Does the Metaverse exist yet?

Published on

July 12, 2022

Mark Zuckerberg in the Horizon App, asking if we are there yet

tl;dr

There are several aspects for defining the Metaverse, with different experts taking sometimes extreme positions. Check out the last chapter to get a simple yet helpful view on it.

Introduction

There are very different opinions - especially among (self-claimed) experts - on whether the Metaverse exists, yet. These different opinions do not come from different understandings of what's currently possible - it basically boils down to different definitions.

To resolve the issue of different applied definitions, some people already uncovered where the term Metaverse comes from, who used it first, and what it meant then. If you are interested in this, Matthew Ball gives a good outline of the history of the term Metaverse in this article The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find it, and Who Will Build It

To agree on using Neil Stevenson's original definition consistently would be one solution to all this confusion. But since this did not happen so far, usually discussions about whose definition is "right" are the result - a fruitless endeavor.

Therefore, I would like to take a different approach: Aiming for usefulness over correctness. For this, I'm presenting different aspects of what the Metaverse might be, and you then can decide for yourself which definition provides the most value to you and your context. I would also like to mention that for every aspect, you can pick a position on a wide spectrum between extreme opinions. 

I hope this article will help you increase your understanding and equip you with the essential tools to lead insightful discussions about the Metaverse with other people.

Let's start with the most fundamental element of the definition.

The Metaverse or a Metaverse?

You might have noticed that most often people talk about the and not a Metaverse, implying that there is only one. Just like there are many networks, but only one internet, the uniqueness of the Metaverse comes with several consequences. Just like with the internet, this includes: Global connectedness, independence, interoperability, clearly defined standards, and hard- and software agnostics.

You can access the internet with different devices, running different operating systems, and by using any browser. This is only possible because all websites follow standards like HTML and CSS and all traffic is based on TCP/IP or another acknowledged standard. The same has to apply to the Metaverse - otherwise we'll have to talk about a Metaverse instead.

Standards for the Metaverse are still evolving. In the recent years, there has been some significant progress in this regard, making it easier to develop software for all different types of hardware without having to implement all different SDKs for each device type. The standards for interoperability between different XR applications are still lacking, though. The recently launched Metaverse Standards Forum (https://metaverse-standards.org/) is tackling exactly this issue.

Interoperability and Web3

Many people set the requirements for interoperability very high. They don't just make accessibility via different hardware a requirement but also demand that you represent yourself with your personal avatar and bring and use your digital assets with you. To ensure the ownership of these assets, Web3 technologies such as NFTs or other blockchain-based mechanics are defined as the only solution.

It is clear that the internet achieved independence without this. Web 1.0 "read-only" did not require anything of this kind, as users were only anonymous visitors. Web 2.0 "participate social web" worked with logins. Only with Web 3.0, where users are supposed to create and participate in, the necessity arises. 

There is some obvious value for the Metaverse to be based on Web3 technologies. However, making Web3 a hard requirement for the Metaverse is one of the more extreme positions on the interoperability spectrum.

3 Dimensions and XR Technologies

Now that we have covered the fundamentals of the Metaverse and the resulting interoperability aspect, let's take a look at other common Metvarse criteria.

A clear indicator for the Metaverse is that it is a 3 dimensional world and can be explored with XR (extended reality; umbrella term for virtual, augmented, and mixed reality) technologies, such as VR (virtual reality) devices. But even this is somewhat arguable.

For one, there is 360° content which is considered VR content by some and not "real VR" by others. So we have content, which is not 3 dimensional, but consumed with XR technology. Since even among VR experts there is no clear opinion whether this can be considered VR, the question whether it can be an element of the Metaverse is even harder to answer.

It is also up for discussion that the Metaverse consists solely of 3D spaces. Just like the internet not only consists of 2D websites, but also things like Amazon Dash buttons. For instance, Alexa-like voice assistants will likely be part of the Metaverse and in fact, be 0 dimensional.

Even assuming we agreed on the Metaverse being a 3 dimensional world (or worlds), let's consider two more aspects: Interactivity between users and the devices needed to enter the Metaverse.

User Interaction

If an enterprise trains their employees with VR on digital twins of their actual machinery, you will read "Company X is training their employees now in the Metaverse!", even if it's not connected to anything else. It's definitely something cool and using the hyped buzzword for creating more visibility makes sense from a marketing perspective. But it directly conflicts with the uniqueness of the Metaverse as discussed above, as there is no connection to "the rest of the Metaverse" and all the other participants. Questions that should be asked regarding interactivity between users are what kind of interactions must be possible, what form can the users take (considering avatars), but also: how much privacy can be achieved in this open and accessible world? And how can a user create lasting value there?

Immersiveness and Presence

Many people will also argue that you can enter the Metaverse with a mobile device or desktop PC. This makes sense, as we mentioned the device agnosticity before. On the other hand, would you consider the 2003 version of Second Life, World of Warcraft, or Minecraft as being part of the Metaverse? How much does this change if you'd experience these worlds with a VR headset moving your own hands and body to interact with them? How much would change if you replace the in-game currency with NFTs? 

For me, the immersiveness and presence provided through VR technology is a more essential element than the technical implementations of ownership. The above mentioned games all included some form of digital ownership of ingame assets - they just were managed by a single entity instead of on a shared blockchain.

Sidenote: Second Life also supports VR now, so maybe take a look and ask yourself what's missing for this to feel like Metaverse to you.

Taking a Simple View on it

A view which becomes presented more often recently is that the Metaverse is simply the next evolution of the internet. Instead of visiting and socializing on 2D websites, we will be entering 3D worlds, in which we can interact with the environment, other visitors, and create. Chris Cox, CPO at Meta is one of the people taking this stance on the world economic forum: Meta explaining the Metaverse

It's hard for us to imagine the possibilities that come with this, but to be fair we were surprised about the development of the internet till now as well. I'm sure that there will be many new possibilities, depending on which space you enter. Just like socializing on Facebook, chatting with friends, watching Netflix, or visiting the website of your favorite insurance company are all part of today's internet - with very different services and possibilities.

What are you expecting from the internet of the future and how do you want to interact with its content and other users?