In 1992 novelist Neal Stephenson published Snow Crash, a SciFi novel about a dystopian VR future. The novel was an epiphany for a generation of nerds who saw it as a guidebook for the future of the Internet. The logic was, we live in a 3D world so a 3D web would be a much more intuitive and natural environment for users to navigate than 2D pages. The first version of VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) was released in November 1994 and the VR internet hype went into full overdrive. Startups, VRML viewers, and VRML development environments sprang up all over. You could say this was the birth of Metaverse v1.0. However, within a few years, Metaverse V1.0 was dead and buried.
What happened? It turns out 3D on your computer was nothing like 3D in the real world. That was especially true in the 1990s. VRML developers tried to duplicate real-world environments but what is the point of a conference room with tables and chairs in a virtual environment? Your avatar doesn’t need to sit. Plus, how would you navigate your avatar into a virtual chair with a mouse? Without all the senses and peripheral vision we have in the physical world, virtual environments that mimicked the real world were incredibly difficult to navigate. It was easy to become disoriented and not know what direction you were going. The 2D internet modeled on the paradigm of print was infinitely easier and less frustrating to navigate and it cost a fraction of the price of VR web environments to build.
That was 1995, in 2022 we have digital experiences (in the form of video games) that can deliver real-time photorealistic environments using the power of today’s GPUs and CPUs. So problem solved? Not quite yet. Let’s look at how the technology has evolved since the 90s using Gran Turismo, a race driving simulator that was born in the 90s as an example.
The image on the left is from the late 90s version of GT. It would have been the state of the art at the time, but it looks primitive compared to the cinematic hyper-reality of the current version (right). The current game adds haptic feedback, 3D audio, and realistic handling to replicate a real-world driving experience. Gran Turismo delivers a great user experience but accomplishes that level of realism partly because it is focused on one task. It's a bit like the current state of AI. Machine learning is great at a single task but Artificial General Intelligence is still something in an as yet unknown future. The VR experiences that are successful at high-level user experiences today have a narrow focus. Replicating the general environment of the real world is an order of magnitude more complex and out of reach even for today’s technology.
Above is a frame from the video that Mark Zuckerberg used to introduce the world to his vision for the Metaverse. The video replicates all the old tropes of the VRML days. Note that Zukerberg is holding the table with his hands, just as someone might in the real world. That trivial action would require a lot of engineering. The user would need haptic feedback to feel the volume of the object. The user would also need to be able to control the avatar's hand complete with control of individual articulated fingers and thumb. Hand and table would need collision detection so that the fingers don’t go through the table. The woman in the foreground is leaning on the table. In the physical world, we have gravity, our weight, and our muscles all to guide us in the action and the result would take the weight off our feet. Why would you do this in a virtual environment and what sort of controllers would the user need to replicate that simple action? I won’t even get into the technology that could allow all the avatars to handle a deck of cards with the dexterity of an expert Las Vegas card shark.
The overhead and cost of simulating all these simple real-world actions in the virtual world seems a huge waste of resources at today’s level of technology even if it were feasible. That being said, the same video also shows some pretty amazing research that may make some of these things possible at some point in the future. I doubt Facebook/Meta has anything anywhere near this level of complexity coming to market anytime soon, so I am assuming this is an aspirational video about some future state of the Metaverse as Zuckerberg envisions it.
A Virtual Architecture for the Virtual World
An object should be judged by whether it has a form consistent with its use. - Bruno Munari
Good architecture respects it’s environment, the laws of physics and the use case. I, along with the artist Anthony McCall designed and built a VRML exhibition of Brancusi’s Mlle. Pogany for the Philadelphia Museum of Art back in 1998. We focused on what the main purpose of the exhibition was and what were the constraints of the technology and bandwidth we had to work with. The first thing we decided was we would not attempt to replicate the real-world Brancusi gallery at the museum. We devoted all our polygons and bandwidth to rendering the focus of the exhibition, the sculpture. I had to hand-draw the polygons on the scanned polygonal mesh to get an accurate model that could render in real-time on 1990s computers and connection speeds. We abstracted some architectural elements from the museum to build a very simplified virtual environment that only required the user to push the mouse forward to navigate. When the user was in proximity of the sculpture they would lock on to circumnavigate the work with the same simple mouse movement. Information that put the work and the artist in context was presented as you moved forward through the exhibition. No skill or learning was required. We architected the space to be consistent with its use, user skill level, and the limitations of technology and bandwidth.
In the physical world different climates, cultures, and available resources create very different styles of architecture. I expect we will see the development in the Metaverse of virtual schools of architecture that respond to the use cases, capabilities, and resources of the virtual world. Advances in technology will allow us to get better and better at mimicking the physical world. But as we spend more and more of our time in the virtual world I expect many virtual worlds will evolve to look less and less like the real world. The Metaverse(s) will develop with its own set of rules and cultural norms. The capabilities of the virtual world will change our culture and social and commercial interactions just as social media and smartphones have so radically transformed society and human behavior in the last decade. These coming changes will eventually be reflected in new design vocabularies and new styles of virtual architecture consistent with the needs and extraordinary capabilities of the virtual world.
Web 3.0 and the Metaverse
The technologies that are enabling Web 3.0 - edge computing, AI, and Blockchain - will also underpin the Metaverse. It is possible that the Metaverse will develop into the primary interface of Web 3.0, merging the two concepts into what could be the next stage of our digital universe. Edge computing will push the power of central servers into edge devices like headsets, wearables, phones, implants, and IoT devices in the home and office. That distributed, local computing power will enable powerful AI processing on all these devices not dependent on central servers and without the latency of having to send data back and forth across the network.
That will enable thousands of intelligent machines to reside in your personal Metaverse space. Countless digital nannies monitoring your health, needs, desires and collecting a constant stream of terabytes of data about your every action to a degree that is exponentially greater than that which is already occurring with your connected activities. Most of these intelligent agents will likely not be working for or being controlled by you. They may be working for marketers, product and services companies and even political entities seeking to manipulate your behavior towards actions and transactions favorable to their goals. With the power of edge computing enabling local real-time AI processing of your data there will be a stream of actionable intelligence about how machine agents in the Metaverse should interact with you every nano second of your connected life. Intelligent machines that are collecting data about you and processing it in real-time as they alter their behavior and script continuously informed by your data. Makes the surveillance state of 1984 seem pathetically primitive.
On the plus side, this level of monitoring could catch cancers, pre-diabeties and heart disease at very early stages drastically reducing fatalities and drastically reducing the costs of healthcare for society. Certainly thats a boon to the user, their families and the society as a whole. Advances in technologies are always a combination of great benefits and great potential dangers. As change accelerates and the technologies become exponentially more powerful it becomes ever more important to make sure we have a regulatory and legal framework that is up to the task of mitigating the risks and potential harm of Metaverse technologies.
Commerce in the Metaverse
Blockchain can provide the security and transactional capabilities of a distributed trustless network to the Metaverse, Your avatar could be secured and guaranteed to be unique and be you and not some digital imposter by making your avatar an NFT (Non-Fungible Token). Your cryptocurrency wallet may well become your passport in the Metaverse. There is already a $45 billion market in NFT art and collectables. Virtual objects that are bought and sold just like art and collectables in the physical world and the total value of the virtual NFT art market is already rivaling that of the physical art and collectables market. With the explosive growth of social commerce, retail commerce has already moved into virtual communities like Facebook and Instagram. It won’t take much of a leap to transfer this experience to immersive 3D Metaverse communities. You can see why Facebook/Meta, the leader in social commerce is so laser focused on the Metaverse.
Since gaming already has multiplayer virtual worlds it’s no surprise that we are seeing the marriage of blockchain and virtual worlds in gaming. Axie Infinity is right now the biggest “play to earn” gaming platform. Unlike traditional games the tokens you win while playing Axie Infinity are cryptocurrency tokens with a monetary value. You need to pay to get tokens to get started and players who have accumulated a sizable cache of tokens have even contracted multiple players in low wage countries to play for them so as to be able to multiply earnings. The Axie economy has about $1 billion dollars worth of tokens in it at this point and is looking la lot like a real world economy complete with outsourcing and labor arbitrage.
Nike recently acquired RTFKT, a virtual NFT shoe and collectables design studio. The amount wasn’t disclosed but RTFKT was recently valued at $33 million dollars.
“This acquisition is another step that accelerates Nike’s digital transformation and allows us to serve athletes and creators at the intersection of sport, creativity, gaming and culture,”
- John Donahoe, President and CEO, NIKE
Nike has achieved great success by remaining way ahead of the curve on marketing. Along with RFKT Nike has acquired machine learning, predictive analytics, and digital shopping businesses. You can get a sense of Nikes vision for the future through its pattern of acquisitions and Nike is not alone. Major players like Facebook/Meta, Microsoft, Google, Nvidia, Unity, Qualcom and many more are plowing billions into the space.
The size of the social commerce market is exceeding $500 Billion. The NFT art and collectables market is $45 Billion. It seems we already have a thriving, diversified and rapidly expanding virtual economy for the Metaverse to plug into. You can buy virtual art to display in your virtual space and you can order goods in your virtual social gathering places.
Metaverse Applications for 2022
As the gaming industry shows, the technology is here for complex lifelike simulations in a VR environment. There are many industrial and medical applications for this level of virtual multi-participant simulation. Teams can collaborate in a physics based virtual simulation to identify the most efficient configurations or the safest processes for industrial or medical applications in ways that far exceed previous methods of computer simulation and physical testing. The IIoT Metaverse could allow maintaining and monitoring equipment in toxic, dangerous or difficult to access physical environments. Changes made in the Metaverse could control changes to the physical equipment with IoT devices and robotics. Experts from different geographic locations can consult on best methods while monitoring physical equipment or processes in a virtual simulation.
Amazon has combined their IoT product and 3D rendering technology in the AWS IoT TwinMaker — a service that you can use to build operational digital twins of physical systems. Deloitte has launched Dimension10 Studio to build Metaverse experiences with AR, VR, IoT and 5G. The NVIDIA Omniverse platform allows for the creation and connection of virtual worlds. The list could go on. Every major technology enterprise is investing considerable resources into Metaverse technologies.
The Future is so Bright I’ve Got to Wear Shades
No doubt this first stage of development of the Metaverse will be filled with hype, nonsense and absurdly optimistic predictions. That might lead some to believe that the Metaverse is all hype. That would be a big mistake. All the technologies that will make the Metaverse possible are already here, are developing at an exponential rate and are converging to create a Metaverse that in the not so distant future will represent a seismic change in how we work and live. It is not too soon for businesses to start developing strategies and making investments now.