In the last weeks, the word metaverse seems to be on everyone’s lips. Every time I listen to it, I remember Hiroaki’s story. ‘Hiro ‘ Protagonist, the pizza delivery man from Snow Crash, one of many novels by Neal Stephenson that I discovered and enjoyed a lot a decade ago, and in which his protagonist divided his time between the real world in which he faced complicated distributions , and a metaverse in which he is a warrior prince. The novel was published in 1992 and it would be the first time the metaverse connection was raised.
Virtual reality, technology on which the concept of metaverse is developed, began to become popular as a concept about a decade earlier, in the early eighties of the twentieth century, with the proliferation of consumer computing, the first PCs and the prospects of a long-past future for electronics. The metaverse needs virtual reality, and in turn virtual reality will explore its full potential in such an environment.
Although its origin dates back to Stephenson’s 1992 novel (which I recommend reading), it was not until the double success of Ready Player One, first the novel, then the movie, which began to become popular and, consequently, to sneak into the collective imagination. Something to which, however, services from Second Life also contributed to Habbo Hotel, that is, virtual communities that opened the doors to simulations like the ones that the metaverse will bring us.
Now, when we talk about the metaverse, we tend to take for granted that we are referring to the one raised by Facebook, which has even changed its name to Meta, making clear the importance it is attached to on the Menlo Park campus. Something understandable, well the future of the company could depend on the success of this initiative, given the problems that, for some time, have loomed over the veteran social network and other company services.
However, although the theoretical approach of the multiverse is very interesting, we are talking about a technological development that is still very green, and that also has a barrier to entry that we should not make the mistake of underestimating. A virtual reality headset is an expensive device, especially if we want it to offer adequate quality. Also, not everyone reacts well to them. They have improved a lot, there is no doubt, but it will still take a few more years before they are as comfortable as you want.
And it is not only the virtual reality viewer, we will also need a system capable of managing it. And yes, I am aware that the requirements of the Facebook metaverse will not be as demanding as those that we find in games compatible with this technology, but that they will be less demanding does not mean that they will not be demanding. In short, in the short term access to virtual reality, and therefore to the metaverse of Facebook, will be expensive, and to this day I am not clear if what it will offer will be enough to compensate the necessary investment.
And this leads me to an approach that may sound overly conservative, but which I think makes sense: it is still too early. I believe that Facebook has already started talking about it by gaining positions in something that, in the medium term, can have a certain path. However, for this to be the case, it is important that virtual reality has gained much more presence in homes than it does today. And for that we will still have to wait.
And even when that happens, I have a feeling the metaverse experience will be disappointingAnd let me explain: right now, for a large majority, expectations regarding this fascinating virtual world are built mainly from references such as Ready Player One, and to this is added the “emotion” that Meta is showing, and from there also other companies, about how fascinating that environment will be. However, where many imagine environments taken from a triple A game, I expect something more similar to much more basic and limited environments.
Simulating a simple city in a complex and realistic way is a pharaonic job, even more so if we have to start from scratch to design it. You just have to see the problems that CD Projekt Red went through with Cyberpunk 2077, and that the size of its map is limited, because its great asset was going to be verticality, huge skyscrapers full of life. Something that, like many other promises associated with the game, were lost like tears in the rain.
Thus, where many imagine a huge and complex world, I rather imagine an immersive experience in an environment like the one provided by games like Animal Crossing: New Horizont. And do not get me wrong, this is not a criticism of Nintendo’s title, quite the contrary, it seems to me one of the great jewels of its current catalog of games. What I’m talking about is that expecting a very rich and complex environment, and finding something much “smaller” and more limited, will not generate overly positive opinions.
Obviously, at this point Meta’s communication will greatly influence, that the company is as honest as possible and that it avoids generating expectations related to the depth and density of the virtual world that they are going to create. I think, although I may be wrong, that they will be honest, and that they will be able to correct, at least in part, those high expectations that have been generated around the metaverse. However, lowering expectations excessively will surely reduce the interest of not a few users, so business decisions can push the company astray. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, just that it could.
A single metaverse or a multiverse?
I have always liked the multiverse hypothesis, that is to say, the one that proposes that other universes could exist besides ours. Today it is just that, a hypothesis, and it is possible, even probable, that we will never be able to confirm it. However, what in the real world is a mere hypothesis, speaking of metaverses has many more overtones of being a reality in a short time.
One of the great doubts raised by the hypothesis of the multiverse in the real world is if there could be “gates” that allow passage from one universe to another. The heat death theory of the Universe states that in the order of a trillion years all existing stars will be extinct, and much of the Universe will be dark, ushering in new eras in which life will be much less likely. If humanity, in any way, has prevailed up to that moment, the best thing would be to have been able to confirm the existence of other universes and to have found a door that allows us to cross it to find a friendlier environment.
Although thermal death seems somewhat less likely in the metaverse, what is hard to imagine is that, in a more than likely scenario of multiple metaverses, doors are established that allow connecting them. And not for technical reasons, obviously.
Given Meta’s plans to create its virtual world, it costs very little to imagine that other technology companies, and even companies from other sectors, but with the capital and interest necessary to do so, decide that they also want to play in that league and consequently they will begin to prepare their own metaverses. And, although there are still many doubts that hang over them, it is also true that they raise some very interesting possibilities in the commercial field. From avatars or add-ons to the future of ecommerce, the options are endless.
However, the presence of multiple metaverses can be counterproductive for the success of this type of platform, especially if, as we have seen in other cases, each person in charge consciously chooses to create closed solutions that do not allow users to access other platforms.
The other solution, the ideal one, would be that the metaverse was developed with open standards, which would allow interconnection with other spaces of the same type. Or, even better, that everyone interested in creating a virtual world agreed and all were integrated into a single metaverse. This solution would be ideal, but if we are minimally realistic, today it seems very, very unlikely.