The Metaverse is an expansive, overhyped, often contradictory realm that evades simple definitions. Is it a game? A virtual world? A place to trade NFTs and cryptocurrencies? The next Internet (web 3.0)? An entirely new way for people to interact? A company? A community? A joke?
It is all those things and more.
Just because the Metaverse is overhyped does not mean we should dismiss it. If you look at the Metaverse in the context of its closest cousin, immersive, online, interactive games, such as Fortnite or Minecraft, then its success seems pre-ordained. For example, Fortnite has over 350 million users and generates billions in revenue. Is the Metaverse Fortnite Next?
The Metaverse is a combination of grand promises and formidable obstacles. While it promises to deliver an immersive and engaging way to interact with people and companies, it faces enormous technical, structural, and social impediments. Let’s look at some of these obstacles and one notion of how they might get fixed.
Among all the monsters that lurk among the Metaverses, interoperability is the most difficult kraken to slay. Currently, Metaverse worlds do not seamlessly interact with each other. If you buy something on one site, it does not (easily) transfer to any other sites. There are no agreed-upon standards for how information is stored, exchanged, or secured. There are no standards to protect children from adult content.
The Metaverse is currently a collection of isolated worlds (like online games) that need to work together. The only way that can happen is if all the sites standardize around a common set of protocols.
Part of the reason for the lack of Metaverse standards is its reliance on Blockchain technologies to store and distribute data. Blockchain is a decentralized transactional system. Cryptocurrencies are the most popular implementation of blockchains. The use of blockchains means no single authority controls the transactional database (or chain.)
However, the lack of central authority has failed to make cryptocurrencies safer, freer, or more accessible. Instead, it has given fertile ground to scammers and criminals who can manipulate the lack of central authority to inject false information or steal blocks.
In response, most blockchain-based systems are transitioning to hybrid or closed systems, where there is a central authority to arbitrate transactions. When there is a central authority, there can be certainty and the enforcement of standards. However, this unleashes another kraken.
Nobody exerts more gravitational pull in the Metaverses quite like Meta (aka Facebook) and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg. He sees the Metaverse as the next big thing and wants to dominate it. Zuckerberg’s influence is simultaneously the best and worst thing for the Metaverse.
On one hand, Meta and Zuckerberg have the influence, power, and scale to promote and expand the Metaverse like nobody else. One way Meta does this is with the Occulus headset, which is widely regarded as the gold standard for VR headsets. To his credit, Zuckerberg is a technically skilled leader who understands the problems of interoperability and genuinely wants to fix them.
On the other hand, it is Meta’s control that makes people nervous. The more control Meta gets, the more the Metaverse may feel like Facebook Next rather than Fortnite Next.
To really get into the Metaverse, you need a virtual reality headset. Fortunately, these are becoming more affordable. Also, headsets are not necessarily required. Most operating systems and web browsers now include VR rendering libraries. It is possible to experience the Metaverse without a headset; however, the experience is less engaging.
Nevertheless, VR hardware is not widespread yet. Also, VR technologies have extreme bandwidth demands, which leaves people with slower connections behind. Among all the Metaverse impediments, hardware is one of the easiest to overcome.
The lack of standards in the Metaverse also means there is a lack of security. These security problems exist at multiple levels. Many of the headsets require wide-open network connections. The application programming interfaces (API) that fuel the data exchange of the Metaverse are equally unsecured. Metaverse databases or blockchains contain not only your identity but also virtual items of value, including an immense amount of data on your personal behaviors. If Facebook is a gold mine of metadata about you, the Metaverse is a whole universe filled with exotic treasures.
It is not hyperbole to say the gaming world is filled with creeps. A whole subculture of gaming men genuinely believes that harassing women, people of color, and other marginalized communities is not merely acceptable, but is somehow a free-speech birthright. The lack of moderation in online games and social media has fueled the growth of self-defending communities of creeps who empower, validate, and protect bad behaviors.
The Metaverse will supercharge these creeps. It provides them with a whole new dimension of ways to harass people with images, objects, and behaviors.
Decades of research have shown that if gamers do not face consequences for bad behavior, they will not self-correct. Of course, when the creeps are confronted, they quickly hide behind the banner of free speech. This entangles all the other Metaverse obstacles with the sticky moral quandaries of free speech and censorship.
If interoperability is the most significant technical impediment for the Metaverse, the creeps and their free-speech claims are the largest social ones.
If the Metaverse is going to live up to its promises of a new way for people to interact, it must resolve these obstacles. While there are many ways these could be handled independently, there is only one universal solution. The Metaverse desperately needs one or more standards bodies to regulate these issues and enforce standards. For this body to work, it must be internationally accepted and not under the dominance of any single commercial entity. However, it must involve key commercial players, like Meta, Epic, and Microsoft, to name a few.
There are some existing logical bodies, such as the United Nation’s ITU or World Wide Web Consortium. Regardless of which body takes on this task, with the right standards-based regulation, the Metaverse is far more likely to fulfill its promises.
Originally published at https://www.nasdaq.com on April 28, 2022.