Virtual Worlds - The future of social interaction?

A brief look at some truths and misconceptions of the metaverse

Metaverse.  You’ve probably heard the word a lot recently, with Facebooks name change and that video Mark Zuckerberg did to go along with it; but what actually IS the metaverse and why should you care?

The term metaverse was first coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 book, Snow Crash, in which he used the term to talk about a parallel life to real life where users interact in an imaginary or computer generated environment. 

Taking a more up to date definition (Snow crash is over 3 decades old after all) Wikipedia sums it up quite nicely: “…a shared realistic immersive computer simulation of the real world or other possible worlds in which people participate as digital avatars.” 

If you’re familiar with Second life or the Decentraland  metaverses, you’ll have seen this in action. You control an avatar, or virtual representation of yourself, and walk around computer-generated worlds interacting with people and objects whilst being able to change the appearance of your avatar (usually for a fee) to express yourself, all with a degree of anonymity.  You can shop, socialise, have business meetings, exhibit art and even go to virtual music festivals – the goal being to make the virtual world as close a reflection of the real world as possible and large corporations haven’t let this pass them by. Brands like Nike, Gucci and Ralph Lauren have shops in the metaverse selling sneakers and clothing to pimp your avatar.  Some even use AR technology to give real world previews of this swag, with firms like Snapchat committing to providing AR filters to show off your new attire.

Gamification in the Metaverse

But as much fun as it would be to stand in an open space with lots of other people displaying your swag, the biggest part of the metaverse industry is being built by the creators who gamify it. An example of can be seen if you wander around Decentraland; You’ll see not only art galleries, shops and displays but will also find games and interactive experiences, albeit fairly basic ones right now.

Gamification is seen as one of the key on-ramps for the metaverse, with projects like The Sandbox creating virtual worlds and experiences, and enabling users to purchase assets and land using their $SAND cryptocurrency tokens as payment.

Microsoft acquiring Activision Blizzard for almost $70 billion is a huge sign of gaming’s prominence and where the future of the metaverse could be heading – News firm CNBC stated: “the deal also plays into a long-term vision for Microsoft as it competes with Meta to build technologies to create a virtual  …metaverse.”

Do Virtual Worlds need Virtual Reality?

One interesting misconception people have is that the Metaverse is all about virtual / augmented reality and that it will be Web3 based.

Let’s debunk this; Firstly, Social-Media isn’t your smartphone – one is software, the other hardware.  The Metaverse is similar, it’s a virtual world, whereas VR/AR (or your smartphone/computer) are the interface for you to interact with that virtual world.

It does have something in common with platforms like Facebook and Twitter though, being a self-sustaining, persistent environment that carries on regardless of whether users are there or not, making it real-time and not stopping just because you aren’t logged in.

Another is that the metaverse is Web3 based and decentralised.

Unfortunately, this isn’t true either – Web3 is a component, enabling assets to be registered on the blockchain and enabling the use of cryptocurrencies and NFT’s.  It's not necessarily decentralised.  For example, if you imagine the Second Life metaverse, it’s centralised, has its own in-game currency, Linden Dollars, which is bought using fiat via a credit or debit card, and is owned and run by a large corporation called Linden Labs. 

Decentraland, by contrast, is a decentralised and community run metaverse and uses NFTs as in game assets which can be purchased with Cryptocurrency ($MANA) via a Crypto wallet such as Metamask.  Assets (such as apparel or metaverse real estate) are owned as NFTs and can be bought or sold in marketplaces such as Opensea or Rarible, with the added benefit of complete anonymity due to logging in with your Crypto wallet. 

Although you can log in with a guest account, to get the true user experience you do need to have some Crypto-literacy.  This is where there’s a potential stumbling block to user growth for mainstream adoption of decentralised metaverses.  Second life just needs an email address to log in – no worrying about private keys, exchanging fiat for crypto and signing wallet transactions and you can purchase in game currency easily with your debit card.

Are all Metaverses equal?

Well… no.  Another challenge faced by creators within the metaverse is interoperability – you can’t (currently) take assets you purchase in one metaverse to another.  Or walk from The Sandbox into Decentraland or Second life.  There is no current defaqto standard, meaning as of right now, there’s little or no interoperability or cross compatibility between different metaverses.

Because of not having a dependency on decentralisation, as well as no current standardisation, some would say that there’s a risk that the metaverse could develop into an offshoot of current Web2 technologies which are bureaucratic, monetize your data and could potentially be controlled by single entity, such as Meta.  The shift in public awareness of the risks this pose will hopefully influence a more decentralised version of the metaverse.

So will everyone be living their lives “Matrix style” in the metaverse in the near future?

Probably not.  That said, taking Roblox, a free centralised online gaming universe as a use case, 20 million users log in to play daily - albeit these are mainly children. By comparison, a recent article by The Verge quoted Decentraland (seen as a more adult Metaverse) as having only 38 active users in one day (although they didn’t mention that this was purely on the Ethereum blockchain, add in Polygon users, this rises to circa 600).

Although there are lots of predictions by futurists, nobody really knows what the metaverse will look like in 6 months, let alone 6 years but one thing’s a certainty, it’ll be very different to how we currently view it!

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