Metaverse doesn't exist yet. But ever since Mark Zuckerberg's press conference at the end of October 2021, what's happening among VC funds and tech companies can look like what happens when the new iPhone is released on Black Friday.
But the metaverse is still in the potential future and different people - including metaverse creators - have different ideas about what it is going to be. This is exactly what you should expect from something that is supposed to become the new Internet - it will be a different thing to different people, because it's supposed to serve everyone.
This article explains two concepts and challenges that are fundamental to understanding what we're anticipating as this new world develops.
What is metaverse, anyway?
Good news for those of us who are confused and need some definitive answers: we already know what the metaverse is not, and we do have some basic requirements.
The most cited definition comes from the top metaverse VC influencer, Matthew Ball:
“The Metaverse is 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 with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.”
So, contrary to some popular opinions or PR buzz: metaverse is not just Virtual or Augmented Reality, nor is it a collection of separate massive multiplayer online games, virtual shopping malls, social environments or a simulation. It's also not a future product made by Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook.
Metaverse will contain all of those things, but it will need to develop something that doesn't exist yet, to reach its final phase.
Metaverse vs. multiverse - key concepts
Metaverse and multiverse are often conflated, but there are fundamental differences. [Image credit: Sebastian Svenson]
A lot of companies and organizations are building virtual worlds right now. Some of them already have thriving online communities who use their world just like we will use the metaverse - a persistent digital environment (it doesn't reset when you log out), can be used with other people and provide real-life activities without a game-like objective, like social interaction, shopping, investing, working, going to events, building a home or creating.
But we still don't have a metaverse yet. Metaverse development companies like Epic Games or Microsoft might like to refer to their virtual reality experience as metaverse, but that's misleading. What we have now, is a multiverse.
On the most fundamental level, the difference between metaverse and multiverse is interoperability. Keep in mind, though, that there is no official definition of multiverse in this context, but it is a good place to explain what's the missing piece that will make the metaverse "real" in the future.
What is multiverse?
Multiverse, in literal terms, means multiple universes. It is a conceptual idea that hasn't been proven yet, but theories about it are probably as old as our civilization. One of these theories says that since the cosmos consists of atomic (or sub-atomic) particles that move randomly, our universe is one of the many universes that could exist, each with different history, and sometimes with different physical laws.
The Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics claims that not only are other, alternative universes possible, but they all exist simultaneously. This is based on the principles of quantum superposition: every particle is both in a state A, and in the opposite state until it is observed and its quantum state becomes settled at one or the other. The Many Worlds Interpretation suggests that at every such observation creates parallel universes: e.g. one where you finish reading this article, and one where you don't, and an infinite number of universes where the Internet doesn't even exist and neither does this article.
Now, the set of all these parallel universes is the "multiverse." In this framework, they all have the same laws of physics, but some cosmological theories claim there is also an infinite number of universes where different rules and physical constants apply.
The fundamental principle is: every universe in the multiverse is separate, although there is a whole field of theories on how traveling from one to another could be possible.
Physical world integration
Another way to understand the digital metaverse is that as long as virtual reality is separated from the physical world, we are still in the multiverse era.
The "real" metaverse will enable profound interaction between the two realms. For example: when you buy a car in the physical reality, it becomes immediately available in the metaverse; or you will get fired from your real-world job when you break the law in the virtual world. Or when you break a leg in the physical world, it gets hard to walk in the metaverse, too. Metaverse would be like an additional dimension, or virtual layer of our physical universe.
This follows the multiverse interpretation by Raph Koster, an influential game designer who co-founded and sold an early precursor to the metaverse - Metaplace.
From a technological viewpoint, this model will mean that what exists in the "real" metaverse will be available as AR or holograms displayed in physical locations, or just data that you can access in the physical world freely, while its multiverse stage will require you to log in to a separate reality with its own time-space continuum.
The Walled Garden approach to multiple virtual universes
We already live in the multiverse. Whether they were built for online gaming (Fortnite, GTA, Roblox, Minecraft), business (Microsoft Mesh, Horizon World), science, medicine, engineering ( nVidia omniverse) or just for leading a virtual life with a virtual career and wealth (Second life, VRchat, Decentraland) - all the existing virtual reality experiences have a very real chance of providing the features of metaverse in individual digital ecosystems - as if in walled gardens.
But in order to evolve from multiverse of online experiences to metaverse, these virtual worlds have to be connected to each other and integrated with the physical reality.
Until you can play sports or watch movies in one virtual space with your online friends from both VRchat and Fortnite, or you can sell a car you stole in GTA on the black market in Decentraland - we are still at the stage of thousands of online games competing for our attention, where we have been for the last two decades. Perhaps further down the road, we will see trade wars or bilateral partnerships between companies founded in Oculus Horizon and Microsoft Mesh, or miners in Minecraft will sell virtual materials to real estate developers in Sandbox?
The parallel universe model
We could also differentiate metaverse and multiverse based on how our identity and the linearity of time is handled. Does your avatar carry on from one universe to another, only changing its appearance according to the graphic engine features? Are you always the same person in all the multiverse virtual worlds, with your wealth, property and social credit? Or do you have a different identity in each?
Does everything happen to you on one timeline, like in the physical universe? Or can you lead multiple lives as several characters?
And: if you die in the virtual world, can you respawn or is it game over?
Will our multiverse grow up to be a metaverse?
Will the metaverse be a unified single universe or multiverse? [Image credit: Fakurian Design]
The metaverse will only become a "real thing" - more than an exciting trend that may or may not turn out to be a tech bubble - if it becomes something people will be willing or obliged to treat as real.
Until you can work in Sandbox to pay your rent in Manila, or prefer to host a catered business gala in Oculus Horizon instead of on Zoom - virtual experiences are just 3D entertainment without economic relevance to non-gamers.
The three most important obstacles between a multiverse of many universes and one metaverse are computing power, immersive technology and interoperability.
If technological progress continues, especially if quantum computing becomes available, if it becomes possible to have thousands of people in one virtual space, we will overcome the technological obstacle and enter the next phase of living in many virtual worlds at the same time.
But interoperability is both a technological and social challenge. Discussions about a set of protocols, interfaces and programming standards necessary for connecting separate virtual worlds, are probably as old as the concept of cyberspace. A unified metaverse might need to develop one common economy system, or one blockchain with a common NFT issuer to assure continuity of identity and ownership.
Governing an entirely connected virtual world
Then there is the question of whether decentralized, democratic virtual communities will want to play on the same field with big tech dominiums built by Facebook, Google or even Epic Games. Who will decide on the political systems, write and execute laws, who will decide on the economic system and answer even such basic but crucial questions as "if scarcity is not necessary in the virtual world, should we create it to make more room for market competition?" Or maybe we don't need competition in a potentially unlimited world?
Judging by the current political landscape and the nature of existing big virtual worlds that are founded on strong libertarian values, the future of metaverse will probably remain in big part a multiverse, or perhaps we are headed for a multi metaverse world divided into bubbles containing multiple environments. Each of those bubbles could adopt different laws decided by governments, corporate worlds and autonomous 'verses. But in this rapidly growing and shifting field of capital investment, the direction for the future might be decided very soon - by whoever dominates the field first. Whether it be one metaverse development company, a small consortium of first movers, or a people's alliance.