Pokémon is the Metaverse. So is Roblox, the Omniverse and the AR Cloud. Metahumans will populate the Metaverse. We'll wander around with our cross-world avatars and wear expensive limited edition sneakers backed by NFTs, or perhaps sit in our $500,000 virtual houses and stare at our virtual art, all bought with a wallet thick with cryptocurrency.
It's all the Metaverse.
Or maybe none of it is.
We seem to be approaching escape velocity: either the Metaverse is imminent, or the term has been attached to so many things that it will cease to have a common meaning.
And so the question, I think, ISN'T "What is the Metaverse" but rather: why are we asking the question NOW?
Defining the Metaverse
My timeline is filled with folks debating, posting polls, arguing over whether there can only be ONE Metaverse and then veering off into discussions of the multiverse, virtual worlds and whether there's a difference between Ready Player One and Snowcrash (and thus the finer points of benevolent dictatorships).
Rony Abrovitz, founder of Magic Leap, chimed in:
I had always been a fan of his concept for the Magicverse:
"The Magicverse is an Emergent System of Systems bridging the physical with the digital, in a large scale, persistent manner within a community of people."
And at this point we might want to take a detour into Idempotent Publish/Subscribe Messaging Environments (IPSME). But that's a digression (link opens a PDF) for another day.
"How would you define the metaverse? Is it one metaverse? Is it multiple metaverses? Is the term metaverse the term we should use? Is the metaverse here, or is it being created? So many questions arise when one is asked to define the term metaverse. Defining the term in 2021 is not a simple task."
A more definitive version come from Will Burns who points us to the Metaverse Roadmap, Solipsis, ACM and IEEE Virtual Worlds Standard Group (yes, this stuff has been discussed for a very long time!) You can backtrack through these efforts to see how the concept has been shaped over time.
She then groups a bunch of terms under the Metaverse umbrella:
Roblox, Epic, Genies, and Zepeto use the term metaverse, while Facebook uses Live Maps, and Magic Leap prefers the Magicverse. Kevin Kelley called it the Mirrorworld in Wired, and Nvidia uses the term Omniverse. Others prefer the term AR Cloud, Spatial Internet, or Spatial Web.
The point is: the debate continues. The augmented reality folks might not want anything to do with the term and yet Cathy groups them in anyways. The "Metaverse" companies like Epic might want to side with Rony: "come to OUR Metaverse, it's the best! (If only Apple would stop acting like a gatekeeper)".
And so there's no clear consensus. Over on Twitter, the results are...well, fuzzy:
I was chatting with Lorenzo Cappannari from Another Reality and we shared a sense of...not deja vu exactly. But of a Metaverse Redux.
We've been here before, a decade or so ago. We were rapidly approaching Metaverse lift-off.
And then...well, then it felt like a decade where we put our Metaverse dreams on hold while we experimented with VR goggles.
But he made an important point: that a decade ago computers and interfaces were slow, cumbersome old beasts.
Today? Today we're witnessing an acceleration of technologies that would have seemed like wishful thinking not so long ago. Graphic chips and AI, a coming wave of new optical devices, cloud and edge computing, a tipping point (or mania) for the blockchain (and everything built on top of it): all of it is faster, better, more widely distributed, and profound.
The Metaverse: Why Now?
And maybe that's the answer. Maybe we're all talking about the Metaverse because we finally have the technology to make it happen.
Whether putting on a VR headset or new augmented reality glasses, we're all about to log-in. Cathy describes the concept like this:
The term is typically used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe.
She then proceeds to provide 20 different definitions from 20 different people.
Now, I wrote close to 400,000 words about the Metaverse. And I'm pretty sure at the time I had a clear understanding of what I meant.
And so when I started seeing the term pop-up in more and more places, I'll admit I bristled: "how can you call a currency the Metaverse?"..."why are you calling a single world shard the Metaverse"?
I had decided I'd be way more sane if I just focused on, say, augmented reality. It would be easier. I could write about Apple a lot and get clicks.
But I realized that maybe there's something more profound happening. And so I'm sort of drafting a new thesis for the Metaverse. And I'm doing it in public....and with you.
And it goes something like this:
- First, the important thing isn't the definition of the Metaverse. (I'm happy to jump on a call if you want to try! I've been thinking about it for over a decade)
- The important thing is to understand why it's happening now. Why are so many people talking about it? Why does the originalist matter (the one who will argue Snowcrash vs RP1)? Why is everyone attaching Metaverse to their start-up?
- And my premise is that it's happening now because we're seeing a profound shift in culture which is (and will be) accelerated by paradigm-changing technologies
In other words: we're talking about the Metaverse because it's a proxy.
It's a term that we're using as a stand-in. When we say "the Metaverse" what we mean is: something big is happening.
The way we think about 'computing' is shifting. Worlds are blurring together. We need a term to explain it all: and the term we keep circling around is the Metaverse, because nothing else will seem to do.
We're scanning the physical world and uploading it. Game companies are hosting mirror worlds and letting developers create worlds on top of worlds. The world's biggest companies are rushing to create optical devices so that we can "see" these invisible landscapes. AI is letting a camera semantically map the world around it. Metahumans will let us film entire movies with virtual actors, on virtual sets, and without necessarily needing to leave our living room.
It's a strange new world. It uses technologies that most of us don't even understand. The line between physical and digital, real and fake, value and commodity is disappearing.
Welcome to the Metaverse. It's the place where the rate of change can't keep up with the language we use to describe it.
We're in this together. I'd love to hear your thoughts and definitions.
Let's start a conversation. As a subscriber, all you need to do is hit reply.