Will the real Metaverse please stand up? #SecondLife
Over the years I've continually heard how many different virtual environments are "a Metaverse" or (shudders) "the Metaverse". Recently I read the question "Is Minecraft the Metaverse?" on a random blog post somewhere.
From my point of view, this is a train of thought that makes me twitch every time I hear it. While I understand that virtual world participants have the best intentions, I have to admit that their notions of "Metaverse" are woefully misguided at best.
The Metaverse is a singular construct much in the same manner as The Internet or the World Wide Web. I cringe whenever I hear people refer to different virtual worlds as "a Metaverse" or "The Metaverse" because it reads/sounds to me in the same manner as if one were to say many things are many Internets. We don't state the Internet in plural form, nor should anyone state the Metaverse in plurality.
I get my notion of the Metaverse from many sources, but most importantly the genre which spawned it overall. To this end, we're talking about Cyberpunk culture.
The construct of a Metaverse within this genre was varied but held a common theme altogether. In the book Neuromancer by William Gibson, it was a matrix - an endless sort of digital void with blue grid lines extending forever. Things were constructed on this grid at varying points and complexity, programs ran on this grid, etc. Then came Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, which for all intents and purposes is the cited inspiration for most virtual environments in the industry - at least if we look at systems like ActiveWorlds or Second Life.
In this same genre also existed systems like you would see in Shadowrun, and this is one of my favorite descriptions for a Metaverse construct. There were things like nodes, virtual FTP systems - a three dimensional free-space with ICE security and more.
Shadowrun on Sega Genesis | Hope you brought a decent deck, chummer
What I see in The Metaverse, a real one anyway, is not a singular construct but a contextual and decentralized construct which defines an overall system. While Neal Stephenson may have eloquently described The Street in Snow Crash, I believe that in a true Metaverse, The Street was simply a main gateway world (possibly the oldest and most popular). That being said, I don't believe the entire Metaverse was The Street. It wouldn't make any sense to assert that if we put it into context with its predecessors - The World Wide Web & Internet.
However large or popular a singular destination on the Internet is, no single destination comprises the entire Internet. When we put it into context with the genre of Cyberpunk, and not just a singular destination view of a particular novel, we see that the Metaverse is just a 3D Internet.
Existing in The Metaverse were many gateways of entry, many destinations, and many contexts, but they shared a common protocol and standard. In this context, then, places such as Second Life consist of similarly The Street context, but then other destinations in the Metaverse existed such as (in context) Open Simulator, and related spinoff systems utilizing similar variations. We also would say that maybe destinations such as Kaneva, There, and (at least minimally) Blue Mars were destinations in the overall Metaverse but not a single one was the Metaverse itself.
I have to momentarily pause and mention that even in The Street context, Second Life fails miserably. In order to have The Street, a virtual environment must be a contiguous virtual land mass which is traversable in circumference. As in, I could start walking from the entry and eventually travel around the virtual world to return to my starting point.
Google Earth I suppose lets you pull that off, at least the contiguous sphere of a planet, and with Sketchup I suppose you could place rudimentary models. However, that being said, Google Earth is a Paraverse at best. Minecraft, then gets a second look because it almost comes close to meeting the requirements. However, it’s a single destination among many possible destinations, and no manner by which to seamlessly traverse them all under a passport – yet.
I give Minecraft the “yet” because you do have a singular login, and with that login you can join many servers. So the passport is rudimentary implemented, and the planet twice the size of Earth is there as well, but I couldn’t walk around the virtual world and return to where I began. I couldn’t seamlessly transport from one space to another, and (to wit) the concurrency rate of any of these systems is still miserable. Even after all of this, I’d still dismiss Minecraft simply because it isn’t able to talk to any other system but its own.
The problem with virtual worlds and virtual reality is that there seems to be no clear differentiation as to what constitutes them - except in the minds of futurists like myself who make such distinctions and state merely:
The Metaverse is a decentralized construct of three dimensional virtual environments whereby the environments themselves are the product of the end-users which inhabit such spaces. Each virtual space may behave differently or be controlled by differing interests, but they share a standard methodology of ubiquitous access. Within these multiple contexts exists ubiquity of access and interoperability whereby a single means of access can traverse all spaces within the connected Metaverse.
To put it into better light, we continue to compare the Metaverse to the World Wide Web.
Now you understand my frustration with the semantics of The Metaverse terminology and usage today. These virtual environments are destinations in a possible Metaverse in the same manner as Google and Yahoo are websites on the web.
I state possible Metaverse because to this day nobody is talking to each other in a standardized fashion, and that bothers me for different reasons. For now, what we have is decidedly not a Metaverse but a lot of proprietary stand-alone virtual worlds. I hate to burst people's bubbles, but there is no Metaverse.
The distinction between Metaverse and Video Game is also fairly straight forward, in that a video game differentiation is a matter of contextual insight. World of Warcraft is not a Metaverse enabled system because the virtual environment itself is a closed construct whereby the participants are interacting on a linear model. The environment and media is predefined, with only the variation of interaction within that predefined space being the dynamic aspect. In the Metaverse - the context itself is open to interpretation by the participants, as well as the very construct itself which begins with a totally blank slate.
Therein is the major reason that Minecraft is not a Metaverse, let alone the Metaverse. By definition what you may create within the construct of Minecraft is limited by the recipes which are predefined. I’m sure you can build things there, but you are severely limited still compared to a virtual environment such a Second Life wherein you have LSL and Mono scripting. I call that a definite step up, but not quite total freedom.
As far as reaching for a true Metaverse designation, Linden Lab would first have to understand that the idea of “Shared Experience” is absolute bullshit. If you want to define yourself as the Metaverse, or at least the first major construct within the Metaverse, and set a precedent for others to join on, you have to take a hard look at the Web Browser itself. There is an underlying “shared experience” that is HTML5, much in the same manner that Second Life would have assets. After that, it’s up in the air as to how the end-user experience plays out. Plenty of customization options and contextual modifications make no two experiences totally the same – and in the Metaverse those plugins are the same as slots used on your deck, or third party additions which fundamentally change your viewer to add or remove features even if those changes differentiate the “shared experience”.
This differentiation is very important to understand because it's a metaphorical context understanding, and it is the underlying definition which drives social media altogether. A gaming context is predefined, and the experience is set up for you like an interactive choose your own adventure novel. There is a linear flow to the experience, and it is a controlled manner. In the Metaverse, there are no options other than to say that the participants are expected to define their own experience in totality. The company which controls the destination does not (or should not) be defining the in-world experience, but instead the participants should be.
If we look at Linden Lab policies, you can begin to understand that whenever that rule is broken when dealing with a Metaverse context, there is backlash for obvious reasons. When we really think about it, the Metaverse is a 3D Social Media outlet of experience. This however doesn’t insinuate that trying to redefine the rules of social ecosystem is a good idea – which is why the social media integration aspect of Second Life has largely failed. Not because integrating social media like Twitter, Facebook, etc into Second Life is a bad idea, but because the particular methodology and thinking behind that implementation particularly was poorly thought out and is a prime example of otherwise intelligent people acting incredibly stupid.
Twitter provides the platform, the participants provide the flood of content and experience for the ecosystem. Social media in general works like this as well, and it’s only when the service provider company decides to personally meddle in that ecosystem that the proverbial shit hits the fan. Hands-down, this has been the case time and again for Linden Lab, Active Worlds, and every company which started as a sandbox environment and later decided to start stepping on toes in their own ecosystem or other ecosystems by offering the same content options that their own participants where already handling. It’s sabotage at best.
I’m going to rattle off some prerequisites that should be met prior to anyone describing anything as The Metaverse or a construct within The Metaverse, just to set the record straight.
There is no central server for assets, or specifically for authentication. A virtual world within The Metaverse is akin to setting up a web server. Certain spaces may be gateways, but overall they are not the choking point of control no more than any single destination online in the world wide web would constitute a singular entry into the online world. Authentication may be centralized for your “passport” or you may have multiple “passports” which can be used within the virtual environment altogether. So when you log into the Metaverse, your credentials are universal across all participating constructs. The assets themselves also are decentralized, meaning no single datacenter houses them, and in fact the participants themselves are part of that asset storage and retrieval system.
A singular viewer which is extensible through third parties, and provides a standardized basis for interaction only, while additional functionality can be “plugged in” at the user’s discretion. In short the experience is modular and the interface is minimalistic by default. Just like I can access FTP, HTTP, etc through a web browser, and plugins by third parties extend the functionality for my web browser, and third parties are free to build their own web browsers with whatever abilities they choose – so would a Metaverse Viewer achieve. One viewer, modular, extensible, and very capable to meet the needs of many.
They should all be a collective construct. Not just Second Life and OpenSim, but every virtual environment that wishes to call themselves “Metaverse Compliant” should be talking the same language and together be considered a contiguous space.
The centralized server methodology for glass ceiling concurrency is not acceptable. Lessons Learned from LucasFilm’s Habitat eloquently defines this issue and states the solution since 1991. It is an absolute travesty that not a single company in twenty years has actually implemented it, and more so that their concurrency issues directly stem from that blatant ignorance of the subject.
Dynamic Content Creation/Consumption
There are no preset goals, no predefined recipes. You are given a toolset and encouraged to define all aspects of your virtual world from the ground up. The experience is asynchronous and fluid, with little if anything to hinder this ecosystem. Even the viewer/program is up for interpretation by the ecosystem – with only some base definitions of standards to work from in order to maintain a minimal expectation of ubiquity. In this context “shared experience” is far too broad of a term to invoke.
There is no such thing as a producer or consumer in this ecosystem, but instead only the new social media breed known as Prosumers.
Epilogue | Final Thoughts
That’s not to say the Metaverse will never exist. Far from it, actually. What we’re seeing today are the beginnings of that Metaverse construct forming, gaining ground, and experiencing growing pains through every phase in this evolution.
I understand that the population really wants to see the Metaverse, and they are at least partially right for identifying at least the base components of what will make up the actual Metaverse when it exists. That being said, we must not confuse the sum of the parts for the whole.
Systems like Second Life, ActiveWorlds, Kaneva, There, and even (possibly) Minecraft are merely individual parts of a greater whole that is the eventual Metaverse. They are one of many modes of context, experience and immersion in a sea of many which are interconnected under a single ubiquitous access and protocol of interoperability.
Since that doesn’t exist yet, it is safe to say there is no Metaverse – but we’ve at least begun to correctly identify what will comprise it when somebody decides to actually go ahead and build it.
What we have today is simply the inkling of the many things that the Metaverse ultimately would be, but spread out among countless systems and never all in one spot. What the Metaverse would be, is all of those things in one program, wherein the “companies” provide service access points and facilitate content creation under the premise that each company is a “Burbclave” in the digital world. No single entity has yet to put the puzzle together, and such far I have seen only many years of companies snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The program would be built as a modular expansion system inherently, the interface would be minimalistic and intuitive, contextual for everything. The Metaverse will seamlessly integrate into your real life as well through Augmented Reality, creating a hybrid of the two and blurring the lines between real and virtual.
The Metaverse will be many things to many people, but what it is not is what we have today.
Y.T. (Yours Truly) Picture courtesy of
Shelby Rasmuson in Second Life