Every now and again, a new word comes along. Some will act like they’ve known what it’s meant all along, others will Google it in secret so they’re not left out at the next watercooler or pre-Zoom smalltalk. Truth is, we all have to learn about it somewhere. Metaverse is the latest BIG word, for us at least. So let’s save you some blank stares and get straight into it.
The first rule of the metaverse is that it doesn’t really exist. Yet. It’s part imagination, part supposition, and a generous dash of web-based future thinking. Its origin can be traced back to an obscure science fiction novel from 1992 by Neal Stephenson.
Truly ahead of its time, ‘Snow Crash’ talks about a virtual world in which avatars of real people coexist. This isn’t a light read, either. The book weaves in and out of linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, history, computer science, religion, politics, cryptography, memetics and philosophy. Good Reads rates it a solid four stars from over 250,000 reviews, so its content is clearly meaningful. One for the Christmas list.
The main character, the appropriately named Hiro Protagonist, is a hacker who visits virtual nightclubs for sword fights. Whilst unique, this is a theme played out across dozens of popular works of fiction even today, including Tron, Her, Minority Report, and of course, The Matrix.
These are all films. Or books. Or crazy theories from your strange uncle Nigel. So what is the metaverse for you and I?
What is the metaverse?
I think the best description I’ve seen is via Packy McCormick, business strategy writer and all-round Twitter cool guy.
“The metaverse is an evolution of the internet that spans VR, AR, online and physical worlds, creating a new layer of the economy rich with experiences, many of which were not previously possible.
- Is an always-on, real-time world…
- …with an infinite number of players
- Is a fully-functioning economy
- Spans physical and digital worlds
- Is a place to use data, digital items, content and IP
- A place where people will create experiences…
- …and brands and companies too
The metaverse is also a place where various channels that we already know so well will ultimately come together to make it work.
Gaming: like Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox
Streaming social: like Twitch, Discord and Snapchat
Productivity tech: Like Zoom and Airtable
Decentralisation: Bitcoin, of course
Ecommerce: Like Stripe and Shopify.
Whilst much of this tech is firmly embedded in many of our daily lives, the metaverse is certain to become a highly lucrative industry far beyond what we can comprehend. Remember the internet in the 90s? Look at it today, and that’s the kind of blistering evolution that we are talking about here, but at a far, far quicker pace.
As a 36-year-old digital native who grew up with MySpace, I am still surprised at just how far we’ve come in terms of cross-platform compatibility, monetisation, commercialisation and so much more. There is BIG money to be made in something as all-encompassing as the metaverse, so it’s no surprise that some heavy hitters are already making strategic moves.
Have you heard of Tencent? They are a Chinese technology powerhouse, pulling in over $70bn revenue in 2020. A difficult year? Certainly not for them. Tencent own stakes in, *deep breath*… Epic Games, Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft, Discord, Platinum Games, Spotify, Universal Music, Tesla and Snap. That’s just a fraction of their estimated $900bn market capitalisation. Staggering.
We could go on and on about the tech-market boom, something that’s weathered the pandemic with not even a blemish or a bruise. But where’s the way in for us?
How, where and when can I access the metaverse?
Let’s drop the science fiction, the Hollywood blockbusters and the monstrous multinationals and talk on a human level. For you and I to have some kind of understanding of the metaverse we really need to know how and when we’re going to come across it during work or play.
Play is the key word here. We and others think that the metaverse begins at gaming. 2020 was an incredible year for platforms like Twitch and Discord, with a 70% rise in ‘social buzz’ alone (measured by Pulsar). As communities are locked down and entire countries closed off, alternate realities became a safe harbour for so many. And if you’re lucky enough to own an Oculus headset or similar, you’re even closer to this strange new world.
When it comes to combining ourselves with our gaming personas, Twitch has already successfully bridged the gap, creating millionaires out of bedroom streamers. We can already combine our real-life selves with our gaming selves, not just virtually.
The closest you can get to the metaverse right now in a way that our uncles and grandchildren can understand is probably Fortnite – a world that you can figuratively throw yourself right into. As more multifaceted games and experiences like this one are created, we’ll see them stitched together, with game developers weaving our new reality, and augmented experiences by the likes of Snap connecting back to the real world through AR. Snap is perfectly positioned for this, reaching more people in the US than Twitter and TikTok combined, and as we see from Apple, Google and friends, their in-house R&D teams are likely years ahead of what we even think is coming next. Is Snap working on a ‘mirrorworld?’
But away from the once next-gen stuff like VR and AR, the ‘regular’ stuff is key too. Audio, chat, currency – all ripe for the picking from familiar names Spotify, WeChat and Bitcoin.
Whilst many of these premium services converge in their understanding of what the metaverse is, we are gaining on an inflection point at which it will very quickly fall into place and suddenly ‘the metaverse’ won’t sound like something futuristic, daunting and inaccessible, it’ll simply be ‘the internet’ version 3.0… 4.0… whichever one we are at now anyway.
Whether we look at the keynote presentations from the world of big tech, or on-point tweets threads from the indie tech heads, one thing is clear – the appetite for a metaverse is huge. It will open the doors to entirely new ways of experiencing content and it will make (unsurprisingly) a lot of the usual suspects very, very rich.
It is terrifying. It is exciting. And whilst we’d like to say we welcome the forward charge into tech evolution, we hope people, purpose and planet are kept front of mind.
It might be a metaverse, but it’s still a part of our universe.