Last week's Apple's announcement of a fancy AR goggle set (Apple Vision Pro) has spurred yet another wave of ridiculous comments online:

"Is this a future of metaverse?", "'Spatial computing' eats the metaverse!", "Who is more 'meta': Meta or Apple?"

Add that to the previous hype on the topic & it will make you wonder - is it possible to have a rational, pragmatic, feet-on-the-ground discussion on metaverse? What is it? Do we need it? How far are we from getting there? What are we missing that would make it happen?

Well, why don't we try? I'll try to put my 2 cents (here) - feel free to comment (if you disagree) or endorse/share (if you like it).

What is it?

Further divagation only makes sense with at least a draft of the definition. So what is metaverse?

There's no "official" definition, but I bet you've all either read Stephenson's "Snow Crash" or watched Wachowski's "Matrix". Metaverse represents some stage of future development of the Internet, where digital worlds ("applications", "systems", "rooms", ...) are seamlessly interconnected into a single digital world (with some specific omnipresent rules - "laws of physics") that one can traverse & utilize (interact with its elements, digital inhabitants, other metaverse users). Users perceive all that highly immersively - with advanced VR goggles and possibly some haptic sensor hardware. IMHO, it all screams: get the digital space & make it more like a physical world (for the sake of higher immersion).

Good? Do you see it the same way?

OK, now let's dive slightly deeper. What model does the metaverse have to follow to happen? This question may be a bit unclear, so I'll illustrate with examples:

Let's assume the metaverse is an application (think: "World of Warcraft" on steroids). Would that work? No, because the scale (of such a metaverse), its richness (in experiences/features) & pace of development would always be constrained by (causative powers of) a single entity - the app's creator. Also: such a company would keep absolute control over the content (/data). Using the metaverse's assets beyond its borders (hence expanding them) would not be possible.

OK, let's try a different path: the metaverse as a platform (think: Google Play/Apple App Store on steroids). Sadly, that would not work either. Yes, it would be possible to create new worlds (ultimately dependent on the platform's owner), but in the end: all of them will follow their own sets of rights & rules with almost none (or minimal) integration between them. And, of course - all data would be local to the world it was created within.

Not good enough, by far.

We need to go further

To build something that genuinely illustrates the idea of the metaverse described above, we need to:

  1. Decentralize the ownership - creators of services (worlds) are more independent from the platform owner, and (what's even more critical) owners of entities (data) are in total control of those - entities should be able to "live" in any world that supports them (implements their protocol) without being artificially restrained.
  2. Establish "laws of physics" - immutable, non-breakable rules that determine the worlds, entities & interactions between all of these. Here are some examples: uniqueness of identity of the metaverse object, fundamental economics (incl. the concept of value), and security/privacy guardrails.
  3. Create core protocols whose implementations will bond the worlds - common behaviors that will define the fundamental building blocks of the metaverse (traversal, communication, interaction, etc.). Everyone who would like to get (their world) connected to the metaverse will have to implement these protocols.
  4. Design the mechanism of creating auxiliary protocols (shareable) - because digital worlds must grow, develop and enrich the experience uniquely. These protocols' implementation will not be obligatory for every world, of course - the idea is to provide a flexible mechanism to build within the metaverse, but in a way that is not restricted to one world (& its owner(s)). E.g., one world's creator invents the concept of "furriness", turns it into a protocol & shares it so "furry" objects can keep their "furriness" also in other worlds (that implement "furriness" protocol).

As you can see, I have yet to mention VR here (intentionally because its importance is exaggerated). By implementing the four points listed above, we create a virtually limitless digital space that ...

  • ... spans fluidly between different worlds (services, applications) made by different vendors
  • ... lets you use your entities (data) in a standardized way, wherever you want it (just "bring it along")
  • ... enforces just enough mechanisms for the metaverse to be cohesive (laws of physics, core protocols) as a whole
  • ... while providing a flexible way to add new, unique value in individual worlds (auxiliary protocols)

How far are we?

These were some theoretical musings of mine. But let's do a reality check. How does that stand in confrontation with actual projects/efforts taking place?

  1. Needless to say, this is not what Meta is building. Zuck's company is desperate to create yet another platform (they would own & reap profits from). That's the only way they could survive long-term. The Facebook app was a win in the lottery, but its expiration date is closing & Meta needs a solution that will attract not only users but also creators who will drive its growth. Decentralization or open protocols are not what they are aiming for.
  2. New generations of VR are not the metaverse. It is just a new UI for apps. It may have a short-lived wow effect, but in the end - we're talking just about apps. Moreover, VR fails (& will keep failing) many expectations - especially regarding precision, speed of interaction & convenience (ref: lessons learned from gaming).
  3. Digital items (non-NFTs) shareable between apps are not metaverse. These are point-to-point integrations where control over data (& its identity) is fully centralized. And they are very scarce (how many can you name besides payment systems?).
  4. NFTs are not metaverse because they are nothing more than scams (due to the problem of non-fungibility being far from solved).
  5. Finally - Apple's new AR goggles are not metaverse. It's yet another platform (to be) - which doesn't mean they won't be a big thing. In fact, that item does indeed has tremendous potential & Apple knows how to execute it. But that's an entirely different story to tell.

Practically speaking, the only metaverse we have so far is ... the good old Internet. I'm not joking. Check by yourself; it pretty much meets all the four rules I've stated above (data ownership is the most tricky one).

So, to build a metaverse, we need to create another Internet with better control over data, expanded "laws of physics", enriched core protocols (to support sophisticated devices like VR headsets), and protocol of defining protocols (to create auxiliary protocols). That sounds like a humongous task. Sadly, the impression fully reflects the reality here - it won't be easy.

What is more, it's not a task one could do in separation anymore (as it has happened with the original ARPANET or WWW). But there are more challenges ahead:

  • Fully decentralized solutions have problems with creating viable economic incentives. They remove many attractive options from the table. That's one of the reasons why TBL's Solid project is still struggling to get any adoption ...
  • Designing critical contracts/protocols (like "laws of physics" or core protocols here) is super hard, and their maintenance/development (after they are put in use) is even harder.
  • Some crucial problems that are necessary to be tackled (e.g., non-fungibility) have no solution yet, or (if they exist) solutions are in their infancy period (no common standard, practical obstacles in implementation - just like in the case of DIDs)

What's next, then?

Metaverse-wise, I see two viable scenarios for the near (~5 years) future:

  1. There will be no metaverse because we don't need any. There's no point in making digital space more similar to physical one because its digital nature actually has unique advantages (lower inertia, more effective & focused access to information). We'll keep optimizing the applications & platforms we have now and maybe add some more interchange protocols, but the Internet will get more & more complex and diverse, so unifying the experience into a single metaverse will not happen.
  2. Metaverse will be gradually born via organic adoption. It will start with a few simple protocols and viral projects that will gain enough initial traction, attract some capital & (in time) evolve into something that resembles (more or less) the concept I've presented above.

VR & AR technology will improve in parallel (not as a part of an eventual metaverse, but as a possible enhancement "layer"). Personally, I think that VR still has vast room for improvement until it gets reasonable adoption, but AR is indeed getting there very closely. However, the change it will bring (as QoL improvement for end-users) is smaller than you may think. But yet again, it's a topic for an entirely separate blog post ...

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