You may have been scratching your head about what it all means. Having been in the same boat, I decided to spend some time to try to breakdown - mainly as a forcing function to help me understand it, but I figured others may benefit as well.

This is a multipart series, where I start with the Metaverse but explore NFTs and the technology that will potentially power the future.

Photo by Austin Chan

Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

Part 1 - The Metaverse

Imagine being able to exist in a virtual world, where you could enter virtual stores, try on virtual clothes and have them shipped to you in the real world. Or imagine sharing a virtual concert experience with friends in 3 different countries at the same time, in the same virtual place where one friend is actually in the physical concert location. This combination and interplay between the real world and a virtual world is an illustration of a metaverse experience - in fact some of this already exists today.

The simplest way to think about the metaverse is to imagine a digital world (or, really, universe) that is community driven and interoperable (which is a fancy way of saying things work together seamlessly that today may not - e.g. assets existing across games) and at planet scale (i.e. everyone everywhere can connect at anytime and see everything) where both real and virtual work and activities can take place. Even simpler, its an immersive, virtual space. It most likely will be in 3D.

The concept of a metaverse first emerged in the novel, Snow Crash (whose author was, until last year, Chief Futurist at Magic Leap). If you read (or watched) Ready Player One, you would have also seen a dystopian take on what a metaverse could mean. It has evolved over the past several years in various forms. If you are familiar with Second Life, then you would be forgiven for thinking, “isn’t this just Second Life?”

Second Life was created in 2003 as a virtual world where you can create avatars and interact with others. But it is much more. It has its own economy, patent office and beyond. Many of the elements you would want to make up a metaverse. In 2015, it had a GDP of $500 million and its users had cashed out over $60 million. If nothing else, it’s an excellent example of a prelude to the future metaverse. Other platforms and prototype metaverses exist - Fortnite, Roboblox, Minecraft to name a few. These are all huge and growing in monthly active users. Whether Second Life will make a comeback with this renewed interest remains to be seen. It has struggled to break out of its niche, with social media platforms dominating in the past decade. It is important to remember that Google was not the first search engine.

But why now? Well, a global pandemic forcing most of the world into a state of extended lockdown has caused needs to change dramatically around how we engage. More and more experiences have moved to virtual conference calls. Have you ever shown up to one as an avatar? If so, you are stepping in the realm of a metaverse. In addition, computing power, technology and hardware have all made significant progress to enable a proper metaverse experience. Gaming companies are posied to accelerate growth in the metaverse, with Epic Games and their Unreal Engine being at the forefront (check out their metahuman creator). VR and AR continues to accelerate, from Facebook’s Oculus and Microsoft’s Hololens. In addition, with the advent of 5g and edge computing enabling low latency, complex experiences in real-time there is a convergence that could enable a metaverse to be created successfully.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg recently talked about his grand plans for bringing the metaverse to life. What is interesting is that the true metaverse probably won’t be owned by one company, in the same way the internet is not owned by a single company. This decentralization will be key to enable the interoperability and sense of commnity driven empowerment. In a idealized metaverse, you could connect your buildings in Minecraft to your creations in Roblox, drive your BMW in real life and in Grand Theft Auto and down the virtual superhighway.

Is this Web 3.0? Maybe.

We have had Web 1.0, where the majority consumed the content of the few. We are in the mature stages of Web 2.0 where we have social communties and a level of interoperabity that did not exist in Web 1.0 where the power lies with the users. Web 2.0 did not emerge with a big bang, it evolved over time and only now, can we look back with a significant time horizon behind us and see its emergence. With the rise of the metaverse, we are perhaps entering Web 3.0. A big difference will be in how it operates - the metaverse really can only exist with decentralizated platforms to support persistent, live experiences at scale. At its heart is a struggle for data ownership with a slow shift of power from the few to the many.

Where all this will go remains to be seen, but you cannot help feel there is a tipping point here, a virtuous cycle being born, where the metaverse will emerge and one day we will look back and think, how could we ever live without it.

In the next part, I will talk about NFTs and how they are tied to the metaverse. At its core, in order for the metaverse to exist, everything will have to be represented. NFTs really come to the fore as there will be a need for digital ownership of many assets in the metaverse.

If you want to dig deeper in what the metaverse means here are some great resources I highly recommend checking out:

Matthew Ball’s Metaverse Primer

All Roads Lead to the Metaverse

The VR Metaverse of Ready Player One Is Just Beyond Our Grasp

A multiverse, not a metaverse

The Economy of the metaverse