Dear Ms. Smartphone: Can you help me make sense of what is going on with all these headlines about the metaverse, say the metaverse for Dummies? This week the company Microsoft jumped in, but I was confused before then. I am middle-aged, a fan of Twitter and Facebook, and keep up with technology on my folding Samsung Z phone. A long time ago, I built a SimCity and then I played Minecraft with my kids. But I still don’t understand what is going on. Is the metaverse another name for games? Keach, Sausalito
Dear Keach: This coming week I am teaching on Zoom and the students and I both know there Is room for improvement. While games and avatars grab our imagination today, we know there should be a better interactive tool for future online education, telemedicine, etc. So, here goes my own version of the metaverse for Dummies!
A working definition, still vague, is that the metaverse will emerge as a Web 3.0. The first commercial public phase, Web 1.0, circa (1989-1995) facilitated the transmission of information and emails. Then, Web 2.0 connected people, creating the sharing economy dominated by companies like Amazon and Facebook. For a more formal timeline, visit here. The metaverse, Web 3.0 will connect people, locations and things- sometimes in a fully virtual, 3D, synthetic environment. Metaverse will not be a single platform or a single technology, although Microsoft and Facebook are angling for that.
The devices we use to connect to this metaverse will not be handheld, like today’s phones. Sensors, special glasses, or implants on our body and clothing are more likely. And, given the history of many new devices and technology, it’s not surprising that they make an entry through less serious pursuits like games.
The business model for the metaverse is still under development, but I want to sound a note of caution. When the Internet began, pioneer listserv users expected that it would democratize people and bring them together. Over the past ten years we have seen the Internet become factional and fractional. The tools of the metaverse- e.g. buying virtual clothing, real estate, and NFTs, supersize that division IMHO. The graphic for today’s column comes from a Motley Fool article, which is titled, “3 Ways Metaverse Mortgages Will Affect Virtual Real Estate.” They encourage prescient investors to jump in today.
The Internet is boundless but new products, particularly NFTs, have a business model to create scarcity. Those early adopters setting up the metaverse hope to barter and sell these like physical assets. There is an interesting dynamic going on here: we all want more sustainable products, and they can sell us virtual products that reduce consumption and the need for physical resources.
But, to answer your question more- why the metaverse? Why has Microsoft followed suit after Facebook?
First, you mentioned that you were an ex-gamer. Did you play a few videogames during Covid? Multitudes did. According to MarketWatch, videogames grew to $180 billion in revenue, and this remains larger than revenue from the global film industry ($100 billion) and from North American sports industries ($75 billion). Even if the full metaverse is meta-years in the making, the seeds sprout today in the gaming industry.
A second push for the metaverse comes from 5G networks and its faster, speedier communications. It is a frontier for programmers that lets them transfer more data at the same time, or in a shorter time and get prompter feedback. So the code they write, particularly for mobile devices, can be pushed in directions previously unimagined. Thinking forward, we need these metaverse innovations to have truly useful at-home robots, and safe, predictable out-of-home autonomous vehicles.
A third reason the metaverse pushes forward has less to do with the world outside and more to do with our mental state and health. There has been a recent spate of concern, linking social media like Facebook with teen stress, anxiety, and addiction. A metaverse avatar has the potential to release the user from physical realities. Again, I am speculating, but will communications in the metaverse allow people with these challenges to step outside themselves, and experiment with different roles? Erving Goffman, the famed sociologist, wrote that our everyday encounters are akin to a stage, where we don pretend masks to try-out impression management. Today’s avatars on iPhone messaging are a tiny creep into a future arena where we better manage or manipulate our time and interactions with strangers.
As for the future of the metaverse, I will surely need to revise many points made here. Right now it seems like the metaverse is the playground of gamers and techies, but when it moves into the territory of DearSmartphone, you can be sure this will evolve, perhaps slouch, to DearSmartverse!
Meanwhile, I stand ground that the infinite resources of the Internet should not be greedily divvied into coveted things that can then be bought and sold like physical assets. Thanks for your curiosity and question.