The biggest ideas in tech often lurch into the lexicon before they are truly coherent. Jargon appears out of nowhere, underexplained and overused: the internet of things, the sharing economy, the cloud. In some rare cases, the terminology sticks. A lot of people talk a lot about a lot of loosely related things, and then those things merge into a single semi-comprehensible thing. Then we live our lives within that thing forever. Remember hearing about “the internet”? Get ready for “the metaverse.” The term comes from digital antiquity: Coined by the writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel, “Snow Crash,” then reimagined as the Oasis in the Ernest Cline novel “Ready Player One,” it refers to a fully realised digital world that exists beyond the analog one in which we live.
In fiction, a utopian metaverse may be portrayed as a new frontier where social norms and value systems can be written anew, freed from cultural and economic sclerosis. But more often metaverses are a bit dystopian — virtual refuges from a fallen world. As a buzzword, the metaverse refers to a variety of virtual experiences, environments and assets that gained momentum during the online-everything shift of the pandemic. Together, these new technologies hint at what the internet will become next. Video games like Roblox and Fortnite and Animal Crossing: New Horizons, in which players can build their own worlds, have metaverse tendencies, as does most social media. If you own a non-fungible token or even just some crypto, you’re part of the metaversal experience. Virtual and augmented reality are, at a minimum, metaverse adjacent. If you’ve attended a work meeting or a party using a digital avatar, you’re treading into the neighbourhood of metaversality.
Founders, investors, futurists and executives have all tried to stake their claim in the metaverse, expounding on its potential for social connection, experimentation, entertainment and, crucially, profit. Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist and prolific essayist, describes the metaverse not as a virtual world or a space, but as “a sort of successor state to the mobile internet” — a framework for an extremely connected life. There “will be no clean ‘Before Metaverse’ and ‘After Metaverse,’” he writes. “Instead, it will slowly emerge over time as different products, services and capabilities integrate and meld together.”
Mark Zuckerberg shared his own Facebook-centric view: “We want to get as many people as possible to be able to experience virtual reality and be able to jump into the metaverse and to have these social experiences within that,” he said, referring to the company’s experimental virtual reality environment, Horizon, which he hopes people will explore using Facebook’s Oculus headsets. In a June interview with VentureBeat, Jensen Huang, the chief executive of Nvidia, which makes computer chips, shared more of a vibe than a vision: “We’ll be able to almost feel like we’re there with each other.” If all that sounds too heady, for now this might do: The metaverse is the internet, but so much more. And though it may still be in the future, if it materialises at all, it seems closer than it’s ever been.
A world built on blockchain
Earlier this year, in the midst of a crypto boom, the price of a currency called MANA began climbing the charts in Coinbase, a popular exchange for digital currencies. MANA is the currency of a virtual world called Decentraland, where in March plots of digital land were going for the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars. (After two years bouncing around 10 cents, MANA briefly broke $1.60 in April, pushing the combined value of all the tokens past $2.4 billion.)
By size, Decentraland is more of a commune — as of July, just a few hundred people are logged in at a time, down from a March peak in the low thousands — made up of user-generated NFTs. Its creators have described the platform less as a place than as infrastructure upon which to build a place. (Decentraland’s currency and land contracts run on the Ethereum blockchain.)
Denizens of Decentraland are constantly creating scenes and experiences for other users, like concerts and art exhibits. There are casinos where you can gamble in MANA, with croupiers who are paid in MANA to show up for work. The sense that Decentraland is a work in progress pervades the sparsely populated grid of half-developed plots and themed zones. Between events, users are mostly left to wander and wonder: What now? Speculators seem less confused; after all, Decentraland is first and foremost an experiment in scarce digital property. This month, Republic Realm, which calls itself a “digital real estate firm,” purchased an NFT of a 259-parcel virtual estate in Decentraland for more than 1.2 million MANA, or, at contemporaneous exchange rates, more than $900,000. Sotheby’s, which acquired a small plot in Decentraland’s arts district and constructed a replica of its London galleries, recently closed its first show in the metaverse. Michael Bouhanna, who ran the sale, estimated that 90 percent of the galleries’ 3,200 visitors had little sense of what Sotheby’s is or does, but said the exercise was useful for helping existing customers conceptualise NFTs, which the auction house is already selling. What separates Decentraland from its predecessors like Second Life, a virtual world owned and operated by a private company called Linden Labs, is that it is indeed fairly decentralised. The plan, according to Decentraland’s founders, was always for its users to take ownership of the world, building and doing what they please. By contrast, Dave Carr, a spokesman for the Decentraland Foundation, said, “Fortnite is a centralised experience,” meaning that it functions top-down, with major decisions coming from its developer, Epic Games. “Here, you feel like you have a definite part in it.”
‘More than a game’
When Epic was developing Fortnite, its plan was not to create a metaverse. But what started in 2017 as a tower defense-style game where players fought zombies exploded, just a year later, into an international phenomenon. “It took off in a way none of us quite anticipated,” said Donald Mustard, the chief creative officer of Epic.
As millions of players flocked to Fortnite Battle Royale, a game mode that is a bit like “The Hunger Games,” the company rushed to add social features, like voice chatting and dance parties. In financial documents made public in federal court in May as part of an antitrust suit against Apple, Epic said Fortnite made more than $9 billion in revenue in 2018 and 2019 combined. Players spend money to dress up their characters in superhero costumes and banana suits. Now, Epic markets Fortnite as not just an interactive experience but as a metaverse. “It’s more than a game,” Matthew Weissinger, the vice president of marketing at Epic, said in court. “We’re building this thing called the metaverse — a social place.”
Defining the metaverse was difficult, said Tim Sweeney, the chief executive of Epic, but he knew what it was not: “The metaverse is not an App Store with a catalogue of titles,” Sweeney said. “In the metaverse, you and your friends and your appearance and cosmetics can go from place to place and have different experiences while remaining connected to each other socially.”
The writers are journalists with NYT©2021
The New York Times