Explaining the Metaverse — All You Need to Know

Dubbed by many as the future of the internet, the metaverse combines the visual with the immersive. The term has entered the tech industry boldly, skyrocketing in popularity in the last two years. And while the metaverse doesn’t exist yet, we already have many platforms with metaverse characteristics. So what is the metaverse, and what does it mean for the internet, brands, and people? Let’s find out.

a digital city in the metaverse
Explaining the Metaverse

What Is the Metaverse?

The metaverse doesn’t have a finite definition (yet).

“While defining the term is not easy, one thing is probably true. The term will not be defined by one single person or company, it will be defined by many, and it will evolve,” says Cathy Hackl, tech expert at Forbes.

That said, here’s a bulleted summary of what the metaverse is shaping up to be:

  • The metaverse is a network of persistent and interoperable worlds and experiences with real-time 3D content.
  • The metaverse might become a new way of experiencing and interacting with life enriched with a virtual layer.
  • Many see the metaverse as the successor of the internet.
  • The core concept behind the metaverse is decentralization — users and user-generated content are the driving force of the metaverse.

The metaverse as the internet:

Likening the metaverse to the internet makes it easier to explain what the metaverse is. There’s only one metaverse, and there’s only one internet. There can be numerous worlds in the metaverse (just like websites on the internet). Users will enter the metaverse to socialize, gain information, shop, communicate, work, play, and all other things that can be done over the internet today.

What isn’t the metaverse?

To simplify what the metaverse means, it’s worth explaining first what the metaverse is not. Contrary to what many believe, the metaverse is not only virtual reality and doesn’t have to be delivered solely via an immersive headset. In fact, the metaverse is device agnostic, meaning it can be accessed through a smartphone, laptop, augmented reality glasses, or headset.

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Main Characteristics of the Metaverse

  • Trustless and decentralized
  • Open
  • Social
  • Interoperable
  • Persistent

Trustless and decentralized — the metaverse shouldn’t have a single company as the decision-maker and the holder of rights. The users should be in control of the metaverse — it’s no longer about the Big Tech to deliver and maintain the infrastructure. In essence, the metaverse should be co-created and co-governed by the users.

Open — the technology powering the metaverse should be open-source and enable users to participate in the creation of it. Many see the metaverse as an opportunity for people of all backgrounds to not only express themselves and communicate but also create and profit from the content they create (without intermediaries).

Interoperable — one of the core components of the metaverse is creating and using assets that can be run across platforms operating within the metaverse ecosystem. For example, an item of digital clothing should be transferable between metaverse experiences — there’s no platform lock-in for digital items.

Social — the metaverse enables social interaction with other users regardless of their age, background, or financial status. The social aspect of the metaverse gives people the opportunity to fully experience the world no matter their location.

Persistent — the reality in the metaverse is persistent and doesn’t stop after the user logs out. In other words, the sun rises and sets at the same hour for every user.

Is the metaverse a game?

No, the metaverse is not simply a game — it’s a digital world with gaming experiences. But the metaverse will most likely rely on the tech built by gaming giants — they have the technology that enables real-time 3D and user interaction with that virtual layer.

For example, MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) share many metaverse characteristics. Fortnite, Roblox, or Minecraft are platforms where users can interact, socialize, trade, and have fun.

However, users can’t migrate freely from one platform to the next without first signing out and logging in. Even when playing Roblox levels users have to switch between them.

Is the metaverse Web 3.0?

The discussions of the metaverse go hand in hand with the concept of Web 3.0 — where the internet as we know it today transforms into a decentralized experience not governed by tech giants. In web 3.0, data ownership is distributed among users. However, the metaverse isn’t synonymous with web 3.0.

Web 3.0 defines the next iteration of the internet as owned and created by users, but the metaverse is only one way how it can be achieved.

Why Create the Metaverse?

There are many reasons to create the metaverse. For example, it can be an alternative reality to what’s happening in the world today. Or the metaverse could help us retain social interactions in the face of Covid-19. Another reason is giving users the opportunity to get paid for the co-creation of the metaverse. It can also be a space where users can express themselves through means (e.g., creative assets) unavailable in the physical world.

Visionaries believe the metaverse will allow us to experience the world together with people from different parts of the globe without the need to travel. Using technologies such as full-body haptic suits or smell-inducing tools on top of the visual layer can enable users to experience multisensory stimuli.

How Lucrative Is the Metaverse?

With almost 8 billion people, a decentralized world with a digital economy creates a massive opportunity for businesses.

David Granaham, Wall Street researcher and blogger, cites the following figures for the metaverse market:

  • 2020: $47 billion per year
  • 2021: CAGR 43% (compound annual growth rate) 
  • 2028: $829 billion per year

The metaverse will give birth to entirely new industries, sectors, and employment. It can empower disadvantaged people, giving them places to work and fulfill themselves.

The Current State of the Metaverse

With so much buzz around the term, one would think we already have the metaverse to enjoy and engage. It’s not necessarily the case.

We’re seeing an evolution of the platforms that partially meet the definition of the metaverse, but there’s still very little information about how these different platforms can be decentralized in the future. How the users can migrate between these platforms and retain their identities and inventory.

We’re most likely to first witness the emergence of many different virtual worlds that will gradually merge to create the metaverse.

Who Is in the Metaverse Game?

Many companies are already deep in the metaverse game, providing the technology to enable real-time 3d content delivery, content creation, or content experience (devices).

companies that are building the future metaverse
Examples of companies that are working on the metaverse.

Roblox

Most associate Roblox with a game for kids and teenagers. But over the years, the company has become much more than a game. Currently, Roblox shares many similarities with the metaverse — it’s a platform where users can create content, socialize, communicate, and play. According to Craig Donato, Chief Business Officer at Roblox, the company is working toward building a scalable self-regulated system, with users in the foreground.

User-generated content (UGC) is a big driver behind Roblox's success as well as the foundation of the web 3.0 concept. Many see Roblox and its users as the early adopters of the metaverse.

Nvidia

With the launch of the Omniverse, Nvidia has become one of the more advanced enablers of the metaverse. Omniverse Enterprise is a platform for creators to build 3D models, work, collaborate, and review.

Metaverse vs. omniverse

Nvidia’s Omniverse is one of the technologies that can power the metaverse in the future. Omniverse is based on open-source technology developed by PiXAR, called Universal Scene Description (USD) — “the HTML of 3D.” Using the Omniverse platforms, developers can build 3D content that can be shared across virtual worlds. In short, USD lets designers build scenes that are recognizable by other 3D tools.

"The USD format was created by PiXAR in order to build a universal container for transferring data between different 3D systems. It's currently gaining popularity thanks to its implementation in the iOS system. Before USD, exporting scenes from 3D programs to real-time 3D engines was complicated and required knowledge of the limitations of each engine," says Konrad Ożóg, 3D artist at nomtek.
"USD changed all that. If the 3D program you use to create scenes lets you export to USD, the elements you design will look the same for web, AR, or XR. A USD file can contain information about geometry, animation, textures, materials, lights, and even sounds and music. It's also read natively by devices above iOS 12."

Richard Kerris, vice president of the Omniverse at Nvidia, added that many other companies, including Apple, support USD. “Like the journey from HTML 1.0 to HTML 5,” he continued, “USD will continue to evolve from its nascent state today to a more complete definition for the virtual world.”

Developers can learn about building “Omniverse extensions and microservices” at the Omniverse Developer Resource Center. There is a developer kit available, along with tips to get started building 3D scenes using USD.

nvidia's omniverse
Nvidia’s omniverse is a content creation platform for the metaverse. Source: Nvidia’s blog

Microsoft

Microsoft wants to provide a platform to digitally map and monitor everything in a real-world business environment — warehouses, factories, retail stores, and so on. It’ll be like a 3D version of Microsoft Office.

From a developer perspective, Microsoft covers pretty much everything — you can apply complex machine learning technology to digital twins, or build a simple application on top of digital twin data using Microsoft’s Power Platform (its low-code toolset). Microsoft’s approach is leaning heavily toward the metaverse.

metaverse solutions built in the Microsoft ecosytem
The all-enabling metaverse experience from Microsoft. Source: Microsoft

Apple

Apple is rumored to release its augmented reality glasses sometime in 2022 (the exact date is unknown, and some sources stretch this date to 2023). It’s not clear how sophisticated Apple's AR glasses will be, but the company has been keeping the project a secret, so we might assume something exciting is brewing.

With AR glasses present, we can expect Apple to release virtual content — the company’s possible move toward the metaverse.

Apple is also a key distributor of games and apps for iOS and macOS. It’ll be interesting to observe how the company will use this power (and how much that power can change) as more companies who rely on the App Store for distribution embark on the metaverse train.

How Long Before We Can Enjoy a Full-Fledged Metaverse Experience?

Most experts predict it’s going to take 10 years before the hardware, software, and infrastructure are mature enough to provide a seamless metaverse experience.

Which brings us to the next point.

What Are the Challenges for the Metaverse to Exist?

There are many challenges for the metaverse concept to become reality and allow for mainstream adoption.

Technology & infrastructure to power the metaverse

The infrastructure necessary to enable highly available and reliable connections for interconnected and persistent worlds doesn’t exist yet.

Today, even the biggest players in the (semi) metaverse reality experience technical struggles that disturb the persistence necessary for the metaverse to function.

On October 29, Roblox went down for three days. The same fate met Fortnite in late December, which was offline for five hours. Both platforms serve millions of users simultaneously and need reliable technology to meet the demand.

Roblox’s backend infrastructure is very complex — it supports 43.2 million daily active users. The October outage occurred during heavy load, which overwhelmed the system and disrupted communication between servers. Fortnite, which has fewer DAUs, didn’t specify the reason for the outage, but it’s speculated a bug was responsible.

Software to create experiences

The demand for developing a game or “experience” for any number of different platforms is likely to skyrocket. Everything from VR systems like the Oculus Quest and HTC Vive, to emerging virtual worlds like Roblox and Fortnite, to gaming consoles like Playstation and Xbox, to mobile apps and even the web itself will require experience in creating engaging experiences.

The software landscape for experience creation is already vast. For example, there are developer tools such as Epic’s Unreal Engine, Unity, Amazon Sumerian, Autodesk’s Maya, and the open-source Blender.

Bandwidth speed

While over 60% of the global population is currently connected to the internet, it’s estimated that only one-third will be connected to 5G networks by 2025. Since real-time 3D content delivery requires stable and powerful data transmission, the metaverse will depend on the efforts to improve global internet connectivity.

a graph with the evolution of 5G network
The evolution of cellular internet. Source: 5G Technology with Matlab
comparison of broadband and mobile internet speeds globally
Internet speeds on mobile and fixed broadband in 2021. Global median. Source: Speedtest

Literacy

User-generated content (UGC) will drive metaverse experiences. As such, the metaverse will rely on user knowledge of tools and expertise in building consumable content that can be legally sold and managed.

The current tools for 3D model creation and coding have a high barrier to entry. The market lacks low-code and no-code tools that enable users with little technical knowledge to participate in the creation of the metaverse.

Security

There’s a lot to be figured out in terms of technology and security policies for the metaverse. For example, users can have different identities across the metaverse worlds and only a wallet as identification. Other experts underline that there will be a single digital identity in the metaverse to strengthen security and safety of the metaverse experience

Worthy Terms in the Metaverse Context

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) — even though NFTs provoke some controversy, this technology is interesting in the context of the metaverse because NFT-based assets can be reused with ownership confirmation across the metaverse worlds. 

NFTs are only a possible enabler for the various concepts of the metaverse. This doesn’t mean they will be an integral part of it.

Blockchain — just as NFTs, the blockchain is often treated synonymously with the metaverse. Again, because of its features, the blockchain can facilitate interoperability and ownership across the metaverse worlds. But that doesn’t mean this is the only technology that will enable that. There can be specific protocols, for example.

There are already three major players in the blockchain-based virtual world sector: Decentraland, Somnium Space, and Cryptovoxels. In Somnium Space, users can create their own experiences for other users to explore.

Decentralized authority organization (DAO) — DAOs are organizations that run on the blockchain with rules created by their members, not a government. The rules are written in the code that executes automatically via smart contracts. DAOs can be used to facilitate the decentralization part of the metaverse.

The Metaverse: Will It Be the Future of the Internet?

A lot remains unknown in terms of what the metaverse will eventually become. We don’t know which technologies it’ll ultimately need. A myriad of other questions regarding the mental health of long-term exposure to virtual content also remain unaddressed.

However, there are plenty of companies that are already deep in the trenches, working on their digital worlds, creating the hardware and technology that will ultimately power a single metaverse. While it’s too soon to say that the metaverse will be the future of the internet, the metaverse is likely going to be built.

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