The Metaverse is a shared virtual environment that leverages cutting edge technologies like VR, AR and blockchain to create engaging experiences for its denizens. It’s a virtual world, accessed via the Internet, where people can interact with one another and with the environment in a variety of ways, often through their own virtual avatars. Playing games, attending events like virtual concerts, creating and trading digital land, property and other digital assets – these are just some of the activities that are available to denizens of the Metaverse.
It should be noted that the Metaverse is not a single, monolithic entity. Much like the Internet, which came about from the merging of a multitude of disparate computer networks, the Metaverse is powered by various distinct applications and services all contributing, directly or indirectly, to the creation of something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
The Metaverse – a prophecy in the making
The Metaverse isn’t just another ‘flavor-of-the-month’ type tech fad. On the contrary, it might be one of the most enduring constructs of the human mind. Considering that pretty much all ancient civilizations have developed – often independently from one another – their own versions of the ‘afterlife’, we can conclude that the question of what lies beyond (or as the ancient Greek would say – ‘meta’) our world has been central for humankind for millennia.
But one needn’t go down the existential rabbit hole to see how deeply rooted the concept of virtual worlds is in our modern pop culture. We can find it in Star Trek’s holodeck, Tron’s virtual dystopia, Ready Player One’s The OASIS, the simulated reality of The Matrix and in Inception’s shared dream spaces. Not to mention the existence of some sort of a ‘cyberspace’ layer is a well established trope used in many works of science fiction, especially when it comes to the cyberpunk subgenre.
All great works of sci-fi have a prophetic quality to them because their authors were able to extrapolate from the technology and social trends of their time to make informed predictions about the future. When it comes to the Metaverse, we have a prophecy in the making.
Massive multiplayer online (MMO) and sandbox games, digital stores, chat and social media apps, shared VR spaces – these are some of the early building blocks of the Metaverse. And now, in blockchain technology we have the final piece of the puzzle.
Blockchain – the connective tissue of the Metaverse
Many conventional games and online services have managed to foster thriving communities and make their users feel at home. Games like Minecraft and Roblox already allow players to build unique worlds and experiences, people form bonds and friendships in multiplayer online games and Fortnine is trying to leverage its immense popularity to launch some sort of a metaverse on its own. However, at their current state, these are still very much separate entities doing their own thing. The introduction of blockchain changes all that.
One obvious benefit of blockchain technology comes from its ability to guarantee and preserve ownership over digital assets. A cosmetic item in a traditional game can be stolen, but a blockchain-backed NFT always contains verifiable and tamperproof information about its most recent owner.
Blockchain also paves the way for digital assets to be moved freely and used across various applications, which is not the case with the current model. But with blockchain technology acting as a connective tissue, we’ll eventually be able to have one unified Metaverse.
Perhaps most importantly, blockchain technology frees the Metaverse from having to depend on central authorities. Imagine, for example, a (admittedly, highly unlikely) scenario where Epic Games go out of business. Barring an outside intervention like an acquisition from another corporate (and centralized) entity, that would also mean the end of Fortnite. But thanks to its decentralized nature, blockchain technology can support truly persistent digital worlds that can’t be affected by a company’s bottom line or the whims of its top brass. By leveraging the strengths of blockchain technology, decentralized apps like Decentraland and The Sandbox have been able to change how we think about digital property and its value.
None of this should come as a surprise, by the way. Given that blockchain technology is facilitated by computer networks where a multitude of participants share a common history, it’s only fitting that it should provide the foundation for the ultimate shared experience – the Metaverse.
Is the Metaverse really revolutionary?
The revolutionary nature of the Metaverse might not be apparent at first glance. After all, we’ve been dreaming about virtual worlds for decades and, thanks to the rise of computers and the Internet, we already live in a highly ‘digital’, highly connected world. What’s revolutionary about the Metaverse is the way it ties together several important social and tech trends and brings them to their natural conclusion: the idea of the Homo Ludens and the importance of play for the generation of culture; the rise of video games and other forms of digital entertainment; the gamification phenomenon that has taken over important aspects of our physical world; our love affair with information and communication.
The Metaverse is simultaneously a way for connecting people regardless of distance, a virtual playground and an outlet for our creative impulses. A genuine digital world – no need for quotation marks.
What is the Metaverse’s future?
In the Metaverse we have a technology that can grow organically, as developers gradually build more and more tools and products around it. At the same time, much of its growth will likely be driven by corporate interest, as companies – especially the big ones – are always on the lookout for promising new markets. In this respect, the Metaverse’s journey will likely resemble that of the Internet, which also rose from humble beginnings to become the connective tissue of our modern world.
So if we take the development of the Internet as a benchmark, we’ll see that even the most transformative technologies need a period of maturation to truly unlock their potential. Twenty years ago my every visit to the online world was heralded by the screeching sound of my modem. Today, I can have an Internet connection practically everywhere.
In the case of the Metaverse, we’ll likely see a similar process of maturation of its base technologies. After all, it was only last summer that the allure of NFTs became apparent to the mainstream. Similarly, AR and VR are still considered niche products.
So in five to 10 years, I expect that we’ll have a great early version (an alpha, if you will), of what the Metaverse will ultimately be. Much like how many of today’s most popular online services were already up and running 10 years ago, but needed more time and technology maturation to reach their current level of sophistication and utility. Similarly, in five to 10 years we’ll already have a fully functional Metaverse that will only become more elaborate with time.
Keep in mind that this timeline might be significantly accelerated by the introduction of big corporations. With the likes of Microsoft, Epic Games and, most recently, Facebook, having openly expressed interest in the Metaverse, you can be sure that there’ll be plenty of resources dedicated to building our future virtual world.
The involvement of big corporations can be a double edged sword, however. It could spur a flurry of development and drive growth in the sector. But on the other hand, it could result in the whole sector being hijacked by Big Business. Let’s not forget that the Internet started out as a way to connect people and provide easy access to information, but has given rise to plenty of ‘walled garden’ type services along the way, especially in more recent times.
The Metaverse should remain free and open to everyone that wants to use it. And with blockchain as a foundational layer, this is entirely possible!
Sometimes, it’s easy to get lost in a debate over the utility of something or dismiss a revolutionary idea because its value to the world isn’t immediately apparent or quantifiable. But we must remember that we’ve been sharing stories and experiences with each other since the dawn of time and not because there’s much utility to it (although there often is), but because it’s an essential part of being human. And we’ve always been able to utilize our latest technology to tell better stories, create better experiences and play.
Now we have a new virtual playground and soon there’ll be a world of limitless possibilities to enjoy. Let’s explore it!