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What is the Metaverse & What is it Not?

Ward De Kruiff

Head of Web 3.0 & Metaverse Practice, EMEA, EPAM
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  • Media, Entertainment & Telecom

Talk of the “metaverse” is everywhere—it has made its way into almost every internet article, social media feed and digital conversation. But what is it exactly?

Simply put “meta” means beyond and “verse” is just an abbreviation of universe; but the future of digital connection deserves further explanation, which can start with exploring the characteristics and categories of the metaverse.

There are six main characteristics that define a metaverse:

1. Identity: While digitally present in the metaverse, users can express themselves as whoever or whatever they want to be with their own avatar.

2. Multi-device: The ability to access the metaverse from anywhere is a key feature, whether it’s your phone, PC, tablet, VR or other devices. 

3. Immersive: A truly immersive experience engages all senses: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. Future VR devices could include haptic body suits and omnidirectional treadmills that provide physical sensations through electro-stimulation as they navigate a digital environment.

4. Economy: A fully developed metaverse is a functioning economy where users can earn and spend in digital or fiat currencies. 

5. Community: Users are not alone in the metaverse. They are surrounded by others in real time, sharing experiences and interacting with each other. From what we’ve seen in the gaming industry, enabling social experiences is key to success.

6. Real-time Persistence: The metaverse is expected to be real-time persistent with no ability to pause. It continues to exist and function even after users have left. This trait shifts away the centricity of the user to the virtual world itself.

Breaking down the metaverse can also be done by exploring its eight core categories, which can be considered its tech stack as well:

  1. Hardware: the sale and support of physical technologies and devices used to access, interact with or develop the metaverse. This includes, but is not limited to, consumer-facing hardware (such as VR headsets, mobile phones and haptic gloves) as well as enterprise hardware (tech needed to operate or create virtual or AR-based environments like industrial cameras, scanning sensors, projection and tracking systems). 
  2. Networking: the provisioning of persistent, real-time connections, high bandwidth and decentralized data transmission by backbone providers, the networks, exchange centers and services that route among them—as well as those managing “last mile” data to consumers.
  3. Compute: the enablement and supply of computing power to support the metaverse, including demanding functions like physics calculations, rendering, data reconciliation and synchronization, AI, projection, motion capture and translation.
  4. Virtual Platforms: the development and operation of immersive digital and often three-dimensional simulations, environments and worlds wherein users and businesses can explore, create, socialize and participate in a wide variety of experiences (e.g., race a car, paint a painting, attend a class, listen to music) and engage in economic activity. 
  5. Interchangeable Tools & Standards: the tools, protocols, formats, services and engines that serve as actual or de facto standards for interoperability, and enable the creation, operation and ongoing improvements to the metaverse. 
  6. Payments: the support of digital payment processes, platforms and operations, including fiat on-ramps to pure-play digital currencies and financial services (bitcoin, ether and other blockchain crypto technologies).
  7. Content, Services & Assets: the design, creation, sale, re-sale, storage, secure protection and financial management of digital assets, such as virtual goods and currencies, as connected to user data and identity. 
  8. User Behaviors: observable changes in consumer and business behaviors (including spend and investment, time and attention, decision-making and capability), which are either directly associated with the metaverse, or otherwise enable it or reflect its principles and philosophy.
SO, WHAT’S NOT THE METAVERSE?

Now that we’ve defined its characteristics and categories, let’s dive into common misconceptions of the metaverse. Often, the metaverse is misdescribed as VR. To say VR is the metaverse is like saying the mobile internet is an app. In truth, VR is merely a way to experience the metaverse. Hundreds of millions of users are already participating in virtual worlds daily without VR/AR/MR/XR devices. VR headsets aren’t the metaverse any more than smartphones are the mobile internet.

Sometimes the metaverse is described as a user-generated virtual world or virtual world platform. This is like saying the internet is Meta (Facebook) or Geocities. Facebook is a UGC-focused social network on the internet, while Geocities made it easy to create webpages that lived on the internet. UGC experiences are just one of many experiences on the internet.

Furthermore, the metaverse isn’t a video game. Video games are purpose-specific (even when the purpose is broad, like “fun”), unintegrated (Call of Duty is isolated from fellow portfolio title Overwatch), temporary (each game world “resets” after a match) and capped in participants (1MM concurrent Fortnite users are in over 100,000 separated simulations). Yes, you can play games in the metaverse, and those games may have user caps and resets, but those are games in the metaverse, not the metaverse itself. The metaverse will significantly broaden the number of virtual experiences used in everyday life (well beyond video games, which have existed for decades) and in turn, expand the number of people who participate in them.

Lastly, the metaverse isn’t tools like Unreal Engine or Unity or WebXR or WebGPU. This is like saying the internet is TCP/IP, HTTP or a web browser. These are protocols upon which the internet depends, and the software used to render it.

The metaverse, like the internet, mobile internet and process of electrification, is a network of interconnected experiences and applications, devices and products, tools and infrastructure. This is why we don’t even say that horizontally and vertically integrated giants, such as Facebook, Google or Apple, are an internet. Instead, they are destinations and ecosystems on or in the internet, or that provide access to and services for the internet. And of course, the internet would exist without them. There is no worldwide accepted or established definition of the metaverse, and that’s because it doesn’t refer to one type of platform, technology or community but instead a change in how end users begin to interact with technology.

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