Is the metaverse a passing fad, like 3D TV or hula hoops? No, says David Shapton, partly because it's already here, and partly because companies like disguise are planning to bring high-quality content to metaverse audiences.
The metaverse is here to stay because it's been with us already for years, in a primordial form. If that doesn't make sense to you, you're not alone. Even experts have wildly different ideas about what the metaverse will eventually become.
It's not helpful that you often see brands and companies claiming to have built their own metaverse. There will only ever be a single metaverse: it doesn't make sense to say that you've created one yourself, any more than a single telephone represents a full telephone service.
Unless you define that point as universal access to a completely immersive, photorealistic shared virtual world, there will be no sole, identifiable moment when the metaverse comes into being. The reality will be that there will be metaverse-like behaviour and aspects in our technical experiences that become increasingly powerful and, perhaps, essential to our lives. We can already use these things - and we do. It doesn't matter that they lack total integration. What's far more critical is the overall direction of travel - and the willingness of metaverse technology developers and vendors to co-operate on interoperability.
Lessons from the internet
The internet is the forerunner to the metaverse. It already has a wide range of layers and interconnecting technologies that will also be essential for the metaverse. Even if it lacks the specific properties that would enable a universally connected shared virtual experience, many elements of the internet show how it has to be done.
For example, there's no point in devising metaverse technology that doesn't plug into the greater whole. Imagine a digital economy framework that couldn't interface with a game vendor's products. You wouldn't be able to sell games (or virtual products within those games) online. A walled garden approach is antithetical to what the metaverse requires.
Likewise, what if (let's say) HTML only worked in browsers from company A, and some other type of markup language only worked in company B's browsers? There would be no prospect of the kind of exponential growth effect that you see when standards are genuinely open and widely embraced. (The metaverse is, of course, all about exponential growth).
Look at a modern web page, and you will see how many standards, conventions, interoperable languages and software frameworks are working together to make near-universal web browsing possible. Virtual worlds are ideally built on layers of virtualisation that make them widely available, irrespective of specific hardware. While you can argue that Google Docs is just a computer program that runs in a browser, the key is that it does run in a browser. Any browser.
Staying with Google, when you look at Google maps (or Google Earth), you get a glimpse of a metaverse-like data structure. The first Google maps were simple versions of traditional cartography. But they quickly evolved into layer-upon-layer of data, much of it end-user-generated. In one sense, the metaverse will be like Google Maps, with more precise data, images - perhaps in real-time - of places - and the ability to interact with the "digital twin" of the world that Google maps and things like it will become. Notice we haven't talked about immersion or photorealistic graphics yet.
Near-photorealistic immersive graphics have been around for a long time, although it's true to say that they're rapidly evolving into astonishingly convincing versions of an actual or imagined world. We've even seen real-time virtual worlds in well-known games like Fortnite, Half Life and Avakin Life - each pitched at different but often overlapping audiences. The latest version of Unreal Engine has surprised everyone with its scope and detail. Suddenly, you can build whole worlds with precision and nuance that would have been unimaginable even a couple of years ago. Unimaginable in real-time, that is.
What's been lacking until now is the ability to link together multiple virtual worlds. The data layers that started with the likes of Google Maps will end up as the universally shared foundation for the metaverse.
What will it take to make a fully-featured metaverse? A massive amount of effort. Developers need to develop, but their direction of travel needs to be set by individual companies - big and small - agreeing that their own specialities can contribute to the bigger picture. This will happen, and it's already happening.
This week, Extended Reality company disguise announced that it has created a metaverse division. Already famous for its spectacular live sets and mind-bending integration with live performances, the company is going all-in for the metaverse. Crucially it has teamed up with a range of partners that will allow it to create content to share with metaverse audiences.
disguise said in a press release announcing its metaverse initiative:
"We will further leverage our extended reality solution together with our partnerships with metaverse event enablers Surreal and advanced content creators ZOAN while also combining our workflows and expertise with Epic Games' suite of applications, such as architectural visualisation tool Twinmotion, web 3D viewer Sketchfab and 3D photogrammetry software Capturing Reality. With this, we will build capability to offer virtual production workflows custom-designed for the metaverse. "
Goldman Sachs estimates that the metaverse is an $8 Trillion opportunity. If that sounds unrealistic, just ask: how much trade and commerce does the internet enable?
Providing high-quality content for metaverse users is just one angle into this "entity" that the internet will become. It's undoubtedly a necessary one. And, piece by piece, as the metaverse comes together, we will discover new online, connected and virtual experiences. And just as we have done with the internet, as we escape into fantastic and utopian new worlds, it may not be too much to hope that we will use it to learn and appreciate more about our natural world, too.