Obligatory Metaverse Summary
In most cases, it's usually very useful to start with a definition of something. But because the idea of a Metaverse has received so much press coverage over the last few months, since the rebranding of the Facebook parent company to Meta, it may actually be more useful to speak about what the Metaverse is not.
The Metaverse is not a cash-grab built for the naïve who want digital real estate
It was not a concept created by Meta (previously known as Facebook) in October 2021 at their digital announcement of a rebrand
It is not an online gaming world, built for gamers
There are four main characteristics that are needed for a digital space to qualify as a metaverse.
It must be a shared space
There must be an immersive experience
There should be a digital representation of the user, commonly called an avatar
You must be able to interact with the environment
One 'Metaverse' or Multiple?
In recent discussions, this question has been asked more than once; Are there multiple metaverses or is it one big metaverse where you can jump between. It's important to clarify that the definition of the metaverse is self-correcting as the technology becomes formalized.
At this moment, the consensus is that there are multiple metaverses, either hosted by an entity or shared through decentralized means.
Where it's heading
To discuss where it's heading, we need to clarify that it is, in fact, heading somewhere. If you do a Google search about the viability of the metaverse today, you'll find about half of the results praising the progress so far from a limited few, while the other half is split between genuine questions about if there's real value to users, and persons calling it 🐍🛢️.
If we look back to the BlackBerry Phone's fall in popularity between 2006 to 2010, we can learn a lesson that will quickly apply to the Metaverse. One of the large reasons for this was that during the space of the time, Apple Inc. came out with iPhones that had all the apps people wanted, and Android followed soon after with the same. Without the support for the applications that people wanted on their platform (BlackBerry World), it left a gap that someone could only fill by jumping ship to one of those platforms.
The success of the metaverse is going to come down to how easily the software overlaps with our existing processes, and how useful it is to main stream, non-technical users, who are looking for increased productivity.
The technology is currently being used by churches, hospitals, recruiting agencies and to facilitate eCommerce payments, to name a few. All of this through an immersive, shared digital experience.
It's going to come down to what can we do with it, how useful it is to mainstream users.
Getting In 👍
A friend asked me the other day whether a space that can be accessed without a VR headset can be considered a metaverse. I thought that she had asked a great question, because looking back at my definition, you'll notice that an aspect of any space being a metaverse is that interactions are immersive. This is to give you a distinction from multi-player online games with a controller or keyboard.
To keep it specific, the Metaverse must have an immersive experience as one of its main components. That said, there is no definition that limits it exclusively to VR headset access.
One of the most popular Metaverse platforms, VR Chat, states clearly in its FAQs:
Do I need VR to use VRChat? No, you do not! You can play in “Desktop Mode”, which lets you use a mouse, keyboard, and monitor. It controls like many first-person games.
As mentioned above, the Metaverse speaks to an immersive experience but is part of a larger development termed the Spatial Internet, where people are able to interact more seamlessly with internet-accessible web properties (like websites, apps, maps, calendars) using Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, and Mixed Reality technology.
This means you can access most metaverse platforms, using your keyboard & mouse on your desktop. These include digital worlds including Decentraland, VRChat & Oasis. Each allows for access to the immersive experience using the devices that individuals have.
There are big benefits of having it be accessible across devices as well. The main one is that your profiles, history, and any in-app purchases will be synchronized at all times, so you won't be paying for mobile, laptop, and VR headset versions of the same app.
Much of this interoperability is thanks to the development of the A-Frame technology, which builds on top of Web Virtual Reality (Web XR) capabilities to allow for many of the native functionalities for the web components.
Issues & Risks
Some of the biggest issues that Metaverses currently face fall under the grouping of content moderation. The very model of the technology being one where you can represent a version of yourself, works against the goal of content moderation, when someone could spuriously create a new profile, say that they are 22 years old and a woman regardless of their true age & gender.
But by far, the Metaverse's biggest long-term risk now is that users may lose touch with developing reality. We run the big risk of kids & young adults getting addicted to a virtual identity. I don't believe developing the metaverse and developing reality are mutually exclusive, but I do see a coming problem coming for teaching the latter.
Policy for Protection
Getting lost In The Meta Space is a very real risk because we haven't yet settled on what fair and appropriate use looks like. Just like in the days of the development of early technology like the Faraday cage, the first personal motor vehicles and computer operating systems, the model has always been functionality first, then security. Development first, then policy.
At this point, what we lack is a global framework for structuring Codes of Ethics for the Metaverse. Something akin to https://decentraland.org/ethics/ would provide a good frame of reference.
We need to start looking at policy development, Today. Otherwise, we'll be left with exploitation without equity and the metaverse will not be something that reaches mainstream.