The metaverse is a new-old concept. First coined in 1992, the idea of a virtual reality world is more than 80 years old. Many of us can recall the enthusiasm that greeted Second Life – a 3D virtualised world which offered an alternative reality for its users – almost 20 years ago. This time, of course, we have Web 3.0. But what has that got to do with anything?
Each of us, from our own position and experience, can look upon the latest advent of the metaverse with our personal blend of scepticism, horror or delight. The idea that within a couple of years we will be attending online meetings with avatars dressed as aliens or superheroes might sound ridiculous to some. Perhaps it will be a common way to break the ice or an occasional tool to help us think outside the box. Is it really so different to a fashionable corporate retreat in the wilderness? Either way, the conjecture is a distraction from the Web 3.0 concepts underpinning it.
So, what is Web 3.0? Like the metaverse, it eludes strict definition. It’s certainly happening, but it is more than practice or technology or companies. It’s an idea, a trend. What it comes down to is the use of decentralised services as a common backbone to a uniquely personalised virtual experience. NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) are both a good and bad example of this. Good because they are intuitive and bad because of the dubious nature of some implementations.
NFTs are a way of staking and transferring ownership of a virtual object independently, in theory, of any walled garden. We can consider NFTs to be analogous to a deed of ownership over land: papers that declare the holder owns the land and thus the associated rights and protections accorded by society. With NFTs, a user can prove ownership and exercise the associated rights in a digital object by reference to a public blockchain and thereby act independently of any company, government, or internet platform. The blockchain is assumed resilient, secure, incorruptible, and able to withstand the rise and decline of the internet giants.
It would be remiss to ignore that there are multiple, significant flaws in the existing implementations and valuations of NFTs. Just as deeds of ownership degrade to mere scraps of paper without a social consensus on their validity, so too are NFTs left ineffectual without social approval and enforcement to uphold their value. Now, platforms like Twitter and OnlyFans are starting this process of recognition but there is a whole ‘metaverse’ to build before they reach their potential.
And just what is that potential? Looking past the fawning over absurdly priced monkey JPEGs, some can see only pyramid schemes, art theft and land grabs on virtual real estate. But there is something fundamentally more profound, and to a certain degree inevitable and welcoming in the concept.
Particularly for the younger generations, the increasingly anachronistic framing of the real vs online world is fast becoming pejorative. Who has the authority to dismiss an achievement or emotion, based on whether it is experienced physically or virtually? Today we are online all the time and what happens virtually is real too. Is captaining 50 roleplay gamers from across the world and coordinating a dungeon assault somehow a lesser achievement than captaining the village five-a-side football team? Is a pen pal inherently real and a Twitter friend inherently fake?
This parity of virtual and physical is the essence of the metaverse, and Web 3.0 is the technology that allows it to be recognised and valued emotionally. Monetary valuation is part of that recognition, but over time this will subside to a secondary consideration.
Consider how, when experiences, relationships, identities, shared and unique histories and emotions are valued, we seek to acknowledge and record them through memories, souvenirs, certificates, memorabilia, collectables, gifts, mementoes and heirlooms. Our most treasured possessions are usually sentimental rather than valuable. Now, the key problem with virtual experience is that all of these digital equivalents have close to zero marginal cost of replication and storage. How can we have a unique set of personal effects if anyone can just copy them?
The satisfaction of achievement is a powerful incentive. People train to climb mountains and run marathons. People study to speak languages, invest hours and salaries in crafting. They meticulously plan adventures and spend hours researching their hobbies. We know they do this too in virtual worlds with sufficient achievement reward mechanisms, such as MMORGs like Minecraft and Elder Scrolls.
Outside of these controlled environments, it is possible to skip the preparation, cheat the skills and jump straight to the achievement: Furniture in the metaverse will be crafted by graphic designers, not woodworkers.
And so here we have a problem. In the physical world, people enjoy the process of reaching an achievement, they enjoy ‘attainment’, and they keep mementoes of it. Video gamers also enjoy attainment. But for attainment itself to be enjoyable it appears to require a unique, emotionally valuable achievement.
At UST, a global digital transformation company, we are researching this specific point in the context of the metaverse. We want to understand how a fully mature Web 3.0 or NFT-like technology could extend that achievement-reward mechanism far beyond the videogame market.
If attainment, in general, can be made as rewarding virtually as it is physically then all sorts of simulations can become sufficiently engaging for the level of detail to be increased several orders of magnitude. This creates new opportunities in training, therapy and education. For example, virtual hobbies could provide mental stimulation and relaxation to convalescing patients.
Virtual hobbies in the metaverse could allow many millions of people to access the joys and satisfaction of numerous leisure pursuits and pass-times taken for granted by those with physical access and sufficient dexterity, strength and disposable income.
The metaverse we foresee is less about virtual reality and more about being real when interacting virtually.