The meta generation
If you could have been one of the first people to work on the internet in the early 90s, mobile in the early 00s, or blockchain in the early 10s, would you have done it? Well, now is your chance. People often talk about AI in the context of workforce automation, but that is far from the only application. Pour another cup of coffee and let's dive into how the future will be filled with AI, APIs and metaverses. In this article we set out to understand how the metaverse will be structured and how emerging technology can help us get there.
Need a quick summary instead? Check out the presentation version.
Right now there are some standards for APIs that are well known, but yet they still range greatly in end-design. We are at most halfway to interoperability. What happens when we allow many services to work together? Well, that is where the metaverse springs to life. What is the metaverse? It sounds like some wacky silicon valley term, but don't lump it in with other buzzwords just yet. I define a metaverse as a persistent system where everything is able to understand everything else. A virtual world of real-time shared experiences offering radically lower structural limitations. A place that builds off of real-life abilities, yet greatly expands potentials. If that is hard to imagine, then you are on the right track, as this doesn't exist today. But it will. People have been thinking about this concept for years, but the actual construction is just starting now.
There have been a few popular discussions on this topic lately, for instance a great podcast by Patrick O'Shaunassey and Matthew Ball discussing the How Epic Games is making bets on the Unreal Engine and to gain early marketshare into this space.
While I recommend listening to the full episode, a high-level summary goes like this:
Epic created the Unreal Engine, an impressive piece of 3D graphics software that allows for virtual worlds to be modeled. It powers many major games, such as Fortnite.
From their website – "Unreal Engine is the world’s most open and advanced real-time 3D creation tool. Continuously evolving to serve not only its original purpose as a state-of-the-art game engine, today it gives creators across industries the freedom and control to deliver cutting-edge content, interactive experiences, and immersive virtual worlds."
They are making it cheap for other developers to use their engine, not just for building games, but to lay the groundwork for more open-world use cases (transactions, events, exploration).
Fortnite, the large-scale shooter game, has been used to host concert and screen movies.
While I genuinely loved the discussion, I want to play the devils advocate for a moment. To me the frequent association of Fortnite as being version one of the metaverse does it a disservice. As soon as you map a future concept to current known, such as Uber for X, people tend to stop thinking bigger. This holds true for any not-yet-ready topic and largely is why so many people have different takes on blockchain tech. When talking about a breaking technology the truly valuable potentials are often only realized when thinking beyond what exists today. This is uncomfortable, time consuming, and often avoided. When people argue that we have metaverses here now, my knee-jerk reaction is to disagree. A product that people use for tangential or unintended reasons is still just a product. Having 10 games and apps that all communicate and work together on the Unreal Engine? That sounds like the v1 metaverse. Just like with the internet, there will be many generations of metaverses as the concept matures. /rant
What are the main features?
Let's break down the core attributes of the metaverse. While the definition of what qualifies as the metaverse can be argued for days, the basic concepts will hold everywhere. To build a virtual world, you need to make sure it can be widely accessed, stays consistent in experience, and doesn't artificially limit what can be made.
Said another way it needs to be accessible, persistent, verifiable, and interoperable. (get ready to hear these words more in the coming years). These properties are dependent on one another.
If you are building a model of the world in bits, there is no reason to artificially limit access to it. This is a problem of language, laws, and expectations. How can you deliver a consistent experience that everyone has a chance to participate in? This is one reason decentralized systems (blockchains) are frequently mentioned when discussing the metaverse. No one entity controls them, which makes it harder to ban or control. ie. Bitcoin is worth the same amount in every country.
The internet today is a hodgepodge of live and asynchronous activities. The web doesn't depend on the physical time to deliver its contents. The metaverse on the other hand will never sleep. It will have the concept of time baked-in. This means that the current state of the virtual world will always be changing. In this environment it becomes very important to make sure the right things persist across time. If you buy something in the metaverse, you need to make sure that it will still be there next time you want to use it. You need to be you no matter how you log on, where you are, or what actions you take. Persistence is not only personal, it needs to be spatial. In a virtual world, gathering in at a specific place needs to be identifiable and able to be revisited over long periods of time. This is a challenge considering how often people update software.
People in real life can prove who they are. They have birth certificates, bank accounts, SSNs, and unique physical characteristics. Identity forms the foundation for the multitude of trust-based activities we take for granted. You can loan a friend your car because you know who they are and how to find them. In a digital-only world this is a hard problem. Related to this is the concept of digital uniqueness, where something is provably finite. This is called non-fungiblity (a mouthful for sure), and it provides the ability to truly 'own' a one-of-a-kind digital good. This concept is often the headline feature of blockchains.
How can you make a system widely accessible when it will require depending in thousands of individual resources? When you buy a product in real life, you can use it anywhere, and in any way you please. How can you take a digital good from one place to another? How can companies around the world build applications and experiences that can be work together and not reinvent the wheel? Objects in the metaverse should work when you interact with them. This is a classic problem faced by video games, that will get worse when there is no storyline to follow. A truly open world could require unending engineering effort.
Putting the pieces together
If this still seems too abstract, you are not alone. No one knows what the metaverse will end up looking like, we can only make our best guesses about the characteristics that fill form it. Note that I did not include any mention of graphics, look and feel, or hardware platforms when describing the metaverse. That is because I consider the most pure interpretation to be a data layer, with the final rendering performed by any device a user wishes. You should be able to have a text-only metaverse experience. Right now there are no wrong answers.
The easiest way to picture this is to think of the current internet, which is also a data layer. The metaverse is basically an evolved web, where operations happen in shared time. That is to say that there is no refresh, no resets , it just keeps running for everyone all the time. The best analogy I have is when you are done playing a video game you power it off (time stops), when you are done with your day in real life you go to sleep (time keeps running).
The metaverse will effectively be a network of interconnected services that allow for users to perceive and take actions in shared-time.
To connect to the metaverse we can use any type of hardware, from a cell phone to AR glasses. The likely starting point will be similar to video games, with computers and consoles providing rich experiences. Mobile devices, like the Nintendo switch or phones will provide on-the-go access to the world.
The platform is what the metaverse actually looks like to the user. This will likely be a game engine that can display complex graphics, such as Unreal or Unity (more on these later). The platform layer will also handle user interactions with metaverse services, such as displaying products, handling payments, storing and displaying data, etc. These services will be what most people will name when referencing the metaverse, as they are the obvious visual representation.
What does this enable?
The benefits from a well structured, common data layer are innumerable. With exceptions, if you can do something in real life, you should be able to do it in the metaverse. Everything from exploring new cultures and meeting people to operating a business. You should be able to have a virtual meeting with colleagues, take an engaging tour of another planet, or walk (or fly) into a subreddit.
The metaverse will be the king of strong network effects, where every person that joins makes it better. This beneficial flywheel effect will work very well to help it exponentially gain traction as it grows. Unlike social networks, a virtual world will have tangible benefits beyond just communication. You will be able to use the metaverse alone and still find it interesting, useful, and entertaining.
This is the next evolution of how the content will be produced and consumed. We used to be purely content consumers (movies), then we became one-to-many content creators (Instagram), now we are entering a period where we will participate in the content. This is naturally a more engaging environment for most people, where they will be encouraged to be proactive in what they consume, how they discuss it, and what actions they take.
Until now we have discussed how the metaverse would look if there were only one, idyllic virtual world where everyone interacts. This is the world consumers want; a shared-experience environment where everything just works. Sadly, this is far from realistic.
Owning distribution in a market is incredibly valuable. Today, companies like Apple and Google own the access points to major app stores and profit handsomely from doing so. This inescapable incentive for control will push every major company to create their own version of a metaverse. Unless someone makes a big bet on open-source development, there is almost no way that we don't have dozens of entrants vying for a slice of this pie.
Why is this bad? The issue lies in the unprecedented scope a metaverse. Imagine a major company that has the ability to place a fee on every aspect of your digital life. This anti-consumer potential is why many people are hesitant to start building. But competition is a good thing, right? The problem of having many independent multiverses is in developing and enforcing standards to ensure the core features are upheld. Fragmentation makes everything harder to understand, develop, and instill strong conviction. As shown below, with a multiple metaverses both users and service providers will have to model their lives in multiple worlds. Without a standardized protocol for communication between these virtual spaces, development would be painful and expensive.
This situation has strong parallels with how cryptocurrencies went through a boom and bust period. Where intense interest and promise was met with unending complexity and reinventing the wheel.
Edit: this piece by Matt Ball also does a great job at breaking down the metaverse in a similar fashion. I wish I had read it before writing this essay!
Cool, but how is this about AI?
The more data that exists, the more machine learning is required to make sense of it. Creating, monitoring, and profiting from the metaverse will involve many types of systems to be in place. Let's look at some opportunities where AI is likely to drive incredible value for those that build it.