What is the metaverse and why are we talking about it?
If you follow technology news you may have been hearing the word "metaverse" a lot recently. It feels like every day I see a headline on VentureBeat along the lines of "Company X raises $Y million to create the metaverse" (Example 1, Example 2). Or maybe you heard that Facebook recently renamed their company to Meta to better align with their vision of creating the metaverse.
But what actually is the metaverse? First I'll give my definition which is a bit different from what you're likely to read on a lot of sites that are pushing the metaverse as the next big thing.
The metaverse is:
- A 3D virtual world (like you'd find in most video games)
- All "spaces" in the world are connected (CokeLand, PepsiLand, StarWarsLand, StarTrekLand all exist in a single, connected world)
- Anyone can contribute new stuff to this shared world. They can make anything they can imagine, as long as what they make doesn't break any laws.
- There's a single, persistent "reality" for the whole metaverse. The metaverse is the same for everyone who interacts with it (like you'd find in an MMORPG like World of Warcraft).
My definition is based on the description of the metaverse in the sci-fi novels Snow Crash (1992) and Ready Player One (2011). I don't think Snow Crash invented the idea of the metaverse, but these books definitely did a lot to popularize the idea.
Something I didn't include in my definition is anything about Virtual Reality (VR) or Augmented Reality (AR). Most visions of the metaverse assume that people would interact with it using a VR or AR headset (both books I mentioned use highly immersive VR headsets). But I don't think VR is necessary for the metaverse or the most interesting thing about it. Don't get me wrong – realistic, immersive VR would be awesome – but I view building better VR as a separate technology challenge from building the metaverse. Better VR technology would definitely make the metaverse more fun, but I think you could still build the metaverse without it. Also, even if the primary way people interact with the metaverse is through VR goggles, I'd expect you to still be able to experience that same world in 2D on a computer monitor and navigate it using a standard mouse and keyboard.
Does the metaverse already exist?
Based on my definition of the metaverse, you might be able think of some things that already exist that seem like they fit that definition. However, I would argue that no one has built the metaverse yet (but I don't think it's far off).
I'll go through some candidates that either come close to being the metaverse or they claim they're building/built the metaverse.
Second Life is an online video game that came out in 2003. Of all the candidates I'll talk about, I think Second Life is the closest actually being the metaverse and mostly meets all of the criteria I gave in my definition. But I think they don't qualify based on a technicality. Throughout this post I've been using the phrase "the metaverse", which implies that there's only one metaverse. But I don't think Second Life is nearly popular enough for people to think of it as the metaverse. The record for most players logged in at one time is 88,200 (source). Second Life would need to have hundreds of millions of users for me to think of it as the metaverse.
I've never thought of the internet as being the same as the metaverse, but some people think that it meets the definition of metaverse. Like this blog post titled "The Metaverse already exists, it's just currently called the Internet".
But the internet isn't a 3D virtual world. It does meet the other parts of my definition though.
Tim Sweeney, the CEO of Epic Games, likes to say that Epic Games is building the metaverse and the most visible example of this aspiration is their hit game Fortnite. Fortnite is an actual video game (unlike Second Life) but it has become more of a social hub and they've hosted virtual events inside the world like live concerts with Marshmello and Ariana Grande. They also do lots of collaborations with lots of brands and has featured characters like Thanos from Marvel's Avengers, Batman from DC Comics, characters from Star Wars, and characters from other video games like Master Chief from Halo (source).
I don't know if Tim Sweeney has actually ever claimed that Fortnite is the metaverse, but it's definitely metaversey in some ways. It fails my definition though because it doesn't have user generated, there's not a single world that all players occupy together, and it's a bit too niche and specialized right now as a video game targeted at kids.
Mark Zuckerberg has said that his company Meta (formerly known as Facebook) is building the metaverse. I'm not a big fan of Mark Zuckerberg, so I haven't looked into the details of their plan. They definitely could build the metaverse, but I hope their plan is to contribute to its creation and not try to own the metaverse. A single entity owning the metaverse would not be ideal, but it's definitely a possibility and is what happened in Ready Player One. I guess we'll see.
What's so great about the metaverse anyway?
As I allude to in my definition of the metaverse, a lot of things that already exist that fulfill a lot of the good things about the metaverse. We already have virtual worlds – tons of them actually. Download just about any video game from Steam and boom, virtual world right at your fingertips. A lot of games even let you explore these worlds in VR if you have a VR headset. You can even create your own experiences in some games and share them with other players, like Dreams for PS4. So really, the only advantage of the metaverse is that there's a single, shared metaverse and all of these experiences are connected.
I'll give an example to illustrate the difference. Imagine you're playing GTA V and you want to switch to Fortnite. Right now the way you'd do that is you'd quit out of GTA V then go to your Steam library, find Fortnite and click the start button and load into that. But if GTA V and Fortnite were just different "spaces" in the metaverse, you could go directly from GTA V-land to Fortnite-land by walking, flying, teleporting, etc. without ever leaving the metaverse. Also, your avatar and control settings wouldn't change when you moved from one space to the other (maybe your clothes or art style would change).
That would be pretty cool, right? But is switching games the way we do now that big of a deal? I think it is. I'll draw a comparison to how software worked before and after the internet. The internet is older than me, but I can imagine skeptical people making similar critiques of the internet being overrated. Before the internet, to switch software you would need to eject a disk and put in a new disk to use other software. Or at least switch to a new window for the new app on your computer. Changing programs probably didn't seem like a big problem for people at the time, but could you imagine if every time you wanted to switch websites you had to quit out of a program and switch to a new program? Like you're watching videos on YouTube but want to read something on Wikipedia so you need to close the YouTube app and switch to the Wikipedia app. As soon as I wrote this I realized that this is exactly how mobile apps work, and it's not that big of a deal, haha. I think the bigger thing you'd miss without the internet is the lack of links. Imagine if Google didn't directly link you to websites but instead just gave you the address of the website you want to go to, which you would copy to your clipboard and paste into a new app. That would be really annoying.
I think the metaverse is similar in this regard. It may not sound that special, but once you got used to it, going back to the old way of navigating across virtual spaces would feel tedious.
What's Web3 and what does it have to do with the metaverse?
As I said in the subtitle, I think Web3 is BS so I'm probably not the best person to explain what it is. Most definitions of Web3 sound more like religious prophecies than actual explanations, so my definition might sound kind of boring in comparison. If you would rather read about Web3 from people who are actually excited about it, check out this online compendium of articles on Web3 and related concepts.
Before we get to Web3, let's talk about Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 first. Obviously no one called it Web 1.0 at the time, but you can think of Web 1.0 as static websites that don't offer any means of accepting user input (besides scrolling). If you ignore the comments section, this blog is a perfect example of a Web 1.0 website – I write stuff and you read it. Web 2.0 websites allow the user to contribute things back to the website. Think leaving a comment on a site, editing a Wikipedia article, tweeting on Twitter, uploading a photo to Instagram, etc. So in Web 1.0 information and content only flowed in one direction (website → user), but in Web 2.0 information and content can flow in both directions (website ↔ user).
Web3 (they don't call it Web 3.0 because that doesn't sound cool) is supposedly the next evolution of the internet from Web 2.0. There are two innovations promised by Web3: decentralized ownership of websites and content and the making payments a first-class feature of the web. For example, YouTube (i.e., Alphabet) controls all of the videos on YouTube, even the videos that you uploaded. If they decide that they don't like your video, they can remove it from the website and the only way to get it back is by appealing to them. With a Web3 version of YouTube, you alone own and control the content you create and there's no central authority like YouTube that can take down your video. Regarding the payments thing, right now if you want to buy something online you need to use PayPal or a credit card processing system. But with Web3 payments is a built-in feature in your browser and you can pay for stuff directly without relying on outside tools. You're paying with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin though, not US dollars. There's a lot of overlap between people excited about Web3 and people excited about cryptocurrencies because Web3 is built on top of the same blockchain tech used for cryptocurrencies.
Would these new features make the web significantly better? I don't think so, but I guess I could see it being helpful for certain niche types of websites. I feel like the web is already decentralized enough as it is and won't benefit from greater decentralization. But maybe in 10 years naysayers like me will sound like fools, just like the naysayers of the internet and computers before me. I guess we'll see.
So... what does any of this have to do with the metaverse?
Right, sorry, got a little off-track there. If you ask me, Web3 is all hype and has absolutely nothing to do with the metaverse. I think the metaverse is a genuinely exciting concept, but I really don't see how Web3 makes it better. But in a lot of corners of the internet (read through that compendium I linked to earlier for examples) Web3 is essential for creating the metaverse and any metaverse that isn't built using Web3 technologies is no metaverse at all.
I strongly disagree with this viewpoint, and my annoyance with this viewpoint is what inspired me to write this blog post. My opinion is that we could pretty much build the metaverse right now without needing any new ideas like Web3, blockchain, etc. There are a few innovations we'd need to make, but it's basically just improvements on well established technologies.
How to actually build the metaverse
There's more than one way you could build the metaverse, so this is actually how I think we should build the metaverse. If someone gave me a billion dollars to go build the metaverse, this is how I would do it.
Basically, I would leverage as much of the current internet infrastructure as possible. So the internet is not the metaverse, nor would the metaverse replace the internet – the metaverse should be built on top of the internet.
Virtual spaces are just websites
Here's a simplified version of what happens when you go to a website on your computer: you type the URL into your browser, hit enter, your browser uses a thing called DNS to map that URL to an IP address of another computer (server) somewhere in the world, your browser says "Give me the website!", the server says "You got it!", then sends you the HTML file for that website which your browser renders on your screen for you.
Now here's the metaverse version of that story: everything is exactly the same except for when the server sends you an HTML file. Instead of sending you an HTML file, which is a mostly human-readable text format, the server would send you a METABLOB file (not an actual thing, I just made that up) which would be used by your browser to render a virtual world instead of a 2D webpage. Your browser would work exactly the same way it does now. The only new thing it needs to do is learn how to render a METABLOB file on your computer so you can actually explore and interact with the virtual world that it encodes.
The other part that might be a little different is if you're using a VR headset to experience the metaverse, you wouldn't want to take the headset off to type a URL into your browser's address bar. Instead you would type it in on a virtual keyboard displayed inside the virtual world, type it in on a virtual keyboard located on your wrist, or maybe say the name of the website you want to go to in your microphone. Alternatively, if the different spaces in the metaverse exist on a cartesian plane, maybe you could enter in the XY coordinates of where you want to go or select the website from a 2D map.
Those are all just UX options though – at the end of the day, the website or address is still going to be converted into an IP address of a another computer on the internet (server) that will send a file back to your browser/VR device.
To make this idea more vivid I'll talk through a specific example. Right now if you go to disney.com your browser will bring you to the Disney website. But in the metaverse, you would go to disney.meta in your "browser" and instead of getting the Disney website when you go there you would get whatever virtual world Disney decides to build. Let's call their slice of the metaverse DisneyLand. DisneyLand would probably be a lot like the actual Disney Land and Disney World – you'd be able to walk around a virtual park, interact with different characters, go on rides, play games, buy physical (and virtual) stuff with real money. The difference between DisneyLand and Disney Land is that until VR tech gets way better, this experience will not be as immersive as actually going to Disney Land in real life. Also, since it's basically a video game, the Disney Imagineers really are only limited by their imagination in terms of what they can build and it's a lot cheaper to build new stuff in the virtual world so things would probably change more often. Also, since it's a virtual world, if they want to expand the "park" they only need to buy more processing power not more land.
And if you get bored of DisneyLand, without leaving the metaverse, you can head directly to UniversalLand by typing/speaking "universal.meta" in your browser/VR device.
But remembering the address of every website in the metaverse would be a pain. You should also be able to walk from website to website on your own two virtual feet.
Virtual spaces are connected with portals, which are links
So walking around within a single virtual space (website) is no problem because the METABLOB file you downloaded contains a whole virtual world (like a video game) that you can walk around in. But that METABLOB file only contains the code for that one world. All of these virtual spaces are supposed to be connected into a single cohesive metaverse.
I can think of two ways this could work. The first, which would be way cooler, is if all of these mini virtual worlds gave the illusion of existing in a single shared space. For example, if you climb to the top of the virtual Cinderella Castle in DisneyLand you could see the T-Rex from Jurassic Park off in the distance at UniversalLand. And in the other direction you could see Taylor Swift performing over in SwiftLand (taylorswift.meta). This would be awesome, but would require you to download (stream actually) the entire metaverse, or intelligently download whatever part of the metaverse you're looking at or may look at soon.
My other idea for connecting these virtual spaces (websites) builds on top of another familiar web technology: links. Links are how we currently connect websites on the web, so all we need to do is translate the idea of a link into an equivalent that works for the virtual world. My proposal is to use portals. These portals would appear as 2D "paintings", that either hover in space or are mounted on a virtual wall and you could jump/walk through them to navigate to a new virtual space (website). Yes, I stole this idea from Super Mario 64. The painting would be a still image that gives you a sneak peek of what to expect on the other side and would also have a placard containing the full URL of where the portal/painting will take you. If you want to see a live version of what's on the other side of the painting before committing to walking through it, you can knock on the painting (or tap it) which would transform the painting into an actual window into that other world with parallax effects and everything (like an actual portal). Under the hood, that knock/tap would download the part of that virtual space that would be visible from the other side of the portal. This interaction is analogous to a long-press on a link in iOS Safari where it pops open a preview of the site.
I'll give a couple of concrete examples of how this would work in practice. Imagine you're in the market for a new blender. Being the responsible shopper that you are, you go directly to thewirecutter.meta for reviews and recommendations on the best blender. Once inside you walk over to their blender showroom where they have the best blenders on display. Inside the showroom is an AI avatar that tells you some canned info about the blenders (written by The Wirecutter's review team) and maybe you can even test out the virtual blender with some virtual carrots or something. You like what you see and hear, so you're ready to buy. But The Wirecutter is just a review site – they don't actually sell stuff. You've got to go to Amazon to actually buy the blender. On the wall behind the blender is a painting that will take you to amazon.meta to buy the blender. You walk through the painting and it takes you directly to where that blender is located inside Amazon's gigantic virtual warehouse containing every product they sell. Picture the inside of a Walmart, but it's the size of the sun. Now that you're in AmazonLand you're looking at the blender on the shelf, and it's next to some other blenders (More Products Like This, Sponsored Products, Other Customers Also Viewed, etc.). There's also a book hanging under it that you can flip through with user reviews. Once you're ready to buy it, you hit the big Buy button on the shelf. If you're already signed in, you just confirm the shipping address and then your blender will be mailed to your house in 2 days.
I also wanted to explain how Google would work in the metaverse, but the first example was pretty long. But basically Google would look like an art gallery. Instead of typing your search into a search box you would say something into a microphone. Then all of the paintings on the wall would update to be the top 25 most relevant websites for what you searched for. If you want to see the page 2 results, you can walk over to the next room which has 25 more paintings in it. When a painting catches your eye (seems like the website you want to go to), you just step through it.
Interacting with other people in the metaverse
In most depictions of the metaverse it's like a big video game where everyone has an avatar and you can interact with other people's avatars. Which sounds cool, but I'm not sure if it's something you would always want. If you've been to Disney World or Disney Land, haven't you thought that it would be more fun if there weren't quite as many people or you never needed to wait in line? Do you really want to share disney.meta with all of the other people currently visiting disney.meta? Because if there really is one shared reality, that means that there's only one Space Mountain and you actually would need to wait in line to ride it.
This is sort of a cop-out answer though, because my original definition did say that a consistent, shared reality was a requirement for a true metaverse. It definitely should be an option, but it would be nice to be able to turn this off and experience the virtual world by yourself or just with your friends.
Building this functionality is admittedly a gap in my explanation of how to build the metaverse, but it still could be done using current web technologies. Just not very elegantly. The way I would build this functionality is by putting the responsibility for rendering other people's avatars on the individual website. The website knows who's currently using the site, so they could just use websockets to stream the location and actions of other people/avatars/players and the shared state of the world to you in real time. But every website would need to figure out how to implement this, which might lead to the functionality not being supported on all sites or varying degrees of quality in the implementation.
Your browser creates your avatar
In the beginning of this post I mentioned that when you travel across different virtual spaces in the metaverse your avatar and how you control your avatar should stay the same.
This would be possible because your personal browser is responsible for the creation of your avatar, rendering your avatar inside of the metaverse, and allowing you to move and control your avatar.
If you're interacting with the metaverse through VR, you probably aren't going to be looking at your avatar much anyway (besides your hands). But if you walk past a virtual mirror, you would expect to see your custom avatar staring back at you. To accomplish this, the METABLOB file returned from the website to your browser would just have code for a mirror object and your browser would handle rendering your avatar correctly.
Your browser would also send information about your avatar as part of any request to the server it makes. Your browser already does this with the User-Agent request header, which includes information about your browser. Same idea, but just with a much longer string that fully describes what your avatar looks like. This is important if the website is going to display your avatar to other users. Your browser may know what you look like, but it doesn't know what other users visiting the site look like unless that information has already been shared with the server.
There are two ways you could generate your own content in the metaverse: by creating content inside of a single virtual space using tools provided by that website, or by making your own totally custom virtual space.
The first option would be the more user-friendly of the two and would probably be much more common. For example, in DisneyLand (disney.meta) they could have a workshop where you build your own virtual lightsaber. The tools you use to create your lightsaber would be very simple and would require no coding knowledge. You would either use a virtual menu to select your hilt and kyber crystal or would walk around a virtual workshop and pick up a virtual kyber crystal and slot it into the hilt of your choice. The details aren't important – the point is that the experience of creating this piece of custom content would be a completely custom thing built by Disney. If you want to carry your lightsaber around with you throughout the metaverse, not just in DisneyLand, you could "install" the lightsaber into your browser's custom avatar. This is analogous to installing a third-party Chrome extension. You would just tell disney.meta what browser you're using (or they would detect it), and they would have a special version of the lightsaber that's compatible with your browser so it can be added to your avatar.
Another type of custom content you could build in this way is your own personal space inside the confines of a specific virtual space. For example, you could go to animalcrossing.meta and build your own home or island inside of that world. But you would only be able to use the tools and items provided to you by Animal Crossing and if your creation violates their policies, they could block your content or ban you altogether. The experience of building a custom home/island could be extremely similar to the current experience of playing Animal Crossing.
But if you want complete freedom to build anything you can imagine and you want to be fully in control of your creations, you need to build your own website. If you build your own website, you're responsible for getting your own hosting and writing the code for your virtual world. But because you're writing your own METABLOB file that specifies everything about your virtual world, you can really build anything, assuming it's not illegal (doesn't infringe on other people's intellectual property, etc.).
By the way, user-generated content is usually the part of the metaverse that leads to the claim that Web3 is necessary for building the metaverse. But this proposal doesn't rely on any Web3 technology and is possible with the current web standards that exist today. I can't imagine wanting more flexibility or "ownership" than what I describe here, so I don't see what Web3 would really be adding.
What's stopping us from building the metaverse right now
Even though everything I described is using standard web technologies that have existed for a while, there are a few reasons why this vision isn't feasible (yet).
No common language for building virtual worlds
Faster download speeds
A typical webpage includes about 5 MB of data your browser needs to download. A typical VR video game is probably between 10-100 GB. If your browser needs to essentially download an entire VR game every time you go to a new website, download speeds are going to need to get way faster or we'll need a breakthrough in compression algorithms. Otherwise you won't be walking through portals to go to other websites, but very long hallways.
That's it! Hopefully I made the idea of the metaverse more concrete for you. I think we'll eventually be able to build the metaverse, and I'd expect it to be achievable within 10 years. Unlike a lot of other hot new things in technology (like self-driving cars) the metaverse doesn't require any breakthroughs in AI or anything like that. Getting faster download speeds is tricky, but gigabit internet already exists, it's just not common and most websites can't offer download speeds like that right now. More immersive VR would require technological breakthroughs, but I view that as a separate problem from building the metaverse
If you have questions or you think I missed an important aspect of how the metaverse should work, leave a comment below.