Search for the term metaverse, and you’ll find several definitions. Is it just one platform, or the sum total of multiples? Wikipedia defines the metaverse as a collective virtual shared space, created by the combination of virtually enhanced physical reality and persistent virtual space, converging all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the wider Internet. Perhaps that’s not exactly illuminating, but it could be that it’s simply too early to provide a clear definition of the metaverse.
What we do know is that the metaverse can best be understood as the next evolutionary chapter of the Internet, transforming the way we interact with the digital world and in turn shaping the way we live our lives. Currently, you can only experience the Internet when you go to it, but with new connectivity, devices and technologies, we will experience it all around every single day.
And while much of the development is happening in the blockchain space, this isn’t just a fringe crypto movement. It’s taking over the mainstream meatspace world sooner than you might expect. The New York Times is covering the subject, Sotheby’s is plugging in, Mark Zuckerberg has hitched Facebook’s future to this virtual star, and Snoop Dogg (AKA the avid NFT collector CozomoMedici) is touring the virtual world.
That momentum is driven by a few things such as the boom in NFTs, the rise of play-to-earn crypto games and to some extent the COVID pandemic which has accelerated the transition towards the digital world in almost every aspect of our lives. Now that more people are comfortable utilising online alternatives for a wide variety of activities and needs, the metaverse feels even more approachable and appealing.
Today, the metaverse is simply an online virtual world where you play a quick game, browse NFTs in an art gallery or have a meetup in spaces built by Decentraland, The Sandbox, Axie Infinity and my Neighbour Alice. But this is the metaverse’s infancy. In a few short years, the metaverse will likely replace much of what you do, and how you do it, online and offline.
Instead of a video call with family and friends overseas, you join them for a metaverse game of life-sized chess. Or instead of reading up on the news, you are dropped into a metaverse simulation of a global event to learn what is happening in an immersive way no other medium could even come close to.
Crossovers bring the metaverse to life
The metaverse can be a home for art, and we now live in a world where celebrities are buying or minting NFTs. Suddenly the metaverse has newfound relevance, or even urgency. How do you showcase your art? How do you flaunt your Ape NFT? Decentraland’s Art District is one of the metaverse’s standout features, creating a more immersive way to admire NFTs than just staring at your phone.
The Bored Apes are taking it one step further with playable avatars that allow you to walk around the metaverse as your 3D bored Ape. Soon you can hang out with all the other primate degenerates on an “actual” yacht, and be bored together on a riverboat casino in Decentraland.
But the real multipliers will come from mainstream cross-overs that take what is happening in a funky corner of the crypto world and place it front and center in mainstream culture. In the early days, the only brands that partnered with Decentraland were crypto players like Binance and Kraken. Today, mainstream brands are actively expanding their metaverse empires.
Sandbox’s partners include Atari, The Smurfs and The Walking Dead. Sotheby’s has opened a virtual art gallery in Decentraland. And Coca-Cola has created a “can-top party” where you could swim inside a bottle of Coke and experience being inside the bubbles.
It’s easy to see the mutual benefits. The metaverse gets compelling content with an appeal that extends beyond the crypto-initiated, bringing the metaverse to a wide, global, and diverse audience. The big brand names get a level of engagement that goes far deeper than traditional advertising campaigns, plus it allows them to position themselves strategically as pioneers in their field. Atari is ahead of the game. Sotheby’s curates potential before anyone else. And Coke opens new world’s of happiness.
Who’s world is this?
Putting all the exciting developments, partnerships and projects aside, one big issue looms over the metaverse as it takes shape: ownership. Right now, most of the contributions and active engagement comes from the crypto world. This means that decentralization is a key principle that affects the way these worlds are being built, or more specifically the way ownership is distributed.
Anyone can buy a plot of land on platforms like The Sandbox, and create their own world, design their own games, or simply rent it out to someone else. In-game assets are designed and developed by players, and sold on in-game marketplaces. Mainstream brands that come to play can either rent a plot from individual users, or buy their own at whatever the market rate is. Either way, everyone plays by the same rules, and everyone has equal access to owning a slice of the pie. Besides all this, token holders will typically also be able to participate in governance of the platform, giving them a way to shape rules and roadmaps of the platform itself.
That is the decentralized version of the metaverse. But what happens when big tech companies like Facebook plant their flags in this New World? With massive coffers and a global user base, creating the metaverse in their own image, in a centralized way, is entirely within reach. Boxy, pixelated avatars that you create yourself are pretty cool. But slick graphics, VR headsets, and integration with social media apps already in-use, sounds like an easy win for a company like Facebook.
Whether we forego privacy and agency in favour of a smoother experience remains to be seen. The history of the Internet tells us centralized powers eventually take over. But perhaps on the back of a deeper appreciation for decentralized systems, this time will be different….the 5 most dangerous words.