I have been a technologist for quite some time, and over the years, I’ve witnessed the evolution of several technologies. They often follow a similar path, beginning in early obscurity, before suddenly catapulting at a seemingly arbitrary point into the domain of wild hype. This quickly explodes into an insane level of popularity as they reach the apogee of their triumph.
In like fashion, I saw personal computers go from fantasy to reality; I witnessed XML rise from an obscure vision to its current complete ubiquity in computing; as well as several other cases in which technologies became so successful (although not always in a linear fashion) that it looked, after the fact, as though they had never met any resistance along the way. With maturity, a formative new technology will blend into the background, like an assumption that remains unspoken.
When does a new technology become an “idea whose time has come”? Each one is different, but usually there are prerequisites that must be resolved, such as technical dependencies, production constraints or business/political realities, in addition to wide-spread awareness and buy-in to core concepts.
2021 is a year in which the “Metaverse” has, awkwardly, drummed up the requisite hype of a revolutionary technology, while (by the admission of its leaders) it remains in its infancy, and is profoundly incomplete. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, so this topic manages to spawn misinformation and confusion on a scale almost comparable to that of its potential benefit to humanity. As one group rushes to define it, recklessly (for example the more crude “Web 3.0” visions), this gives others an easy target to knock down. In generic non-technical news, there is more heat than light around the Metaverse at this point in time.
I feel very fortunate to have encountered this concept well before the hype set in, and I’d like to provide a brief explanation of the fundamentals under which I believe it was envisioned (and will endure as the vision that I hope wins out in the end), as well as offer some pointers to sources of information untainted by hype or commercialization.
Early pure visions
I didn’t hear the term “Metaverse” until the 2000s, but I encountered the concept of Virtual Reality in the 1990s. VRML and X3D were the most exciting “future” specifications at the time of the WWW’s ascent. Clearly, the hardware wasn’t ready for it: having gone through digital audio in the 1980s I didn’t relish the frustration of conceptual perfection that couldn’t yet be made tangible. Still, I had a pretty decent understanding of the goals, and as hardware performance accelerated along its inevitable upward path, I experimented in Java with early 3D and VR specifications.
There came a time at some point in the early 2000s when I experienced “real” VR: SecondLife burst on the scene, bringing with it an immersive 3D experience (if your computer was good enough), and its own currency! The economic vibrance of VR came across loud and clear when my kids subscribed to Club Penguin (a flavor of VR that was 2D, and thus worked at scale on devices). And right around that time, I started seeing headsets at programming meetups in San Francisco.
It was obvious that immersive VR was very cool, and equally obvious that hardware and software had to become a bit better and cheaper before VR could attain ubiquity. In parallel, standards rose to the occasion: one in particular, WebGL, showed great promise. But, as I had learned the hard way while witnessing Microsoft’s aggressive resistance to web standards for over a decade, there was risk that WebGL could face similar opposition. In January 2014, I attended a WebGL meetup in San Francisco, where I first got to meet Tony Parisi (distinguished co-author of the first VRML specification). I wrote this blog post and quoted Tony:
“Tim Cook if you’re listening, let’s talk. I’ll even come down to Cupertino”
— Tony Parisi, January 2014
I dug in for a long and protracted, standards vs. monopoly battle, much as we’d seen previously with XML, XSLT and SVG in browsers, as well as general web standards in browsers (especially those of the Microsoft flavor). I knew that WebGL would win in the end. But Apple didn’t turn out to be nearly as stubborn as Microsoft had been, and by June of 2014 WebGL was fully supported.
At a meetup a year later, in January 2015, Tony was able to cite stunning progress: 3 billion WebGL-enabled devices. And at this meetup, the immersive VR experience wasn’t the big obstacle (the Oculus was still the size of a heavy helmet at the time, but we all knew that wouldn’t last long). The question wasn’t “can you do the most obvious VR things?” but much more seriously, “what does the long-term landscape of this technology look like, in its entirety? How will it all come together?” And of course, “how open and free will it be?” Even the leaders of the largest organizations involved spoke to the need for inclusion, and the value of diversity and plurality. Nobody wanted to repeat those failures that we’d seen at different points in the evolution of the web, when large companies thought they could subvert standards and fundamental technologies into proprietary monopolies.
This blog post and the videos it references captures that meetup, I hope. The Metaverse was one big, fun, exciting question. Yes, a virtual experience can happen, in an app or across the web, but how do you move from one virtual world to another? How do you link them? What “XR” (AR, VR, and MR) use cases haven’t even been conceived yet? And how will 2-D and immersive experiences relate or co-exist? As Tony explained, “we don’t have the mouse of VR yet”. The Metaverse was, and in large part remains, beautiful yet un-charted territory.
No the Metaverse isn’t Facebook
Rumor has it that Mark Zuckerberg made “Snow Crash” required reading for Facebook leaders at one point. This is the prophetic 1992 novel in which the word “Metaverse” is first used, and it’s a prescient example of VR in one of its worst imaginable forms. In the novel, the Metaverse is largely an escape from a dystopian society. As many pointed out in immediate response to Zuckerberg’s recent “vision” statements concurrent with the “Meta” rebrand, apparently his vision is equally dystopian; it seems profoundly limited and vapid compared to that of actual thought leaders on the subject. Like others, I had trouble watching this video.
None of the wonder, awe, or questions that you find among the technologists who have brought the Metaverse to this point. Rather, we see a smug and arrogant, commercialism that is reminiscent of Microsoft’s enthusiasm over the world wide web. Certainly Facebook will do its best to participate, but their PR battle will perhaps be more steep among technologists than it is already among legislators. And while they’ve bought a nice name and purchased a great headset, Facebook is far behind those who have made substantive contributions to the Metaverse that we experience today.
Club Penguin, Second Life, Roblox, Fortnite, Sony, and numerous others can boast of tangible, deployed products and real communities. Granted, all corporations operate out of fundamental self-interest, but humanity will clearly benefit from a large number of players with a respect for standards, privacy, and interoperation… none of which could be considered Facebook tendencies.
So what will the Metaverse be?
Of course it is up to all of us what the Metaverse will be: for practical purposes, it’s the current and future state of the Internet. I am still essentially following the community as I did eight years ago, and to me, Tony nailed the vision and ideal future of the Metaverse in his recent post “The Seven Rules of the Metaverse.” As he explains in detail in the post:
- Rule #1. There is only one Metaverse.
- Rule #2: The Metaverse is for everyone.
- Rule #3: Nobody controls the Metaverse.
- Rule #4: The Metaverse is open.
- Rule #5: The Metaverse is hardware-independent.
- Rule #6: The Metaverse is a Network.
- Rule #7: The Metaverse is the Internet.
Note that this is hardly a prescription for what to do to make it happen; rather, it is a set of guidelines to ensure its safe evolution. Others, such as Jacob Navok and various speakers at the recent “RealTime Conference” (still available its entirety, free, online, as of this writing), chart journeys to fulfill one or more dimensions of the still-incomplete technological underpinnings that appear critical to specific long-term visions. There is no shortage of prescriptions, but a healthy plethora. This is a challenge for human cooperation and collaboration on an unprecedented scale.
To hear Jacob Navok talk, you sense that he firmly believes that real-time immersive VR on a “Metaverse” scale is nowhere near where it must be, and he can speak to the desired and current states eloquently. His is but one voice: you can find many others with different, even opposing goals (perhaps those who don’t believe the environment can sustain some of the “inevitable future,” or others urging a pace and process that enables inclusion). It will work itself out over time, hopefully dramatically improving life in ways not yet predicted.
This is an exciting time to be alive.