It’s a term coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science fiction book Snow Crash, where humans represented as avatars interact in a 3D world. The concept is evolving. Today, Wikipedia defines it as “a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet.” Essentially, the Metaverse will be a bridge of sorts between the physical world, a digital mirror of the physical world and a digital world built by human imagination.
It’s also helpful to consider what the Metaverse is often, but incorrectly, likened to. While each of these analogies is likely to be a part of the Metaverse, they aren’t actually the Metaverse. For example, The Metaverse is not…
- A “virtual world” – Virtual worlds and games with AI driven characters have existed for decades, as have those populated with “real” humans in real time. This isn’t a “meta” (Greek for “beyond”) universe, just a synthetic and fictional one designed for a single purpose (a game).
- A “virtual space” – Digital content experiences like Second Life are often seen as “proto-Metaverses” because they (A) lack game-like goals or skill systems; (B) are virtual hangouts that persist; (C) offer nearly synchronous content updates; and (D) have real humans represented by digital avatars. However, these are not sufficient attributes for the Metaverse.
- “Virtual reality” – VR is a way to experience a virtual world or space. Sense of presence in a digital world doesn’t make a Metaverse. It is like saying you have a thriving city because you can see and walk around it.
- A “digital and virtual economy” – These, too, already exist. Individual games such as World of Warcraft have long had functioning economies where real people trade virtual goods for real money, or perform virtual tasks in exchange for real money. In addition, platforms such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, as well as technologies such as Bitcoin, are based around the hiring of individuals/businesses/computational power to perform virtual and digital tasks. We are already transacting at scale for purely digital items for purely digital activities via purely digital marketplaces.
- A “game” – Fortnite has many elements of the Metaverse. It (A) mashes up IP; (B) has a consistent identity that spans multiple closed platforms; (C) is a gateway to a myriad of experiences, some of which are purely social; (D) compensates creators for creating content, etc. However, as is the case with Ready Player One, it remains too narrow in what it does, how far it extends, and what “work” can occur (at least for now). While the Metaverse may have some game-like goals, include games, and involve gamification, it is not itself a game, nor is it oriented around specific objectives.
- A “virtual theme park or Disneyland” – Not only will the “attractions” be infinite, they will be not be centrally “designed” or programmed like Disneyland, nor will they all be about fun or entertainment. In addition, the distribution of engagement will have a very long tail
- A “new app store” – No one needs another way to open apps, nor would doing so “in VR” (as an example) unlock/enable the sorts of value supposed by a successor Internet. The Metaverse is substantively different from today’s Internet/mobile models, architecture, and priorities.
- A “new UGC platform” - The Metaverse is not just another YouTube or Facebook-like platform in which countless individuals can “create”, “share”, and “monetize” content, and where the most popular content represents only the tiniest share of overall consumption. The Metaverse will be a place in which proper empires are invested in and built, and where these richly capitalized businesses can fully own a customer, control APIs/data, unit economics, etc. In addition, it’s likely that, as with the web, a dozen or so platforms hold significant shares of user time, experiences, content, etc.
Written By Matthew Ball