What is the Metaverse?
Despite its recent rise to prominence, the core idea of a metaverse, where physical and virtual worlds converge to create new immersive and interactive dimensions of reality has been around for a while. With one of the earliest references to the term coming in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 Sci-Fi novel, Snow Crash. In it, he described the metaverse as an “immersive, interactive space where physical and virtual realities meet, offering another dimension of existence to what we currently experience.”
Since then, several names have emerged, such as spatial internet, mirror-world, magic verse, live maps and much more. Despite the differences, all describe the next frontier of the internet age. A multidimensional virtual space where the boundaries between physical and digital realities are dissolved, allowing us to experience the internet like never before, enriching our lives in ways that once seemed like distant possibilities.
The Evolution of the Metaverse
If you told people in 1991 that in 30 years, they’d be walking around with supercomputers in their pockets from which they could make payments, do most of their shopping, operate household appliances remotely, communicate with friends on social media or via video call they would have looked at you like you were crazy. However, thanks to the rapid pace of technological innovation, what many considered impossible, has become a reality for a significant proportion of the global population.
But where does this leave us in the context of the metaverse? Well. Despite making quantum leaps in progress, the internet experience remains largely two dimensional. To access it, we’re required to interact with the interfaces of devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets. However, the path to a metaverse is taking shape thanks to massive strides being made in the fields of AR, VR and mixed reality. With every major tech company investing heavily in these technologies in a bid to become the most influential in this next frontier of the internet.
Technologies & Projects to Watch
Just like todays world would have been unfathomable for people during the early 90’s, the progress being made in the space of futuristic technologies will cause paradigm shift in all aspects of our lives beyond our wildest dreams. In this section, we’ll take a look at some of the most innovative projects companies are working on to take us close to the metaverse.
Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerbeg, has been particularly vocal about the metaverse this summer. Describing it as the ‘next generation of the internet’ and outlining his vision to take Facebook beyond social to “bring the metaverse to life”. Unsurprisingly, his words were fortuitous and a few months later he unveiled the company’s first major project in the space, Horizon Workrooms. A new virtual reality experience designed to make collaboration between an increasingly remote workforce more immersive and real.
The experience, currently available in an open beta, allows participants to join meetings in VR as an avatar via their Oculus headsets, or dial into the virtual room from their computer by video call. It doesn’t stop there, users can also bring their real life workspace into the room and begin sketching out ideas together on a virtual whiteboard. Even sound is spatially adjusted, so you can turn your head in the direction from where someone is speaking to hear them better, allowing for more lifelike conversations. Making the experience of remote collaboration immersive, natural and productive.
Although undeniably impressive, Workrooms is just a small part of Facebook’s Horizon Project, which aims to create a virtual universe or “metaverse”. What’s next? Who knows. One thing’s for certain. Facebook is positioning itself to become one of the most important companies in the metaverse, with heavy investment expected in AR, VR and mixed realities divisions over the next decade.
In the last 18 months Roblox has established itself as a worldwide phenomenon in gaming and entertainment. Empowering millions of loyal fans across the world with the free toolset and resources needed to create their dream games, make friends, or jump into an immersive experience created by someone else. Despite the success, the team have been very vocal about their bigger vision of building a metaverse. With its CEO, David Baszucki, describing the company as “the shepherds of metaverse” in his talk at the Roblox Investor Day earlier this year.
Like Zuck, it isn’t just talk, the work to realise this vision has been underway for a while. In a recent blogpost, Chief Product Officer, Manuel Bronstein, also touched on the topic as he unveiled a new spatial voice feature which will allow Roblox creators to test developing experiences where conversations can happen in a realistic way, mirroring how we listen and respond to the world around us each day. All in line with the bigger vision of “creating a platform where people can come together within millions of 3D experiences to learn, work, play, create, and socialise”.
While their fully fledged vision for a metaverse is yet to be realised brands have already begun capitalising on the immense opportunity. Notable examples include the virtual concert for the album launch of content creator, KSI. Campaigns by fashion brands Vans and Gucci, in which users could purchase virtual clothing for their avatars using the platforms virtual currency, Robux.
Epic Games – Unreal Engine & Fortnite
Fortnite is a cultural phenomenon whose meteoric rise is comparable to the likes of Call of Duty and Minecraft. Amassing a cult following of 25 million users, who plug in daily to spectate and play against others in a variety of challenges to earn in game points and prizes. However, its creators, Epic Games, have made their vision clear, to transform the game into a fully fledged metaverse.
In a recent press release, Founder Tim Sweeney said “We are grateful to our new and existing investors who support our vision for Epic and the Metaverse. Their investment will help accelerate our work around building connected social experiences in Fortnite, Rocket League and Fall Guys, while empowering game developers and creators with Unreal Engine, Epic Online Services and the Epic Games Store,” And it seems experts in space agree. With well known VC and Advisor, Matthew Ball, singling out Epic Games and their UNREAL engine as one of frontrunners to accomplish this.
While the announcement is recent, Epic’s powerful Unreal engine has already been used to create and test new immersive in-game and external experiences. From hosting virtual events such Travis Scott’s Astronomical Tour, which was watched by over 12 million users within Fortnite. To reating virtual sets for Hollywood films such as The Star Wars: Mandalorian.
These are just a couple of examples, however, the larger opportunity this technology brings is immense. Especially in blending these experiences into our physical environments to using AR, VR and mixed reality technologies. Which the company is already working on, indicated by recent acquisitions of companies such as SKETCHFAB. A popular platform used to publish, share, discover, buy and sell 3D, VR and AR content.
The Metaverse Economy
The metaverse promises immense opportunities for companies, creators and consumers. While it’s difficult to visualise the full potential, existing virtual platforms provide a glimpse into how things may function. Take Fortnite and Roblox as an example. They essentially have their own micro-economies, where users buy and sells virtual items, such as clothing for their avatars, using a centralised internal currency. V-BUCKS on Fortnite and Robux on Roblox.
The examples highlighted above cannot be converted into fiat and only have value in their respective gaming environments so wouldn’t work in a global metaverse. For that, a viable solution would be a decentralised financial ecosystem built using blockchain technology, where people can buy and sell through seamless exchange of digital assets. With a great example and the most exciting development in the space being Non-Fungible Tokens or NFT’s.
So WTF are NFT’s? Think about it like this. If someone lends you a £1 coin, you can pay them back with the same or any other £1 coin as the value of that coin is fixed, so is fungible or replaceable. In contrast, the Mona Lisa is a one of a kind painting. If you gave someone a replica, it wouldn’t have the same value, so is non-fungible or not interchangeable. Similarly, NFT’s are one of a kind unique digital assets hosted on the blockchain, with Ethereum currently being the primary network and digital currency used for their exchange.
While many consider them to be a fad, the market for NFT’s has experienced explosive growth, generating over $2 Billion in sales over the first half of 2021. Notable sales including Beeple’s First 5000 Days art, which was sold by auctionhouse, Christies, for $69 Million Dollars and Twitter Founder Jack Dorsey’s first tweet which sold for $2.9 Million dollars. Even brands are getting in on the action, with Burberry recently launching their own NFT collection on Mythical Games’ Blanko’s Block Party. Whatever you think about them, NFT’s are most definitely here to stay, with the Founder of stable coin, Tether, predicting them to become the “revenue model for the metaverse”.
The Future of the Metaverse
The Metaverse currently exists in gaming systems or within our spatial environment using AR, VR and mixed reality technologies. However, just as it was hard to visualise or describe 30 years ago what the internet would be like in 2020, we find it hard to imagine what the Metaverse will look like in the future. According to renowned VC and commentator on futuristic technologies, Matthew Ball, the metaverse will;
- Be Persistant and continuous: The metaverse will continue indefinitely with no pauses, breaks, clear beginnings or end.
- Be Synchronous and live: The metaverse will be a living experience that exists consistently for everyone and in real-time.
- Nourish a fully functioning economy: Individuals and businesses will be able to create, own, invest, sell, and be rewarded for an incredibly wide range of “work” that produces “value” that is recognised by others.
- Span both the digital and physical worlds, public and private experiences, and open and closed platforms.
- The Metaverse will offer interoperability, which is to say that digital artefacts and assets will be transferable from one environment to another in the Metaverse.
- The Metaverse will be populated with experiences and creative content that people and companies will contribute.
So, is the Metaverse a good thing?
The evolution of the internet we know today to a fully-fledged metaverse will usher in a new era of limitless possibilities and innovation. However, like in the early days of the internet, a whole host of challenges will abound as we unravel the mysteries of this new environment and learn how to take advantage of its immense potential. The folks over at Lucid Reality Labs identified seven areas where significant challenges will emerge that corporate entities, governments and consumers need to contend with in the metaverse. These include;
Reputation & Identity: In real life, your appearance and recognised identity are proof enough you exist. But in the metaverse, elements that make up your identity will drastically differ, requiring new verification methods built on technologies such as facial recognition and voice.
Data & Security: Online security is a topic of frequent debate, and it will become even more critical in the metaverse. With more detailed personal data being gathered, organisations will need to build new systems and legislation to safeguard and protect users privacy from attackers.
Currency & Payment Systems: There will be a virtual economy that connects several currencies. Therefore, developing unique verification systems that users trust and enable seamless transactions will be essential regardless of the currency or the marketplace.
Law & Jurisdiction: Legislators will face an incredible challenge to create balanced new laws that cover the plethora of behaviours in the metaverse and safeguard users without stifling innovation
Ownership & Property: Like in the real world, you’ll be able to acquire and hold possession of various items and assets in the metaverse. However, verifying ownership rights for these assets will require the creation of a unified system. Something blockchain technology and NFT’s could play an essential role in.
Community & Network: The internet has already bought the global population closer together. However, in a metaverse, the challenge will be creating environments where people can feel emotionally and physically present. To achieve this, we’ll be required to build hardware that can provide both visual fidelity and the ability to touch and feel.
Time & Space: Once in the metaverse, our perception of time and space will differ from reality. It’s therefore essential we create systems that guide users during the first steps of submersion to ensure they are both aware and comfortable while inside the virtual environment.
Designing the metaverse
In the beginning, computers were physically distinct objects apart from our everyday world. The challenge of early designers was to figure out how to interact with this new life form. This area of focus became known as human-computer interaction. It wasn’t until the onset of the digital age when the internet became mainstream and computer ownership widespread that the notion of user experience design emerged. Which saw the focus of designers shift from the broad human to creating unique experiences for the individual user, reshaping nearly every interaction in the modern world.
Today, around 60% of the global population access the internet, using laptops, tablets, smartphones and other devices to do pretty much anything. From personal banking, booking tickets, ordering food, shopping and much more. With so many screen sizes and use cases, the role of a UX designer has become even more critical and evolved to focus on designing experiences that are intuitive, easy-to-use, and aesthetically pleasing.
In the metaverse, users will not be constrained to a limited number of pre-defined actions in sequential order. They will have more freedom to explore environments and take as long as they need to achieve their goals. UX designers will therefore need to focus on their users’ physical movements, how they interact with virtual objects, navigate their spatial environment and much more. Therefore to be successful in the metaverse, designers will need to expand their skillset and knowledge in disciplines such as urban planning, human anatomy, AI, philosophy, economics, anthropology and much more.
While AR, VR and mixed reality technologies have given us a taster, a fully fledged metaverse is yet to be realised. As designers, we will play a key role in shaping this new reality, so must start preparing for what’s to come. Hopefully this article has got you up to speed and provided some direction of where we are heading and what you should start looking into to get prepared.