My take on the Metaverse

The term "Metaverse" itself first appeared in Neil Stephenson's 1992 novel "Snow Crash", where it is described as the "cyberspace home to avatars and software demons, where anything and just about everything goes." You can see this as an imagined future development for the internet or as a metaphor to get a better grasp of the internet. The latter also reminds me of Disney's 1982 movie "Tron", which pictured the inner workings of computers as a three-dimensional world.

So much for the history. Fast forward to the 21st century and witness the Metaverse as a topic so complex it borders on chaos. It all starts with that there is no unified or even unambiguous definition of the term.

Wikipedia states that "the Metaverse is a collective virtual shared space including the sum of all virtual worlds and the Internet. It may contain derivatives or copies of the real world, but it is distinct from augmented reality."

The exclusion of augmented reality is in direct contradiction to a definition attempt from the Metaverse Roadmap, stating a "convergence of 1) virtually enhanced physical reality and 2) physically persistent virtual space. It is a fusion of both, while allowing users to experience it as either."

On the other hand, there are older definitions based on the original idea of a purely virtual world. The now-defunct IEEE P1828 working group for example states that "virtual worlds are intended for its users to inhabit and interact, and the term today has become largely synonymous with interactive 3D virtual environments, where the users take the form of avatars visible to others graphically." This may hold true for relaxation and recreation. Yet from a productivity point of view, 3D representations are inferior to 1D and 2D abstractions of the real world.

In "A Framework for the Metaverse", VC Matthew Bell describes the Metaverse as a "successor state to the mobile internet." He additionally describes eight core categories making up the Metaverse. I recommend reading Matthew's primer as an up-to-date entry point to the topic.

But enough for definitions. You get the confusion now. And so we are at a time when everyone and Facebook is claiming (part of) the Metaverse.

Then why am I writing about it when it's such a mess? Because this makes it an undiscovered country rich with opportunities. There are common themes among every attempt to describe the Metaverse:

  • Diversity and interoperability
  • Collaboration and interaction
  • Personal and shared experiences

Each of these areas opens up opportunities both for content creators and tool makers. You can decide to search for gold or to sell the shovels.

In early August 2021, there has been an unusual amount of articles covering the Metaverse coming through my usual channels. Most of these articles are (still) related to recent announcements from both Microsoft and Facebook to "enter" the Metaverse. After reading all of it, I found it interesting to share them with you to get a glimpse into the reactions to and the reception of the topic.

In chronological order, here is what caught my eye.

  • Introduction to the Metaverse 2021 trend report from Newzoo. As Newzoo specializes in the video game industry, this report leans heavily towards the 3D virtual space and gaming side. Still, it is a great overview and a highly recommended read.
  • The Metaverse Has Always Been a Dystopian Idea from Vice. By looking at the origin of the term "Metaverse", the novel "Snow Crash", and its brother in spirit, "Ready Player One" and the Oasis, this article focuses on the dystopian futures these books describe. And my first impression was that the author goes full Luddite from there.
  • Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse already sucks from Wired UK. Though never using the word "dystopia", this article focuses on the Metaverse as an escape from the real world. Therefore, a virtual space to escape to.
  • Metaverses by Ben Thompson. Stratechery is always a good read, yet unfortunately, this one brings not much new stuff to the table. Big Tech, walled gardens, dystopia.
  • Roblox: Gaming, the Creator Economy, and the Metaverse by Peter Yang. Well, mostly about Roblox with only a short conclusion about Roblox's vision of the Metaverse and some ideas that go beyond gaming.
  • Move over, space. Tech billionaires have a new utopian boondoggle: the ‘metaverse’ from The Guardian. From the title, you get a pretty good guess what this one focuses on. Yet, it finishes with a silver lining: "The idea of transcending one’s physical limitations to engage with new ideas and populations and exchange information and resources is appealing."

I feel there is one trend in most of the articles above. And that is "yes, but." Don't get me wrong, a critical view of technology is important. There are consequences to any decision, to any new product, to any new technology. And make no mistake, we will "lose" people if there is an affordable, easy-to-access, virtual space/ escapist version of the Metaverse.

"Yes, but" is an easy reaction. It's in our nature to see risks and to criticize. Yet anyone reading this right now is more in the "yes, and" group of people. There are opportunities. If not directly "Metaverse", then inspired by it. And as it still feels like some kind of wild west and a new frontier, there is cake for everyone beyond Big Tech.

Due to the lack of a single definition and the variety of opinions about what the Metaverse actually is, it is unclear what these themes refer to. So let's look at the term itself. "Meta" means "beyond." That means to take a step back or to look at something from a different level. And this brings me to the analogy of "layers."

For me, layers above the real world help me think best about what the Metaverse can be or already is, and how opportunities can be identified. Some examples:

  • Virtual Reality (VR) is a way to go if you want to create a 3D virtual world or a spatial representation of the real world. This is basically the "classic" approach based on Snow Crash and Ready Player One and is what the video game industry pushes.
  • Augmented Reality (AR) is a way to enhance the real world with digital information. This ranges from glasses to mobile phones, to audio (who said that AR has to be visual?).
  • The concept of Digital Twins can generally be used to create a digital copy of an entity. This is not restricted to VR or AR representations. Digital Twins are common in manufacturing, where they capture sensor data from the shop floor, for example.
  • The Mobile Internet can be seen as an enabler for the Metaverse or being another layer, e.g. for collaborative experiences.

The layers are not mutually exclusive and can be combined as fit. Think of it like layers in an image manipulation app. Depending on what layers are active, the way they overlap and interact defines your view on or of the final image. For example, VR and Digital Twins point to your digital copy, your avatar. Whereas the Mobile Internet is a cornerstone for AR solutions.

With this in mind, let's look at some idea briefs after our journey around the Metaverse combined with other signals I caught up lately.

Brief 1 - Make commerce an experience. "Ecommerce took the social, experiential act of shopping and reduced it to transactions." This is a quote from Greg Isenberg on How to beat Amazon with your E-Commerce Company. Earlier this year, Marie Dollé wrote about Retailtainment: a deep dive into the new shopping experiences. Both articles are crammed full of ideas and inspiration, implicitly and explicitly targeting the Metaverse. What I would do: find small designers and creators and give them a novel way to let potential buyers experience their products. I'd most likely drill down further and focus on a single type of product. Digital art and music come to mind first. (Or food.)

Brief 2 - Interoperability of digital assets. If the Metaverse spans several gaming, VR or AR experiences, chances are that users want to appear similar in all of them. Sure, the big players might either build high walls around their gardens or lure you into these gardens with interop tooling of their own. Just read Matthew Ball's Interchange Tools + Standards and the Metaverse and Content, Services, and Asset Businesses in the Metaverse to get an idea. What I would do: find open platforms that use open asset standards or APIs to allow asset creation. Then offer a way to easily create assets for/ share across all these platforms. The solution can be "visual", i.e. an editor/ web app, or low-level as in "a conversion API."

Brief 3 - Digital Fashion. Funny enough, you can think of this as a melange of the two briefs above and the AR layer. And of course, Marie already wrote about it in Digital Fashion: experiencing what doesn’t exist and why it will rock your world! Or look at just one more example of AR fashion. What I would do: find one designer and collaborate with her/ him to solve a pain she/ he has. Yes, this does not scale initially. Which is a good starting point to create something great.

Now go create. The virtual world is yours.

This post is based on Basic Problem issues #42, #43, and #44.

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