If someone says they know what the Metaverse is, don’t believe them. No one does. And yet it is also true that the Metaverse is a macro goal into which tech companies are pouring billions of dollars and which no major entertainment studio can ignore.
The easiest way to imagine how Hollywood conceives the Metaverse is to look at Ready, Player One. Adapted from the Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel and taking cues from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi Snow Crash, which coined the phrase, the ‘Metaverse’ is presented as three-dimensional photoreal digital meeting place in which players engage with other players as avatars and experience anything and everything.
Leaving aside the dystopian side-effects in which the “meat world” is depicted as a pale alternative and users remain wired into the matrix, the Metaverse is an infinite multitude of interconnected virtual worlds.
“We’re going to get to a place where that original vision in Snow Crash or what you see in Ready, Player One is going to start to materialize as something that is very real,” Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick told GamesBeat. “I think we’re rapidly progressing toward that as a legitimate mass-market experience.”
There are glimpses of what’s to come in the massive multiplayer worlds of games like Fortnite. If you take away the guns and put a concert into that space and bring together millions of people to experience it together, then that’s the Metaverse.
“The problem is like being a 16th Century surgeon trying to explain how the human body works,” says Sol Rogers, founder and CEO at VR producer Rewind, speaking at the Makers conference. “We know some of the outside bits and that some bits are plugged together but we’ve no idea how it all works.”
Sticking with the analogy, our medical knowledge has now advanced to enable us to sequence RNA to fight global pandemics, but the journey has been a long one. When it comes to the Metaverse we’re still in the foothills of learning.
“It is the layering on of a hybrid representation of ourselves in another [virtual] place or universe that connects humanity using technology,” says Rogers. “That is the direction of travel.”
Facebook is building its own Ready Player One Oasis called Facebook Horizon. It is the reason Mark Zuckerberg spent $2 billion acquiring Oculus Rift in 2014. It wasn’t the headgear that Facebook’s CEO was interested in but the ability for Facebook users to connect in real time within VR experiences.
Facebook Horizon launched in beta a year ago. Starting with a bustling “town square” where people will meet and mingle, the Horizon experience is imagined by Facebook as an expansive interconnected world where people can explore new places, play games, build communities, and even create their own new experiences.
“Before stepping into Horizon for the first time, people will design their own avatars from an array of style and body options to ensure everyone can fully express their individuality,” Facebook’s blog explains.
“From there, magic-like portals — called telepods — will transport people from public spaces to new worlds filled with adventure and exploration.”
READ MORE: Introducing ‘Facebook Horizon,’ A New Social VR World, Coming To Oculus Quest and The Rift Platform In 2020 (Oculus)
World Builder tools will let anyone build new worlds and activities without the need to know how to code. Visual scripting tools let more serious developers create interactive and reactive experiences.
Facebook even details Horizon’s “Citizenship,” stating “As citizens of Facebook Horizon, it is all of our responsibility to create a culture that’s respectful and comfortable… friendly, inclusive, and curious.”
As TechCrunch observes, Horizon locals “seem poised to be part customer support, part in-world police.”
Facebook is far from the only company engaged in metaverse building. Mixed Reality experience developer Magic Leap trademarked the term Magicverse for its offering. Nvidia has a collection of world building tools called the Omniverse which it is targeting at developers across any and all industries from automotive design to medical and media.
Apple may enter the Metaverse with launch of its long rumored AR glasses. Microsoft is already there with its X-Box games division and Google Glass displays. Even Netflix is poised to launch a gaming division.
Sony Teams With Epic
Intriguing recent developments have emerged from Sony which, of course, has PlayStation and a wealth of film, TV, music and games software. Its $450 million investment in Epic Games, maker of Fortnite, (and including $200 million announced in April) adds ballast to Epic’s ambition to create the metaverse.
“We are grateful to our new and existing investors who support our vision for the Metaverse,” said Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney of the $1 billion funding round which valued the company at $28.7 billion.
READ MORE: Announcing a $1 Billion Funding Round to Support Epic’s Long-Term Vision for the Metaverse (Epic Games)
Unlike its console competitor Microsoft, Sony doesn’t already have an interconnected web of online services, computing tools, and cloud infrastructure. “What Sony does have is numerous interests across tech, film, and music that could slot in perfectly to existing infrastructure,” speculates IGN. “If Epic succeeds in driving a metaverse, then Sony gets front row seats to all the new advertising and commerce opportunities that come with it for its entire technology empire.”
ViacomCBS has turned its attention to fathoming how to adapt its IP, including the Star Trek universe, into a more fully featured Metaverse which its execs believe will evolve into the mass market by the end of the decade. Ready Player One, incidentally, is set in 2045.
Perhaps the most adept attempt to describe the framework of the Metaverse is from venture capitalist and analyst Matthew Ball.
He thinks the metaverse will be persistent, ‘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.
Further, it will be open to everyone with no restriction on numbers. Think massively, massively multiplayer gaming. It will have a fully functioning economy — the genus of which can be seen in in-game/in-app purchases, digital currencies and advertising on virtual real estate.
READ MORE: The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find it, Who Will Build It, and Fortnite (Matthew Ball)
Another tenet of the metaverse is that it will be home to content and experiences “created and operated by an incredibly wide range of contributors,” from individuals to giant corporations like Disney.
The experience will span digital and physical worlds, private and public networks/experiences, and open and closed platforms; and offer “unprecedented interoperability of data, digital items/assets, content, across each of these experiences.”
The economics of the Metaverse, which Ball describes here, are arguably more of a barrier to its coming into existence than the technology. A fundamental difference between real world capitalism and its current mirror online is that of walled gardens: every online experience and every digital company pretty much guards its own users and its own IP, even its own payment mechanism.
Fortnite, a genuine cross-platform phenomenon, has begun to break down these barriers. The battle that Epic Games is now taking to Apple around payment for carriage of Fortnite on Apple products is in reality about opening up “locked ecosystems” to pave the way for the Metaverse.
“If [Sweeney] wins, that’s another wall knocked down and another step toward true interconnectivity,” suggests IGN.
“Sweeney’s point is that whatever the metaverse becomes, it will eventually break down barriers between closed systems, so that rather than having separate systems and accounts for things like Facebook, Twitter, Google, Fortnite, Call of Duty, and so forth, everything will just be interconnected and work together as one digital economy.”
This doesn’t of course mean there won’t be huge multinationals dominating the Metaverse and all our data within it, even if the monopoly of a god-like Halliday (who dominates even while dead in the real world) from Ready Player One is unlikely.
“[The Metaverse] is likely to produce trillions in value as a new computing platform or content medium,” says Ball. “In its full version it becomes the gateway to most digital experiences, a key component of all physical ones, and the next great labor platform.”
The value of being a key participant in owning either infrastructure or digital real estate in a such system should be apparent.
“There is no ‘owner’ of the Internet today, but nearly all of the leading Internet companies rank among the 10 most valuable public companies on earth,” Ball says. “And if the Metaverse does indeed serve as a functional ‘successor’ to the web — only this time with even greater reach, time spent, and more commercial activity — there’s likely to be even more economic upside.”