For many of us, Neil Stephenson’s book Snow Crash introduced us to the interesting concept of the metaverse back in 1992. Despite the fact that it was a dystopian vision of the future, I dare say that a whole generation of people, including myself, found this persistent virtual world appealing.
Now, with all the latest hype from Meta (formerly Facebook), we’re seeing a surge in this term being used in the public. For the sake of this article, I’m going to use the term metaverse as a broad label. If I’m referring to the system Mark Zuckerberg is building, I’ll explicitly call that out.
But what does this all mean? What even is a metaverse? How does this affect makers?
What the heck is the metaverse
I’m focusing on the metaverse as described by Stephenson. You could argue that a metaverse could exist that is simply the internet as it already is, and our “digital selves” are our social media accounts, but that’s boring. Let’s talk about 3D worlds and virtual reality for a bit. After all, the talk of the metaverse at this point is all completely based off of fantasies and popular media, so let’s just lean into it and fantasize a bit, shall we?
If we go back to the origins of the concept in Stephenson’s book, the metaverse is a kind of simulation of a digital universe. I don’t necessarily mean that we’d be simulating planets and gravity, but rather you could enter it, and then move freely among experiences and locations regardless of the originator or creator of those things, much like driving to a store and visiting a friend’s house. That is, it would be decentralized, but fluidly connected. No single company would own it, but they could have storefronts. To be frank, I don’t fully remember if Stephenson did mention decentralization, so I must hesitantly give a point to Ready Player One (2011, by Ernest Cline), who foresaw a megacorp wanting to control it.
There are some massive technical challenges that come with this vision. Not only do you have to deal with getting people to interface with it — will it require a VR headset? — you have to also come up with all new ways for different entities to connect to each other! This sounds relatively easy to people who aren’t familiar with the kind of coding involved with connecting to a company’s API, but once you dig in and see how much variation there is, especially if we’re adding 3D graphics on top of everything, it gets staggeringly complex.
This specific complexity is likely why Zuckerberg’s metaverse concept might get a head start, in my opinion. They’re big enough to build a system that looks and feels like a bunch of different entities, but behind the scenes they’re really all the same company speaking the same language. They won’t, however, be truly decentralized. Diehard fans of decentralization hate this (and that’s on top of whatever sins that company is also guilty of in regards to data privacy and manipulation). Centralization, as you know, is bad because it puts the entire space under the control of one single entity, which ultimately leads to restricted freedoms, monopolistic pricing, and so forth — even in a metaverse.
What isn’t a metaverse
When we start describing what a metaverse could look like, people tend to hop right to MMOs. World of Warcraft, for example, was persistent; you could customize your character, interact with others, etc. But World of Warcraft was centralized and controlled by a single entity. You could only do the things that they programmed into the experience. You couldn’t customize your character beyond the prebuilt add-ons they supplied. You were limited to their narrative unless you felt like just standing somewhere chatting was fulfilling (it surprisingly was to many of us).
Second Life comes up frequently as well, and this one is very interesting because they managed to create many aspects of a metaverse back in the early 2000’s. In Second Life you had a persistent world where you could visit with others, much like World of Warcraft, however it had a few interesting things that the others didn’t. They created an economy where you could create things and sell/buy them within the game, without the intervention or participation of the company! That’s wild! People were building houses, items, and I recall even an entire island. There was a real estate market based on custom homes! Not only that, their money translated to real money. You could, in theory, earn a living building custom items in Second Life. However, as cool as the concept is, it was (and is) still centralized, as it is owned by a singular company.
Surprisingly the visually simplistic experiences of Minecraft and Roblox have created highly immersive environments where people are interacting, trading, creating personal spaces, creating entire new experiences within the game itself, and may be creating an entire generation that is more comfortable with the concept of having a digital alter ego that is persistent.
One thing you should all brace yourselves for, is the absolute avalanche that is about to happen of companies and individuals advertising anything that involves 3D graphics, virtual reality, or augmented reality as their metaverse. It’s tempting to jump on that hype train and frankly, many of the people at these companies don’t understand the core concepts of a metaverse to begin with. You’re going to see things like a company putting 3D representations in their chat program as their metaverse. It isn’t, it isn’t even close, but they don’t know or don’t care.
What does this have to do with makers
This is where things get really fun! The beauty of the concept of a metaverse is that it is decentralized and people can contribute. Makers, especially those with some 3D modeling and/or coding skills are going to find themselves with a whole new audience of potential customers and collaborators.
Let’s look at some hypothetical roles for makers. Since there is no metaverse right now, these are based purely off of the common threads in fantasies geeks have had since Snow Crash. This is also just a taste of the kinds of things that makers could do. In the fantasy metaverse of the 90s we’d need architects, musicians, and so much code.
In many people’s fantasy of the metaverse, each person has their own “home” that exists in the digital world. People will want these to be extremely customized. Makers could design or modify these homes, or build the tools to do so. Or set up a market selling items to go into your home. We saw similar kind of activity within Second Life.
The Body Shop
Again, customization is the name of the game. Your individual self, or your “avatar” would be highly customizable. We already see this as a huge aspect of games like Fortnight. People already pay for customizations. We will hopefully see people paying makers for these customizations in the future. In Snow Crash, the avatars weren’t as limited as they are in modern games. There were characters that were massive, had different shapes, and so on.
Makers setting up shop doing customizations for people, or selling full avatars, will likely be in high demand.
Not everything has to be 3D modeling and graphics. Part of the fantasy of the metaverse is that it would be more than simply visual. The field of haptics is seeing refreshed interest with VR becoming more popular and a metaverse is only going to push this whole concept even further. People will want ways to feel what is happening in the metaverse, and makers could easily carve out a niche market producing or at least prototyping different methods.
A note about the lack of Ready Player One to this article.
Yup, I barely mentioned that book. Yup, it had a metaverse. In my opinion, it didn’t bring anything new that Snow Crash didn’t already describe, and in some ways dumbed it down. Also, I just thought that maybe not mentioning it until the very end would rustle some jimmies and people would want to argue with me on the internet. I’ll see you in the METAVERSE!