The Metaverse: The future of the internet

Like all things, the internet will die eventually. As it’s getting old, it can remember the good old times. Remember the first time it send the message “LO” or how the first page of the internet looked like:

The first website

The early web was a place with technical information about protocols and links to the people and code involved. In fact the whole internet was created as a place where scientists could share information. The first years of the World Wide Web stayed rather formal with this purpose in mind.

Echoes in time

The Kish tablet from Sumer, with pictographic writing. This may be the earliest known writing, 3500 BC.

This original intent echoes the first purposes of written languages. Their purpose was also rather formal targeting at economic transactions with list of goods and possessions. These first texts date back to 3000 B.C in Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq).

The first texts were mostly pictorial. Below are some examples of widely used pictorial signs.

Later these signs were gradually replaced by a complex system of characters representing the sounds of speech (Sumerian at the time).

1400 years after the Kish tablet was dated, the first fiction story, the Epic of Gilgamesh, was created (2100 B.C). Scholars understand that the story is based on a real king which was fictionalized into a superhero. He got his superpowers from his mother-side, who was a goddess. The king himself is followed in his quest of the secret of everlasting life.

Since Gilgamesh, many other stories were written. Like The Underworld and Anubis in Egyptian mythology or the Iliad and Odyssey in Greek mythology (8th century B.C.). All the way to Game of Thrones (which is still not finished).

Game of Thrones

In all these texts, the reader gets lost in imaginary worlds where one forgets about the current time and place. Often these readers are relatively passive towards the fictional world. At most, they can dream away and identify themselves with the main character.

For some, this has been not enough. Alexander the Great is famously known that he slept with the Iliad under his pillow, while at daytime living his own quest. Will we soon actively live in these fictional worlds ourselves and be our own Gilgamesh, Anubis, Achilles or Sansa Lannister? Will the internet become a world similar to the one we live our lives?

New places

It took the internet not that long before it created spaces where people got lost. In the nineties, these were often internet forums. Those who wandered on these early forums know how easily it is to get lost there. This is because it’s about topics (literature, history, technology, sports and so on) which are close at heart. And it’s about like-minded people you heavily debate with, share your thoughts and speak out your mind. Together, those people form an online community.

At those places one not just seeks information, but new ideas, a laugh, company, approval, endorsement and all kinds of other emotions. It’s thus not strange that such forums were later personalized into social media websites like Facebook, Reddit and Instagram.

Even Wikipedia as an online encyclopedia is at its core community-driven. And like stories and forums, it’s easy to get lost on Wikpedia. The contributors for example want to reorganize, complement, rewrite or automate parts of the encyclopedia. Opposite to all the literary works since Gilgamesh anyone can edit, enhance and change these articles. But soon one find oneself in a heavy debate. Where your work is reversed and where you leave in argument.

Forums and Wikipedia were the first signs of the so-called metaverse. An internet where people are in it. They were signs like pictorial signs were the first signs towards written languages.

Currently, social media makes the shift towards new virtual spaces. In Facebook one can share texts, photos and videos of family or hobbies. One can form communities based on location or topic. Funny enough, people are expressing their emotions again through pictorial signs; Emojis.

Games

Another form where one can write its own heroic story is through games. The ancient Greeks are famous to boost their fame over a rival city through the ancient Olympics. And though the modern Olympic Games are more peaceful today, it’s still mostly about celebrating national heroes.

With sports, one is limited to the rules of the game. To make their accomplishment bigger and more special, often the story behind the athlete is chronicled into a biography. Still, the game itself is limited to a limited space. A football field, a Formula One circuit, a tennis court…

Computer games make it possible to create games in complete fantasized worlds. The first computer game not coincidently took place in space. The game Spacewar! from 1961 of course had very limited graphics:

With the introduction of PC’s and game consoles, the graphics improved gradually. The stories, like in literature, were still about kings and princesses though. Only now (as a simple Italian plumber) you can be the hero who saves the princess.

In the nighties with the help of more advanced graphic cards new games like Doom (1993) were developed with 3D graphics:

In the game Doom it was all about killing Nazis. People who felt powerless reading history books on World War II could go wild and shoot the bad guys.

Open worlds

Though graphically much simpler than Doom, ten years earlier, in 1984, one of the first open world games saw the light of day: Zelda. This story is set in the fantasy land of Hyrule. The plot centers on an elf-like boy named Link, who aims to collect the eight fragments of the Triforce of Wisdom in order to rescue Princess Zelda (again a princess) from the antagonist, Ganon.

In an open world game a virtual world is created where the player can explore and approach objectives freely, as opposed to a world with a more linear and structured gameplay like Mario and Doom.

At a certain moment, the open world games and the internet came together. Creating a world where players can meet each other. They can play together, against other players, sometimes in form of teams or larger groups.

One thing that also changed is that these games are continuously developed by updating and extending the virtual world. Like the internet forums, several people form communities in the game. They often communicate through chatting and talking through game headsets.

Within these virtual worlds, a lot of things from everyday life is ported to this new world. Things like making objects and houses (Minecraft is build around this idea), but also clothes and fashion, often accompanied by virtual money (which can be exchanged to Dollars or Euros).

Examples of open world games and their release date:

  • Second Life (2003)
  • World of Warcraft (2004)
  • Roblox (2006)
  • Final Fantasy XIV (2010)
  • Minecraft (2011)
  • Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
  • Fortnite (2017)
  • Apex Legends (2019)

All of these games still exist today. And there are many more of them. Often it’s not about graphics (which are terrible), but how people can actively take part in the virtual worlds and get lost inside them.

The key aspects of these games are:

  • Open world
  • Massively Multiplayer
  • Online
  • Cross-platform (Console, PC and Mobile)
  • Regular updates / Long-Term Support
  • Creative modes
  • Communication between players
  • Communities

Whether the internet communities are text-based (Internet Fora), mediatype-based (Social Media) or based on 3D graphics (Open World Games) the users can actively participate and contribute to these virtual spaces. Actually, the whole business model for the companies creating these game worlds (and the tools to contribute) are based on this.

Still, to participate we need tools and devices to interact with the virtual world. For fiction this used to be a pen and paper. Now we have computers, consoles and mobiles accompanied by keyboards, joysticks and controllers.

To get lost into these worlds still takes a lot of imagination.

Virtual reality

In the last decade, from another corner in the world of gaming, new virtual experiences start to appear. With the help of headsets and better graphics, these experiences tend to get more immersive. At first more static games were successful like Beat Saber:

In this game, you slice through blocks with a lightsaber to the beat of music. This is a great way to use a lightsaber from Star Wars yourself (which in real life is rather impossible, though you can check YouTube videos of people trying to reproduce them).

Using lightsaber in VR, how it feels like

With the introduction of the VR game Half-Life: Alyx players already can move more freely and realistically through the virtual world:

Half Life: Alyx

This VR Game is however still very linear, opposite to the community driven open world games. There are now tendencies that these virtual reality worlds, social media worlds and online game worlds join together into one virtual space called the metaverse. A universe of virtual worlds.

Welcome to the metaverse

The term metaverse is only one year younger than the World Wide Web. It was introduced, how could it be otherwise, through a story. This science fiction world was created by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash.

In the story, the metaverse is a virtual reality based internet where humans interact through avatars. The story is situated in Los Angeles, somewhere in the 21st century. In Snow Crash, funny enough, several characters are complaining that their avatars are of poor visual quality. The better the avatar the higher the status in the metaverse which gives access to restricted areas.

This metaverse doesn’t exist yet. It’s more an idea or concept than a real technology. This is opposite to the internet and the web. When the web was introduced, the internet was already more than 20 years old. It had a history at universities and government organizations as a practical technology. The web just made it more practical and universal. It did this by introducing protocols and technologies for various concepts.

So what the metaverse will be like? Nobody knows and everyone knows. Nobody knows because it doesn’t exist and there isn’t a straight path towards realizing it. On the other hand everyone knows, because based on science fiction, imagination, technological trends and a sense of intuition almost everyone in tech has an opinion about it.

VR Ready Player One

The key ingredients

Gaming is often at the forefront of technical advancements. Either in graphics or other aspects of creating fictional worlds. But when thinking of the internet, playing games is just a small part of it. We saw that it’s about information sharing, meetings at work, learning at school, buying stuff and social interaction. For the metaverse, these socio-economic aspects will be equal as important as the gaming ingredients.

So what are exactly the key ingredients of the metaverse? Here are some ingredients which together could be a recipe for the metaverse:

Building blocks of the metaverse

This recipe has several building blocks of which the lowest layers will be the stepping stone technologies of the next layers.

The internet is the base layer because it already provides network protocols and the basic infrastructure. Above that there are smart contracts to universally transfer money, media content, data, intellectual property and other digital goods.

Another key ingredient is that there must be open standards to ensure interoperability and decentralization. Think of the internet that provides both domains owned by companies or persons. The companies decide how their own website will look like, but at the same time a website uses internet and web protocols. A link from one website (For example Facebook) to another website (For example YouTube) works universally.

Open world and platforms are build on top of these smart contracts and open standards. See it as virtual spaces and experiences that apply the underlying layers. These are the places where we buy, play, learn, work and live in the metaverse. The open standards and smart contracts ensure that teleporting between those spaces work, that when we buy something we can take it with us. The world is persistent.

Last but not least, a virtual reality layer let us interact with the spaces in a more natural 3-dimensional way. Mark Zuckerberg says about it: “you can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it”. Thus instead of clicking through pictures on Amazon, you are in a virtual marketplace, and instead of talking with colleagues on Teams or Zoom, you are standing next to them.

There are already platforms, for example AltspaceVR by Microsoft, where you can meet each other and feel this presence. But you currently still miss a lot of things that are possible with more traditional internet technologies like Microsoft Teams. Think of seeing each other (facial expressions), sharing your screen or documents and so on.

AltspaceVR

Facebook and Epic Games

Facebook already has a lot of metaverse ingredients on its shelf. It’s strong with their social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. But a lot of their recent R&D investments went to virtual reality (Oculus headsets and platform). In this industry they acquired various VR gaming studios like Onward (Downpour Interactive), Ready at Dawn (Lone Echo), Sanzaru Games (Asgard’s Wrath) and Beat Games (Beat Saber). All in the last two years.

Facebook is also developing its own virtual open game world called Horizon, which is currently in an invite-only beta phase. And recently they acquired BigBox VR, the maker of the open world VR Game: Population: One. One of the missing ingredients which Facebook needs.

Facebook thus already acquired a lot of games, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if they acquire a big open world player like Epic Games (Fortnite) in the future.

For other ingredients like smart contracts, Facebook also makes progress. One of the bigger projects is a cryptovaluta software called Diem (formerly Libra). As a collaboration platform, it introduced Workplace last year. And on open standards, it will replace its Oculus API by the OpenXR standard.

It remains unclear if it’s Facebook who will make the defining step towards the Metaverse or other players. Facebook together with Epic Games would be a powerful combination, but first US regulations would need to agree to such a merger.

In an internal speech in June 2021 Mark Zuckerberg said he wants Facebook, now known as a Social Media Company, to be known as a Metaverse company in a few years. Based on such statements we can put the companies’ acquisitions, lawsuits, investments and research & development better into context. Most of these have the metaverse as underlying goal on the long term.

Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, already made several statements earlier that Fortnite will be more than just about gaming. Hinting at a metaverse kind of environment. Epic Games follows another approach than Facebook. Instead of semi-independently acquire and develop the various key ingredients and then try to merge them like Facebook does, it works from ‘within’ their virtual world Fortnite.

They try to incorporate various use cases like music events, fashion (skins) and items through their world. Ariane Grande performed in Fortnite for example on her Rift Tour in August 2021.

Fortnite’s revenue comes entirely from microtransactions. This means transactions made in the game world self. Buying skins (for avatars or weapons). This brought them 9 billion dollars in the first two years of Fortnite. This is also why Epic Games choose to sue Apple for it’s 30% commission on the app store. They want to create a world where everyone can buy digital goods, without Apple as gatekeeper. They feel that Apple doesn’t attribute a lot while getting commissions like governments get taxes.

Digital citizens

People living in the metaverse will not be users or players, but citizens. Citizens that would need to obey certain laws as an extension to current law and with certain rights.

The digital citizens probably would expect more and want more influence from companies who are creating the metaverse. Because at the end when you are learning, playing and working it continuously become part of a public place.

It’s unlikely that like in the story VR Ready Player One only one company rules this virtual world. There will be multiple virtual worlds, ruled by government-like organizations.

People won’t just become a citizen of the metaverse, because they pursue this concept on its own. Experiences should be valuable, money should be made, people must have influence and most of all being there should be fun (and that counts not only for girls).

The question that persists, will the metaverse right away develop as a democratic space where people have digital civil rights, or will the road be as twisty as our civilizations developed in the past?

Who will build the metaverse?

When the open standards are in place, at the end anyone can make virtual places in the metaverse, just like anyone can make a website. It can be anything from a virtual object, room, landscape or world. Creators will be building the metaverse within the metaverse, just like builders are building in the physical world. It’s not like coding a website, but much more like building with tools like a hammer or a saw.

Of course there will be companies, creators which will bring popular virtual experiences, but again it will not be from one company like we see in VR Ready Player One or the Netflix series Upload. It’s a digital world, where anything we can imagine can exist.

Another builder will be AI. You can just ask: “Create a castle with 100 rooms that looks like this picture. It must have a swimming pool. etc”. Maybe you just had a dream and ask AI in the morning to build it. AI will the genie in the bottle of the future.

At the end however, citizens of the metaverse have to try and experience it themselves. It’s like people who never used a VR headset before, it’s hard to imagine what it is like. The metaverse will the same.

People will be reluctant at first, but then soon can’t live without it.

How we will enter the metaverse?

We used to enter stories and knowledge through a world of books. There have been many kinds of book materials like clay, metal and wooden tablets, papyrus, parchments, paper and e-ink.

We enter the internet with various devices like computers, mobiles, tablets accompanied by keyboards, mouses, touchpads, touchscreens and game pads.

The metaverse will also have its own devices. For now, we will probably use smart glasses, headsets with controllers (control the virtual world by hands and movements) and microphones (control by speech). There are many more initiatives, which I listed in a tree part series on next level hardware in virtual reality.

In the distant future, the most natural way to enter and live in the metaverse will be by using our thoughts. Think of Elon Musk’s Neuralink. In this way, our brains will get similar inputs within the metaverse as we are now getting from our senses.

We spend a lot of time on the internet, but probably the most of our future time will be spent in the metaverse. It’s about living of lives in an infinite digital world through immersive experiences.

How will it be like being in the metaverse?

When you start your computer, the first thing you see is your desktop. This is the starting point for opening apps and browsing the internet. Nobody else can enter this space, it’s your own private space. When you entered the metaverse, probably the first thing is also a private space, which could be a virtual private room.

The private room is thus only for you, and you cannot invite other people to this space. It’s a guaranteed private experience. Other people who try to break in and hack your room will commit a felony according to the digital rights of the metaverse.

From this room you either travel through portals or teleporting to other places or experiences in the metaverse. You can make other private rooms, of course where other people are allowed.

Say you make a whole castle with 100 virtual rooms. One room in the castle is your private starting place, in other rooms you can invite your family and friends. And there may be also rooms which are totally public.

Your private space

The number of people you actually see in such public spaces varies and is up to you. Sometimes parents make a joke that they want a remote control that could turn their children off. In the metaverse this will be a default feature. You can walk into a park with others or be alone. Maybe people will have whole worlds on their own if they would prefer it.

Solitude is dangerous. It’s very addictive. It becomes a habit after you realize how calm and peaceful it is. It’s like you don’t want to deal with people anymore because they drain your energy.

Jim Carrey

So far, open world games have shown that people mostly seek company and form communities, but to be alone can be useful as well. In the virtual castle there can be any number of private rooms like working, fitness, cinema and so on. You may watch a movie the old-fashioned way from a cinema seat or be in the story itself (and maybe with the help of AI to take part).

From your private room there is also a mirror where you can look into public rooms, but not the other way around. Just like the glass windows in an investigation room at the FBI. In your own room you see the rooms for your next appointment. Walking through the mirror (which acts like a portal) you enter the public space.

Another way is by asking Siri or any kind of assisting avatar to go somewhere. The assistant presents you several tiles with places and experiences that you can choose from. Pointing at those tiles teleports you to a place, an experience or a world.

Who really will be the key players

Both Facebook and Epic Games continuously try to follow an inclusive strategy. Just like Microsoft became successful in the cloud (by embracing Linux and open source), like Amazon became a platform for sellers and buyers and just like Alexander the Great was relatively inclusive towards conquered people.

But a lot of people are skeptical whether these leaders are willingly and capable to bring the quest to the metaverse forward. A lot have more trust in open source projects that are operating independently of big tech. Mark Zuckerberg tells in an interview with the Verge:

“One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot is: there are a set of big technology problems today that, it’s almost like 50 years ago the government, I guess I’m talking about the US government here specifically, would have invested a ton in building out these things. But now in this country, that’s not quite how it’s working. Instead, you have a number of Big Tech companies or big companies that are investing in building out this infrastructure. And I don’t know, maybe that’s the right way for it to work. When 5G is rolled out, it’s tough for a startup to really go fund the tens of billions of dollars of infrastructure to go do that. So, you have Verizon and AT&T and T-Mobile do it, and that’s pretty good, I guess.”

Not anyone thus agrees that the companies that are driving these developments is a good thing. There are a lot of efforts that are much like Linux using open source independent technologies driven by communities, universities and foundations.

You see this phenomenon most strongly in the cryptovaluta movement, where decentral technologies like Bitcoin or Ethereum are very successful. Such technologies are also becoming more popular in communication apps as an open source alternative to WhatsApp. For example, Signal and Element/Matrix or Minds and Diaspora in the Social Media realm.

Being inclusive might well mean that Microsoft, Facebook, Epic Games and other big tech will need to support one of these open source decentralized ingredients.

The metaverse must be an open ecosystem, not an ecosystem dominated by the whims of any single company. “Eric Elliot”

Closed vs. Open worlds

At the end we will probably see a mixture between closed and open source, between central and decentral and between startups and big tech. This, as long as open standards are established and are taking off.

I am skeptical that either open source projects or big tech will make great contributions in this realm. The strong point of the beginning of the internet by universities and governmental organizations is that they are more about gaining knowledge than profit. They focussed on creating the most fundamental and universal technologies.

The road towards open standards that guarantee interoperability and freedom to create virtual spaces is still a long way. Some initiatives are:

  • Virtual Worlds — Standard for Systems Virtual Components Working Group by IEEE (2010–Present)
  • Information technology — Media context and control — Part 4: Virtual world object characteristics (ISO/IEC 23005–4:2011) ISO (2008–Present)
  • Immersive Education Technology Group (IETG) Media Grid (2008–Present)

Many of these working groups are still in a conceptual phase before finalizing protocols. The rough outlines of future solutions are often understood and, in a sense, agreed upon well in advance of the technical capacity to produce them.

A clear picture

In the coming years, the picture of how the metaverse will function and look like will become clearer and clearer. Right now we are still at open sea, and it’s hard to say how the wind blows that will bring us virtually ashore.

The universe is the reality we now live in and that created us, will be replaced by a metaverse that we create ourselves. We are thus the gods of a newly created universe, which doesn’t exist yet. We started this world with virtual avatars that are killing each other, but hopefully the succesor of the internet will have more beauty than those virtual bodies where it’s build on.

Clear is that the metaverse is the future of the internet, as well the future of society. But in the end, these are two sides of the same (bit)coin.

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