Unwrapping the Metaverse: What is It?
The term ‘metaverse’ came into prominence following Facebook’s rebranding and its very public pivot towards the development of a metaverse. Since then, it has become something of a buzzword, even though for many, it has something of an amorphous or obscure meaning. If you have been reading technology over the past two months, you might have noticed that not a day passes without the term being slotted somewhere. Even people who trade in cryptos, in NFTs, describe their assets as part of a metaverse.
What is the metaverse? Is it a technology that is already here with us? Is it a futuristic technology that will be available a generation from now? What really constitutes the metaverse? How is it different from the existing MMOs where people play, trade, shop, attend digital concerts, call each other, collaborate, and interact via digital avatars?
It is often difficult to define the metaverse. Several players in virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, haptics, holography, NFTs, cryptocurrencies, software development, and connectivity solutions providers are developing products and innovations that they say will add to the metaverse. Several major technological players are staking claim to the metaverse. The metaverse can be thought of as an idea or paradigm of technology use that will materialize when all the futuristic innovations being developed currently, from immersive tech to holograms, come to fruition and converge in a hyper-realistic virtual world.
Yet, the term did not begin with Facebook last month. It was coined back in 1992 by author Neal Stephenson in the science novel “Snow Crash” to refer to lifelike avatars that could meet in realistic 3D buildings as well as in different kinds of virtual reality environments. Stephenson had the metaverse figured 3 decades ago out because we are moving into a future where the real world will fuse with the virtual world and where human beings will be able to do meaningful things and live meaningful lives in a hyper-connected virtual world using very advanced hardware.
The future metaverse will be realized through the various technological innovations including virtual reality, augmented reality, video, 3D holographic avatars as well as various other forms of communications including the still-nascent industry of VR haptics. As these constellations of technological solutions continue to evolve and seamlessly interface with one another, the metaverse is going to expand beyond our imagination to create a hyper-real world fusing the real and the virtual where billions of human beings will be able to co-exist and even live most of their lives in.
There are already several early steps and developments in the evolution of the metaverse. The mesh that will become the metaverse is already available albeit in a “Lite” form. Perfect examples of what future metaverses might look like include platforms such as Minecraft, Fortnite, and Roblox. But tech companies like Meta and Microsoft are telling us that the metaverse will be more than just a self-contained virtual platform or online game.
It is the early days in the metaverse
The metaverse is taking shape. Already we have platforms that could justifiably qualify as proto-metaverse systems. However, technical limitations mean that they are still very far away from the idealistic vision of a true metaverse.
Currently, all the chatter about the metaverse is at the point the internet was in the 1970s. In the 1960s and 1970s, the internet and its limitless possibilities might have seemed like a futuristic fantasy, something straight out of sci-fi novels yet, the internet did eventually materialize in just two to three decades.
In 2021, it is impossible for us to imagine that in 2044 or 2054, we might be leading our lives in a virtual world where our avatars, perhaps holographic avatars, will represent our true selves to billions others living in a hyper-realistic virtual world.
A Work in Progress
The building blocks of the metaverse are the emerging technologies that are currently making the waves in the world. They include virtual reality, augmented reality, holographic avatars, haptics, hand-tracking, motion tracking and so much more. We don’t have the perfect VR or hardware yet. Haptic technologies, that will be so crucial for interactions in the metaverse, are still in their infancy. Even holographic avatars and volumetric content are still uber-expensive to generate. At this point in time, we can only imagine what the final metaverse will look like. There are still many unknowns. VR and AR hardware could see a quantum leap in innovation in a few years and we could see new hardware innovations along the way that might contribute in new ways to the metaverse.
There is a Lot of Hype on the Metaverse
The metaverse is not a passing fad. It is the thing. It is solid and it is going to materialize. Yet, lately, there has been a lot of marketing hype around the idea. Investors are running to buy metaverse stocks and top tech companies are selling the dream that it is just around the corner. The reality is that the ideal metaverse may still be a few years, perhaps, a few decades away. But its foundations are already being laid. Every time a company announces a new VR or AR headset or a new haptic prototype is a step closer to the true metaverse.
Metaverse as an All-encompassing Cyberspace
40 or so years ago, science fiction writers wrote about cyberspace, its risks, and potential, how it would permeate and transform our lives. That vision came to pass. But the cyberspace is discrete from the real world. You sit at a computer, log in, and are able to do all kinds of crazy and smart things over high-speed internet connections.
Cyberspace is based on one type of technology: computing. When you talk of the metaverse, you are just not communicating and interacting with one type of technology but a paradigm in how we interact with a diverse array of technologies. The metaverse consists of a constellation of technologies some of which are still under development. However, the metaverse will not limit your access to its worlds via specific technologies. Any technology could serve as a pathway into the metaverse be it mobile phones, VR headsets, AR headsets, haptic devices, cars, and game consoles among others. There is a large spectrum of devices that could possibly be metaversal. We can’t rule out that some of these are yet to be invented.
Like the cyberspace, the metaverse will also spin off a digital economy that will enable users to buy, create or sell goods.
There are even idealistic visions of a future metaverse where you will have an interoperable digital economy allowing you transfer virtual items from cars or clothes to other metaverse platforms. At the moment, even in our semblances of metaverses, the inventories are often tied to a single platform, along with the avatars and virtual identities. The metaverse, on the other hand, enables you to create one persona that you can use in the whole metaverse universe as simply as you would recycle the same profile pic across social networks.
The Baby Steps Towards the Metaverse
One of the top reasons why people get confused about the metaverse is that it feels like we already have something quite like it with virtual worlds such as Second Life, Roblox, Minecraft, Fortnite, or in the many social VR experiences that have been sprouting up in the last few years.
In World of War Craft, you not only play but you can even buy and sell goods in the game. Many blockchain-powered online games now have their own digital economies powered by unique tokens that are tradeable in other marketplaces and that can be used to buy and sell in the in-game marketplaces. In Fortnite, for instance, players can even have virtual concerts and exhibits.
Aren’t these the metaverse?
To some extent, yes, but not quite. For some perspective, saying Fortnite constitutes the metaverse is more like saying Google is the internet.
As it is, it is possible for players to spend a considerable amount of time in Fortnite partaking in different kinds of activities such as buying items, socializing, playing games, and learning. However, these activities do not necessarily include the whole scope of a metaverse.
Just as Google has been developing parts of the hard and soft internet infrastructure, the developers of platforms such as Fortnite are gradually building parts of the future metaverse. As it expands, there will be other players making contributions to the creation of a metaverse. We know Meta (formerly Facebook) is already deeply engrossed in this, so is Microsoft, Nvidia, Unity, Snap, and Roblox. All these companies are working on the hardware and software blocks on what will one day form an all-encompassing metaverse. In fact, just like the internet, the development of the metaverse will be an infinitely continuous process and will never really come to an end.
Every company is working on its vision of the metaverse but there is no generally agreed-upon goalpost of what this might eventually constitute. Each company’s vision of the metaverse is unique and is usually an extension of the company’s core service and technology at this point.
A company that is currently developing remote working or online collaboration solutions might be envisioning a metaverse where people will meet virtually as avatars, shake hands via haptic gloves, type on virtual haptic keyboards, and on work on virtual computer screens, do 3D demos on VR demo areas and so forth. A social networking service like Meta might be envisioning a metaverse where users will take the social networking experience to a very immersive level without actually meeting physically.
Some of the pitches for a future metaverse are quite optimistic and will have practical use-cases while others sound like fan fiction with no practical value.
Holograms are an Important Part of the Metaverse Dream
Every technology starts with the building blocks that gradually spin off more abstract structures. It was the same with the internet which was originally merely a means of two computers communicating over great distances. Over time, the internet spurn off ecommerce, apps, social networking websites, remote collaboration sites, remote working sites, streaming platforms, and so forth. The original technical features of the internet were the building blocks that enabled all the other abstract structures of the internet possible.
Apart from the abstract products that came out of the internet, there were also hardware interface innovations that have been necessary for making the internet work. These include touchscreens, keyboards, mice, and displays.
What are the Metaverse Building Blocks?
Just like the internet, the metaverse already has some basic building blocks in place upon which more abstract structures will be developed and new hardware interfaces integrated.
There are technologies such as VR, AR, hand tracking, motion-tracking tools, haptics, and so forth. These futuristic technologies will be crucial in the evolution of the metaverse.
Current Limitations in the Realization of the Metaverse
Why can’t we have a fully developed metaverse in 2021 or 2024? What is standing in our way in our quest to realize the metaverse?
There are certain technical limitations that stand in the way of creating metaverse. Some of these limitations may be very difficult to overcome in the foreseeable future. The biggest challenge is how users will interact in the metaverse. The primary portals are, of course, virtual reality headsets, augmented reality headsets, or mixed reality headsets. However, the hardware is still very clunky and not socially acceptable and the hardware does not provide the level of immersion that will allow for a convincing metaverse experience. Besides, some of this hardware has to be tethered to PCs or some other computing source that limits the freedom of action.
People can’t wear virtual reality headsets for an extended duration of time without suffering from motion sickness, discomfort, or some pain. The battery life is still too short and the headsets have to be recharged often.
Even as companies like Meta are moving full speed towards the realization of a metaverse, they still have to square off their ambitions with the reality of the state of the immersive technology with the hardware still bulky and dorky. The holographic humans companies like Meta have been showing in their presentations are still not possible even with the use of the most advanced technology. The dream has preceded the state of technology. The technology will have to catch up with the idea of the metaverse.
There are motion-tracked digital avatars at the moment which are of extremely poor quality right now but at least you can create a janky version of a digital avatar. You can’t do the same for a 3D hologram and make it appear mid-air outside a tightly controlled setting with numerous cameras and a sophisticated setting.
Many tech companies that show exciting demos of a metaverse gloss over this reality. They are only trying to provide users with an artistic impression of what the metaverse future might be but there is still a lot of underlying technology that needs to be developed to realize this. For the time being, it is difficult to imagine the aspects of the disparate visions of the metaverse that will eventually come to fruition.
If there is a quantum leap in VR and AR hardware technologies in the near future, then we could be closer to a true metaverse.
However, flashy VR and AR hardware aren’t the only critical components of the metaverse. There are other less flashy aspects that might come ahead of the AR/VR hardware. For instance, we could see an open digital avatar standard with characteristics that you can incorporate into a character creator such as hairstyle, eye color, or clothing options and that you can take across platforms. This can be realized without a quantum leap in VR/AR hardware.