The metaverse refers to a variety of virtual experiences, environments and assets that gained momentum during the online-everything shift of the pandemic.
The biggest ideas in tech often lurch into the lexicon before they are truly coherent. Jargon appears out of nowhere, underexplained and overused: the internet of things, the sharing economy, the cloud.
In some rare cases, the terminology sticks. A lot of people talk a lot about a lot of loosely related things, and then those things merge into a single semi-comprehensible thing. Then we live our lives within that thing forever. Remember hearing about “the internet”? Get ready for “the metaverse.”
The term comes from digital antiquity: Coined by writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel, “Snow Crash,” then reimagined as the Oasis in the Ernest Cline novel “Ready Player One,” it refers to a fully realized digital world that exists beyond the analog one in which we live.
In fiction, a utopian metaverse may be portrayed as a new frontier where social norms and value systems can be written anew, freed from cultural and economic sclerosis. But more often metaverses are a bit dystopian — virtual refuges from a fallen world.
As a buzzword, the metaverse refers to a variety of virtual experiences, environments and assets that gained momentum during the online-everything shift of the pandemic. Together, these new technologies hint at what the internet will become next.
Video games like “Roblox” and “Fortnite” and “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” in which players can build their own worlds, have metaverse tendencies, as does most social media. If you own a nonfungible token or even just some crypto, you’re part of the metaversal experience. Virtual and augmented reality are, at a minimum, metaverse adjacent. If you’ve attended a work meeting or a party using a digital avatar, you’re treading into the neighborhood of metaversality.
Founders, investors, futurists and executives have all tried to stake their claim in the metaverse, expounding on its potential for social connection, experimentation, entertainment and, crucially, profit.
A venture capitalist and prolific essayist, Matthew Ball, describes the metaverse not as a virtual world or a space, but as “a sort of successor state to the mobile internet” — a framework for an extremely connected life. There “will be no clean ‘Before Metaverse’ and ‘After Metaverse,’” he writes. “Instead, it will slowly emerge over time as different products, services and capabilities integrate and meld together.”
Speaking to CNET in May, Mark Zuckerberg shared his own Facebook-centric view: “We want to get as many people as possible to be able to experience virtual reality and be able to jump into the metaverse and to have these social experiences within that,” he said, referring to the company’s experimental virtual reality environment, Horizon, which he hopes people will explore using Facebook’s Oculus headsets.
In a June interview with VentureBeat, Jensen Huang, CEO of Nvidia, which makes computer chips, shared more of a vibe than a vision: “We’ll be able to almost feel like we’re there with each other.”
If all that sounds too heady, for now this might do: The metaverse is the internet, but so much more. And though it may still be in the future, if it materializes at all, it seems closer than it has ever been.
A World Built on Blockchain
Earlier this year, in the midst of a crypto boom, the price of a currency called MANA began climbing the charts in Coinbase, a popular exchange for digital currencies.
MANA is the currency of a virtual world called Decentraland, where in March plots of digital land were going for the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars. (After two years bouncing around 10 cents, MANA briefly broke US$1.60 in April, pushing the combined value of all the tokens past US$2.4 billion.)
By size, Decentraland is more of a commune — as of July, just a few hundred people are logged in at a time, down from a March peak in the low thousands — made up of user-generated NFTs. Its creators have described the platform less as a place than as infrastructure upon which to build a place. (Decentraland’s currency and land contracts run on the Ethereum blockchain.)
Denizens of Decentraland are constantly creating scenes and experiences for other users, like concerts and art exhibits. There are casinos where you can gamble in MANA, with croupiers who are paid in MANA to show up for work. The sense that Decentraland is a work in progress pervades the sparsely populated grid of half-developed plots and themed zones. Between events, users are mostly left to wander and wonder: What now?
What separates Decentraland from its predecessors like Second Life, a virtual world owned and operated by a private company called Linden Labs, is that it is indeed fairly decentralized. The plan, according to Decentraland’s founders, was always for its users to take ownership of the world, building and doing what they please.
By contrast, a spokesman for the Decentraland Foundation, Dave Carr said, “‘Fortnite’ is a centralized experience,” meaning that it functions top-down, with major decisions coming from its developer, Epic Games. “Here, you feel like you have a definite part in it.”
‘More Than a Game’
When Epic was developing “Fortnite,” its plan was not to create a metaverse. But what started in 2017 as a tower defense-style game where players fought zombies exploded, just a year later, into an international phenomenon.
“It took off in a way none of us quite anticipated,” said chief creative officer of Epic, Donald Mustard.
As millions of players flocked to “Fortnite Battle Royale,” a game mode that is a bit like “The Hunger Games,” the company rushed to add social features, like voice chatting and dance parties. In financial documents made public in federal court in May as part of an antitrust suit against Apple, Epic said “Fortnite” made more than US$9 billion in revenue in 2018 and 2019 combined. Players spend money to dress up their characters in superhero costumes and banana suits.
Now, Epic markets “Fortnite” as not just an interactive experience but as a metaverse.
“It’s more than a game,” Matthew Weissinger, vice president of marketing at Epic, said in court. “We’re building this thing called the metaverse — a social place.”
A Travis Scott concert within “Fortnite” last year drew more than 12 million concurrent views, the company said. And nearly 50 per cent of players are using the game’s creative mode, which allows users to populate their own islands with buildings and games, said CEO of Epic, Tim Sweeney.
Minting Teenage Millionaires
“Roblox,” a platform where independent developers create games popular with children, may be the nearest and most expansive vision of the metaverse.
In the first quarter of 2021, people spent nearly 10 billion hours playing “Roblox,” according to the company’s earnings report, and more than 42 million users logged in each day. Players also spent US$652 million on the site’s virtual currency, Robux, which can be used to purchase hats, weapons, hot air balloons and other digital items for their characters. After going public on March 10, the company’s valuation shot to US$45 billion; as of this week, it’s closer to US$50 billion.
Co-founder and CEO of “Roblox,” Dave Baszucki whose shares in the company were suddenly worth US$5.5 billion when the market closed that day, expressed his appreciation on Twitter.
Baszucki declined to be interviewed for this article, but he has spoken widely and ambitiously about “Roblox” as a metaverse. He has said his goal is to reach billions of people with “Roblox,” not just children. At an investor presentation in February, he said the company holds its business meetings on the platform.
There are millions of games created on “Roblox” each year, and much of the money they generate — through the sale of digital items and upgrades — goes to independent developers. In some cases, game makers in their teens have become millionaires.
Ammon Runger, a 16-year-old, and his colleague Stefan Baronio, 23, have made six-figure salaries producing the prison-escape game “Mad City,” which attracts more than 200,000 players a month. Baronio bought a new car and paid for college with the money. He said the experience has been “life changing” but stopped short of calling “Roblox” a metaverse.
“I definitely feel like they’re getting there, but I still think they’re pretty far away from it,” Baronio said. Half of the platform’s players are 13 or younger, the company said.
In any case, the company is forging ahead. Chief business officer of “Roblox,” Craig Donato said that 17- to 24-year-olds are the platform’s fastest-growing consumers, and the company is adding more languages as it expands its user base around the world.
But Is It a Metaverse?
While there is a lot of corporate interest in the metaverse, skeptics abound.
CEO of game publisher Take-Two, Strauss Zelnick said in a May earnings call that he was “allergic to buzzwords,” and suggested the metaverse could be all hype. “If you take metaverse, SPAC and cryptocurrency, in five years, will any of this matter? I’m not sure it will,” he said.
Then there are those who wonder whether interest from the tech sector is simply opportunistic, or missing the point entirely.
Evo Heyning, for instance, has been working and playing in the metaverse for two decades. The State Department even hired her to help build its presence on Second Life.
In earlier virtual worlds, Heyning said, “it was always seen as people participating in a new type of public commons. Now, obviously lots of companies are going to assert dominance.”
Hopes and assurances from tech executives are nice, but private platforms are private platforms. “Right now, I can create an avatar, but I can’t jump from one world to the next,” Heyning said, describing a concept known as “interoperability.” The metaverse, in her view, isn’t a single firm or organization’s product or space, or even all of them together — it’s the way they’re connected.
In pursuit of that connection, Heyning, 45, has joined a few volunteers to form the Open Metaverse Interoperability Group, which seeks to establish technological standards for “bridging virtual worlds,” in the hope that metaverse players will adopt them.
Robert Long, who is also part of the group, compared his hopes for the fledgling metaverse to the early web. “There is no single owner of the whole thing,” he said. “It’s decentralized in the same way the web is, with lots of different people hosting it. We’re looking for the HTML of the metaverse.”
A founder and CEO of Foundation, Kayvon Tehranian a marketplace for NFTs, also sees building the metaverse as a chance to get right what he believes former stewards, and users, of the internet got wrong. The key, he said, is blockchain technology. How people engage with the metaverse is secondary.
“The fact that we’re surrounded by a global layer that’s there at all times,” Tehranian said, referring to the Ethereum blockchain, “where there’s no central party that determines whether or not something is available or not.” That, he said, is the antidote to the digital world we already live in — one he describes as akin to a metaverse but “with dictators” (Apple, Google, Facebook).
His metaverse hews to a particular definition of freedom. “The thing I really care about is that you as an individual own objects,” he said. “Property ownership is a tool. It works. It brings financial incentives.”
This may sound, depending on your ideological orientation, more dystopian than utopian. To Tehranian, it’s merely realistic.
“We’re still talking about human nature, which is greedy and selfish,” he said.