Guide to the Metaverse in 15 minutes
The Metaverse will be one of the most influential inventions of mankind. It's what comes next after the internet. If you're reading this, there's a considerable chance you're new to the Metaverse. In this guide to the Metaverse I'm going to get you up to speed on
- What the Metaverse is and isn't
- What it will be like
- Why we should build it
- How the Metaverse will work
- When to expect the Metaverse
- Who will build it
- And last, proposed consequences of the Metaverse
Neal Stephenson coined the term "the Metaverse" in his iconic 1992 cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash. Within the novel there's a 3D digital planet accessed by virtual reality goggles that is essential to the character’s lives.
If you ever feel like you missed out on the early days of the internet, buckle up, because the Metaverse is going to be far, far crazier.
// Many thanks go out to the authors whose articles I researched for this one. References at the end.
Imagine with me a future where we live, work, and play in a digital world that blends with our own. In the real world, the one composed of atoms, there's a permanent digital layer of bits and bytes layered on top. You only need to put on special glasses to see this digital layer. You can also go beyond this digital layer and dive completely into virtual worlds - whole planets, universities, offices, and fantasy realms indistinguishable from reality. This is the Metaverse. In a loose metaphor it will be like the movie Inception, we'll all be together in a shared dream world.
Let’s take a look
As you gently awake from your own dreams, you lie there for a moment. This is the one moment in the day when you’re completely awake. The slight pause between your own dreams, and when you join the shared dream world.
A phone hasn't sat next to you on the nightstand in years, sitting where your phone used to be is a pair of glasses. Still lying in bed you slip on the frames. Small bone conduction buds press down and send soundwaves to your inner ear. Your morning playlist begins and your schedule comes into view for today, Tuesday. You see a missed video call from your brother. With a gesture of your eyes you push your schedule to the upper right and move the video to the upper left. You play the video as you walk towards the bathroom to get ready for the day. Your brother has sent you a few potential scuba diving sites to check out for an upcoming getaway you guys are planning. As you sit on the toilet with a flick of your eyes you’re underwater looking at the beautiful coral reefs, turtles, and sharks of the Red Sea. You send a quick message to your brother to confirm the dive for the Red Sea in a few months.
When it's time to get to work you don't get on a bus, you don't sit in your car to commute. Early 2020 was the last time most office workers like you commuted to a physical office on a regular basis. After your morning routine you sit in a comfortable chair, slip on haptic gloves and connect to your virtual workplace. Your glasses, that before, showed you only snippets of the Metaverse superimposed on the real world, begin to fill with only the virtual. You feel the gloves pulse as they begin to deliver physical feedback to your hands. You completely leave the physical and enter the virtual.
You're a product designer, and before the Metaverse you thought you had a sweet setup. You had two 29 inch, high-definition monitors and an ergonomic keyboard. Now you design and build immersive digital experiences for the Metaverse from within the Metaverse. No monitors, no keyboard, you use only your glasses, haptic gloves, and your mind.
You float towards a beautiful zen garden and your feet touch down in the sand. A few of your coworkers are there, ready for the morning standup meeting. You chit-chat before your boss arrives. You still admire how realistic it all looks and feels, even after years of experiencing it. You bend down and can see individual grains of sand, raked into beautiful patterns by your coworker Rachel. She likes to rake the sand while brainstorming set designs for the experiences your team creates. You always scoop up a small handful of sand and let it fall between your fingers.
After work you've switched back to augmented reality and make yourself a gin tonic in your kitchen in the real world. As you're preparing the cocktail you browse through your friends list with small flits of your eyes and eyebrows. As you finish squeezing the lime into your glass you see a group of friends you haven’t caught up with in a while hanging out in a virtual bar. In an instant, you're standing at the door of a small bar. You join your friends to chat, real-life drink in your hand while chatting with friends from all over the country in a virtual bar.
This sounds like crazy science-fiction, but some of the brightest people have been working on making this a reality ever since Neal Stephenson planted the idea in our collective minds.
Look at the technological progress we've made in the last few decades. It wouldn't surprise me if the Metaverse is far more realistic than what I imagined here. In the late 90's at the dawn of the internet, could any of us have imagined how much it would enable us today? Most of us spend all day peering into cyberspace through glass. A 5.7 inch handheld or 27 inch glass portal on our desk. Try to imagine what it will be like when we won’t peer into a screen, but actually experience it. Not a Zoom happy hour, a real happy hour with friends from across the globe, and available to you any Tuesday night.
// Special thanks to Cathy Hackl's wonderful piece, A Day In The Metaverse, Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash for the inspirations. Buy the books if you haven’t read them, links below.
What is the Metaverse
There are a lot of definitions but the shortest definition for the Metaverse is:
An always-on, shared set of virtual experiences that are seamlessly connected.
The Metaverse is not virtual reality, it's not augmented reality, it's not the mirror world, it's not spatial or 3D internet. It will be all those things and more. Where it will mesmerize you is in immersive virtual experiences. These experiences will be so life-like that they will trick our brains into believing it’s real. Like the Matrix, or Inception’s dream worlds it will feel completely real, and be limited only by our imaginations.
One of the principal foundations of the Metaverse — and main technical constraints — is that of concurrency. Concurrency means multiple things occurring at the same time, and will be important in the Metaverse. When you visit the website for The Louvre you can access your own private virtual tour. A few thousand people could be taking the same tour as you, all in their own copies of the tour. If you visit The Louvre in the Metaverse you'll be there at the same time as others. If everyone is looking at the Mona Lisa, it could get crowded. Or remember that virtual bar you visited after work? It will be a "real" virtual bar, owned and operated by a business owner. Random strangers could come into the bar and dance with you and your friends, same as they can in real life. That’s concurrency.
Now add the idea that your actions are permanent in this virtual bar. If you spill your drink in the bar, the digital drink stays on the floor until someone cleans it up; that’s what persistence means in the Metaverse. The puddle of drink on the floor adds the realism necessary for you to embrace the digital experience and - in the moment - forget it’s virtual.
Now, consider an enormous gathering, like a music festival. If we were to attempt to do the music festival with today's technical capabilities we'd have to have thousands of copies of the festival, not one massive experience like a live music festival is today. Today we can't render millions of people at the same time, track what they're doing, and display it in billions of pixels. In the Metaverse we will have huge music festivals.
The Metaverse will always be on, and it will be filled with virtual experiences that millions of people can visit together, where their actions have consequences, and all these experiences will be linked together seamlessly. You’ll be able to freely move from one experience to another, as we can in real-life.
The Metaverse is NOT
Now you know what the Metaverse is, it's important to declare what it is not. Matthew Ball — analyst, strategist, and investor — has a list of things the Metaverse is not:
- A "virtual world" or a game with AI (Artificial Intelligence) driven players
- A "virtual space" like Second Life
- "Virtual reality"
- A "Digital and virtual economy"
- A "game" - it may have games within it, and contain game-like concepts, but is itself, not a game
- A "virtual theme park or Disneyland"
- An "App store" - we don't need a new way to open apps
- A new "User Generated Content platform" like YouTube
The Metaverse will have, or share, commonalities with each of these, and yet be more than any one of these.
If you believe the internet is fine the way it is, or are asking why the world needs this, I'll answer why it will be built, and also why we should build it.
The simplest reason that we will build the Metaverse is money. The Metaverse will generate more economic output than we can imagine. Take the economic impact of the internet and multiply that by orders of magnitude. New companies will be born, old ones will adapt or die. We'll create new forms of entertainment, new scientific breakthroughs, new ways to make friends, new therapies to treat mental illness, new ways to learn. All of these new things will be worth a lot of money.
There are only three frontiers left to mankind:
- The depths of the oceans
- The limits of our imaginations
With our imaginations, we'll build wondrous new worlds, free from the bonds of reality. The Metaverse will unleash a torrent of new creativity. It will be our greatest artistic creation.
It's also a chance to start over, to avoid the mistakes of the internet today. The internet has polarized us, isolated us into echo chambers. With the Metaverse, any stranger can walk into the bar you’re sitting in. With avatars that have facial expressions and body language, it will be more natural. In the Metaverse, we'll be able to be any race, any gender. With the risk of sounding cheesy, it will be easier to understand others if you can walk a mile in their virtual shoes. The Metaverse will never replace 1:1 real-life interaction, but it will help families and friends maintain strong bonds across vast distances. We all know that Zoom happy hours with friends, and facetime with grandkids doesn’t cut it. Imagine if we could enjoy the company of our loved ones in an experience indistinguishable from reality.
To do it right
Of course, there's a chance this could bring a dystopian nightmare. Imagine Facebook controls the Metaverse and monetizes it through advertising. It might be worse than today. Further, imagine that one government controls the Metaverse. Do you trust any government enough to have that control? We need more than these megatech companies such as Facebook, Apple, and Google working on this. Part of the reason we — my readers — should build it is to make sure it's built the way it should be. We should design an open platform that everyone can build in, create in, experience, and make money in. Not something controlled by the terms of service of Facebook or Apple.
There is some debate on how we will build the Metaverse. Some theorize it will evolve from VR companies like Oculus. Others hope that it will evolve from WebXR (a browser plugin that allows developers to deliver VR experiences via web browsers). Others believe it will evolve from game engines like the Unreal gaming engine (gaming engines are the behind-the-scenes 3D software that allows games to work and control things like physics). Each of these are interesting paths with their own pros and cons. Likely the Metaverse will evolve from one of them or something new that’s similar.
We talked about some of the technical constraints, like concurrency and persistence. Though somewhat easier of a problem to fix we'll also need the hardware to access the Metaverse. The Oculus Quest 2 is a major step towards consumer adoption of VR, but still a far cry from Metaverse access. We don't yet have hardware or software capable of rendering billions of pixels in a way the Metaverse will demand.
The on-ramp experience
Assuming we solve the technical problems, how do we have a Metaverse arise? Matthew Ball talks about the on-ramp experience - those things that are like the on-ramp to a freeway, they allow us to get up to speed. It's not as simple as building a Metaverse and having the world embrace that. No one joined Facebook because it declared they're the global social network, "but because it emerged first as a campus hot-or-not, then became a digital yearbook turned photo-sharing and messaging service ." Over time Facebook added value to an expanding group of users at each step. This is why I'm wary of any startup that declares they're building the Metaverse today. The most likely thing is they're using a different definition of the Metaverse. Another possibility is they're building a proto-Metaverse and declaring it a Metaverse.
If we solve the technical constraints, adopt universal standards to allow seamless interoperability of virtual experiences, and various companies build the on-ramps to the Metaverse... it will get built.
Tim Sweeney (Epic Games: Fortnite and Unreal engine) believes it could be decades. It's difficult to predict, but certain key elements that are necessary for the Metaverse are maturing. Take cloud computing as one example, and virtual reality as another. Though virtual reality is coming into the initial stages of consumer adoption after decades of fits and jumps it has come a long way. And continued development in VR will accelerate the timeline for the Metaverse.
I couldn't say it better than Bill Gates:
"We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction."
Mass adoption of one technology often leads to breakthroughs in adjacent areas, partly due to reduced input costs. For example, the mass adoption of smartphones reduced the cost of cameras and gyroscopic sensors, both of which improve the functionality of VR headsets.
On-ramps and Proto-Metaverses
There are a handful of games touted as proto-Metaverses, among them Fortnite, Minecraft, and Roblox. Though this is being a bit generous with the term proto-Metaverse, these games have many shared aspects with the Metaverse; such as large, multi-player, shared virtual worlds and user generated content. There’s a viable evolution for them to full-blown Metaverse that’s worth exploring in future posts.
Within less than a decade we’ll see a true, undisputed proto-Metaverse. Well within the next few decades we'll experience the Metaverse as I've outlined it here, maybe better. With a handful of breakthroughs we could see the full Metaverse experience described in the short story above within a decade.
In the next 5 years we'll see:
- Evolution of Fortnite, Minecraft, and Roblox toward proto-Metaverse
- Consumer adoption of VR and perhaps VRs first “killer app”
- Developments in AR
- Concurrency improvements like larger virtual events with thousands of simultaneous people, not yet millions.
Who will build it?
Nobody knows exactly what the Metaverse will be, we're all improvising. Fortnite, Minecraft, and Roblox each manifest aspects of it, but we’re still far from the Metaverse. Furthermore, the Metaverse won't be the creation of one mega corporation. It will be the creative work of millions of people who can each add their own elements to it. To that end, it's critical to develop universal technical standards and a fair economy. One with robust competition, where the best creators succeed and grow profitable businesses. (Paraphrased from ‘The Economy of the Metaverse | Interview with Epic CEO Tim Sweeney’)
Of course, Facebook, Google, and Apple will try to be the only ones to run the Metaverse. They'll try, but the world is not evolving in the direction of mega-corps with that level of control. I may be optimistic but I like Tim's view. It doesn't mean that Facebook, or even Tim Sweeney's Epic Games won't play a part. They're likely to play significant roles in the evolution of the Metaverse.
It's possible for governments to play a significant role, even if only as customers. The US military uses the Unreal gaming engine in many different applications.
I previously mentioned WebXR, an enabler of browser-based VR and AR experiences made available by Mozilla. Amir Bozorgzadeh, founder of Virtuleap declared: "WebXR is the most obvious candidate for the job because it’s an open protocol and not a closed platform and therefore can serve as a binding force that bridges and connects disparate mediums together."
A series of small startups say they are building the Metaverse; though many of them shut down before becoming well-known. One startup that’s declared it’s currently working on the Metaverse is Somnium Space. They have some promising aspects, but more accurately Somnium Space is developing a proto-Metaverse, and maybe an on-ramp. I wish them luck.
I hope for a collective, open project by many, similar to the early internet. As various startups convene on this we'll see the emergence of some of the on-ramps, and perhaps you and I will work on one.
The beauty of the internet has always been its ability to bring people together from all over the world.
There are bright people working on the Metaverse from outside Silicon Valley. There are companies in Japan and China, Epic Games in North Carolina, Amir Bozorgzadeh’s company is based in Lisbon, Portugal.
This could be Europe's rising moment. Some fantastic technology has come out of Europe that has shared aspects of the Metaverse, like Skype and Minecraft. Furthermore, the Europeans have a strength in collaborating and value artistic talent. They could outshine Silicon Valley on this one.
What happens next?
Here I outline a handful of potential consequences. Each of these are worthy of future exploration in a post of their own.
The Metaverse could bring lower friction to voting and increased voter participation. If we can cast a vote in the Metaverse using blockchain technology to secure it, millions more will vote.
In addition, it provides a new medium to engage with one another in civil discourse that has the potential to be more personal.
We could simulate proposed solutions from politicians in the Metaverse. For example, increasing the height limits in San Francisco is a controversial proposition, but with the Metaverse we could see what it would feel like with larger buildings before voting to expand height limits. Local politics would be a lot more interesting if we could experience the proposals firsthand.
We're moving towards a world that's automating jobs away. One hundred years ago about 10 percent of the US population worked directly in agriculture, today it’s about 0.5% . We produce more food with less people. Same story in manufacturing. It’s true, some of the jobs went overseas, but more were lost to automation and productivity increases than lost overseas. The internet has dramatically changed how we work, with most white-collar workers now working in knowledge fields. The Metaverse, coupled with increased automation, will likely change the nature of work dramatically and lead to less jobs for knowledge workers too. Those jobs left within the Metaverse will likely be either technical, or creative. We may see a massive increase in independent content creators too. Today, the number one job kids want when surveyed is to be a YouTuber , tomorrow they’ll want to be Metaverse creators.
There will be revolutionary changes in how we educate both children and adults. The technology of the Metaverse will allow for new ways to educate students by experiencing and doing, not by lecture. Furthermore, with dramatic changes in the jobs and in-demand skills, we’ll likely see changes in the curriculum. We’ll teach kids how to think logically and develop technology while also teaching the arts and creativity for a new generation of artists that will make us laugh, cry, and learn. From 6th grade onward, education will be almost exclusively in the Metaverse, with the exception of physical exercise.
It’s hard to theorize on second-degree effects but all large changes have second and third order consequences worth anticipating.
We’ll see an increase in rural living and an increase in the viability of lower-cost secondary cities. With the ability to connect to the Metaverse and transport yourself anywhere people may choose to live in more rural parts of the country. People may also prioritize unplugging from the Metaverse on occasion and being closer to nature. We’re seeing this trend begin with Covid and more people working from home, it will be greatly accelerated with the Metaverse.
The internet was expected to equalize wages around the world. In some places it has. For example there’s a growing middle-class in India, largely due to the rise of the internet. With the Metaverse, workers from around the world will compete on a global scale. Outside of technical skills and creativity, the only competitive advantage may be to have good communication skills and command of the global language. Expect Silicon Valley wages to go down and wages in other parts of the world to go up.
There will come a time where between automation and the increased productivity of the few highly skilled Metaverse employees there won’t be enough jobs for everyone. We’ll implement UBI on a global scale to continue to provide for people’s needs.
If our basic needs are met by the government and most people are not working on the Metaverse we could see a significant rise of an artisan class. There is an existing trend already for highly paid tech workers to buy pour-over coffee, mixology cocktails, and hand-made furniture. We could see a world in which a middle-class of artisans, artists, and craftsmen emerge to create unique items. I first came upon this idea in another of Neal Stephenson's books, The Diamond Age.
With an influx of people from all over the world communicating with each other in the Metaverse we could see English shift rapidly. As English absorbs more words from other languages and new technical terms, Global English will become a separate dialect from American or British English. We could even see an English-Chinese Pidgin manifest and a new language evolve.
Though it’s hard to know exactly when the Metaverse will exist, it will come within the lifetime of the majority of my readers. It will bring a lot of change and evolve within a world that’s already changing. It’s technology that will stand beside interstellar space flight, the cure for cancer, and computer-brain interfaces as our greatest achievements. It has the potential to be an amazing, beautiful piece of technology that brings the world together. It also has the potential to bring about a jobless, ad-filled dystopian nightmare. If you want the Metaverse to be an open platform like the internet is, and you want the Metaverse to be a force for good, then you should get involved.
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References and thank yous
Thank you to each author who contributed to this article through their own articles, books, podcasts, and interviews that I have taken meticulous notes from and synthesized into this guide.
- Matthew Ball - I cannot thank Matthew enough, this essay: The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find it, Who Will Build It, and Fortnite formed the foundation of my research
- Cathy Hackl - Thank you for such a delightful dive into a day in Katie’s Metaverse: A Day in the Metaverse
- Gene Park - Silicon Valley is racing to build the next version of the Internet. Fortnite might get there first.
- Tim Sweeney - various sources, including Tim Sweeney’s Full DICE 2020 Talk
- Kevin Kelly - AR Will Spark the Next Big Tech Platform—Call It Mirrorworld
- KC Cook - Your Future Job is in the Metaverse — These are the 3 Phases to Get There
- Paul Tassi - ‘Fortnite’ Is Building The Metaverse Whether You Realize It Or Not
- Amir Bozorgzadeh - A primer on the Metaverse: The next iteration of the Internet
- And countless others I read without taking notes but no doubt informed my thoughts
-  - Matthew Ball - https://www.matthewball.vc/all/theMetaverse
-  - Agricultural jobs - https://ourworldindata.org/employment-in-agriculture
-  - Youtube stars - https://www.businessinsider.com/american-kids-youtube-star-astronauts-survey-2019-7
Read the books
Special thanks to Neal Stephenson for inspiring us with Snow Crash & Ernest Cline for a new imagining of the Metaverse in Ready Player One.
If you haven't read the books, read them, they're awesome ⤵