Explaining what the metaverse is can be tricky as many narratives float around. In this text, I try to condense it down to what the metaverse is at its very core. Let’s do this.
xplaining what the metaverse is can be tricky as many narratives float around. Bringing them all together comes with serious problems. Some are contradictious, and some need time to develop. Additionally, they have different grades of technical and societal probabilities and dependencies. Trying to bring that all together is too complex, especially if you want to satisfy everybody. And I am not sure if it serves us well in doing so. I believe we have enough examples of how complex and manifold this new virtual network could be. I also want to avoid the “everything is the metaverse” and “we are already in a metaverse” explanations. They are not explanations but a surrender due to their nature of complexity.
Therefore, in this text, I provide an explanation condensed down to the origin of the word metaverse: Neil Stephenson’s ironic-dystopian sci-fi novel Snow Crashpublished in 1992. I want to provide a simple one-sentence definition from which we can elaborate on the nature of the metaverse. And you can maybe finally explain it to your boss.
I am aware that this means leaving out a lot of possibilities. But as I mentioned above: The problem is not that there are no possibilities, and we have no visions but that they make it hard to focus on what the metaverse is at its core. So let’s get rid of the clutter for the sake of understanding.
My approach is that I take what the book Snow Crash tells us about the metaverse and project it into the real world. Why do I think this is a good idea? Because the metaverse in Snow Crash is not a concrete manual on how to build it but a metaphor. Actually, what you can read about the metaverse in Snow Crash is relatively thin. The reason for that is that the Metaverse in Snow Crash is not the leading actor. For example, Ready Player One, a fulminant novel, delivers many images by bringing a multitude of pop-cultural narratives together, also through its visualization by Stephen Spielberg’s movie adoption. Surprisingly Ready Player One doesn’t add that much to the overall picture, albeit its cacophony of worlds and possibilities. And it even has no Augmented Reality in it, either.
Snow Crash delivers a metaphorical network. And as a metaphor for being part of a dystopian world, I believe it is understood best. The metaverse is symbolized as a figure of our planet where there is a single road going around the globe once. It is accommodated by plots of land you can rent. You can enter the metaverse with a headset, slipping into your avatar and physically moving from one experience to another. You can do that on foot, or you can do that with vehicles. Close to the end of the book, there is a high-speed chase with virtual motor-cycles. So there are other methods of transportation available.
This gives us some hint of the basic mechanics of the metaverse. The road is a symbol of a connection between all locations that connect the different experiences and forces that you have to use to move from one experience to another. It is a good metaphor because, as you might say in the digital product development method scrum, it is better to describe the solution and not the way to get to it. Transferred to our world, it could mean that a single experience like a café is not the metaverse but becomes part of the metaverse when it is connected to the “street”. So the street in Snow Crashs metaverse is some kind of connection that connects Virtual Reality experiences in such a way that you can move seamlessly from one experience to another without changing the avatar or dropping out of the simulation. The street is the underlying infrastructure, as the address-system is.
From this, I derive two necessary conditions for the metaverse:
- Virtual Reality
- A network that allows to seamless move from one experience to another
The definition: The metaverse is a virtual reality infrastructure where the user can move seamlessly between VR experiences.
With this kind of technical approach, I want to construct what a metaverse might look like from our point of view. And I want to do it compared to the development of the internet. Therefore I added the pre-internet era and the internet.
Click here for a high-resolution version of the visual.
In the pre-internet era, devices were stand-alone. Data could only be transferred via media, cables or local networks. Besides being not connected to any global digital infrastructure, it is essential to mention that there have already been virtual reality devices around. Although there have been approaches like the View-Master in 1939, I would start with the Cyberspace Project at Autodesk in 1988 as it tried to bring VR to a low-cost personal computer. In the 1990s, a bunch of headsets made Computer Gaming World predict affordable VR by 1994, which, as we now know, took a bit longer. That indeed sparked the imagination of Neil Stephenson. But VR was far away from being connected or rather being part of a metaverse. Even the internet was far away from what we have today.
Why do I say this? VR is only one necessary condition for the metaverse, and it already was fulfilled that early. But the infrastructure is still far away, as I will continue to show. VR alone doesn’t make a metaverse as a computer doesn’t make the internet.
As we started connecting computers with wires, the internet emerged as a global digital infrastructure. Today, it is the most giant and complex structure humans have ever built. Yet it is still observed from the outside by looking on screens.
Maybe the most significant achievement was bringing a digital communication infrastructure to everybody, which was possible because of its text-based simple and decentralized architecture. Today, no matter what device you use or how much money you have, you can access a powerful communication network and access information. And because of the smartphone, which did provide computing and communication in a very accessible way, the miniaturization of electronics enabled VR to become affordable and mainstream. Everybody can get a headset for as cheap as 350 Euro.
Still, the experiences are separated from each other although we achieved to do multiplayer because of the internet and the development of the games industry. VR multiplayer experiences are internet experiences that transfer necessary data via the internet. Technologically the amount of data and what gets transferred is primitive. You can access the internet with many different devices and even with a VR headset. The representation of the internet in VR remains 2D and always will be. We might see the next browser wars within VR.
The metaverse is, in analogy to the internet, a network of experiences. It has to be a serious step-up in the sense of connectivity of the devices and the servers of the experiences. The quality of a “link” is different, and how a server handles the client as it has to enable a seamless walk-over.
This solution does not exist yet. This is why there is no metaverse yet.
With this foundation, we can say that nothing exists as I write this article that is part of a metaverse. A VR multiplayer game is not a metaverse as it is not connected to another experience in a seamless metaversian way. An internet multiplayer game observed on a 2D screen like Roblox or Sandbox is not part of a metaverse. Right now, they are participating in the internet. A single-server online multiplayer space game like EvE Online is not part of the metaverse, although it is stunning what they have achieved. A social network like Facebook is not part of the metaverse, not even if you use the Facebook app on your Meta Quest 2, as it is a 2D representation and using the internet. A Social Virtual Worldof any kind is not part of the metaverse as it is not Virtual Reality and not part of the metaverse network.
What is about Augmented Reality? When I take it very rigid with the definition by the book, AR appears in Snow Crash but in such a way that it gets used as a cell phone or as a tactical military device that doesn’t need to access any metaversian network. Nobody in the book accesses the metaverse in AR but always uses the VR feature. The information displayed in AR seems to be more something like the internet. AR glasses today access the internet, not the metaverse. That is also because there is no metaverse network yet, which does not mean that there won’t be some kind of hybrid device like in Snow Crash. VR devices are already capable of a pass-through modus. The Magic Leap shows that with the partially darkening of its glasses, it might deliver VR capabilities in the future. At this moment, AR, as it appears in glasses, smartphones, displays in cars and tablets, are using the internet.
What is about Crypto? Crypto, like in crypto coins, NFTs or DAOs, are not a necessary condition for the metaverse. There is no sign of any of those technologies in Snow Crash. They are very much internet solutions for the internet era as they are not VR or deliver a metaversian connectivity. This does not mean that they will not play a role on the future internet, although it looks like they will have hard times as regulators start regulating. In my opinion, regulating is a good idea because unfortunately there are too many bad actors around. But as I said before: These are internet problems and have nothing to do with the metaverse.
Congrats, you have reached the end of this text. Here I try to find a simple explanation for what the metaverse is. It is rigid, but I hope it clarifies what needs to be done and what it means to build a metaverse. It seems that it is not enough to label what we already possess with metaverse, which was not a good idea from the get-go. When Mark Zuckerberg held his keynote at Connect 2021, podcasts in the US just changed their name in metaverse podcast to be found on the internet. It seems to be a quick and fun hack to gain some traffic, but it doesn’t help to understand what we are dealing with here. In my opinion, it is important to understand what the internet is, what the metaverse is and what it means. And finally ask the question: What do we need it for? Is a VR network where people in avatars can seamlessly move from one experience to another something we really want? And why do we want that? These are the main questions we have to answer besides all the technicalities.
There is a german version of this text in the works and gets linked as soon as it is done.