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A primer on the Metaverse

Among the trending things in technology is the Metaverse. It lacks a precise definition, but in short, it is a perpetual digital multiuser space, involving virtual and augmented reality. VR and AR technologies have been developing slowly in the last 10 years, so why is Metaverse trending? A boost was given by Mark Zuckerberg and his decision to go all in with the metaverse. The rebranding of the company from Facebook to Meta is a bold step, echoing in the whole internet industry. Some people see it as not less than the next generation of the internet (Reference). So the metaverse is trending, and it is neither a simple thing nor a new thing. So this article peeks into this topic with a lot of its dimensions.

An imaginary 3D metaverse world with futuristic buildings, flowers, trees, water and a beach.
The metaverse is a collection of virtual worlds, like this futuristic 3D world, generated by stable-diffusion.

The academic definition of the Metaverse

As the metaverse is under development, the width of the definition is broader. Mystakidis defined the metaverse as follows:

“The Metaverse is the post-reality universe, a perpetual and persistent multiuser environment merging physical reality with digital virtuality. It is based on the convergence of technologies that enable multisensory interactions with virtual environments, digital objects and people such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Hence, the Metaverse is an interconnected web of social, networked immersive environments in persistent multiuser platforms. It enables seamless embodied user communication in real-time and dynamic interactions with digital artifacts. Its first iteration was a web of virtual worlds where avatars were able to teleport among them. The contemporary iteration of the Metaverse features social, immersive VR platforms compatible with massive multiplayer online video games, open game worlds and AR collaborative spaces.” [1]

With this rich description, what are the origins of the metaverse?

Origin and History

The term metaverse was first coined by Neil Stephenson in the book Snow Crash. Since then, the idea has taken several iterations. Avi Bar-Zeev visualized the different stages of the metaverse perfectly. Early implementations of virtual worlds were created, in the 1980s, such as Habitat, the first high-profile commercial application of virtual world technology. It was the first to use the term “avatar”, the inhabitants of the virtual world, in the virtual world. Another milestone was Worlds, Inc., the first virtual World with full three-dimensional graphics. It enabled users to socialize in 3D spaces.

In recent years, the software Second Life was most close to a real incarnation of the metaverse. Second Life, developed by Linden Labs, was hype around 2008. Many studies have been done on social topics and Second Life, but it was not a breakthrough into the mainstream. While it still is in use (as Linden Labs states), it could be told, that there was a kind of metaverse winter.

In 2012, Google announced its product Google Glass, a head-mounted device, with a display and a camera. It was the first kind of Augmented Reality (AR) device, with broad public attention. Since Google Glass, AR and VR devices developed in small iterations. The goal is to create devices which humans can wear all the time and anywhere, but until now this vision was not achieved.

Since 2020, maybe fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, the metaverse had another spring. Many implementations emerged. One to mention is Decentraland, an implementation of a metaverse based on web3 technologies. The data is stored decentralized on a distributed ledger called the blockchain. It is a public and decentralized database. Decentralizing and auditing the data and the ledger is done by smart contracts. Users can buy virtual land, paid with their own cryptocurrency Mana, and the purchase is stored as a smart contract.

Finally, the company Meta started a metaverse called Horizon Worlds. While investing a lot of money in the metaverse, in comparison to other existing virtual worlds, it is not the top-notch virtual world.

Use Cases

After all this, what will we do in the metaverse? Or should the question be: what not? In general, a virtual world could include any activities of the real world, just some more like flying through the sky and space. If the metaverse augments reality, people will still do the same things, just in another way. On a high level, human activities can be categorized as Work, Duty and Leisure. Work includes all kinds of jobs, such as collaborative work (e.g. Brainstorming, modelling, virtual conferences), office work (e.g. Documents, Spreadsheets), shopping assistance in a virtual shop, learning (e.g. E-Learning, training use of machinery), or construction worker (e.g. controlling a robot, designing virtual buildings). Duties cover doing errands, managing financials, cleanup, taking care of government business (possible in Seoul) etc. While leisure has maybe the most explored use cases, like gaming, sports, entertainment, virtual travel and relaxation.

The described use cases can all be done alone or together in a group of arbitrary size.

Metaverse and web3

Metaverse is also used with the term web3. The term web3, or web 3.0 was used for a machine-readable internet, where websites provide semantic information, processable by computers. The number 3 is regarded as the version of the internet. While there is no manufacturer or standards organization, it is defined by the Zeitgeist. As the semantic web is existing, it is not regarded as the next version of the internet, such as the social web РWeb 2.0. The next wave of technologies arose around decentralization, most blockchain-based apps. Many people from that party proclaim these technologies as the next internet, therefore they took over the term web3. While web3 is a bundle of technologies based on blockchain, the metaverse is not necessarily based on blockchain nor on a decentralized infrastructure. Second Life or Metas Horizon Worlds is an example of a centralized, no blockchain-included Metaverse. While Decentraland is an example of such a decentralized Blockchain Metaverse. In conclusion, the metaverse is independent of web3, but it can be built with web3 technologies.

Beyond decentralization, other blockchain-based technologies could be part of the metaverse implementation. Smart contracts for digital ownership, like property in the virtual world or 3D models. Cryptocurrencies can be used for the payment of digital goods.

Standards

Almost everybody in the space of the metaverse agrees, that there is no single company that can build the metaverse alone. Also, the call is to create an open metaverse, like the internet itself. Therefore, interoperability is needed. In 2022 the Metaverse Standards Forum was founded. It rapidly grew from 37 founding in June 2022, to over 1500 in just two months. As this shows the interest of the internet industry and academics in the metaverse, it also shows the desire for standards.

As the metaverse forum is still forming, some focus domains are declared, including but not limited to:

  • Interactive 3D assets and photorealistic rendering
  • Human interface and interaction paradigms including AR, VR and XR
  • User-created content
  • Avatars, identity management and privacy
  • Financial transactions
  • IoT and digital twins
  • Geospatial systems

The need for technical standards is there and especially ethical standards should be applied to these virtual worlds before everything ends up as it went with the social media networks.

Critics and Challenges for the metaverse

The overall challenge is how to transition from a complex but completely independent immersive environment set to a massive integrated network of 3D virtual worlds or the metaverse, thus creating parallel contexts for human interaction and culture. On a high level, this includes technical challenges, social acceptance, and the establishment of a permanent society in the metaverse.

Technology

Technology-wise, a lot of different metaverse implementations exist. They don’t follow a single pattern and are not connected. Architectural aspects vary from centralized versus decentralized approaches, and different access technologies (Web, VR, AR). Standards may change this, but there is also a mix of interests in the form of commercial claiming, social network market leader tendencies and more. Therefore, it is open to how the situation develops.

Another technical aspect is the progress of immersion and immersive hardware. At the moment, the AR/VR technology is mainly bulky headsets and clunky devices (gloves or vests), which are seen as a burden, more than an evolution. Miniaturization of this hardware will progress, and it can be expected that (commercial) interests will drive money into this field, leading to more research.

Overall Security

A large metaverse with lots of users is likely a target of hackers. Therefore, security is highly relevant but complex to achieve. The internet is around for decades, and still not a very secure place. The metaverse is similarly complex and has the unfair disadvantage, that it needs to stand against highly skilled hackers and criminals. The complexity demands security models on different layers and will be a research and development topic in the future.

Next to security, privacy will be a challenge. Design for high privacy is good for human rights. In contrast, high privacy attracts criminals. Trust, Asset Ownership.

Authentication

Authentication is a twofold challenge. Of course, users should be authenticated to the metaverse to buy things or do transactions, but also to hold people accountable for their actions. This can be a challenging design decision because the metaverse is a virtual space where users can create and assume various identities, their avatars. In the game world, nicknames and virtual identities are deeply anchored. Preserving this contradicts the demand for authentication. As a result, ensuring the authenticity of users in the metaverse can be difficult.

Authority

One of the major critical questions is about the governance of the metaverse: How will make the rules and laws for the metaverse? What the world learned from chats and social media and the dark net, such virtual worlds need governance and rules to be a mostly legal place. But the metaverse, the collection of multiple virtual worlds, does not seem to be a thing where traditional governments apply well. The idea of a decentralized government fits this challenge because traditional borders don’t apply. While on the internet, at least companies or physical servers can be located in a country, for the metaverse it will be different. Still, servers are involved there, but if the design of the metaverse is to be independent of a single entity, servers can be anywhere. A community-based approach with democratic structures, written in a smart contract would suit this idea. But the challenge is to build it in detail.

The connecting question is about the enforcement of the rules. Technically they can be built in the virtual worlds. But for many cases, it is hardly possible to be enforced technically. A solution could be based on the separation of powers, but who will be the powers?

As described, a lot of questions are unanswered. But with the current hype on top of the long-term demand, it is obvious that some of these questions will soon be answered and the look into the future is worthwhile.

Forecasts and Outlook

The metaverse or virtual worlds have been around for ages. The current hype is fueled by the Facebook rebrand and Web3 topics. Besides that, the technologies are mature and companies and people are investing energy into the metaverse idea. So it can be expected, that we see more of this kind of things in the future. What will it look like? This is an open question. Even Neil Stephenson put into question if the metaverse will be AR, VR or just 3D? Immersion is what counts most.

Another question is if there will be one metaverse? Tony Parisi put the answer in the first of seven rules of the metaverse: “Rule #1: There is only one Metaverse.”. The following explanation shows, that it is a collection of multiple virtual worlds. It is like the internet today, it is one internet, a collection of multiple websites and (social) networks. This explanation leaves enough room for ideas of the metaverse.

As with most technologies, it is all about use cases. The question to ask is which use cases work better in interactive, immersive storytelling? One clear answer to this is games. A lot of games have immersive virtual worlds and people use them actively. Therefore, it has been predictable that social interactivity would enter such worlds. One example of this is MovieNite in the game Fortnite. Other existing use cases are serious games and e-learning. Training in virtual spaces has been explored intensively and has proven value. The use case of presenting multimedia in a metaverse opens new ways to collaboratively enjoy leisure time.

What use case is next? Since the metaverse can’t predict the future (yet), it is all about guessing. Shopping is a highly rated use case. It is not about wearing a nice 3D jacket on your clunky Horizon Worlds Avatar. Photorealistic avatars already exist and can be a better manikin for accurately fitting 3D models of real-world clothes. Scan your body once for an accurate model and you can test fit clothes. The same principles work with furniture. 3D models of furniture exists anyway, so why should’t them be displayed in a virtual immersive world?

Further use cases are in the collaborative space of design, music and more. It is no wonder that Deloitte or Gartner predict a growing multi-billion dollar market. Just the future will tell, where it will end up.

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