Let’s Get Metaversed!
For the past few months, there has been a lot of talk about the metaverse. From companies like Microsoft and Epic discussing their “metaverse strategy” to Facebook actually changing its name to “Meta”, there has been a frenzy of activity surrounding the M-word.
To give a bit of historical context: the term was coined in 1992 by Neal Stephenson in his novel “Snow Crash”, and here’s the Google search interest since 2004:
So yeah, there has been a massive uptick in talk about this thirty-year-old idea lately.
Between the metaverse and the resurgence of QR codes, it’s like we’re having some kind of 90’s tech-stalgia, and I am not embarrassed to say that I am here for it.
Cautionary tales from the Information Superhighway.
In some ways, the term “metaverse” reminds me of another thirty-year-old term: “the Information Superhighway”.
In the ’90s, scientists, politicians, and even industry titans described their vision for a connected digital future, a world where a massive fiber-optic network enabled everyone to:
Communicate using voice, photo, and video
Watch films and television shows on-demand
Shop for physical products from nearly endless catalogs
Access vast libraries of knowledge instantly
Socialize and game with friends
Sounds familiar right? They pretty much nailed every prediction except for the branding, we just call it “the internet” or “online” instead of “the Information Superhighway” or “Cyberspace”.
I think there’s a possibility that a similar thing happens with the metaverse.
But what the heck is the metaverse, and why should I care?
As originally conceived by Stephenson, the metaverse is a persistent online world that you can access through a virtual reality headset. You can hang out with friends, do business, learn, and of course, play games.
A similar idea was recently popularized by the book/film “Ready Player One”, where it was called “the Oasis”.
Side note: in both “Snow Crash” and “Ready Player One”, the metaverse was a place to escape the reality of life on Earth, which had become varying degrees of a dystopian hellscape.
So is this what everyone’s talking about? An online VR world?
Well, yes and no.
Almost everything is using the term metaverse to mean a set of interactive digital experiences that feature 3D content.
Pretty much everyone also agrees that the metaverse can’t just be confined to VR headsets, but should be accessible through our existing smartphones. It’s going to be a minute before walking around with a headset is broadly socially acceptable.
There’s some disagreement over whether this will (or should) be the next evolution of how we interact with technology, ie: is it the next big thing?
But after that, views really start to differ.
Tony Parisi of Unity (and VRML) defines a beautiful vision of what the Metaverse (capital M) should be. Open, decentralized, accessible, uniting, and also, spoiler alert: it’s the Internet.
John Hanke of Niantic (Pokemon Go) calls the Metaverse a “Dystopian Nightmare”, and advocates for more outdoor augmented reality experiences (like collecting Pokemon). His vision is in line with what others have described as “the AR Cloud” or “Mirrorworld”.
Rony Aboviz (founder of Magic Leap) avoids using the term “metaverse” to describe the future but instead opts for the term “XVerse” to describe both types of experiences.
And to bring it all full circle, Aboviz discussed this concept at length the Metaverse O.G, Neal Stephenson when they worked together at Magic Leap.
So why should you care?
It’s a big thing (probably the next one).
What everyone is talking about is a set of technologies that have the potential to reshuffle the power deck in the tech industry.
We’ve seen these moments before: the rise of smartphones, the internet, and personal computers marked big shifts in how we interacted with the digital world.
Each of these shifts created powerful new companies, like Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook.
And more importantly, along with each of these shifts, we made important choices about what we valued most: balancing security with freedom, privacy with affordability, creativity versus dependability, and so on.
And so where I think the current conversation about the metaverse can be helpful is in thinking about what we will require from any future technology before we adopt it.
Let’s get “meta” for a second.
Should it simply entertain us?
Or is it fair to ask for more, like connecting us, or even bringing out the best in us?
What table stakes do we set for privacy, security, affordability, accessibility, openness, etc?
Everyone will have different personal lines they draw, and it will be hard to look away from the shininess of these new things, but it’s up to us to ask for more from each successive generation of technology.
Our best hope for the next generation of technology, be it “Web3” or “the metaverse” or “the AR Cloud” will be to make thoughtful, informed decisions, and hold our platforms to the highest standards possible.
If we don’t, the metaverse may end up being the “Meta-worst.”
More on that next time…