21.07: Notes on the Metaverse

❓ What the Metaverse is not

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

—— Albert Einstein

There are many competing visions for how we’ll get and build the Metaverse: a persistent, infinitely-scaling virtual space with its economy and identity system. One of the problems with forecasting the Metaverse is that we are trying to describe something that still doesn’t exist. We don’t know how it’ll look like. This is comparable to predicting the Internet in the 50s, or TikTok during the 90s. Most of the technology was already there, yes; we knew some of its components, yes; but it was difficult to anticipate the second-order effects.

This time around, we might inadvertently feel more confident. Our ability to render fictional narratives has vastly improved. That served as a double-edged sword. For example, Ready Player One has strongly, influenced what most people already think of the Metaverse. A massive virtual space, entirely user-generated, mixed with technologies such as AR glasses, blockchain, or digital avatars.

While all of those are interesting elements, that’s basically like saying that Google, or the iPhone, is the Internet. It’s not entirely wrong, but it misses the idea that the Internet itself is a series of physical pipes, standards, protocols, technology, and ideas that were formalized into infrastructure. All of this infrastructure has not been put in place for the Metaverse, yet.

🛵 w/o interoperability everything falls apart

This might sound obvious, but its importance can’t be dismissed. As its name suggests, the Internet is an interconnected network. This interconnection is partially achieved by the hyperlink — which glues it all together.

Such interoperability is not currently possible for this hypothetical Metaverse. However, it remains a necessary condition. This would mean, for example, that a skin you bought in Fortnite, you can use in Minecraft.

As of today, things that you build in one place can’t go somewhere else. Think of moving Facebook’s friends, or eBay’s reputation. Portability matters and it is not implemented even today across current platforms.

On the other hand, one of the most depicting examples I’ve seen so far of interoperability is the construction of a museum showcasing the digital art you bought across the Internet.

🌦 Physics and economics, the underlying technology

The best we can currently describe the Metaverse is a persistent, synchronous, live, living universe, that will grant its members a sense of presence and agency. It would be like participating in a new bottom-up global economy.

This represents a subtle but important shift in how we socialize and play: from purposeful interactions centered around activities (think of videos in the case of YouTube) to spontaneous interactions focused on people. In other words: a new world must be created, with its laws and rules.

This brings us to another foundational element that first needs to be addressed: forward-compatible code and physics. This is not only necessary to set the world “in motion” according to a shared set of rules, but also to safely “upgrade” its mechanics in the future.

Users will not only become participants, but active contributors in such world / economy. Then we must take into account all the user-generated possibilities that could occur in such a world. The good news is that despite we still don’t know its ultimate shape, (again) we can point out some of its components: Unity or Unreal.

⏱ How and when we’ll get there

Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.

—— Ernest Hemingway

There will never a moment in time where we say, “this was before, and this is post Metaverse.” Yet technologically, we are far from it. There is a lot of infrastructure work to do.

Here are some examples of how the world looks like today from this standpoint (the first two already discussed above).

  • Standards, protocols, and agreements — a common language. We are not even there in terms of data portability or even plain image formats on the Internet.
  • Forward-compatibility evolution. The metaverse is understood to be a persistent simulation. Over time it has to be continuous, but we also want it to evolve, to do more things. A world, where now and then the physics are upgraded.
  • Mass concurrency. We’re talking about existence moving online or the economy moving online. As of today, Fortnite can’t run more than 50 participants at a time in each room — and not all of which are even running in identical synchronicity.
  • Real-world connection and virtual seamlessness. Experiences will become immersive and interactive, much like in the real world. Despite we’ve seen unprecedented, accelerating progress from the first movies to VR’s state of the art, we need a digital world indistinguishable from reality.
  • Frictionless creation of content. Assuming an entirely UGC world means that the content creation barrier must be lowered. This can only happen with the assistance of AI-enabled tools.

🤔 Incentives to join in the first place

The incentives for a single company to join will become obvious in retrospect. However, a tension between contribution to the Metaverse and self-interest will remain. Parties will be required to make a long-term commitment to a “larger pie”.

  • A bet on interoperability instead of driving standards and experiences — walled gardens.
  • Optimizing for TAM and prefer having larger TAMs (where they can’t control if they win or lose) over closed, smaller ecosystems.

🏁 Who is leading the way

Epic (creator of the Unreal engine) has the lead in the west. Few companies are dead set on creating the underlying infrastructure that will allow for massive “TAM” creation. The company continues to build technology, grow capabilities… while giving away more and more of its value for free. Its focus is not margins but contributing to a potential Metaverse worth trillions.

Tencent (in China) is probably the closest we have to the Metaverse. Not only has the scale, the technology, the consumer attention, or the social platforms (i.e. Hooyah the Twitch of China), but they publish almost everything that happens virtually.

First published on February 21, 2021