Are You Ready for the Metaverse?

by Hal Koss
July 22, 2020
what is the metaverse
Image: Shutterstock

Whenever Fortnite hosts a non-video-game event, like a concert or the premiere of a big Hollywood movie trailer, people talk about how the metaverse is coming.

The metaverse, broadly understood as a persistent, shared virtual realm — like an evolved, more-immersive internet — is no longer just fodder for science fiction.

It’s “the newest macro-goal for many of the world’s tech giants,” according to Matthew Ball, venture capitalist and former head of strategy at Amazon Studios.

If all the big tech and gaming companies are preparing for the arrival of the next version of the internet, maybe we should too.


What Will the Metaverse Look Like?

There’s no universally agreed-upon description of the metaverse, but there are some widely recognized characteristics. (Sadly, it being a neon-lit cyberspace is not among them.)

Ball, the VC, identifies seven: The metaverse is always on; it’s experienced live and in real time; it can host any size audience; it has a fully functioning economy; it spans across platforms, as well as digital and physical realms (think augmented reality); it allows digital assets to be carried across platforms; its experiences and content will be created by individual users and huge corporations alike.

Roblox, the gaming platform of 120 million users that has metaverse ambitions of its own, offers a (similar) list of descriptors: it’s immersive; persistent; vast and diverse; enables each user to have a core identity across experiences; has a social network component; enables seamless access from any device; has an economy; and is governed by rules and order.

To picture the metaverse, then, think of a massive virtual realm. One constantly buzzing with activity, where people can go whenever they want, and do whatever they want. They can remotely hang out with friends, create art, consume art, play games and shop. They can visit other realms too, and their identities stay with them as they travel.

That sounds a lot like ... the internet.

“The way the metaverse looks is very similar to how the internet emerged,” Pim de Witte, co-founder and chief executive officer of Medal, a game-clip-sharing platform, told me.

The way the metaverse looks is very similar to how the internet emerged.”

He conceives of the metaverse not as a single destination that everyone defaults to, but as a complex network consisting of browsers, indexes and destinations.

De Witte explained it to me like this: Platforms such as Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox are not in themselves metaverses, but destinations within the metaverse. There will be lots of them, not unlike individual websites on the internet today.

To make the proliferation of destinations feel less fragmented and overwhelming, we’ll rely on indexes. Discord and Twitch are examples of indexes. They’re useful in connecting people to destinations and to each other.

And on top of indexes will be browsers. De Witte expects services like Microsoft xCloud and Google Stadia to pull indexes together, offering a more personalized experience.

To label any one of these things on their own as the “metaverse” would be thinking too small. (Although, de Witte’s framework does allow for multiple metaverses to emerge within a multiverse. Fortnite and Roblox could each become a metaverse if they contained browsers, indexes and destinations within them.)

Once this all shakes out, de Witte said, we should expect there to be millions of destinations, between 10 and 100 indexes, and between one and 10 browsers.

“The internet is a wide set of protocols, technology, tubes and languages, plus access devices and content and communication experiences atop them,” Ball wrote. “The Metaverse will be too.”

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child playing minecraft
Photo: Shutterstock

How Will We All Fit Inside It?

I attended the Travis Scott concert in Fortnite this past April, along with 12 million other people. Not all of us were together in the same venue, though; that would require all of us being on the same computer server. (To say nothing of the view of the stage.)

Instead, the game performed a workaround: It portioned out batches of users, about 50 each, and assigned each batch its own identical venue. The musical performance was then simultaneously broadcast to each one, replicating the event for everyone. We were together — but separate.

It’s a clever technique. (It’s called sharding.) But will there ever be a time when all 12 million of us can be in the same room, actually sharing that experience together? Because, when we’re talking about something called a metaverse — a portmanteau for “beyond” “universe” — anything short of that is a little bit of a letdown.

“I think solving synchronicity across millions of different people in one environment is really, really hard,” de Witte said.

Solving synchronicity across millions of different people in one environment is really hard.”

He would know; he used to run the largest RuneScape server on the planet. He anticipates it will eventually get solved in the future. But for now, I should get used to the limited capacity of Fornite concerts, and accept incremental technological improvements for the blessings they are.

There is reason to be hopeful that improvements are coming. Developers of Dual Universe, a massively multiplayer online sandbox game, managed to squeeze 30,000 concurrent users on a continuous single shard. They achieved this by “distributing the load” across “dynamically partitioned cubic cells.” In other words, the game uses a different technique than sharding, one that permits tens of thousands of actual people to participate in a live, synchronous experience.

Expect that number to tick up higher in the years to come.


How Will the Metaverses Economy Function?

The metaverse’s economy will not only consist of companies selling digital goods to users (that’s a given). It will also — perhaps primarily — consist of peers selling to peers.

Take Roblox, the gaming platform that’s especially popular with kids and teens, as an example. On it, users have the ability to create their own games using Roblox’s developer tools. They can then monetize their creations. If they cash out, Roblox takes a cut.

For the most part, “It’s a free-market, user-driven economy,” Deepak Chandrasekaran, Roblox vice president of product management, told me. And it’s “not just about taking money out of the ecosystem, it’s also about using the same virtual currency and spending it across the ecosystem.”

Roblox users don’t just show up on the platform, sell something, take their money and leave. Most of them put that money back into the platform’s economy, by spending it on games or avatar customizations that other users create. Money travels in and around, rather than out. It’s a growing, self-sufficient economy.

It’s about spending the same virtual currency across the ecosystem.”

Chandrasekaran estimates that about 60 percent of Roblox’s users customize their avatars every month, spending lots of Robux (the platform’s currency) in the process. “This then feeds the whole economy,” he said.

Roblox’s internal economy is so large, creators on its platform earned $110 million in 2019.

“We actually have to pretty much simulate the entire real world. The only thing I think we don’t have is stocks,” Chandrasekaran said. “But ... I think it’s inevitable that we may end up there.”

If you think that’s big, listen to this. In 2016, Vice reported that users of the virtual world game Second Life had redeemed $60 million from the businesses they operated inside of it. The gross domestic product of Second Life’s in-world economy? An estimated $500 million.


roblox metaverse
Image: Roblox

Who Will Build It? Who Will Own It?

If Roblox and Minecraft are any indication, lots of experiences within the metaverse will be user generated, made by creators and business operators who possess little to no knowledge of game development.

De Witte anticipates that machine learning is going to play a big part in this. AI-powered software tools will lower the barrier to entry for creation, making it easier for everyday people to contribute to the metaverse.

“Creating an experience for the metaverse is eventually going to be like creating a YouTube video,” he said.

Creating an experience for the metaverse is eventually going to be like creating a YouTube video.”

One significant feature of the metaverse is its interoperability. That is, my ability to travel across it, hopping frictionlessly from platform to platform, carrying my stuff with me.

But I can’t wear my Fortnite skin on the Roblox platform. Nor can I access Slack inside Minecraft, or portal from Google Chat over to Second Life.

That’s largely because tech giants operate in closed ecosystems, William Burns explained to me. And it’s a huge barrier for the vision of the metaverse to be fully realized.

Burns is an advisory board member to the Infinite Metaverse Alliance and co-author of an article titled “3D Virtual Worlds and the Metaverse: Current Status and Future Possibilities,” which was published in the journal ACM Computing Surveys in 2013.

Companies, historically, are hesitant to let their proprietary material loose, for fear of it becoming compatible with a competitor’s ecosystem. From the company’s point of view, Burns said, many decide it’s not in their best interest to let this happen. Doing so would mean they would have to give up some amount of control.

But Burns directed me to OpenXR, by Khronos Group, as an example of an organization that challenges the walled garden mentality. It’s an open, royalty-free standard for virtual reality and augmented reality developers to use to create cross-platform experiences. It’s also gained widespread industry support. It may lead the way in demonstrating the benefits of interoperability.

Fortnite offers a similar note of progress. A person can just as easily access the game on an iPad as they can an Android phone or a PlayStation console. It wasn’t always this way.

“For years, this was heavily resisted by the major gaming platforms as they believed that enabling such an experience would undermine their network effects and reduce the need to buy their proprietary hardware,” Ball writes.

I can’t wear my Fortnite skin on the Roblox platform, or access Slack inside Minecraft.

Over time, tech platforms may become more comfortable with allowing users to portal through them, like tourists passing through countries with universal passports.

However, it remains unlikely that a single corporate entity will get to dominate or fully control a “main hub” that connects each part of the metaverse, like the forest in The Nightmare Before Christmas, with magical doors that allow anyone to move seamlessly in and out of discrete worlds.

“Though, I would contend that whoever masters the main universe and writes the APIs, etc. to allow everyone to tie in and portal out, will be the real winner,” Burns told me. “Everybody else will just be a destination.”

Maybe we’ll build it. I’ll bring the neon.

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