I've been hearing a lot of criticism lately about how metaverses are a 'fad', with people stating confidently that it will never amount to anything. Basically most people can't figure out what the Metaverse would be useful for.
The last time the Metaverse was in such high focus was in 2007, when there was a lot of hype about how Second Life and other 'open' metaverses were poised to change the way people socialize and interact on the web. Almost twenty years later, after Facebook changed it's name to Meta and committed billions of dollars to making metaverses the next big thing, there has been a renewed surge of interest in this platform.
The Metaverse vs. metaverses
Let's get a little pedantic here. All these new platforms coming up, whether it's Sandbox or Decentraland or even Meta Horizons, they are all calling themselves metaverses. But the original definition of the Metaverse was of a vast series of interconnected virtual worlds that could all be accessed by a single avatar.
We're nowhere even close to that as yet.
You see, the Metaverse is supposed to be the next evolution of the current Internet. Where instead of going to a flat website like say Amazon for shopping, your avatar would be able to go into a 3D version of the store and interact with a sales person to get what you want. Here, we have a series of different virtual worlds, all based on completely different platforms and protocols, not a single one capable of communicating with others.
In order for the Metaverse to be a reality, there would need to be an evolution similar to that from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 - accessible to all via a single sign in and identity. While this is happening, it is still in it's absolute infancy.
The other big issue I have with all these 'decentralized' metaverses is that well, they're not. Currently, all virtual worlds run on servers that are operated by a single entity. Oh of course, you could have a DAO running the metaverse and 'owning' parcels of land, but the metaverse is still a series of these interconnected land parcels running on a centralized server base and data centers.
For a metaverse to be truly decentralized, all land owners would have to essentially host their parcels on their own servers. Each parcel would essentially be owned and maintained by it's owner. All these parcels would interconnect to form the metaverse. Similar to how websites are run today.
While I'm really not in favor of large centralized metaverses like Horizon Worlds, we really need to make more effort in seeing what it takes to implement decentralization. The Metaverse Standards Forum is a good start to this, check it out.
The problem with metaverses today is that there's a learning curve involved in simply just entering it. For the blockchain metaverses, one has to learn how to set up one's wallet, register on the site, download or enter the metaverse browser, and a bunch of other things before you can even begin interacting with it.
This makes it very difficult for regular people to begin exploring it. The other issues lie in simply navigating 3D spaces, communicating with other people and getting things done in the metaverse. It is only if this learning curve can be considerably shortened that metaverses have a chance of being used by the masses.
Let's get this straight- getting into a metaverse does require some serious hardware. While there are proto-metaverses like Roblox and Fortnite that have mobile apps, at present there is not a single metaverse that allows for mobile interaction.
The logical first step would be to enter the metaverse via a desktop or laptop- some metaverses allow for direct interaction within a web browser without needing to download a separate application, the tested way is to have a downloadable browser that will allow you to set up your avatar, customize it and enter the metaverse. Let's leave VR headsets aside for now, there are far too few users to actually make it viable at scale even today.
The problem here is graphics- if you want to build anything approaching realism, you'd need a pretty powerful machine with a graphic card...which is not something available to everyone. A lot of metaverses (looking at you, Decentraland) allow users to get in via a web browsers, but the graphic quality of these is questionable.
It's logical, actually. If you want to give access to your metaverse to the largest possible user base, you need to configure it so that it is easily usable by the largest variety of devices. This means that it's graphics and visual quality are sufficient so that they do not necessarily need complex hardware or super fast connections to render the 3D world in real time.
People are talking about how VR and AR headsets are set to bring about the evolution of the internet into the Metaverse, but it is still a while yet before we will be able to put on a simple pair of glasses and have an entire virtual world overlaid in your field of you. That tech is still around a decade away.
This is all very well, but ignores another big issue. See, most people don't have access to the kind of bandwidth required to run a 3D environment in real time. Even beyond that, this becomes a bigger issue for the people who are running the metaverse.
What happens when you enter the metaverse is that the server is rendering the environment in real time from the user's point of view. For every user concurrently. Which takes a ridiculous amount of bandwidth.
So there's the issue of concurrency, which means the largest number of people who can enter a given environment at the same time. Currently, concurrency in metaverse is about 150 people max at the same time, before the server gets overloaded.
So this is also another major issue that needs to be addressed, because it really is a bummer to go to an event and not be able to attend. There are some major innovations that are happening in this space though, so there is hope for the future.
People are saying that 5G will be the transformational technology that will help the Internet evolve into the Metaverse, but again it will take about five to ten years before this level of 3D interaction and concurrency becomes mainstream.
As always, any technology at it's core comes down to the people who are using it.
And that's the biggest issue. It takes people time to come to grips with what a new technology is and how to use it. Metaverses, 30 years down, are still a very new concept to the majority of people even on the Internet. Heck, most people think Mark Zuckerberg invented the Metaverse two years ago!
What will it take for the average person to be able to enter the Metaverse and actually begin doing things within it? Well, currently metaverses have a learning curve- you need to be able to enter it seamlessly, interact with spaces, objects and other people and generally use it at the same level as you use your smartphone.
A good metaverse experience depends on the level of connection and identification you have with your avatar- the person who's actually doing things in the metaverse, controlled by you. This avatar needs to express itself, gesture, interact, basically behave the way you do in the real world.
This leads to a feeling of presence and immersion where you're not simply the one who's controlling your game character, but you are the person who is interacting with others in the virtual world. There are a lot of leaps, both technical and cultural, that need to take place before this level of immersion and presence is mainstream.
Summary: Where are we going with this?
The basic point I'm trying to make is this: The Metaverse is a compelling prospect, and I for one am super excited about it (mainly because I've been immersed in it since 2006 and can't wait for it to become a reality already!)
But there are a large number of technologies and paradigms that need to come about yet, to actually make the Metaverse a place where we live, hang out, do our jobs and all the other exciting things that are needed to make it work.
Consider the evolution from Web 1.0 to 2.0 - it wasn't a sudden thing. It took a while before enough people got together to help it evolve. Took a couple of decades, actually.
If we're to make the Metaverse a viable reality, of course we need to begin now. Make these smaller metaverses. Bring about a unifying set of standards based on which anyone can make virtual spaces and any avatar can enter them and travel between them using their core identity.
All I'm saying is, don't hold your breath. It's going to take a while before the Metaverse is a place you can live your Second Life away from the Meatverse.