January 24, 2022 - 10 min read
Conceptually, the metaverse is not exactly new. Virtual reality (VR) games, and their potential to encapsulate our entire lives, have been a part of pop culture since at least the 1980s. The term ‘metaverse’ was first coined by author Neal Stephenson in his sci-fi, cyberpunk novel Snow Crash.
Ever since, the metaverse has teased the imaginations of popular culture, with versions of the concept appearing in movies such as The Matrix or the more recent Black Mirror. Epic Games has hosted several VR concerts in their Fortnite Soundwave Series with major names like Ariana Grande, Travis Scott, and Tones and I. Music videos have even begun celebrating metaverse themes, as in Duke Dumont’s visually pleasing “I Got U,” in which he straps on a VR headset and enters a fantastical digital realm.
Potential demand for the metaverse is clearly there and waiting; with over 3 billion gamers online, the industry boasts over $150 billion in market cap. What’s more, games like League of Legends boasts at least 150 million users, with roughly 75% of them being active on a monthly basis. Half a million people are actively playing the game at any given moment.
The immense scale of these numbers can be put into perspective by comparing viewership for the 2021 NBA finals: under 10 million average viewers (TV screens) were recorded each game, and the final game of the series only managed to reach a maximum of 16.54 million viewers during its peak, recorded for only a brief 15-minute window at the game’s climax.
The metaverse, in uncomplicated terms, is an immersive digital universe which can be explored, built upon, and transacted within by users, represented by virtual avatars of themselves. In other words, users can enter the metaverse, customize their own appearances, buy digital goods and services, attend virtual events with live users, and a milieu of other activities in this digital world.
However, more refined definitions of the term will likely contain debatable elements as there is no clear consensus on what exactly the metaverse should be, or if it already exists at present or not. Therefore, some characteristics of the metaverse will be discussed in the context of software, hardware, and digital ownership technologies maturing and converging to bring it to market.
The fundamental concepts underpinning the metaverse are thus as follows: the seamless and immersive experiences of interactivity, interoperability, and telepresence. Interactivity refers to the sense of control experienced by users in their ability to manipulate the environment. In analog terms, this has so far meant a mouse, computer screen, and a 2D display on a monitor.
With VR hardware, it means finding oneself within a digital space, though within a limited capacity, needing to exit the immersive experience for a myriad of reasons. The metaverse is an experience which maximizes interactivity by bringing other parts of the world online, including blockchains. As more digital goods and services, including financial transactions, become available in the metaverse, its interactivity increases exponentially.
However, interactivity suffers when users are reminded that the metaverse is not truly manipulatable, or the item crafted within the game has no transferable value or meaningful effect upon the physical world. It would be obvious that applications like Twitter Spaces and Clubhouse will add VR capabilities to these live-audio meet-ups, but this can hardly be considered exemplary of the metaverse, though it is getting close.
Having to sign out and sign into different applications manually, or needing to take out a credit card to pay always brings us back to reality. We are in our office, at home, in the physical world, disembodied from the metaverse, you could say. Our experiences with the metaverse so far could probably be described as meta-sandboxes or meta-rooms. Once inside of each room, the experiences may dazzle, but we can only peer so far down the rabbit hole. After all, we need to exit these meta-sandboxes too often for a completely immersive experience.
After all, blockchains are siloed ecosystems which are impressive in and of themselves, but fail to impress when trying to navigate across them or confirm whether or not their ledgers match at any given moment with thousands of concurrent transactions taking place simultaneously. In order to solve this, interoperability among many fragmented digital ecosystems must be achieved.
If the metaverse is to be a seamless, open world, it needs robust blockchains to operate in tandem with decentralized oracles so that digital goods and services can move across cyberspace seamlessly, securely, and with low latency. Oracles will validate simple operations like P2P transactions and help intercommunication between IoT devices, and will make possible rich and immersive virtual experiences like live multiplayer gaming, concerts, sports events, social gatherings, professional and academic conferences, concerts, and much more.
By recording ownership on the blockchain, users can feel secure in the ownership and usefulness of their digital assets, and oracles will make sure that their assets are transferable and liquid by facilitating the interoperability of so many systems. If the systems trust each other and operate seamlessly, our experiences within the metaverse will be interrupted less frequently.
Telepresence is one’s feeling of embodiment within a fully or partially-digital environment. It is the difference between clicking on a link and waiting for a web page to load compared with the feeling of walking through a digital landscape, entering a door and walking through it to your digital destination. If the metaverse succeeds in offering users smooth interoperability, telepresence will be enhanced past the threshold needed to feel the experience is “real.”
Attempts to enhance telepresence is being undertaken by leveraging software like Unreal Engine (Final Fantasy, Gears of War, Skyrim, Fallout), which is great for multiplayer experiences and Unity Engine (Pokémon Go, League of Legends, and Super Mario Run) which excels in both AR and VR renditions.
Hardware devices like Apple Glass, Facebook’s Ray-Ban Stories, and Amazon Echo frames offer but a glimpse of what’s to come. Google also has an AR project in the works code-named ‘Project Iris.’ It may be sooner rather than later that physical locations will commonly allow for some piece of wearable technology to enhance the experience through AR or VR.
It is easy to imagine a metaverse in which anything is possible. Perhaps users will be able to log in to find themselves growing wings and flying away. Others might dress up in vampire garb and gain all of the special attributes one would expect from vampirism.
However, this sort of experience is more likely to take place within specific games rather than the metaverse itself. More realistically, metaverse visitors will strap on a virtual reality (VR) headset and take the form of virtual avatars, join community events, display social media or gaming achievements, and participate in a functioning economy, all while living pseudo-anonymous lives.
The metaverse has been going through growing pains for quite a long time. From virtual reality video games offered in the middle of shopping malls, to home-based MMORPGs such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, the intersection of several technologies has finally converged into a discernable point which we are starting to recognize as the metaverse.
MMORPGs really embodied the concept of immersive, gamified social content. Players interact with their surroundings, battle opponents, build entire cities, pay for goods and services, and collect rare digital items (i.e. in-game weapons, attire, & real estate).
With Web3 and blockchain underlying this immersive and interactive experience, real world value can be verifiably created, traded, and preserved on the blockchain. Now that value can be conserved and protected online, incentives are aligned for serious money to flood into the space, further encouraging the maturation of metaverse offerings.
With VR, headsets and tracking devices work to create sensory experiences in completely fabricated digital environments. For instance, placing a headset on without the device powered on would yield a blank screen. The headset would need to be removed in order to move about safely in the physical world. On the other hand, AR makes use of the physical world, but simply adds virtual displays for users which sit atop their physical perceptions.
An example of this would be a headset with enough transparency to move about in physical spaces without having to power the device on. However, AR can still track eye and body movements to superimpose digital entities before us, allowing us to see and interact with these things while seeing ourselves and the world around us simultaneously.
AR and VR are impressive combinations of hardware and software which will play major roles in future manifestations of the metaverse. However, a truly immersive experience goes further than physical sensations within applications. In fact, the metaverse will need a robust and scalable digital ownership layer to protect the assets which underlie the entire experience.
Web3, specifically blockchains and oracles, will play integral roles in bringing about a truly immersive and embodied experience in the metaverse. Without real ownership or transferability of value, the metaverse ultimately seems like a silly online game, devoid of value. However, in a metaverse of scarce digital resources, verifiable ownership, and interoperability, it becomes a location in which the value delineation between physical and digital assets becomes more difficult to articulate in terms of their intrinsic value.
Existing social media platforms already facilitate a rudimentary form of the metaverse, allowing users to curate their digital identities, and create virtual spaces to interact with others both publicly or privately. Though we have experienced these digital spaces in two dimensions, peering in through a computer monitor, developments in VR and augmented reality (AR) are making the experience less distinguishable from interactions in the physical world.
More recently, video-conferencing calls combined with VR and AR tech have made significant leaps in the sense of telepresence and immersive interactivity offered online. In other words, the technology is on the precipice of replicating the human experience. Rudimentary examples of how the metaverse might manifest takes shape in the form of Fortnite, VR Chat, and Twitter Spaces, among others. Facebook Horizon is also in beta testing, which may essentially start as a 3D, first-person metaverse version of Facebook (now Meta).
Although the Metaverse has existed in the collective imaginations of humanity for several decades now, the time has finally arrived for the next set of immersive virtual reality experiences to come to life. While it is difficult to imagine a dystopian future such as in the movie The Matrix, it is not hard to see that we are hurtling towards a world in which digital experiences play increasingly important roles in our lives.
Thus, the synergies of interactivity, interoperability, and telepresence are key to facilitating metaverse experiences by combining AR and VR technologies with the verifiable digital property ownership of blockchains, powered by a network of interoperable systems joined by decentralized oracles. The success or failures of the metaverse will be up to developers, creatives, entrepreneurs, and end-users to form healthy digital landscapes characterized by decentralization, data security, and interoperability amongst the various protocols.
By combining the states of interactivity with secure digital ownership and feelings of telepresence, metaverse users might soon enjoy the most profoundly sophisticated forms of digital escapism the world has ever known.
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