A look at the metaverse through four lenses of a metamorphosis

What is common to Facebook, Nike, Snap, Nvidia, Microsoft, Epic Games, Tencent and Roblox? All of them are plunging headfirst into the metaverse. I wrote about the metaverse in this publication recently (https://bit.ly/3EPkgw8 ), and sceptically described it as a new name for existing technologies like virtual and augmented reality, multi-player video games and digital twins – all mashed into one. I wasn’t alone – Kevin Roose in the New York Times speculated that is an ‘escape hatch’ for Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook (https://nyti.ms/3qf803Z ). If it is indeed so, Zuckerberg certainly did clamber down that hatch with blinding speed, surprising the world by renaming his $86bn company after it: Meta.

While Facebook might have good reason to do so, it is perhaps worth re-examining what the Metaverse really is. While there are more memes around Meta than actual writings, sorting through them has led me to believe that there are different lens we can use to try understand what it is:

The mixed reality lens: This is largely what Facebook seems to be wanting to do, using Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technology along with other sensors to create a parallel immersive world. As Roose writes “Mr. Zuckerberg painted a picture of the metaverse as a clean, well-lit virtual world, entered with virtual and augmented reality hardware at first and more advanced body sensors later on, in which people can play virtual games, attend virtual concerts, go shopping for virtual goods, collect virtual art, …”. Facebook is also snapping up every AR/VR startup out there, buttressing their vision.

The gaming lens: Some would argue that Massive Multi-player Online Role-Playing Games or MMORPGs, are already the metaverse. Gamers seem to live in Minecraft, or World of Warcraft as avatars in a simulated world already. Companies like Epic Games, owner of Grand Theft Auto, Roblox with 115mn users on its online gaming platforms, and even Microsoft, which now owns Minecraft, seem to be looking at the metaverse through this vantage point.

The video avatar lens: The last two years have taught us to live and work on our computer screens with Zoom and Microsoft Teams. It is perhaps one small step for us to move into a different reality as an avatar there. Microsoft, which also seems to be bitten by the metaverse bug, has unveiled its own version, the ‘enterprise metaverse’ and the first step seems to be how we can attend Teams meetings as our avatars. The Financial Times reports that “…Microsoft would use AI to make an avatar’s lips appear to mouth the words being spoken, and to add facial expressions and hand gestures.” With the arsenal that Microsoft has - 250mn Teams users, AR headset HoloLens, Minecraft - we can expect a further roadmap. In fact, it has started creating an underlying platform Mesh, which “handle far more complex virtual interactions on different types of hardware, from PCs to virtual reality headsets.”

The Crypto/NFT lens: The crypto world has been creating a parallel world under our very noses. It started with alternative money, with Bitcoin and other alt coins. This then extended to a whole alternative financial universe, with DeFi (or Distributed Finance), where every instrument of finance –fixed deposits, derivative trades, bank loans – is now available in a decentralised, crowd-sourced world powered by blockchains. Now this has moved to NFTs or Non-Fungible Tokens, where creativity (like art, music, etc.) can be monetized in a purely alternative, virtual environment. Expect to see this world move to education, recruitment and jobs, and many other facets of what we consider ‘real’.

The metaverse, to me, is not one of the above, but all the above merging into one parallel universe, with its own underlying infrastructure and applications that replicate, and sometimes go beyond, the real world. Perhaps the best description is from Shaan Puri, a serial founder and tweeter. Paraphrasing his Twitter thread (https://bit.ly/30aQIdw ): “Everyone is wrong. Most people think the metaverse is a virtual place. A virtual world, like Minecraft, Roblox, or like Zuck showed in the Facebook demo. But what if it's not a place? It's Not a Place, It's a Time. Yes, a moment in time. You know in AI, there's an idea of ‘the singularity’? It's a moment in time where AI becomes smarter than humans. The metaverse is the moment in time where our digital life is worth more to us than our physical life. This is not an overnight change. It's a gradual change that's been happening for 20 yrs. Every important part of life is going digital. Work --> from factories to laptops. boardrooms to zooms. Friends --> from neighbours to followers. Where do you find likeminded people? Twitter. Reddit. etc. Games --> more kids play Fortnite than basketball & football combined. Identity --> filters are the new makeup. Stories are your personal billboard to broadcast who you are. What matters more. What you look like in real life? or what you look like on Instagram? Everything goes digital. Your friends, your job, your identity. And now with crypto, your assets are online too. Bored Apes are the new Rolex. Fortnite skins are the new skinny jeans. If everyone hangs out online all the time, then your flexes need to be digital. So if you play this forward another 10-20 years - we will cross into the metaverse. The moment in time where digital matters more to us than physical.”

Or maybe the best description of the Metaverse was given by Neal Stephenson who coined the word in his book Snow Crash, where it refers to a shared virtual space inhabited by both humans and digital “daemons”. Stephenson famously said he was just “making shit up”. Maybe, that’s what it is.