By the end of the decade, the Metaverse could be worth between $6 trillion and $13 trillion. But what is it?
The Metaverse is not simply immersive virtual reality or a really cool video game. It’s a combination of technologies that allows an unlimited number of users to experience real-time rendered, 3D virtual worlds synchronously and persistently.
It is difficult to predict how the Metaverse will evolve, just as it was nearly impossible to predict the emergence of Facebook during the era of Windows 95. The Metaverse will not replace the internet, but will build upon and extend it.
MATTHEW BALL: The Metaverse is coming. There's no turning around, we're going to go there. Most forecasts believe that the Metaverse by the end of the decade will be between $6 and $13 trillion. There's confusion and/or disagreement as to exactly what it is, what it requires, when it arrives. I think many people have heard the term 'metaverse' over the past year with the idea that society's going to transform. The Metaverse is not an all-encompassing clear vision of the future-it is an ambition, it's a hypothesis. At its core, the Metaverse should be understood as a fourth wave of computing and networking.
The first was the Mainframe era- most of us think about IBM supercomputers- that was succeeded by personal computing and the internet, succeeded in turn by the mobile and cloud era. But we, as a society, as people, Homo sapiens, did not evolve for thousands of years to interact with 2D interfaces, we didn't evolve to learn by tapping a piece of glass. That arc leaves many to believe that the next evolution is 3D experiences.
My name's Matthew Ball, I'm the CEO and founder of Epyllion. I'm also the author of "The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything."
It's sometimes helpful to explain what the Metaverse is not. First, it's not just immersive virtual reality, or what many consider a virtual reality headset. It's also not a video game. We see now hundreds of millions of people spending their lives, their friendships, inside 3D-rendered social and virtual worlds. But of course, the Metaverse is a combination of many different technologies, and it is not just for a game. It will not replace the internet, it will build iteratively on top of it. But, it's not fully predictable. Much like there was no technical understanding in 1995 that told you exactly what life would be right now on the Internet.
Facebook, or now Meta, was born of the PC era, and became far more valuable and successful in the mobile era. The reason for this is 'recursive technology.' Someone invents a new technology, and that new technology is responded to by consumers and developers who build new things or use that technology in ways that are predicted and not predicted. I define the Metaverse as: A massively-scaled and interoperable network of real-time-rendered 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users each with an individual sense of presence; while supporting continuity of data, such as history, identity, communications, payments, entitlements, and objects. Should I redo that? Massively-scaled is one of the easier elements of my Metaverse definition, and that largely observes that the internet would not be the internet if it just had 20 websites.
The term itself comes from dystopic science fiction coined by Neal Stephenson in 1992. And it refers to 'meta,' a Greek term, as in "greater than or encompassing all verses"- all individual virtual worlds and experiences as a subunit. But describing the number of dimensions or the visual aesthetic of a virtual world reflects just one element. A virtual world is really any computer-simulated and rendered virtual space. It can be immersive, which is what you would think of as a VR headset. It can be an augmented reality, in text, in 2D. Or it could be in three dimensions, like a "Super Mario" or "Legend of Zelda" game made today. 3D is a key specification because at its core, the Metaverse is talking about a parallel plane of existence, a second place where we can live and coexist and socialize. And by the way, we may come to find that the term 'metaverse' does creep into really any socially-focused 3D-rendered experience. We typically identify platforms such as "Minecraft" or "Roblox" or "Fortnite."
Some go as far as saying "Call of Duty" or "Legend of Zelda" which are narrative, non-generative experiences are metaverses, but the technical, academic, and mainstream definition: it's the definite article, The Metaverse, not A Metaverse, and certainly not Metaverses. It was intended to describe the unified experience of all interconnected or interoperable virtual worlds. Interoperability is one of the most complex and yet essential elements of the Metaverse. It effectively refers to the ability for different autonomous systems or independently-operated simulations, 3D-rendered virtual worlds, to not just talk to one another, but to do so safely and coherently. That's how you go from one destination to another. We tend not to think about interoperability very much because the internet, as it exists today, is interoperable.
You can download an image from your Facebook, upload it to Snapchat, then turn it into a slideshow you post to YouTube. This is why your single web browser, your single session, can take you there. Without interoperability for 3D assets and experiences, you can't take anything that you did previously to any new place, you can't communicate to anyone who isn't doing the precise experiences you are. Without interoperability, it would be lost. Real-time rendering is really fun to talk about. Rendering refers to the process of generating a computer image. We see this in a Pixar movie, for example. But for a real-time experience, one that we experience, a good way to think about this would be to take a look at Google Maps street view. That is not real-time rendered, the image has already been generated, it's static, it's locked in time. What we're talking about is a virtual world that exists in response to us, to know we're there, be affected by us. Synchronous basically means that we're in a shared experience.
Think of yourself as a video call. There are multiple different people all participating, and if they lag, it's fine, right? Your system may lose a few words, it might play them back quickly, it rapidly edits out the extra silence so that you can catch up. If someone drops, if they're not speaking, nobody cares. But when we're talking about a massively-scaled synchronous experience, it's coexistence. We need everyone to be experiencing it together. Now, in a computer simulation, this question of persistence is philosophically, what endures, what continues. When you shoot a tree in a shooter game, you'll see the bullet mark, but 10 minutes later, is it important for you to see it?
If you ran to a specific part of a map, if you saw a friend, if you spoke to a character, most games assume that that information is not going to be important, and so they don't actually manifest it. There's no critical need for the ground to wear as more people walk on it, much like a traditional grass path would. Persistence of the world, persistence of my history, of the things that we've done is understood to be essential on a data and an experiential layer. Almost nothing in virtual world today is persistent: it's essentially forgotten. It's like moving out of the movie theater and the second you're out there, you no longer remember what you saw, who you were with, and where even you were.
How many things can the system do? They need to reflect the world as it's known, and reflect the world in response to individual actions. It's a question of: What memory can be managed? And what information can be processed? We don't think about that for the real world. I talk about an effectively unlimited number of users and with individual sense of presence. And this is because when we think about limiting operations per second or managing the complexity of a simulation, it's not really the Metaverse. Not a shared experience, it's a gated one occasional to some. There's no limit to how many people can do something.
The last part of my definition is continuity of data: entitlements, communications, history, the ability for one person in one virtual world to contact another, much like an email address from Comcast can go to a competing company like AT&T or China Mobile. And then entitlements payments refers to your ability to pay from one to another, or take something that you own from one place to another. Ultimately, we're talking about one of the most difficult to describe things, which is an era unfolding in front of our eyes. One of the fascinating things about technological or digital eras and waves is the fact that we think of them as a singular thing. We talk about mobile, we talk about social, we talk about the internet, we talk about streaming. And in truth, these are bundles- they represent and they only work because of many different inputs.
All of these individual creations enable transformation at large. I tend to think of the Metaverse in seven subcategories: Hardware is the easiest one to think about, the new devices that we will use, augmented reality, virtual reality, wearable devices. But we should also think of a world filled with sensors, scanning cameras, projection cameras that allow us to be actively within the Metaverse without actually holding a device in front of us. Networking: what we need for the internet is really unprecedented bandwidth, that's the amount of data that can be transmitted per second, as well as latency, how quickly data can go from one end to another.
Computing power: the computational requirements for the Metaverse far exceed anything that we've ever contended with before- and just as a sidebar- we've always had scarcity of computing resources because we always want to do more than we can, and this will require more than we ever conceive. We also need to think of virtual platforms themselves. These are, for most people, how they will directly interface with the Metaverse. These are the 3D-rendered worlds and experiences themselves. Some virtual worlds are intended purely for entertainment. Others are for professional work, training- some represent reality as we know it, others distort that version of reality. Think of this like Disney's Marvel Universe as it reflects Manhattan. Not exactly right, but clearly Manhattan. We also need to think about interchange and interoperability standards.
These are the technologies that bring together different autonomous experiences, things like the domain registry, IP addresses, so that different networks, different pages, could identify one another, and know how to talk to one another. Payment rails is where we start to enter blockchain theory. If the Metaverse economy is to be large, thriving, diverse, and healthy, we need it to have a robust network upon which payments are processed. And then lastly, we have what I call CAIS: content, assets, and identity services. This is essentially what fills the Metaverse. In some regard, what I've described is like saying a mall is a vibrant ecosystem.
The escalator, maybe that's your hardware, the store, that's your virtual platform- but no matter how robust that is, even if you have an integrated economy, you need people within it, and you need the supporting infrastructure for actual human life. So to bring this back to the Metaverse as a parallel plane of existence- why is it important? Why do people believe it's real? Take a look at education: we're visual and experiential learners, but papier-mache, baking soda and vinegar for a volcano, only goes so far. Imagine being able to produce that in a rich, real-time simulation alongside your friend to physically agitate the magma, then be expelled into the atmosphere.
There are many individual examples that are even harder to imagine. Johns Hopkins University is now performing live patient spinal surgery using game engine-rendering technology. The U.S. and British militaries are using Unreal Engine for simulation training for active combat. Cities are being designed with graphics-based computing. There are airports that aren't just using cameras to see where you are for security reasons, but to simulate the flow of people, the tarmac, the impact of a weather delay. The Hong Kong International Airport is live-operated using the Unity Game Engine. Much of the world around you is already running graphics-based computing.
You're in a live 3D simulation and you just don't know it. So why do we need to learn about it now? Most forecasts believe that by the end of this decade, the Metaverse will likely be between $6 and $13 trillion. And as the world's largest companies plow forward, we need to understand what the potential consequences will be. The ills, the side effects of digital transformation, of 'technocracy,' of digital hegemony.
How do we trade off societal well-being with economic incentives, with technological innovation, with driving strong entrepreneurship, being a part of a globally thriving society, as well as a nationally thriving economy? And so the only way to contend with that is to be smart. We believe that data rights aren't what they should be, we believe that the concentration of power has become too high, online happiness isn't where it needs to be, and that algorithms have become too powerful in shaping societal views. If we want to affect change now, right now, as we start to shift to what's next, is the time to educate. And so, having a better sense of what's around the corner is essential to being informed, and being informed allows us to positively affect the world we live in, real and non-real.
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