The Past, Present & Future of the Metaverse
WHAT THE PAST TELLS US ABOUT THE METAVERSE
The metaverse will not fundamentally replace the internet, but instead build upon and iteratively transform it. The best analogy here is the mobile internet, a “quasi-successor state” to the internet established in the 1960-1990s. Even though the mobile internet did not change the underlying architecture of the internet — and in fact, most of the internet traffic today, including data sent to mobile devices, is still transmitted through and managed by fixed infrastructure — we still recognize it as iteratively different. This is because the mobile internet has led to changes in how, where, when and why we access the internet, as well as the devices we use, the companies we support, the products and services we buy, the technologies we use, and our culture business model and politics.
The fixed-line internet of the 1990s and early 2000s inspired many of us to purchase our own personal computer. However, this device was largely isolated to our office, living room or bedroom. As a result, we had only occasional access to computing resources and an internet connection. The mobile internet led most humans globally to purchase their own personal computer and internet service, which meant almost everyone had continuous access to both compute and connectivity.
Metaverse iterates further by placing everyone inside an “embodied,” “virtual” or “3D” version of the internet and on a nearly unending basis. In other words, we will constantly be “within” the internet (rather than have access to it), within the billions of interconnected computers around us (rather than occasionally reach for them) and alongside all other users in real time.
WHERE WE ARE TODAY
Right now, the metaverse is a grab bag of hardware, software and unrelated experiences. You likely have seen one piece of the metaverse in a standalone form. There is no connective tissue to bring all these components together…yet.
The metaverse consists of several key features including real-time persistency, economies, communities, digital avatars and accessibility across multiple devices. Early versions of the metaverse exist today, offering investors a glimpse of its enormous potential. If you've played Pokemon Go and caught a creature that you can only see via your phone, that's AR or location-based entertainment. Facebook’s Horizon Workrooms are an example of mixed reality. You use the Oculus Quest 2 to join a virtual office space, but you also can see your hands and your keyboard. If you've played Fortnite, those online worlds provide a hint of what the metaverse could look like. You'll be able to build your own world or visit someone else's in your true-to-life form or in a completely new shape. If you've made it as far as buying cryptocurrency or NFTs, you've also gotten a taste of the metaverse. The difference between these experiences and the full-on metaverse is the physical sensation of being in another place and sharing it with other people.
For most of these experiences, you are interacting with the online world through a controller or other piece of hardware. Although VR worlds are immersive, the headsets are still awkward, which currently defines the entire experience as something out of the ordinary.
We need to look beyond today’s core metaverse content experiences. Virtual movie theaters, virtual concerts, virtual reality battle royales, extended reality (XR) theme parks — they’re all cool. But they’re all fairly incremental.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
The metaverse is a vision for a new place to interact with other humans and bots to play games, conduct business, socialize and shop. That's the metaverse of the future.
It’s clear that the companies that own the most beloved IP and brands will have a major role in the metaverse, likely one that’s proportional to their popularity today. The largest activations in Fortnite to date have been Marvel, followed by Star Wars and the NFL, and the NBA continues to lead in NFTs. These sorts of franchises have endured for decades specifically because they work everywhere and dominate our endless imaginations and fandoms. But crucially, the metaverse will also lead to the establishment of many new entertainment franchises and consumer-facing brands. This is because new access technologies (such as VR devices, AR interfaces or edge computing networks) do more than shift how consumers access content. They change the content itself.
It will take time for the entertainment industry to figure out what a metaverse radio show or TV series looks like, while it’s comparatively easy to envision the future of many digital services businesses, such as those in the fitness and mindfulness categories. As socializing and achievements shift to virtual spaces, our social services and networks will have to evolve. How do you “swipe right” in XR?
In theory, the metaverse could bring all multiverses into one place, whereas the general definition of a multiverse generally refers to many distinct universes operating independently of each other. In a tech/internet/social media context, this is Facebook, Minecraft, Instagram, Twitch, Roblox, Fortnite, Discord and all the other virtual social media and gaming places where people socialize, play and shop.
While the metaverse may seem futuristic, catalyzed by emerging technologies like XR, 5G and AI, the digital “big bang” of our cyberspace is not far away.