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What the Heck is the Metaverse?

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Author: Insider94 Staff

The pandemic catapulted much of the workforce into virtual meetings that we all know as Zoom & Microsoft Teams. It got us used to the idea that meeting with each other through a screen can be an effective way to conduct business. We also learned that virtual meetings have its perks. Our wardrobe can be casual (albeit more casual below the waste), our gas consumption drastically reduced, and commuting time no longer a factor in our daily lives.

The post-pandemic world is continuing to usher in improvements on the virtual experience. We’re increasingly hearing about the metaverse, but many of us don’t know what it is or what it means.

Let’s break it down.
What Is the Metaverse?
In 99.99% of cases, provided the term is used correctly, you could replace the word “metaverse” with “internet” and the sentence will mean the same thing. Analyst and blogger Doug Thompson sums it up best when he shares, “we’re using the term as a proxy for a sense that everything is about to change.”
What about the internet is about to change?
To answer that question, let’s discuss 4 attributes that best describe what to expect:
  1. Spatial Computing
  2. Game Engines
  3. Virtual Environments
  4. Virtual Economies
Perhaps the best way to explain the metaverse is that it is the next evolution of the internet that offers users a spatial, often 3D, game-engine-driven collection of virtual environments to facilitate interaction with others.
1 . Spatial Computing

Since the dawn of computers, the computer interface has evolved in the way we interact with the computer. Each passing year the interfaces have become easier, more intuitive, and more accessible. Remember DOS? That was not so easy. Today, our phones and connected devices offer an ease of use that feels like an extension of our being.

Noted engineer Clay Bavor, VP of Augmented Reality at Google, shares:

“Over the past several decades, every time people made computers work more like we do—every time we removed a layer of abstraction between us and them—computers became more broadly accessible, useful, and valuable to us. We, in turn, became more capable and productive.”

As the next interface is evolving, we just don’t have a great name for it yet. Names offered up such as augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality, immersive computing, or whatever two-letter acronym just have not landed yet in our popular zeitgeist.

What these ideas share is that they involve the use of three-dimensional space, which is how we all interact and behave in the real world. We interact as three-dimensional beings.

The term “spatial computing” is becoming a commonly used way to refer to these interfaces. Generally, you should also think of spatial things as having the properties of moving around in space. In this sense, though not controlled using a spatial interface, a video game like Fortnite is spatial (you move around), whereas a Zoom call is not.

2. Game Engines: Construction Tools to Build the Metaverse

Game engines may be one of the most consequential developments of the next decade. A game engine is the software tool developers use to build (and run) video games. In these software programs you can upload 3D objects, apply rules for how those objects can move, add sounds, etc.

In business, the term “video game” is also misleading, as it suggests something recreational or non-serious. But as the world becomes more digital, game engines are powering the computing interfaces for all sorts of industries.

Many industries are already embracing a computing world that feels like gaming. Industries like urban planning, architecture, automotive engineering firms, live music and events, filmmaking, etc. have all shifted a lot of their workflows/design processes to include virtual environments.

The real innovation happening in this space is when graphics will stop looking like “graphics.” The limit for how high game resolution can be is falling away, and we’ll see photorealistic virtual environments that look like real life. This means the cartoonish aesthetic of much of today’s virtual demonstrations will morph to an environment where real and virtual look the same.

For example, imagine what that means for something like Beyond Sports, a Dutch company that uses a game platform and real-time positional data taken from sports to render live events as they are happening inside virtual reality. Then imagine an application where you are walking around inside a game live with your friends—and now we’re approaching what we might be doing in the metaverse.

And here we can introduce the first part of a good definition of what the term metaverse is pointing toward – a game engine driven universe.

3 . Virtual Environments

Now that we’ve introduced spatial computing and game engines, let’s talk virtual environments.

Virtual environments are the “places” we’ll be logging into in tomorrow’s internet. They are also a tricky thing to define. In many ways, Twitter is already a virtual environment where people meet and exchange messages and information.

The virtual environments that are spatial ones built in game engines are most notable, think Pokémon Go as an example.

Another version would be traditional online or purely digital virtual environments where you must sit down at a computer (or put on a VR headset) to access.

Pokémon Go is a helpful example of AR in the real world. It’s a spatial game, built using game platform, that overlays 3D characters on the physical world.

In the future, it won’t just be games—the entire physical world will be like a canvas we can paint with data.

To make this all happen, technology companies are scrambling to build what’s referred to as the mirror world or AR (Augmented Reality) cloud.

This is all another way of saying the internet is spilling out of our phones and computers and merging with physical reality.

So, the metaverse won’t just be random cartoon game worlds built by developers. It will also be digital replicas of very real spaces, likely the whole planet, and mirror your real environment. It will eventually come to include sitting in your backyard with family members beamed in as avatars or putting on a VR headset to walk around other cities in real time.

A key takeaway – Just as most companies today have a website, at some point most companies will have a 3D virtual environment of some kind.
With spatial computing, game engines, and virtual environments like these, we’re closing the gap between experiences you have in real life (going to a concert, hanging out with friends, etc.) and experiences mediated by a computer online.
4 . Virtual Economies

As mentioned earlier, the game Fortnite is a great example of virtual economies. It’s a game that doesn’t cost a penny to play, yet still earned $9 billion in 2018 and 2019. How? They sell in-game stuff for players to express themselves in a variety of ways including virtual clothing, dance moves, and other items. In some ways the metaverse is just a giant virtual fashion industry.

If that sounds silly or weird, just think about how someone carefully plans what clothes to wear or what profile picture to use on LinkedIn. We care about how we express ourselves in the world. If we’re going to spend an increased portion of our time online, it’s not so silly to expect people will want the items that present their best selves as an extension of themselves in the virtual world. Just as a woman buys a name brand, luxury handbag – she’ll want the virtual expression of herself to show the same handbag. This is a licensing opportunity for brands to be able to control their use in the metaverse.

So where do NFTs fit into all of this? Among other uses, NFTs offer the infrastructure to let people take custody of this virtual stuff.

The first thing to note is that NFTs run on blockchains. A blockchain is really just a fancy Excel spreadsheet that keeps track of who owns what (like what a bank does to keep track of who owns what money). Today, we rely on centralized authorities like banks to keep track of how much money is in which accounts as cash is shuffled between people and businesses. The idea behind a blockchain is that everyone just gets a copy of the same spreadsheet, and the big deal/breakthrough is that through complicated cryptography (which is where the “crypto” in cryptocurrency comes from) all those spreadsheets communicate and agree about which transactions are legitimate.

No more needing central trusted authorities. No way to hack, change, or mess around with what the spreadsheet says.

NFT stands for non-fungible token. The key word is ‘fungible’ which just means you can exchange something for an equivalent version, and it will be equally valuable (bitcoin is fungible because it doesn’t matter which bitcoin you have— they are all equally valuable). Non-fungible is the opposite: each item is unique. Therefore, we’re seeing a lot of digital art being bought and sold using NFTs. NFTs use blockchains to determine who owns what.

To be clear, NFT is not yet a universally agreed upon idea. Fortnite and plenty of other platforms have been doing just fine without NFTs. But one reason NFT/crypto is one of the noisiest places on the internet is because it’s fast-paced, novel, and supported by a ton of investment buzz and dollars.

Metaverse or no metaverse, NFTs mean the internet becomes a place where everyone has an inventory. Earlier we mentioned the metaverse is an interconnected collection of experiences, and if that’s the case, you might want to carry your single identity, history, and inventory of assets around with you. If that sounds familiar it’s basically giving users back their own cookies and personal data from big companies.

So, what? How does any of this meaningfully improve anything about the world, or even the internet? How is any of this better than what we have today?

What the metaverse enables, through dimensional space, is a way to replicate some but not all natural human behaviors, which you can’t replicate in existing online spaces such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom.

Additionally, the metaverse might grow to become a more intuitive internet. Just like spatial computing interfaces are easier to use, websites may become like walking into physical stores, something our brains and bodies might better understand and of infinite possibilities to retailers.

No matter what, we won’t replace real-world experiences, nor should we want to. We also won’t stop using today’s platforms, like video conferencing. The metaverse is just the evolutionary next stage of the internet and offers a new suite of communication tools that will be more helpful for some things and less for others.

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