‘No force on earth can stop an idea whose time has come’ – Victor Hugo
Back in October 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was rebranding as Meta.
At that point, the idea of the metaverse – a set of immersive, interactive environments that would power new online social experiences – was riding high on the wider wave of blockchain and technology hype. Alongside breakthrough technologies including crypto, AR/VR and AI, the metaverse was one of the big technological narratives of the year. It was promising enough for the largest social network to back it with billions of dollars of R&D and pivot its whole approach to making this bold concept a reality.
Today, less than two years later, the metaverse seems to have ground to a standstill, while AI and blockchain – thanks to support from big backers and landmark products – are pushing into the mainstream.
The metaverse’s time will come, but probably not for a few more years. There are several reasons why.
What is the metaverse?
The idea of the metaverse was first raised by author Neal Stephenson in his hit 1992 post-cyberpunk novel Snow Crash. The book focuses on some of the downsides of life in a technologically-advanced society, including corporate control and social breakdown. Since the real world doesn’t offer a great deal to a lot of citizens, they spend a large amount of time interacting, working and playing in the ‘metaverse’, a kind of huge multi-user environment accessed using virtual reality glasses – or, for those who cannot afford them, lower-quality 2D public terminals.
Stephenson’s work was prescient, and at least 30 years ahead of its time. Today’s metaverses – there are many – take the form of large, interactive digital environments that are designed for social interaction. Some can be accessed via VR and AR devices, others using regular smartphones and laptops. Some are Web2-powered, like Second Life and Minecraft. Others, like the Sandbox and DecentraLand, integrate blockchain technology and are products of a Web3 ethos.
However, the metaverse – using the term in the broadest collective sense, like ‘the cloud’ – has not yet achieved the traction and mainstream appeal that it seemed it would only a couple of years ago. Although some businesses have a footprint in the metaverse, and it has enjoyed a degree of success as a venue for music events and entertainment (especially during the worst of COVID), we do not routinely access online services, hang out with friends, and go to work in the metaverse. That might be coming, but we’re not there yet.
The metaverse gap
There are a number of reasons for the disconnect between the promise and the reality of the metaverse. These reflect the fact that the metaverse relies on multiple different technologies, and all of them need to be sufficiently advanced if the end product is going to be fit for purpose. The problems aren’t insoluble, but there are some tough nuts to crack, and doing so is going to take time and resources.
1. The shortcomings of blockchain
A decentralised, Web3 metaverse that enables true user sovereignty requires high-throughput blockchains to host virtual currencies and NFTs representing digital objects. Moreover, these need to be user-friendly enough to support those who are familiar with Web2 applications. Managing private keys, installing MetaMask, and topping up gas on different networks is off-putting for most ‘normies’.
2. A lack of interoperability
Web 3 metaverses are built on different blockchains and L2 solutions. By design, these platforms cannot communicate with each other and require separate pieces of software (such as oracles and bridges) to interact. Interoperability has been one of the trickiest problems to solve in the blockchain space, and is fraught with security pitfalls. Even transferring assets between chains can be risky, and seamless cross-chain contract calls – interaction between dApps – is still a pipe dream. Until this is solved, metaverses on different blockchains will be isolated from each other and unable to communicate. It won’t be possible, for example, for an avatar created and developed in one metaverse to travel to another venue on a different chain.
What’s more, this problem is not simply a technical one. The proliferation of currencies and token standards means there is a tendency towards fragmentation. Open, Web3 metaverses might one day be able to integrate with one another. With the right interoperability tech and marketplaces, users might move between metaverses, taking digital possessions with them, and converting one metaverse’s native currency seamlessly into another’s (much like a visitor to the US from Europe needs to convert euros to dollars). But centralised Web2 metaverses, based on closed software models and the assumption of corporate control, will never be fully and trustlessly accessible to Web3 metaverse users – and vice versa.
Finally, there’s the question of XR (a catch-all term for virtual, augmented, and mixed realities) hardware. This is only just barely ready for use as a way to access the metaverse. Apple’s latest release, the Vision Pro, has solved many of the deal-breakers that have plagued earlier headsets. It’s comfortable, relatively lightweight, offers superb resolution, and has solved major issues such as nausea-inducing latency and isolation caused by imperfect ‘passthrough’. Unfortunately, it costs $3,500. Until such hardware comes down in price to the point where it’s on a par with a smartphone (which it could one day replace), it’s unreasonable to expect people to buy it in the numbers required to give XR-driven metaverse application critical mass.
None of these problems are insurmountable. Some are as much philosophical questions as they are technical issues (for example, each metaverse designer will need to decide if their world is compatible with others). Others simply need time and investment, just as every new technology does, to achieve critical mass.
The metaverse is a compelling and enduring idea with a great deal of promise, but it’s one whose time has not come – yet.