To some, it is an exciting new world. To others, it’s just a lot of hot air. But whatever becomes of the metaverse in the coming years, it is fair to say it will exist in some form by the end of the decade—but perhaps not exactly as today’s proponents envision. (Also read: The Metaverse: Possibilities and Perils.)
In short, the metaverse is a virtual world concept first mentioned in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel “Snow Crash.” Today, corporate IT giants like Microsoft, Meta and Epic Games are trying to implement it by creating the “next generation” internet—3D internet.
While Facebook’s recent rebrand into Meta put the concept of the metaverse squarely in the center of public discourse, the technology has actually been under development for decades. Immersive technologies have been around since the 1950s by some reckoning, with more modern digital platforms dating back to the mid-1990s. What these solutions lacked, however, was the infrastructure needed to create an alternate reality that allowed a large number of users to experience it communally.
With today’s far-reaching digital backbone linking massive repositories of data with broadly distributed processing, networking, and storage capabilities on the cloud and the edge, the time has come when the vision of a metaverse can finally move from concept to reality. This is why virtually all of the major players in tech these days, including Alphabet, Apple, Microsoft and Meta are ramping up research efforts around virtual and mixed reality.
At first, we can expect to see multiple metaverses controlled by single entities—such as, for example, “the Meta metaverse” and “the Apple metaverse,”—but eventually these should merge into a single interoperable, but perhaps not fully integrated, virtual or mixed reality ecosystem.
Because the metaverse is currently more of a piecemeal possibility than a tangible virtual reality, it’s difficult to say who “owns” it. Instead, it’s more useful to think of it as a concept being applied to develop the next version of the internet.
Who Will Own the Data?
For us to ever realize a single, interoperable metaverse, the powers currently devising their own metaverses will have to embrace a fair amount of openness in their basic designs. This is likely to run contrary to their commercial instincts.
Why? To start, according to Liz Harkavy, Eddy Lazzarin and Arianna Simpson of Andreessen Horowitz’s a16z crypto investment unit, an open metaverse must:
This will require a number of features that most major tech firms might not be so willing to provide, including the right to own digital assets—not just rent them—and the even more unwelcome notion that users, not providers, own their own identities so they can interact with the virtual world without restrictions or centralized data collection.
And if we want the metaverse to become a truly effective means of digital interaction, rather than just another escapist fantasy, providers will have to warm up to the idea of community ownership—where all stakeholders have a say in the ecosystem’s governance proportional to their involvement. (Also read: Who Owns the Data in a Blockchain Application – and Why It Matters.)
So far, however, it seems like these are some pretty big hills to climb given the amount of capital invested so far and the returns that are expected. According to CNBC, Meta is said to be looking at fees amounting to 47.5% of the cost of digital assets sold on its Horizon Worlds platform—including a 30% “hardware platform fee” on games sold through its Meta Quest virtual gaming store. And this is on top of the 17.5% fee Horizon Worlds charges on its own.
All of this puts Apple’s 30% fee for in-app purchases via the App Store to shame, and it provides a glimpse of how the big players are already looking to exert control over their own pieces of the metaverse.
Trying to comprehend the metaverse right now is like trying to comprehend the internet in the 1980s, Vice’s Shamani Joshi says.
Back then, there was ample discussion about what the internet would be and how it would function, but much of this speculation turned out to be wrong. Still, the building blocks already in place by 1980 led to the internet’s acceptance beyond the military and academic communities by the mid-90s, allowing it to become a significant commercial and cultural phenomenon. And there is no reason to think the same can’t happen with the metaverse. (Also read: Gaming, Fashion, Music: The Metaverse Across Industries.)
So at the moment, the best way to imagine the metaverse is as a 3D model of the internet in which users don’t just tap and click their way to new experiences but engage them viscerally as an alternate digital existence.
The impact of this change could be significant—far more than the change the internet ushered in. Gartner predicts a quarter of the world’s population will spend at least an hour in the metaverse as early as 2026.
Broadly, people will do in the metaverse what they normally do online and in real life—working, shopping, socializing, learning and consuming entertainment—but with added capabilities that can only be provided virtually.
The internet became ubiquitous because no one owned it. The basic protocols were open for anyone to use and many companies successfully leveraged this framework to provide unique services that generated billions of dollars.
The metaverse, on the other hand, is being developed by the largest of the large tech companies—in no small part to produce substantial returns on their investments. This is understandable, but it restricts their ability to engage users with an open, productive, entertaining and ultimately satisfying experience.
But the tech industry is nothing if not innovative. If users find themselves chafing within the digital titans’ restrictive metaverses, they will most likely seek out more rewarding experiences—or maybe just create their own.