If there ever was a technology designed to invite scorn and skepticism then surely it’s the metaverse.
A decades-old empty buzzword, freshly co-opted to distract from Facebook’s data abuse scandals. A vapid, badly rendered, laggy, buggy magnet for every NFT scammer and crypto-Ponzist, presided over by Mark Zuckerberg and hyped by Paris Hilton.
And then there’s the dorky goggles.
It’s little wonder that the very mention of the “m” word prompts the same eyerolls amongst tech observers as are triggered by crypto, NFTs, DAOs, and all that other web3 bollocks.
But it really shouldn’t.
Because, unlike those other things, the metaverse is going to be amazing.
To understand why I’m so bullish about it, you first have to forget all the crap I listed above.
Forget Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg and that whole gang of grifters with their stupid floating legless avatars. Facebook is not going to “own” the metaverse, any more than AOL owns today’s Internet. Wall gardens are stupid. Walled gardens built by Facebook are stupid and doomed (just ask Sheryl). Also, building a great metaverse-like experience requires an almost Willy Wonka-ish gift for world building. When one thinks of showmanship and imagination, one does not think of Messers Zuckerberg and Clegg.
Ignore too the NFT dipshits and grifters. The best trick they have pulled so far is conflating their grift with the metaverse; convincing the world that NFTs are synonymous with virtual goods and that, if you want to “own” a hat or a piece of land in the metaverse, it has to be as an NFT.
Virtual goods are already doing just fine without the blockchain. About $50 billion was spent on virtual goods by last year, compared to about $500 million on NFTs. Those little “sign in with Google” (/twitter/apple) buttons all over the web are proof that identity and ownership don’t have to be decentralized. You don’t have to burn down the planet to buy a pair of virtual socks that you can take with you from world to world.
Part of the reason the metaverse is so misunderstood is that it doesn’t actually exist yet. But what does exist are lots of “metaverse-like” platforms and technologies, all of which give us a pretty good indication of what a consumer “metaverse” might look like, and why it’s so exciting.
I don’t just mean platforms like Fortnite and Minecraft – although their insane popularity show why betting against virtual worlds is a fool’s game. I also don’t just mean augmented reality proofs-of-concept like Pokémon Go or the giant parrot you might have seen on the Coachella livestream – although both are reminders that most people won’t access the metaverse via VR but rather through their normal phones and laptop.
The really exciting parts of the proto-metaverse are being built behind the scenes by companies like Epic, whose Unreal Engine is already being used by movie studios to create virtual backlots and by architects/designers to develop super-interactive prototypes of airports, cars, planes and even entire cities.
The use of a gaming engine to do those things is brilliant: You can throw a hurricane at your would-be airport and see how the structure, and the people inside it, might actually behave. Using a gaming engine to generate a virtual film set allow actors to inhabit a digital Gotham City as fully as if it were real.
But the use of gaming engines by Hollywood and in architecture and product design has another huge benefit: Once a virtual asset has been created in that way, it’s… an asset. From there it’s a relatively simple proposition to open it up to a wider audience as part of the metaverse. Connect enough of those assets together and you’ve got the makings of an incredible virtual world – even before you invent the games, and dating apps, and social networks, and live entertainment, and music festivals etc etc that will comprise the social objects of the metaverse.
And that’s just the fun stuff. Consider how a generation that grew up with massive multiplayer gaming are now the ones in charge of setting up Zoom meetings for giant companies, and wishing they weren’t so boring and frustrating. Think about how the pandemic has made work-from-home a desirable default for millions of office workers. Now offer those workers the possibility of holding those meetings in a virtual space where you don’t have to put on a clean shirt and stare dead-eyed into a camera, and where instead of screensharing your boring spreadsheet, colleagues can interact with it in 3d. Inside every major company right now there’s a kid sketching out his idea for a gamified, metaversy alternative to Microsoft Teams. (Quite a few of those kids are working at Microsoft.)
If you’re rolling your eyes again it’s because we’ve been promised this stuff for years and it never seems to arrive. (Almost 20 years have passed since I co-wrote The Tourist’s Guide To Second Life)
Remember how for decades we were promised “video phones” – so much so that the notion became a joke, like flying cards and hoverboards. Then one day, as if by magic, the technology finally caught up, along with an actual use case, and consumer comfort, and suddenly we had Skype. In that moment, the whole world changed.
We’ve seen how using Zoom at work has made it the default platform for post-pandemic social gatherings, book groups, even first dates. It took a global pandemic, but now the comfort is there. The demand is there. And the technology is there.
The mini-metaverses of today aren’t perfect, and some of them are barely good. The Internet was still pretty sucky in 1994, mobile browsing was infuriating well into the 2000s.
A big thing still to be solved is the connective tissue inherent in a real metaverse: The technology to allow users to have a consistent avatar, and consistent ownership of goods as they hop between virtual environments. Then there are huge challenges with processor power, and bandwidth whenever you try to build worlds with thousands, let alone millions of users all interacting with one another.
But therein lies the gargantuan opportunity. If I were a venture capitalist, I’d be pouring everything I had into companies solving those problems, especially the ones that promise to use them for remote working – while burning any business plan that mentions NFTs or crypto. As a user, I’m rooting for those same companies to hurry up and get funded.
As a professional cynic, I’m hoping that the current glut of overhyped companies and crypto grift will be washed away by this recession/correction we’re told is coming, revealing to the world what should be obvious: A lot of the promise of the “metaverse” is already here, and what’s coming soon is even cooler and more profitable than most of us can imagine.
In the meantime, don’t let the crypto wankers distract you, and please god don’t listen to Zuck or Clegg for any guidance on what’s coming next.
Listen to me instead. I’m telling you: The metaverse is going to be amazing.
Writers! Other creative people! Join me tonight for a free Zoom chat about the metaverse!
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how writers could use the metaverse to interact with their fans, and maybe even allow readers to interact with their favorite fictional characters.
A few weeks ago, my book/film agents asked me to put together a presentation for their teams in LA and London, explaining the basics of the metaverse and what I think is exciting vs what’s nonsense for writers and other creative people.
The presentation went pretty well so I’ve decided to give it again, for a slightly wider audience.
Tonight at 5pm pacific, I’m hosting a free virtual Zoom event called “A Writer’s Guide To The Metaverse.” As the name suggests, it’s mostly aimed at how writers and other creative people might use the metaverse to reach readers – but it’s really more of a primer to the whole virtual worlds landscape, plus a bit about NFTs and the blockchain.
If you’d like to join me, you can RSVP here.
If it goes well, maybe I’ll do the next one in Second Life.