Metaverse

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Introduction

The Metaverse is a collective virtual reality (VR) created by the author Neal Stephenson, in his 1992 sci-fi classic Snow Crash. In this global-spanning virtual world, billions of users could socialize (e.g. hanging out in 3D bars and nightclubs), meet people, and do business. People could also play games in the Metaverse, although this was not its main goal. The concept of the Metaverse rapidly gained popularity after the novel’s release, and has influenced various personalities in the virtual reality and gaming industries [1] [2].

The novel portrays a posthuman world in which a large number of its inhabitants have a parallel existence in the Metaverse [3]. This internet-like network is mostly populated by real people who use an avatar as a form of personal representation in the virtual space. The digital world is envisioned as a large cyber-planet containing buildings and structures that are found in reality, and others that are not. There are also synthetic characters that inhabit the Metaverse. These vary in capability and complexity, and they interact with the real people in the virtual space like they were avatars of other real characters [4].

The users enter the Metaverse by way of a virtual reality headset that wraps halfway around the head; the headset has small headphones that connect to the users’ ears. According to Sedore (2012), “When one is ‘goggled’ into the Metaverse, his headset will ‘throw a light, smoky haze across his eyes and reflect a distorted wide-angle view of a brilliantly lit boulevard that stretches off into an infinite blackness. This boulevard does not really exist; it is a computer-rendered view of an imaginary place.’” [3]

The story’s main character is named Hiro Protagonist. He is a young man - a computer hacker by profession - that spends the majority of his time goggled into the Metaverse in order to escape from the harshness of reality [3].

Influence of the Metaverse concept

The concept of the Metaverse has had a great impact in the digital technology industry for the past decades. Indeed, Michael Abrash (Chief Scientist at Oculus VR) credits the book for the desire to bring that concept into the real world. Abrash partnered with John Carmack to develop the first online multiplayer shooter - Quake. They where trying, in a small way, to fulfill the vision of the Metaverse they had read about [2].

Others, like Jaron Lanier (Computer Scientist), used the concept of the Metaverse to try and popularize the VR technology of the time, which was primitive compared to today’s standards. For many years, the VR technology seemed ill-fated, but it seems to be finally reaching a developmental level that can rekindle the hopes and promises of the virtual reality dreams of technologists inspired by the Metaverse. With the release of headsets like the Oculus Rift, VR has reached the general public, and the technology seems to be a growth area as big as smartphones were in 2007 [2]. This virtual reality renaissance is creating a lot of excitement surrounding the eventual development of a real world Metaverse. Rod Furlan, in a 2015 piece for Singularity Hub, wrote that “While the term “metaverse” was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, current usage has diverged significantly from its original meaning. In popular contemporary culture, the metaverse is often described as the VR-based successor to the web.” While there is little consensus on what a real world implementation of the Metaverse would be like, the concept is a persistent topic in discussions about the future of VR [5].

Developing a real world Metaverse

With the recent technological advances in the field of virtual reality, developers have been trying to create what they are calling the Metaverse. Based on Stephenson’s fictional creation, they intend to build an “interconnected virtual world where users can travel from one immersive experience to the next, like walking through an infinite series of doors that take you through an endlessly growing virtual universe.” [6]

One of the building blocks that might lead to the actualization of a real world Metaverse is WebVR. This is a free JavaScript API developed by Mozilla that allows for VR experiences through a web browser. It has received support from Google, Oculus, Samsung, and Microsoft. Indeed, Oculus’ VR web browser Carmel is based on the WebVR APIs [7].

WebVR delivers immersive online experiences without downloads or install, maintaining all the rights and freedoms that users are accustomed to with the Internet, like open and affordable access. Many people have tried and failed to build the Metaverse, but WebVR seems to be the missing link that will lead to the next iteration of the Internet [7].

Furthermore, some people involved in the VR industry believe that gaming engines will be the platforms for building the Metaverse, while others disagree and think that this concept goes beyond the capacity of those engines. They argue that no platform can be the Metaverse; instead, it can only be a protocol supported by multiple platforms from different vendors. WebVR enables the Metaverse rather than contrive how it forms, what rules it should follow, and what it looks like. The fact that it is an open protocol indicates that it can serve as a binding force that connects different mediums together and all VR experiences [7].

Creating an underlying infrastructure would enable creators to build the immersive web piece by piece, in a process similar to how the Internet formed. The Internet is a decentralized and democratized experiment that has been crowdsourced. The Metaverse also needs to develop in a similar fashion, with no privatized platform deciding what’s right or wrong regarding content [7].

The WebVR developer community is already building core metaversal functions. One of them is traversal “deep” linking. This allows users to travels seamlessly between different virtual spaces without having to remove their headset. Another core construct is “Backpacks”. Bozorgzadeh (2017) wrote that “These are portable storage units that allow users to carry data from one experience to the next, like a virtual wallet filled with virtual currencies and virtual goods, or stored 360-degree videos of earlier experiences they’d like to transport and share or use elsewhere. “ Besides these two, there are other essential core functions under development like security, defining and enabling social interactions, and developing avatars and forms of identity that remain constant or change according the different virtual worlds [7].

It is expected that the Metaverse will grow and quickly expand beyond the scope of what WebVR offers in isolation. This means encapsulating under one roof technology like blockchains, AI, bots, haptic gear, and including web-based augmented reality. The capability of WebVR to transform a simple browser into a medium for building the immersive web, leading to the Metaverse, is what causes the current excitement with this technology [7].

Besides the core structure that can ignite the development of a real world version of the Metaverse, other aspects have to be fleshed out in order for the created environment to become attractive to users. One of those is the social component of the Metaverse, where a digital representation of the user has to convey meaning and emotions [8].

Tim Sweeney (CEO of Epic Games), during the 2016 VRX virtual reality conference in San Francisco, said that in a near future it would be possible to create a digital representation of a human that is almost indistinguishable from reality. With the development of graphics technology in the last two decades, realistic avatars are possible as well as realistic simulations of digital characters. Sweeney believes that the social component of the Metaverse is important, and that he sees the seeds of this shared social environment in Oculus’ VR demo of the Toy Box. In the demo, users can use avatars and touch controls to play with toys along with other players in the same virtual reality room. Referring to Oculus’ Toy Box, Sweeney said that it is “The first step. The next step is to have outward facing cameras and inward-facing cameras that pick up the movements of your face.” Capturing facial expressions accurately, and representing them in the virtual environment, will lead to an improvement in communication in the virtual shared space. In turn, this will allow for a more natural interaction between users [8].

Furlan's five tenets

In 2015, Rod Furlan - an artificial intelligence researcher and co-founder of Lucidscape - shared five tenets for an “ideal” implementation of the Metaverse. These were:

1.Creative freedom is not negotiable;

2.Technological freedom is not negotiable either;

3.Dismantle the wall between creators and users;

4.Support for worlds of unprecedented scale;

5.Support for nomadic computation. [5]

The first tenet expresses his opinion that creativity is essential for the development of content for a real world Metaverse. He writes that “Censorship inevitably stifles creativity” and that “Content creators are encouraged to explore the full spectrum of possible human experiences without the fear of censorship. Each world is a sovereign space that is entirely determined and controlled by its owner-creator.” [5]

The second tenet proposes that the ideal foundation for the Metaverse is based on free software and open standards. It is essential to enforce the right to creative freedom and protect the network form single-source solutions, attempts of control by litigation, or abuse by its own developers [5].

In the third tenet, the author suggests that creative and technological freedom are not sufficient to assure an inclusive Metaverse if only a small portion of the users contribute to it. He explains that “It is also necessary to break the wall that separates content creators from consumers by providing not only the means but also the incentives necessary to make each and every user a co-author in the metaverse network.” This could mean that all aspects of the user experience would be an invitation to learn, create, or remix [5].

The fourth tenet addresses the fact that while today’s virtual worlds can only handle smaller-scale simulations with a limited number of participants, the simulation infrastructure of the ideal Metaverse would need to support enormous worlds and millions of simultaneous users with the same virtual space [5].

In the final tenet, Furlan suggests that in “The same way that the web required a new way of thinking about information, the ideal metaverse requires a new way of thinking about computation. One of the ways this requirement manifests itself is by our proposal for the support of safe nomadic computation.” A nomadic program is an autonomous participant with similar “rights” of a human user. These programs can move from one server to the next without meaningful distinction between human operators and nomadic programs. They would carry their source code and internal state as they migrate between servers, and interact with users or improve the worlds visited [5].

The Metaverse ideas have been developing for some time. It will be a new place to engage in e-commerce, and it will have an impact in all aspects of life. Probably, all the problems of the real world will be represented in the Metaverse too. Things like crime and harassment, that are already encountered in the internet currently. According to Tim Sweeney, the Metaverse’s virtual economy could exceed the real economy, having the potential to become a utopia or dystopia. A real world version of the Metaverse has the possibility of becoming far more pervasive and powerful than anything else before it [8].

References

  1. Ewalt, D. M. (2014). Mark Zuckerberg wants to build the Metaverse, and that's OK. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidewalt/2014/03/26/mark-zuckerberg-wants-to-build-the-metaverse-and-thats-ok/#24abc9906230
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Infante, A. (2014). 5 ways the Metaverse won’t be like you think. Retrieved from http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/5-ways-metaverse-wont-like-think/
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Sedore, M. (2012). The dangers behind technological progress: Posthuman control in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Master of Arts Thesis, Florida Atlantic University. Retrieved from https://fau.digital.flvc.org/islandora/object/fau%3A3969/datastream/OBJ/view/dangers_behind_technological_progress.pdf
  4. Allbeck, J. M. and Badler, N. I. (1998). Avatars á la Snow Crash. Retrieved from http://repository.upenn.edu/hms/24
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 Furlan, R. (2015). A maker’s guide to the Metaverse. Retrieved from https://singularityhub.com/2015/08/26/a-makers-guide-to-the-metaverse/
  6. Bozorgzadeh, Amir-Esmaeil (2017). WebVR isn’t sexy, but it will change the game for VR this year. Retrieved from https://venturebeat.com/2017/03/18/webvr-isnt-sexy-but-it-will-change-the-game-for-vr-this-year/
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 Bozorgzadeh, Amir-Esmaeil (2017). A primer on the Metaverse: The next iteration of the Internet. Retrieved from https://venturebeat.com/2017/04/09/a-primer-on-the-metaverse-the-next-iteration-of-the-internet/
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Takahashi, D. (2016). The DeanBeat: Epic graphics guru Tim Sweeney foretells how we can create the open Metaverse. Retrieved from https://venturebeat.com/2016/12/09/the-deanbeat-epic-boss-tim-sweeney-makes-the-case-for-the-open-metaverse/

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