Metaverse explained: What Is It, Where We Are and Where We’re Headed

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(Updated on 20220712) Metaverse is still a buzzword. No clear definition on what it is and how it is going to change our world. Many movies have already explored these concepts. Ready Player One was back in 2018 and Free Guy was in August 2021, well before Facebook became Meta.

Most articles reference the beginning of “Metaverse” idea back to the novel “Snow Crash” which first coined the term. It’s kind of like crediting Leonardo da Vinci for the helicopter because he drew a diagram. But let’s not get hung up by the name or exact definition. Just like, after 20–30 years, we still can’t easily define the Internet and yet it is so ubiquitous now that we can’t imagine life without it, whatever it exactly is.

Like most articles I write, I will come back and edit often, stay tuned. But here is what I have to share so far:

  • I like the following definition, Metaverse = Digital Life + Physical World. Focusing on the merging of your digital life into the physical world rather than a direct replacement of each other. Not to pretend that you can digitise a bottle of water to keep your digital avatar hydrated. But to recognise that a 5GB cloud drive is not a physical hard drive but is a digital resource of value which if you don’t pay for it in physical world cash, you have paid for it with your digital life valued privacy. Tech savvy users are generally not confused about the real and digital life.
  • Investors in this space are currently focusing on Avatars and IP. Looking at metaverse from a gaming perspective, about having your digital look-a-like presence with some unique content around it to keep you on the platform. For IP, not only tech patents, but also exclusive content and associated rights.
  • It is not just a game or a platform for just games. Gaming industry is doing just fine without yet another platform trying to level the playing field. I used to loosely define games as part of entertainment, a type activities to relax and engage you outside work, unless you are a professional gamer. Quite similar to sports and other non-work activities.
  • Economics. It should be closer to real world economics. How about no free lunch in the Metaverse? Maybe that’s another way to see why it shouldn’t be just a game. For Metaverse to matter, it needs to have substantial real world impact. Your resources are valuable, including your time and data. But someone will have to pay for the building of the Metaverse, just like any other digital services. Will need to be able to balance these somewhat.
  • Not saying that Metaverse can’t have gaming elements or entertainment value, it can be gamification of many aspects of the digital life, but it should be aiming at closer to bringing tangible values to your real life in the physical world. How about making education fun in the digital world, teaching you important skills and values useful in real life?
  • Some say that cryptocurrency is required for Metaverse. I don’t see that as a requirement. Any form of digital payment is fine. If we want true privacy, it might be better with decentralised anonymous payment methods to make it more difficult to track you down. But like most crypto payments, when you cash out to the real world bank account, all your previous payments can be relatively easy to traceback.
  • How about blockchain? Essential for Metaverse? Sure, why not? But it’s not about blocks or chains. It’s about cryptographically verifiable and immutable data. We need it be cheap and efficient. It will be crucial to design metaverse with interoperability with many platforms. Decentralisation might be a nice to have, but can’t be the excuse for unreasonable cost of processing. I can process more transactions per second on my 1TB iPhone 13 Pro than most blockchains out there.
  • NFT as the digital collectibles can make the metaverse more fun or even rewarding. I wrote another article about NFT too, been building our Niftnack NFT platform. Click here to read it.
  • Don’t think it has to be all in immersive 3D, but it helps. Most people cannot visualise even common objects with reasonable accuracy. AR and VR can help with these. But your digital life can also be well enhanced by audio or even tactile feedback from wearable devices.
  • Why are avatar apps currently trendy in metaverse “sector”? For most people, it is hard to imagine being in a digital life, that’s why having an avatar can help them to feel their digital presence, to make it more life-like for them. It’s no longer just about computers accurately performing certain number crunching tasks, it has to crack the humans into trusting them too. 🙂
  • Some skeptics are still getting hung up on if such virtual or digital world can replace or displace the real world. It’s not suppose to. We are not in the matrix, not yet. We can’t fool people to think that our whole life is totally digtial. At this stage, we are just assessorising our lifestyle, let’s aim at augmenting it next. Maybe one day, it will get to over 50% of our lifestyle and truly indispensable. Regardless, it can certainly help with the real life experience.
  • Just me, I don’t go out to cinemas that often now. Usually just for 3D blockbusters where you still get better experience on big IMAX/DMAX screens. It’s not that I am confused about 3D movies will take me to the virtual world. But it is just that little bit better experience that helps me to enjoy the movie a little better. What’s wrong with some optical illusions to amaze or confuse me a little for relaxation?
  • AI and other smart agents are getting much better and can start assisting many small tasks. They are already playing a part in your digital life, in most ecommerce or transactional services, but they should be more apparent in the Metaverse.
  • Digital life can be an “escape” from the real world, and (if not already) end up consuming more hours of our attention than offline activities. It’s getting harder to separate the two. Past 2 years of reduced social activities pushed us to embrace digital services even more.
  • Most people don’t recognise that they have a digital life, that there is only one biological/physical life. Which is much more of a philosophical a debate than what a geek can explain in an article. Most people will strictly rule out the metaphysical or just psychological aspects too. “Cogito, ergo sum”. How about just a digital enhanced life? Digital assisted life? Digital augmented life? Feels better now? Now, try to think what you will do for the rest of your real life if we don’t have the internet or smartphone ever again.
  • Many AR/VR tech are aiming at “fooling” human senses to bring us into the virtual world, vision and audio are now mostly solved, newer techs on infinite walkingsmelltactile feedback are all slowly getting there. But my question is, do we really want to be fooled? Can it just be fun to experience, without trying too hard to replicate real world experiences, but to not just virtualise the real world, but to augment and extend it?
  • Still early days, still focusing on understanding and experiencing the digital or virtual aspects. But how about bringing things back to the real world? 3D printing and other just-in-time product customisation technologies are becoming more common with top brands. I am still waiting for the world to have coca-cola freestyle like machines everywhere to serve me any drink of any flavour (and alcohol content) to make my zoom-party real!
  • Sidenote: Tech adoption can be similar to a typical Chinese proverb 鹬蚌相争,渔翁得利 (loosely similar to: Two dogs strive for a bone, and a third runs away with it.). When the old and young generation fight over what metaverse should/would/could be, the next generation will just be in it and reap profits from it. Some expects Metaverse to be ready by 2050.

But there are some questions too:

  • How many digital lives should you have? Why limit it to just one? In real life, we have more than one personality, right? We still think multiple personality as being a disorder? (Oh, I just learnt the new pc version being Dissociative identity disorder.) But I do have very different personality at work, at home, in front of my parents or my imaginary in-laws. 🙂
  • Who will set out the rules or laws? Meta because they own the idea of Metaverse? Or any government? Can it truly be decentralised and community based governance?
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Movies List

Other useful links

A quick look back on a few key dates of the Metaverse buzz so far.

June 1992, Snow Crash novel coined the term “Metaverse”.

March 2021 — Microsoft announced Mesh as new mixed-reality platform which later in November included integration with Teams for a fuller Metaverse experience.

28th October 2021 — Facebook wasn’t the first company to talk about Metaverse, but certainly created a big splash with rebranding whole company as Meta and more.

16th Feb 2022 — Mark Zuckerburg memo to staff, referring to them as Metamates. So cool. 🙂

Many brands started to use Metaverse hype for the marketing:
Wrangler’sMcDonald’sJP MorganDisney

Interesting Books:

By Jeremy Bailenson

  1. Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do
  2. Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution

Like most articles I write, I will keep updating it. I use Medium like an online notepad to share my thoughts. Welcome to comment and contact me for if you have questions. I am working on a metaverse project. Contact me to find out more.

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