What is the Metaverse?
It depends who you ask.
If you were born before the 1980’s The Metaverse is the Internet.
If you were a teenager in the 90’s, the Metaverse was Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.
If you were playing World of Warcraft in 2005, that – and any other online game you were playing was the Metaverse.
One of the best ways to define something is to enumerate what it is not: In this case, the Metaverse is not the real world as we know it. It is not governed by a single entity (think Facebook, Amazon, or Microsoft), but more of a canvas where people of different backgrounds, cultures and creeds can exist together, with the irony that they can invent their own backstories under a completely new identity. But wait, isn’t that the Internet in its current form? Well yes. The difference is that in the Metaverse, we aren’t interacting with a screen of videos and text. In the Metaverse, it’s the Internet but as a lights and sounds show.
If people need a peg for what I’m talking about, the canon seems to be Ernest Cline’s 2011 hit Ready Player One or the lesser known but equally thrilling Daemon by Daniel Suarez which was published back in 2006. The idea of the Metaverse is therefore not new. I mention these two books because it seems that there are two ‘schools of thought’ as to where the Metaverse will find its success. Ready Player One’s thesis of a virtual world is a purely online canvas where people can live their lives on pure dopamine hits of entertainment. This is currently how all online role-playing games work, as well as some Web3 products like Decentraland and The Sandbox. Daniel Suarez’s version of the Metaverse is closer to augmented reality – wearing special glasses that enables you to “see” information about the world. Think of Waze, but you can see your route superimposed on the actual street through your glasses. Think of dating apps but you can now see information about other people around you – their marital status, gender preference, astrological sign. This second version of the Metaverse is what piques the interest of most, as it overturns the way we behave with the Internet: instead of us logging on to the web, the web comes down to us, and tries to disrupt the future of dating, fashion, and culture in general. I remember playing with old “secret marker” pens with my brother when I was a kid. I would leave messages on paper that could only be read by shining a UV light on it. Today, in 2023, that UV light is augmented reality.
But what happened? If there seems to be some notion of what the Metaverse should look like, how come it has failed so many times? Before Web3 games like Decentraland, we had Second Life and ‘There’, all virtual worlds in the mid 2000’s that tried to break into the mainstream.Ironically, the biggest barrier to technology is the technology itself. Back in the day, Internet connections were not as fast, and rendering 3D worlds were problematic for mainstream computers. Today, it’s the same – a pair of virtual goggles like the Oculus sets you back more than USD $500. Plus there’s the added layer of motion sickness you get from staying ‘jacked in’ for too long. In terms of fashion, the very thing that augmented reality wanted to promote failed on itself. Remember Google Glass? It came to a point that the clunky wearable was banned in bars for the sake of privacy. The social stigma turned it into a fashion disaster.
Why do I need to bank in a virtual world when my banking app does the same thing, in less steps? The problem with the Metaverse in its current form is it doesn’t solve a problem nor address a need. There’s an emerging trend in the fashion industry for augmented reality apparel. There is a tipping point somewhere, and this will be defined when everyone is wearing some form of AR glasses and it has to be ubiquitous in the same way that everyone now has a smartphone.
Not all is lost with the Metaverse. The closest working thing we have to a ‘Ready Player One’ experience is the video game Fortnite. With more than 80 million monthly active users, it’s the only game that has managed to break down barriers of intellectual property use, allowing Street Fighter’s Ryu to pack a sniper rifle, Kratos from God of War going all kawaii and Iron Man doing the dance steps from Butter. Fortnite is not the Metaverse, but it has shaped the future of cultural mashups like no other. Gone are the days when rival entertainment companies do not cross mingle IP rights. Or when corporate bends their brand bible just a bit (all Fortnite character tie ups aka “skins” pack guns). It’s because of Fortnite that Gen Z has discovered Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up,’ classic action movies such as Ghostbusters, Terminator, TRON, and Predator, and stayed up for virtual concerts with BTS and Ariana Grande.
It’s a little difficult to dictate the “meta” in Metaverse if everyone has their own idea of what it should be. Web3 and NFT companies are all trying to build “the next metaverse” yet it seems like everyone is on wait and see. In the olden days the civilized world gathered in the Forum Romanum. Today, netizens gather on Twitter and Discord. What seems to be counterproductive is that the very essence of having a virtual world where everyone can come together looks more centralized than anything, and this is supposedly what the “decentralized philosophy” is trying to avoid.
And this is why the Metaverse is a tricky thing to describe, because at its best it is a utopia where we can all reset our lives. But at its worst, it’s humanity with all its triggers 3 inches in front of your virtual goggles.