It seems like everyone has spent the last year falling over themselves to tell us what the Metaverse is. This week, however, Apple CEO Tim Cook showed he “always thinks differently” by telling us what it isn’t – “the future.”
As reported by CNBC, Cook told Dutch publication Bright that “I’m really not sure the average person can tell you what the metaverse is.”
It’s a fair comment. Since Facebook rebranded itself as Meta, one thing has become clear is that there isn’t much consensus on the matter.
Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg calls it a more immersive, VR-enabled version of Facebook. The success of Fortnite and Roblox portends a future heavily influenced by the mechanics and aesthetics of video games. Proponents of web3 platforms – such as Decentraland and The Sandbox – insist that decentralization is at the heart of the metaverse experience. And the giants of the office and productivity software world – Microsoft and Adobe, for example – speak of an “enterprise metaverse”.
Cook, on the other hand, has mostly avoided the “m” word entirely, so far, and is more keen to talk about the related technology of augmented reality (AR). Apple has not announced any plans to release VR products, but it is strongly believed to be developing an AR product known as Apple Glasses.
My own take on what the Metaverse will be – or in fact is – is pretty simple. It’s a catch-all term that describes what the Internet will evolve into next.
We’ve already had the static web pages of the World Wide Web, the user-generated web of social media, and the internet world everywhere and application-driven of the mobile web. Each new “generation” of the Internet has brought profound and widespread changes to the way we interact with technology and use it to help us in our daily lives, radically transforming the way we communicate, socialize, work, play and let’s buy. All of them took place over the span of a quarter of a century, and one thing is certain, it won’t stop there.
There will be other developments further down the road – perhaps not too far in the future – that will make the digital realm we inhabit today look as antiquated as a Geocities web page from 1998.
And even if the term “metaverse” itself disappears before we get to that point (which I personally don’t think is a bad thing at all), whatever it is, it will indeed be the metaverse.
It may very well bear little resemblance to what we currently think of as the metaverse today – the cartoonish worlds for children offered by gaming platforms, the oddly unsettling, hollow-eyed avatars of Horizons, or the anarchic and free-spirited realm. decentralized web3. Cook may be right that these are all too weird or specialized to be embraced by the general public. After all, it was grandmothers, not gamers, who drove Facebook to stratospheric success.
But that doesn’t mean that the building blocks of these platforms – the things that define them as being a generation beyond today’s most popular platforms – won’t be the building blocks of the “Next Level” Internet.
Let’s look at these building blocks, then. First, it is widely assumed that the Internet will become more immersive and experiential.
The closely related technologies that together are often referred to as Extended Reality (XR) or Mixed Reality (MR) are the tools most likely to enable us to achieve this vastly enhanced level of immersion. In other words, VR and AR.
It seems unlikely that the current trend of spending more and more time online and on screens will reverse any time soon. If so, it is very likely that we will turn to environments that interact more fully with our senses and make our time in virtual worlds more stimulating and exciting.
Does this mean that we are spending more and more time in virtual reality? Maybe – but I agree with Cook when he says that in the short term, at least, AR has the potential to be more transformative. The most interesting and exciting aspect of the metaverse, for me, is not the ability to lock us into imaginary virtual worlds but to blur the boundaries between the real and the virtual. Allowing us to take the best of each area – like the people we know and love from the real world and the speed and convenience of the digital world – and merge them into one hybrid experience.
Another central component of the metaverse is persistence. This means that while we will be able to do whatever we want – work, play, socialize, shop – it will all take place on a unified platform, with a common set of rules, and present us in a consistent way – likely via an avatar.
Third, there is the element of decentralization. Blockchains and other aspects of distributed computing, in theory, give us the ability to create virtual worlds beyond the control of monolithic corporations. The concept of Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) could potentially allow us to create true online democracies – social networks and similar platforms that are under the control of their users rather than whoever owns the servers that run the service and store the data. Distributed storage – as used by blockchain – means that there is no single place where data is stored centrally that a person, company or government could potentially take control of. If widely adopted, web3 could lead to an Internet radically different from what we have today, owned and operated by global mega-corporations.
In short, buying in the Metaverse may not require us to believe, or even truly understand, any of these basics. If the architects of the brave new Internet can pull them together in a way that makes it easier, more interesting, and more fun for us to do more things online, that might be enough. After all, the general public didn’t have to have a deep understanding of how cloud-hosted media streaming for Netflix and Spotify works to completely transform the movie and music industries.
It’s true that it can’t be called “the metaverse” – just as we don’t often hear about the “world web” any more except in a historical context. But I believe that the digital environments of tomorrow will be built around immersion, persistence and, to some extent, decentralization – whatever we call them!
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