You, Me and the Metaverse – part 1
Mark Zuckerberg just went Meta on us. Meta as in metaverse.
The metaverse went mainstream, just like rockets and trips to Mars. Just check out your national news.
For most, it simply seems to be about meetings in virtual rooms with 3D life-like avatars. All of that sounds so 2003, a second breath in Second Life,.. with a sprinkling of 2021 tech. Surely it is has to be more than that? Right?
Even the specialists seem ill at ease with what the metaverse actually is.
Any significant new tech trend will be front page on “The Verge”, the magazine that looks at how technology will change our future. The outcome was not satisfying either. Their definition of the metaverse looked like another collage of Wikipedia, i.e. VR headsets, virtual meetings and gaming universe.
What do we actually know?
Metaverse is the Next. Big. Thing.
What is the metaverse actually?
Reading through all opinion pieces, articles and assorted, there seems to be no commonly accepted definition.
It cannot be simply a list of Wikipedia quotes, or possibly some discussion on the origins of the word itself, a compendium of past and present buzzwords. What is it beyond digital real estate, gamification and being the next big thing? What is the metaverse beyond haptic suits, NFTs, Roblox and FortNite?
Metaverse sure sounds very science-fiction
Easy to understand why many try and illustrate it with analogies to mainstream sci-fi such as Ready Player One.
It is easy to think the metaverse is all about haptic suits, VR and imaginary gaming worlds. (*)for the in-crowd, check out the end of this article.
In the “real” world, when Epic Games sues Apple, it is because they think the metaverse defines the future. Against their strong case, the court seems to only be able to quote the use of proxies and analogies (Roblox in this case) as a definition to try and gauge how important this is.
Is it not rather frustrating that a reality-shattering concept is reduced to a blocky analogy?
The metaverse is much more, and goes deeper
What is it?
This is what I understand the metaverse is..
First something about me.. As a market analyst, tech user and enthusiastic onliner since Ultima Online (1997), scifi geek even before Neuromancer, fan of 2000 AD dystopias, the metaverse is somehow my natural environment. Like a conservationist taking you to his favourite reserve, whatever your own familiarity with it.
Whether you were on stage, in the newspapers or just in an investor call, let me share with you how I see it.
Worst case, you will have redefined, maybe refined, your own vision. Best case for me? Getting you through the morass of buzzwords, seemingly cryptic terms, regurgitated concepts and lazy analogies, with a toolkit of actionable ideas.
How do I understand the metaverse? What it is not? Why bother?
Whenever you play, some will play the game, some will play the rules. Playing the rules generally wins.
THE METAVERSE, AS IT IS
Let me start with an example.
Today, you bought a World of Warcraft card and a Spotify card at the 7/11 across the street. These cards have a practical value, defined as in-game time or titles. You paid for it with your credit card, so your bank knows that you will probably spend x hours in the game, or online listening to music. The credit card accumulates points to your loyalty card, and you will be able to redeem them later against a flight to, lets say, Edinburgh.
What just happened?
You just bought real time to spend in an virtual universe (i.e. you bought 1 week of play time in Warcraft), and you bought future time to spend in the real world. Future time, as in, you will fly eventually.
In this example, future time would also be virtual time bought in the real universe.
What is the metaverse? The metaverse is absolutely all of this.
It is not Blizzard and not World of Warcraft. Neither is it Spotify, the 7/11, the credit card or the loyalty card, nor the cashier, and it is also not you. It is all of it.
All the rules and tools, that let you access, manage, create, transform, use and exchange these values, that define them, the fabric of it, that is the metaverse.
The metaverse are all the rules, the tools, that bind together all the alternate digital worlds we create, the games, social media or other parallel digital realities. It lets you access, manage, create, transform, use and exchange, and define values. It is the very fabric of it. Not the individual parts.
Multiverse versus Metaverse
You move in a multiverse.
You are a multidimensional being, in-between real and virtual worlds, at the exact same time.
It is so much easier to describe the access to alternative realities through physical barriers and boundaries.
For example, we understand it when Neo, the lead character in the film The Matrix, takes a red pill to get flushed out of the virtual simulation he is living in and into the real physical world.
Or, we understand the concept of “going down the rabbit hole”, from Alice in Wonderland.
These examples would actually be stacked alternate realities, existing in parallel. This is not the metaverse. This is called a multiverse. Not to be confused.
A good example
A good example to understand the difference between multiverse and metaverse, is Twitter and the Twittersphere. The Twittersphere has its own rules, with its own population (called Twitteratis) and it gives you your own personal twitter feed (i.e. your own personal universe).
The Twittersphere is a multiverse of multiple individual parallel universes.
Twitter itself is the technology, a set of rules, a set of values that is enabled by the metaverse.
The metaverse is the technological, financial and physical framework that enables all of these online and offline worlds to exist seamlessly, to connect and to exchange.
As an individual, you are at the centre of a seamless, unique multiverse. Each multiverse is enabled by the metaverse. Each multiverse has its own set of fundamental core rules.
Take for example gravity. These rules may vary.
In one specific multiverse, there may not be gravity: for example, a digital multiverse based on information flows, such as a social media multiverse. Now, layer all the alternative potential multiverses. Some are visible, touchable, and some are invisible and immaterial. By nature, it depends on hardware, software and protocols. Hence, of course, it is primarily enabled by technology.
But not only.
The metaverse is financial as you will exchange values.
It is also political as it will interact with the “real” physical world, people, social groups, companies and governments.
The metaverse requires rules of play
What is an individual? You can define an individual in many ways of unique physical entity, traits… philosophical, soul or not.
Not enough space here, but an individual entity exists by opposition to what is the “general environment” and what is private/personal/unique. Like a social security number.
The rules on what constitutes an individual are part of the metaverse core rules.
How will we define what is you and what is not?
Think about your social media accounts versus your national registration numbers. Think about GDPR as it actually defines individuals within a set of boundaries.
The metaverse is the tools and the rules to let all the alternative realities exist, co-exist and interact.
So whomever tries to define the metaverse by dragons flying over the city, seen through VR goggles, has not quite got it. It falls far short of the depth of the metaverse.
The metaverse is reality multiplied by as many dimensions as we wish to create, either in new physical environments, or conceptual ones.
Even death becomes a concept
Even death, the practical end of it all, becomes a concept like any other: an electronic avatar could live essentially forever.
For the onlooker, no change really. High-end CGI, pre-recorded sequences and expected behaviours predicted by the AI, based on past behaviours of the deceased in similar times and locations… You could even interact with the avatar of the deceased person.
You would only “die” in the virtual environment when no-one would remember you. Sounds rather like life in general, does it not?
We often look for simple, binary definitions as it is easier to define. The metaverse is no such thing.
We are used to day and night, awake/asleep, digital/analogue or online/offline.
It is not a hop-on/hop-off reality anymore.
It just is.
Valuation: one of the most critical concept of the metaverse
In trading societies, we are socially accustomed to exchange values, like money. These value exchanges are sometimes explicit (e.g.20 $ for one working hour) and sometimes implicit (e.g. I will visit you every Sunday).
The way you define the value of any services, items or time exchanged is a key pillar of your reality, of your universe. Are you thinking in stones or kilos, in centimetres or feet?
Which of these currencies will be used as a foundation of the metaverse?
Which alphabet will be used to code it?
This is not an easy answer. Remember when it came to operating system in Japanese, Chinese, Cyrillic or Roman characters,… well.
An investment opportunity?
We heard a lot about the metaverse valuation as an investment opportunity. Obviously, the FOTM (flavour of the month) investors did not miss this opportunity, and many companies are now “metaverse companies”. As it should be. For a company not to define itself as a metaverse company would be rather difficult!
COVID ensured that we all had a larger digital footprint to produce, communicate and exchange. In a word, we all HAVE to exist in the metaverse fabric.
So no, the metaverse is not only NFTs. None Fungible Tokens are an attempt at defining value unicity within a system defined by quantum multiplicity… Good luck with that I would say.
Already many are backing off. Even EPIC Games CEO seems to agree it sounds pretty contrary.
How to define the individual as a value?
Finally, after centuries of trials, religions, philosophies and ideologies, we are still compiling a list of what defines an individual. How to define the individual? What are its rights and limitations?… In a word, how to define the individual as a value?
How will the metaverse achieve this with its potential infinite iteration?
What is the value of individuals as tracked and recorded in the metaverse?
Today, numbers of subscribers are all but negotiable quantities for advertisements for Facebook, Insta, TikTok, etc. For these companies, the value of an individual is, a) the flow, i.e. how much the individuals interact (views, comments, ratings..), and b) the quantity, i.e. the absolute number of users.
The flow and quantity are of more value to these companies than content created. On the contrary, to you as an individual, the content created is in itself the value.
The metaverse is the fabric. Not the individual parts of it.
The metaverse is here. Today.
And, it may not have anything to do with banana skinsuits, online concerts or eSports to you.
The metaverse is all the rules, all the tools, whether software or hardware, all the interfaces that let you access, manage, create, transform, use and exchange these values.
China, a live example of the metaverse in action
WeChat, the social media platform of Tencent, is not only about communication, sales or live streaming.. WeChat is also seamlessly integrated with any other platform in China, with all Chinese streaming solutions plus all apps from Alibaba and anyone else, including financial apps.
From a finance, entertainment and administrative point of view, China is pretty fully deployed and integrated.
China lives the metaverse.
This has a real world output too, with key opinion leaders, aka KOLs, reaching in the billions of views with billions of dollars generated.
The metaverse in China is alive and kicking, as chronicled by the excellent Ashley Dudarenok. If anything, it has gone so far that the Chinese government is actually trying to claw back some influence from it – not out of spite against individuals or companies, I think. They understood that it will lead to defining reality itself.
The metaverse just is. Like gravity, it can be dangerous or it can be used to cross the galaxy.
What are the risks?
As described by early science fiction, there are clear risks, and pretty big at that.
Addressing these risks will start with deciding who will define, design and enforce these rules in this interconnected metaverse, and how.
Will Zuckerberg be the architect of the metaverse?
In Ready Player One, there is one ‘architect’, the good guy. In the Matrix and Tron too – although they are obviously less nice guys. Mark Zuckerberg as an architect of the metaverse, despite all his philanthropism, could be more of a question-mark?
Look at the facts today. Despite heavy marketing and hype, only 8 millions Oculus headsets were sold.. worldwide. Just looking over the lawn. He has to be aware that Google glasses are great.. in movies,.. and did not sell that much.
Zuckerberg is certainly a philanthropist, be it self-styled, and definitely an all-around good guy. But, let’s just say that he did not get where he is by mucking with rainbow unicorns.
If the metaverse will ultimately define what you are, what we are, what you can or cannot do, when and how,.. there is a good probability that it will define as well where we will end?
It is time, I think, to get in on the action.
It is time to go beyond the proposed vision of VR goggles!
To be continued…
(*) Footnote for the in-crowd
The metaverse sounds like science-fiction… It is easy to think the metaverse is all about haptic suits and imaginary gaming worlds, right? Add a sprinkling of unicorns or dragons, if you must and certainly throw in some in-game concerts.
Are you a higher level geek? Ok, add the evergreen Matrix analogies and comparisons. Still, the metaverse is ‘over there’, only available once you took the red pill, or someone plugged you into the “other” universe via a headspike instead of an haptic suit.
For millennials, or for those with nephews and nieces, or kids that don’t go to bed on time, it seems that the metaverse is like Grand Theft Auto combined with Minecraft. For Gen-Zers, it’s like Roblox, and like FortNite for all others. All of these titles are successful enough to allow a common picture to form: an imaginary digital world where we can play, interact and build. Well, mostly.
For mainstream media, apart from starting with the Wikipedia definition, we can observe that we will often stay at the Pokemon Go vision.
Fair enough, but if we were to keep the vision of the metaverse to rainbow unicorns, it would be a very good way to minimise and blur the actual significance of it.