Seeing as we seem to be back in full-on Metaverse hype again I thought I’d try and sum up my key views on the Metaverse based on over 25 years of working and playing in immersive virtual environments. Initially I tried to do this as a list of 6 things the Metaverse should be, and 6 things its shouldn’t, but that led to needless overlap. So here instead are 10 axioms for the Metaverse (no doubt still with some overlap!).
1. The Metaverse is a multi-user, interactive, social, shared, editable, subjective and persistent experience — delivered digitally;
This is sort of the motherhood-and-apple-pie statement about the Metaverse:
- It MUST be multi-user, no point in being in the Metaverse on your own;
- It MUST be interactive, the Metaverse isn’t a passive experience;
- It MUST be social, this means not only multi-user but giving you the time and features to enable you to interact with other people and build relationships (short or long duration) with them;
- It MUST be shared, what I see is what you see, where I can go, you can go. I often talk about it being consensual.
- It MUST be editable, within the permissions allowed, so that you can change what you see, what things do and how things work, and create original content, and all without leaving the Metaverse (you don’t have to “exit the world ™” to build a house or write some code!)
- It MUST be subjective, we might all see the same things but the experience for each of us as an individual will be different, coloured by our own interests and life experiences;
- It MUST be persistent, if somebody changes something it stays changed until someone changes it again.
And of course it’s digital, because the physical metaverse is that thing we call the physical universe.
2. The Metaverse is not about one company’s technology or platform or eco-system;
No matter how much companies like Meta might talk about the metaverse, or even rebrand themselves, the Metaverse is not about any one company’s platforms or systems. The web is more the model we aspire to, where its basic operation is defined by open standards, with multiple companies then able to create the software that runs it, and runs on it, and all those components then work (relatively) seamlessly together so that they are transparent to the user. Whether the code itself actually needs to be open-source is a moot point (it is open standards that are more important), and there is also the crucial question of who runs and owns the equivalent of the DNS that might link the different servers of the Metaverse together.
3. The Metaverse is not (currently) predicated on any particular hardware (such as a VR headset) or technological approach (e.g. blockchain) and nor need it be a primarily visual experience;
Ever since the launch of the Oculus DK1 kickstarted the current generation of head-mounted display (HMD) based virtual reality (VR) there appears to have been an unwritten assumption that the Metaverse is all about HMD VR. However, as some of my previous posts have hopefully shown, a lot of the social virtual worlds of the late 1990s and early 2000s were (and in some cases continue to be) far closer in spirit and execution to the idea of the Metaverse than many (and possibly all) of the current crop of HMD VR applications being touted as “the Metaverse”.
Personally, I think it goes even further than that. To those who experienced them the text-based MUDs and MOOs of the mid 1990s, whilst lacking the visual element of even the Desktop VR based social virtual worlds, succeeded in creating a multi-user, interactive, social, editable, shared, subjective and persistent experience with high user agency, and perhaps have as much right of being considered at least as proto-metaverses as the graphical social virtual worlds that followed them. This independence of technological implementation extends to modern “fads” such as blockchain and NFTs. More positively it also suggests that a Metaverse could be experienced as a primarily audio experience, and indeed should be designed to provide as much accessibility as possible.
The “currently” is there as a bit of a get-out, as it may be that the true Metaverse is only ultimately realised when we move beyond today’s cumbersome HMD and hand-controller model and move onto some form of neural interface as the primary mode of access.
4. The Metaverse should provide the user with as much scope for agency and action as in the physical world, probably more so, with the only limits on their action being (initially and ideally) those reflecting the laws and mores they are subject to in the physical world;
This is the one that best encapsulates for me what the Metaverse is about — but which I also find hardest to state in a way that other people will understand! There may also be some overlap with #1 and #9. The key point is that in the Metaverse you can do whatever you want, just as you can within the physical world. Yes that may be bounded by skills or knowledge (which can both be learnt), by aptitude or resources, and by what is seen as being moral, ethical and lawful, but otherwise you just do what you want. That was the real “marmite” test in Second Life. Gamers arrived but were totally frustrated because it didn’t tell them what to do, or what their goals were, or how to achieve them — and luckily they didn’t tend to stay around very long as a result. Those who “got it” knew that the goals were whatever you set, and you achieved them however you wanted within the feature-set and community that Second Life provided. Nothing really limited you — it was Be All You Can Be writ large. I always described arriving in Second Life like stepping off of the plane in, say, Ulan Bator in Outer Mongolia. What you did next was completely up to you — start a business, visit the tourist sites, find some friends to hang out with, rent or build a house, learn some new skills — just do whatever you want, not what some platform owner tells you you can do.
That “initially and ideally” caveat is a nod to the fact that ultimately the laws and mores, ethics and morals within the Metaverse may well diverge from the physical world — either due to their non-applicability (gravity, resources in a potential world of plenty, algorithmically managed privacy etc) or the fact that the vast space of the Metaverse allows subcultures to develop in ways that are near impractical on Earth, and which, certainly in a Multiverse situation (see #8 ) might want to implement different codes of law and morals on their own servers. And of course some users will be entering the Metaverse from countries with laws which are far more restrictive than others. All of which of course then opens up a whole debate about central vs confederal vs multiple governance and how Metaverse governance relates to physical world governance.
5. The Metaverse is a superset of technologies and experiences, and likely contains within it, multiple, more constrained environments;
The whole point of a Metaverse is that we should be able to do more or less whatever we want within it (#4). Within the real world though we close off spaces as offices, hospitals, training facilities, nature reserves, football stadia and so on, and we should expect to be able to do the same in the Metaverse, with such spaces having a more constrained implementation of the freedom and facilities of the wider Metaverse — and potentially even having some features not available within the wider community. These spaces may be “logically” enclosed — such as by the boundary barriers in Second Life which you can see but not move through, or they may be separate microverses or pocket-Metaverses, pinched off from the bigger Metaverse (similar to rooms in AltSpaceVR or OpenSim servers in a Hypergrid), but with a high ability to move assets, identity and information between them all.
6. The boundary between the physical universe and virtual Metaverse is as porous as each user wants it to be, within moral reason;
The Metaverse, and its users, need to find the right balance between the attribution of action to physical, human people, and the protection against doxing and other forms of on-line abuse. Just as with social media platforms this will be no easy task. People should be free to create different identities within the Metaverse in order to explore their different selves, but there should be some, protected, form of attribution chain.
This “interface” to the physical world also includes things like financial exchanges (money earnt in the Metaverse should be spendable in the physical world) and cyber and information system (extending your mobile phone into the Metaverse if you want to being one of the few innovative things in Meta’s original Metaverse presentation.)
7. ‘Real’ as a descriptor is orthogonal to ‘physical’ and ‘virtual’;
From pretty early on in my virtual world journey I’ve always tried to ensure that I contrast “virtual world” with “physical world” rather than “real world”. There are plenty of examples which show that the virtual world can evoke real emotions and have real impact on people’s lives in the physical world — so the dichotomy is virtual vs. physical not virtual vs. real. Some people use the term “phygital” for the liminal space between the two (mostly marketeers by the looks of it) but I think that is just muddying the waters.
8. The Metaverse may be a Multiverse, in which case portability should be as extensive as possible.
An extension of #5 to a degree, but the focus here is on the overall architecture of the Metaverse, rather than pinching off microverses for specific use cases. The Web is a reasonable example, everyone running their own servers (even if they are increasingly physically being combined into cloud server farms) but connecting together web sites in a relatively seamless manner. OpenSim and its Hypergrid is a more directly relevant metaverse example, and Mastodon a very timely example. But as we know from the web the portability of identity and other assets between services is a real challenge, with third-party mediation (your Google or Facebook account) increasingly being the way to manage it — and in ReadyPlayerMe we are beginning to see some elements of that in terms of avatar management coming to immersive environments. The Multiverse vs Single Metaverse tension is one that will take time to play out, and I suspect that some form of Multiverse is going to be the model for a while — in which case we really need to work on that integration — just as we said 11 years ago!
9. You should be able to live a complete life in the Metaverse: learn, teach, earn, create, sell, buy, trade, collaborate, communicate, explore, make friends, play, have fun, entertain, and be entertained, have relationships, have new experiences and leave a legacy.
This is a flip to #1, expressed in terms of the user experience not the system features. There are also a lot of spaces that might argue that they meet #1 but totally fail here. If the Metaverse is to be a true digital “extension” of our physical existence then we should be able to use it do (almost) all the things that we can do in the physical world, plus some new things beside. Note in particular “earn, create, sell, buy and trade” — the Metaverse needs to support its own native, in world, economy and marketplaces.
I’m certainly not advocating that we forsake the physical world entirely (but see #10), but if we want to use the Multiverse for something that stretches across large parts of our life, both thematically and temporally, we should be able to do so.
10. Not everyone in the Metaverse will be human driven
I’ve deliberately not phrased this as “not everyone in the Metaverse will be human” as that could be taken to be about avatars and appearance, and as we know proto-Metaverses like Second Life and VRChat are full of furries, robots and other non-human avatars (I used to have regular client meetings with a dalek!) Instead the emphasis here is on what is driving the avatars. There are three particular instances of interest:
- Simple “non-AI” driven avatars performing routine tasks in the Metaverse, such as greeters, helpers, personal assistant/stand-ins, non-player characters and so on — just as we already have in many of the proto-Metaverses.
- AI-driven avatars which begin to live their own semi-independent or fully independent lives within the Metaverse. As Maggi Savin-Baden and I argued in Virtual Humans virtual world spaces like the Metaverse are probably the ideal learning and proving grounds for more developed AIs as they provide a grounded and “realistic” experience for an embodied AI.
- Digital Amortals, ex-human-driven avatars, where our virtual selves that we might create to double for us in the Metaverse continue to live and work in it well beyond the point where our physical selves have died.
And that’s without thinking about octupus-controlled avatars!
So that’s my current take. There may be some overlap and duplication, and there may be something key I’ve missed (but I hope not!) but I’ll continue to refine them as my thinking on the Metaverse continues to develop.
And I’d love to hear your views — am I on the right lines or do you see the Metaverse completely differently ? Just post in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.