TLDR: The metaverse is the concept of a parallel virtual realm where human interaction and activities such as leisure, socialization, work and commerce take place. Often referred to as the "spatial web,” the idea of the metaverse has been a recurring theme in science fiction, inspiring both creators and technologists, for many years.
The metaverse, a term that has gained widespread attention recently, has a rich history dating back to the early 20th century. In essence, it's a new dimension of the internet that’s often referred to as the "spatial web” and has appeared in pop culture and science fiction as a long-time recurring theme.
The idea of a metaverse has inspired both creators and technologists for many years. But what exactly is the metaverse, and why is it so important? Ahead, we explain.
The term "metaverse" was popularized by science fiction author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel, "Snow Crash." However, its roots can be traced back to much earlier literary works. In 1935, American science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum described a primitive form of immersive virtual reality in his short story "Pygmalion's Spectacles." These early depictions of the metaverse served as the foundation for its development in the digital age.
In the realm of gaming, the metaverse has been gradually evolving. It started with text-based adventures like "Colossal Cave Adventure" in 1975 and progressed to multiplayer games like "MUD," the first multi-user adventure game. Then came platforms like Second Life and Eve Online in the early 2000s, which attracted millions of users and created complex in-game economies. Second Life even introduced a virtual stock exchange, foreshadowing the concept of cryptocurrency-based economies seen in today's blockchain worlds.
One of the key aspects of the metaverse is the concept of virtual land, which encourages multiple perspectives on land scarcity. How do virtual economies govern and manage the value of virtual land, when developers can code infinite new environments? While there are still economic forces at play, resources, value and scarcity act very different in virtual worlds.
Some platforms, like the blockchain-based user-generated content (UGC) worlds of Decentraland and Voxels, sell limited plots of virtual land, creating a barrier to entry for creators. However, platforms like Mona and Spatial aim to make the open metaverse accessible and free for anyone to build and expand without limits, fostering a more inclusive and creative environment.
For the metaverse to be truly open-source and open-access, every asset, from 3D characters to the land itself, should be owned by users and interoperable among various devices, browsers and metaverse environments. The challenge lies in ensuring metaverse assets are built with common standards that all developers adhere to and use. Just like with the early internet, organizations such as the Open Metaverse Alliance (OMA3) and even the World Economic Forum (WEF) are debating property rights, accessibility and openness along the digital frontier. Is inclusion and accessibility to a shared virtual world a human right? We think so. Yet, in reality different tech platforms have their own ways of handling files and designs, making universal interoperability quite the task. Building in the metaverse and championing the principle of accessibility requires a growth mindset and a willingness to adapt to the evolving landscape.
While many people associate the metaverse with gaming, the concept of a parallel spatial web extends far beyond entertainment. Yes, with over 3 billion gamers worldwide, the gaming industry has played a significant role in advancing real-time 3D rendering technologies. However, a fully realized metaverse will seamlessly integrate into all aspects of life, from retail and socializing to work.
Already, the World Bank estimates that the digital economy is expanding 2.5 times faster than the physical world, noting that hospitals, schools, governments and businesses cannot operate effectively without digital tools. Over the past decade — and particularly during the 2020 Covid pandemic quarantines — several aspects of education, healthcare and commerce have moved online. The metaverse real estate collective, PangeaDAO, describes our current paradigm as a "proto-Metaverse" with simultaneous, yet digitally siloed, interactions happening every day. However, as of yet, no unifying experience layer has been established to make these experiences congruent, seamless and universally accessible.
In 2022, the metaverse attracted over $120 billion in technology investments. McKinsey predicts that at least 79% of the people it has surveyed made at least one purchase in the metaverse, and that the normalization of virtual immersion will eventually extend to all sectors — not just gaming. In addition, corporations across various industries expect that metaverse experiences will soon account for 15% of total revenue streams.
Still, the current metaverse landscape carries a legacy from the gaming industry, marked by private developer studios with profit-driven business models that create walled gardens, limiting interoperability. This lack of compatibility between different digital environments is akin to a physical world where the laws of physics change from one location to another, making it impossible to seamlessly transfer assets and experiences. While outlandish in the physical realm, this is the reality in today's virtual environments. A Roblox user, for example, cannot transfer their avatar to a world owned by Activision or any other private game developer. This lack of interoperability compromises the user's sovereignty and ownership in the metaverse.
The metaverse is a concept that has been evolving for decades, with its roots in literature and gaming. It represents a new dimension of the internet, offering immersive experiences and opportunities far beyond gaming. However, ensuring interoperability and addressing ownership and governance issues will be key challenges as the metaverse continues to develop. It's a new digital frontier that promises to reshape the way we interact with the online world, and it's a space where both creators and technologists will play a vital role in shaping its future.
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