Metaverse – The Return of the Undead

Metaverse – The Return of the Undead

There. Is. No. Metaverse.

I am sorry to be a party pooper but read me out.

It doesn’t exist. At least not yet. And not for quite some years to come. I am talking of a decade or more. Perhaps not ever. And whence it comes, it probably looks different from what we see now, and we will likely call it by a different name.

Does this statement surprise you? I mean, many people, companies and investors are looking at metaverse as being the next big thing. Crunchbase already in November 2021 reported more than $10.6bn being investedinto metaverse related startups. According to a Galaxy report quoted by Institutional Investor, crypto and blockchain startups alone collected more than $32bn in 2021. Microsoft just invested a whopping $70bn in Activision Blizzard, which is clearly a metaverse play. So much money cannot be wrong, right?

Google trends also suggests that there is quite some interest in these topics that came up quite recently and quite suddenly, which means that the trend has reached the masses.

Figure 1: Google Trends NFT (blue) & Metaverse (red) 01/01/20 – 02/07/22

Last, but not least, “Metaverse” is not a new concept, as it exists since at least 1998 – yes, I am talking about Half Life, the first person shooter game that is often credited with providing a highly immersive world as a first of kind. The first usage of the term itself is credited to Neal Stephenson, who used it in his novel “Snow Crash”. 

Still: It. Does. Not. Exist.

The biggest evidence for there not being a metaverse is that everyone (and their dog) is building one or even claiming to be or have one. One well known company even renamed itself to become meta. This is the initial spike of the red curve in the diagram above. Recently, Microsoft acquired the gaming company Activision Blizzard in what is taken as a “metaverse” play as well. The interest in NFT precedes the metaverse by about half a year. The above diagram clearly shows that a hype is going on. But then, to quote someone I highly respect: “It needs a hype to create lasting interest.”

All this does not mean that all the tech that is involved is yet to be implemented or useless. On the contrary, a lot of what it takes to make “metaverse” reality does already exist and often already has some benefit. Blockchain, NFT, AR/VR, mixed reality, AI, IoT and last, but not least: gaming and gaming engines … Computing power still follows the Moore’s law, and we can look forward to another significant bump once quantum computers become more widely available. Still, the question arises whether we see a bunch of technologies that offer solutions for a problem that is yet to be discovered.

Not that these existing technologies are already perfect, but still, they are good enough for the immersive experience that “metaverse” is or is supposed to be.

However, there is no common understanding or clear picture of what ‘metaverse’ is. Nothing evidences better that the whole topic is far from being understood than the abundance of terms that are used: metaverse, multiverse, omniverse, even exoverse or holiverse. Sometimes different terms describe the same thing. 

Some terminology

Let’s start by defining what the term metaverse actually means and how it relates to the term multiverse or transverse, as it is also sometimes called.

Again, too many terms, which indicate insufficient understanding.

Even in VC-environments, what is seen as ‘metaverse’ is quite different. The common denominators are “digital” and the notion of there being one metaverse as opposed to multiple metaverses. 

So, what does Merriam Webster say: “In its current meaning, metaverse generally refers to the concept of a highly immersive virtual world where people gather to socialize, play, and work

Wikipedia refers to it as “a network of 3D virtual worlds focused on social connection. In futurism and science fiction, the term is often described as a hypothetical iteration of the Internet as a single, universal virtual world that is facilitated by the use of virtual and augmented reality headsets.

Now what is a multiverse?

According to Merriam-Webster it is “a theoretical reality that includes a possibly infinite number of parallel universes.

Wikipedia defines a multiverse as “a hypothetical group of multiple universes. Together, these universes comprise everything that exists …

Together, this basically suggests that Tony Parisi, is right when he states that there is only one metaverse as rule #1 in his article The Seven Rules of the Metaverse. I recommend reading this article.

Components of the metaverse ecosystem

Metaverse requires a number of layers:

  • Devices that run the applications and offer the sensors and actuators that are needed to provide an immersive environment. These will come in all sorts of different form factors and with different capabilities, many of them as per yet unknown to us.
  • The applications, worlds and other artifacts on the front end that enable users to safely and securely access the virtual world and to consume the services that are offered – free ones or paid ones. 
  • The backend application software and the technology platforms used to build them. They will mostly be in the cloud and be delivered as a service. They will most likely also be in different clouds and be built using different platforms. A lot of very crucial functionality, from security, via identity, trust, needs to be provided here. Basically, everything that is behind current buzzwords/technologies like blockchain, NFT, DAO, along with all sorts of inter-business logic, APIs and other interfaces resides on this layer. One could say, that this is the muscle and the nervous system of the ecosystem.
  • The infrastructures that provide computing power, storage, networking, etc. that these applications are run on. These will include hyperscalers as well as on premise stacks (which probably over time will be indistinguishable from each other). This is the skeleton of the ecosystem.
  • And last, but not least, the hardware that is needed to drive it all. From single chips via mainboards, graphic cards to whatever.
Figure 2: Components of the metaverse ecosystem

Creators as well as users will use different devices and different parts of the provided apps and backend software to create and consume.

For metaverse in its sense as described by Parisi and others to work, all these layers need to follow a common set of open standards. This is basically the extension of TCP/IP to the next level. Without TCP/IP, we wouldn’t have an Internet at all.

Or else we will see an amalgamation of different and likely competing *verses that are incompatible with each other; they will be walled gardens. Note that open standards do not mean at all that everyone can transfer from one part of the metaverse into another at will. There may be, and in all likelihood will be, paywalls in between the various “worlds”. Some of the “worlds” may be only accessible to very few. But open standards ensure that it is possible. This would basically elevate the technical concept of “metaverse” from platform to protocol. 

Then, there needs to be some regulation, as not every player in the game is of equal strength. The weaker ones, which are usually the consumers or end users, but also smaller vendors, need strong governance that keeps the playing field as level as possible. When thinking of “metaverse” as a protocol, this could include bodies like the W3C but certainly also governments.

Now, this is getting long. Let me think a little further and write down my takes on

  • Why does it need a metaverse, if at all
  • Use cases that actually make sense
  • Who will rule? Startups or existing big players? Or even governments?

Let me know what you think!