The Metaverse is already here

Metaverse? In my online experience?! It's more likely than you think.

In this issue:

  • What is the Metaverse and where do I buy one?

  • There can be only one (Metaverse)

  • The Metaverse is already here

  • The Metaverse as metaphor

What is the Metaverse and where do I buy one?

The term Metaverse was coined by Neal Stephenson in 1992 in his cyberpunk novel Snow Crash,1 where it described an immersive, shared, virtual reality that served as a kind of digital counterpoint to the physical world. This passage is the first one in the book that attempts to describe the Metaverse:

Down inside the computer are three lasers-a red one, a green one, and a blue one. They are powerful enough to make a bright light but not powerful enough to burn through the back of your eyeball and broil your brain, fry your frontals, lase your lobes. As everyone learned in elementary school, these three colors of light can be combined, with different intensities, to produce any color that Hiro's eye is capable of seeing.

In this way, a narrow beam of any color can be shot out of the innards of the computer, up through that fisheye lens, in any direction. Through the use of electronic mirrors inside the computer, this beam is made to sweep back and forth across the lenses of Hiro's goggles, in much the same way as the electron beam in a television paints the inner surface of the eponymous Tube. The resulting image hangs in space in front of Hiro's view of Reality.

By drawing a slightly different image in front of each eye, the image can be made three-dimensional. By changing the image seventy-two times a second, it can be made to move. By drawing the moving three-dimensional image at a resolution of 2K pixels on a side, it can be as sharp as the eye can perceive, and by pumping stereo digital sound through the little earphones, the moving 3-D pictures can have a perfectly realistic soundtrack.

So Hiro's not actually here at all. He's in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse. — Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

In Snow Crash the Metaverse was a place you could go - like an infinite VR Vegas:

When people remember and talk about the Metaverse they are usually describing something like the image above - a shared, persistent, virtual world. But that definition is incomplete because we already have shared, persistent, virtual worlds today - Second Life, World of Warcraft, Fortnite, etc. You can immerse yourself fully in any of those worlds (people do) but none of them are the Metaverse.

Metaverse is obviously a portmanteau of 'meta' and 'universe.' The prefix 'meta' is Greek and it can mean a lot of different things - behind, after, across, beyond. Modern usage can mean self-referential or second-order. Meta can mean pretty much anything. People get distracted by it. The key element of the Metaverse isn’t the prefix, it’s the definite article. Not a Metaverse. The Metaverse.


There can be only one (Metaverse)

The critical difference between the Metaverse in Snow Crash and the digital worlds we have today is not how immersive the graphics are - it is that everyone has agreed that this digital world is the "real" one: the container universe all that other digital spaces are located within, the universe of universes. It is this all-encompassing nature that makes it the Metaverse.

So a more complete definition of the Metaverse is that it is a shared, persistent, virtual world that is everyone accepts as real. That’s why World of Warcraft isn’t the Metaverse - most people don’t consider it real. There can be many digital worlds but there can only be one Metaverse, which means all potential metaverses are locked in a winner-take-all competition with each other for primacy.

Crypto being crypto there are a host of projects that are planning on building the Metaverse themselves and are happy to sell you plots of their digital real estate. Some projects have launched (CryptoVoxels, Decentraland) and others are in various stages of development (Sandbox, Treeverse) but they all essentially make the same pitch: "We are building a digital world so compelling it will become the Metaverse! Buy now before prices go up!"

Digital real estate can certainly gain or hold value (real estate in Second Life has carried value for some time) but none of these projects will ever be the Metaverse. Competing to become the Metaverse by building an immersive VR experience is fundamentally confused. Immersiveness has nothing to do with it. There can be many immersive worlds but there can be only one Metaverse.

To become the Metaverse a platform must be universally adopted because the real world is the one that contains all the others. Warcraft isn’t real because it does not contain Second Life and Second Life is not real because it does not contain Warcraft - both worlds are contained within some outer layer that is more fundamentally real than either of them. The Metaverse is the outermost layer, the digital universe that contains everything.

To contain everything the Metaverse must be compatible with everything. In computer science the set of rules that allow systems to interoperate is called a protocol. These shared protocols are the actual map of the Metaverse - a map for computers rather than a map for humans. Arranging the digital worlds of the Metaverse onto a 3D map doesn’t make sense in the same way that arranging websites in a 2D grid wouldn’t make sense.2

The image that people imagine when they picture the Metaverse is skeuomorphic - it resembles physical reality in ways that are familiar but not actually useful. The real Metaverse won’t bother to mimic human dimensions. There will be virtual spaces within the Metaverse, but they will not be the Metaverse. The Metaverse is not a location, it is the system of protocols that allow its inhabitants to interoperate.


The Metaverse is already here

For many years I worked on a browser (specifically Google Chrome), so when I hear about a system of shared protocols my ears perk up. You see, we don’t need to invent a new base layer of universally adopted protocols to allow digital systems to interact and communicate - we already have one. It’s called the Internet.

You see the Internet is not really a network of computers - what it is really is a set of rules about how computers can interact and cooperate to form a network. The Internet is not a place in the way a website is a place - it is the liminal space between websites. It is the container universe that all websites exist within.

The Internet is a shared, persistent, virtual world that everyone accepts as real. Facebook relationship statuses carry real emotional significance. Twitter blue-checks are important status symbols. YouTube channels are profitable businesses. NFTs are valuable art. All these worlds are contained within the Internet. Anyone who is waiting for a 3D VR landscape they can download themselves into is missing the point. The Metaverse is already here.


The Metaverse as metaphor

I don’t mean to imply that we have reached the end-state of anything - the Internet is obviously still rapidly evolving and we are still a long way away from any kind of stable equilibrium. The digital world our children will grow up in will be as confusing and foreign to us as our world was to our parents.

Most people who use the word Metaverse just mean "futuristic Internet" whether they realize it or not. That’s why it is so difficult to precisely define the Metaverse - views on the future are hazy and often incompatible. There is nothing that unifies people’s conception of the Metaverse and no bright line that separates us from it.

If you think of Metaverse as just being a fancy word for the-Internet-in-ten-years then you will find it much easier to distinguish between people who are saying interesting and meaningful things and people who just want to sell you imaginary real estate.

1

Which is phenomenal, you should read it if you haven’t.

2

Incidentally I once worked on an April Fool’s day project for Chrome where we planned to add a "sideways" button next to the back and forward button. We ended up deciding that shipping a joke feature in a security-critical project wasn’t a good idea so we never shipped it, but I did get to use the prototype. So I am one of the few people to have ever traveled sideways on the internet. It isn’t useful.