Personal thoughts about the metaverse in chapters
Chapter 1: Pandora’s box is persistent.
A girl crouches in front of the couch on the floor, panting, her eyes glued to the TV screen, a sweaty controller in her shaky hands.
Her boyish game character has just died in a fight with gruesome rock spitting monsters. But is he really dead?
The game asks the girl to decide: Save or Continue.
Would that really mean the game character would keep on existing after she would have turned off the game console? And with him his whole world would still be there, with all the monsters and puzzles and items yet to be discovered? Nothing lost?
The thought stunned her mind and would change her understanding of digitally created worlds forever.
This girl was me. 1986. Playing the very first Zelda game on the Nintendo Entertainment System. I have never ever come upon a Save option in a video game before. In the world of fast and furious jump ’n’ runs this was not usus.
A persistent game world, where game characters advance, assemble experience and LIVE ON whatever the human player would do or not do… of course The Legend of Zelda was not a persistent game world yet… but it had put a fascinating thought into this little girl’s head.
Veteran virtual beings.
Since Richard Bartle’s MUD1 (1978) persistent game worlds are not unusual, but I was too young to know then. Forty years ago the metaverse might have very well started as a multi-user dungeon at the University of Essex boasting nothing but white writing on a black computer screen.
Due to the lack of a personal computer I also had no idea about the existence of Habitat (1985), one of the first graphical online communities ever and a major influence for Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash’ (1992), a prophetic novel I was luckily exactly at the right age to enjoy.
Throughout my studies at the end of the 1990s I have been designing environments and avatars for graphical chat rooms, early stepping stones of what would be needed to build a metaverse. In my master’s thesis I was researching the early virtual beings of that very era, such as the Japanese virtual idol Kyoko Date, Miss Boo, the virtual shopping assistant of the infamous dot-com crash Boo.com, the virtual British newscaster Ananova, the Gorillaz and the virtual popstar E-Cyas from Germany with his poignant electronic hit single “Are U Real?” advertising his short lived Cycosmos pre-metaverse and taking away pretty much of the night club scene in Steven Spielberg’s feature film “Ready Player One” (2018). I also created my own virtual self which has been developing over the years until I decided I don’t need to hide behind a digital mask anymore.
Around the millennium, the fascination with the unreal took me to Japan where I started my career as character designer for video games. Quite obscure ones to be frank. At Furi Furi Company I was creating avatars for the clients of a kids’ fashion brand and pixelated graphics for i-mode games. With a little help from unbelievable Japanese fashion and makeup trends I turned into an avatar made from flesh and blood myself.
The rise of text-based virtual game worlds (MUDs and MOOs) was before my time, but I art directed one of the first European — then called — 3D online societies.
I had the honour to be co-creator of Papermint, a unique virtual world, an alternative online community living in a colourful 3D world made of paper, where people could design their own clothes, play together in virtual video game arcades within the virtual world, fall in love, marry and have kids.
While the press dubbed me “the Björk of the virtual world industry” an influential Korean analyst called Papermint “the future of the social networking game”, the whole team then pretty unaware what “social networking” was actually standing for. This was Vienna in the early 2000s.
Despite being an avid reader of William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and Stansilaw Lem I was too bored of realistic looking simulations like Second Life, too shy to play with strangers in Ultima Online, too peaceful to fight in World of Warcraft and too busy to do avatar dancing in Audition Online.
As proud owner of a Nintendo Virtual Boy and admirer of the holodeck in Star Trek, my world turned around when VR finally became more graspable in 2014. I instantly turned into VR content production and eventually co-founded Holodeck VR in 2018, a company dedicated to fun and social multi-user experiences in large-scale free-roam VR environments, now operating as Spree Interactive hopefully putting a smile on kids’ faces all over the world.
Today, some 20 years later, I am still honored that developing Papermint got me into conversation with the bright minds of virtual world building like the creators of MUD1, Puzzle Pirates, Moshi Monsters and Eve Online.
We built this city — on V and R.
Around the dawn of the Web 3.0 in 2015 and the rise of proto-mainstream VR I had the pleasure to speak about virtual reality all over the world. “VR” had become the buzzword of those years before the term dissolved in the notion of the metaverse.
China, Cannes, Brussel, Switzerland, Amsterdam — I used to dramatically start my talks with the statement: VR is NOT a display technology — VR is a REALITY that happens to be virtual.
I was giving lectures and workshops to many yet-to-be converted trying to passionately convey the message that we are building NEW WORLDS here, a new universe, a METAverse by the means of VR technology…
However, now with the term metaverse finally entering the mainstream, VR has just been degraded to be nothing else but the very technology enabling us to (mostly yet just visually) enter and navigate this metaverse.
VR technology is just one of the puzzle pieces necessary to finally build a more coherent cyberspace that actually works.
With the internet becoming spatial a new ecosystem is on the rise.
With the VR/AR/XR/MR continuum, esports and streaming, MMOs, blockchain, crypto currencies, NFTs, virtual influencers on social media, IoT, 5G (and all Gs to follow), digital twins, big data, AI and ML all the missing pieces seem to be here finally.
For the first time a metaverse consisting of all those interconnected tools seems possible.
The internet could truly become spatial within our lifetime. And economically viable.
From the abstract idea of a 2D online shop on a flat web page we move into the freely walkable digital twin of the Fifth Avenue, bustling with all kinds of virtual beings, be they controlled by a human or an AI. For once it is sure these virtual beings will keep on leading their busy lives even when I log out. And with the metaverse and the “realverse” being connected, maybe their physical robot counterparts will even carry my “real”-ly heavy shopping bags along the non-metaverse Fifth Avenue for me.
The digital metaverse and the physical “realverse” are naturally interconnected. And we don’t even need cyberpunk wetware implants to be linked between both “verses” – yet.
This current iteration of the graphical metaverse is manifested as a persistent globally connected virtual world. No game status that needs to be saved — this is a city that never sleeps.
Call it Cyberspace, Datenraum, the Oasis or the Matrix: Travis Scott performing for 12.3 million fans in Fortnite (with his “Out West” emote being removed by Epic Games after the Astroworld concert tragedy), Facebook rebranding as META, Jean-Michel Jarre pleading for the European metaverse “Sensorium Galaxy”, Seoul launching a metaverse for city governmental issues, Netflix poaching former Oculus team members, Unity investing $1.6bn in Weta Digital, Roblox hosting fashion events, Bill Gates foreseeing most meetings will take place in the metaverse within the next three years, ABBA being eternalised as avatars in their ABBA Voyage show…
The metaverse is back.
Foto: Cover art by Josan Gonzalez (aka Death Burger) for the Brazilian edition of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy (1984–1998)