The metaverse is not as new you think...

June 21, 2022

The metaverse or ‘meta verse’ as it first appeared in Neil Stephensons’ 1992 book Snow Crash is everywhere at the moment. We read frenzied reports of it being the next multi-trillion dollar tech wave, but many of us still don't know what the metaverse is or most importantly what we can do there. In truth, the answer to both is, ‘it’s evolving’ but maybe technically ‘the 3D internet’ is as good a place as anywhere to start. 

Really, it’s a new-ish word for a very old idea. The idea of shared immersive environments has had a hold on our collective consciousness since Descartes, who was fascinated by the fabric of reality in the early 17th century. Arguably, audio is the first metaverse, something Scott Galloway and others have spoken about. Are we not transported to other worlds when listening to our favourite music, podcast or speaker and isn’t this as old as human language? In Scott’s opinion, the AirPod is the first mass-market metaverse device.

The same effect happens in literature and plays, from early Shakespeare and Don Quixote. Maybe more directly in Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, Alice in Wonderland and Ready Player One, we are in love with the notion of persistent, well-realised, created worlds. Novels and plays satisfy a deep need to immerse ourselves in places that have been imagined by someone else.

Genieve Bell traces an early physical metaverse idea to the Victorians and the Great Exhibition, where visitors were invited to travel the world from the comfort of London. Recent record breaking hit shows from Team Lab and Punch Drunk that audiences love to immerse themselves in stories and experiences. Maybe this is an antidote to our always connected daily lives and later-day capitalism. We now crave and value experience above all else.

Any time we have been invited into a created, imaginary world in a novel, film, play or with our eyes shut listening to a fireside story - we connect and immerse ourselves with constructed realities – or metaverses if you like.

Right here, right now

For those of us who’ve been developing products in this space for years, like at SpaceForm, it’s been useful to finally have a label on a bunch of tech ideas that were always seen as exciting, but unconnected. Maybe we are over the peak ‘metaverse’ already. At least, according to Google, it’s now about the grind of delivering on all those promises. This is normal, as the tech hype cycle dies down to something more tangible, and those who’ve raised funds must now focus on delivering the next wave of how we interact with computers. 

This wave is going to be profound, as the machines around us get smarter and the interfaces feel more natural, we will interact and connect with them in new ways that blend the digital with physical, bits and atoms. 

Humans are hardwired to interact with our world in 3D, this represents a massive opportunity to engage our senses more in how we interact with machines and environments. VR pioneer and author, Jared Lanier, makes the connection between playing musical instruments with our bodies and how interfaces should work with 3D simulated environments. The more natural it feels, the more we use all of our bodies and senses and the more human the experience becomes. 

The public might get a glimpse of where all of this is going, but there’s still some fundamental questions to answer. Right now, the biggest question for anyone exploring metaverses from the original Second Life to Descetraland is ‘what do I do here?’ I found myself asking this whilst in a metaverse Ibiza club, by myself at 3.30pm on a Tuesday in Desentraland, literally the first person dancing at the disco or more accurately the only person in the entire club. Maybe this is fine, any club would be fairly boring on a Tuesday afternoon without other people but still there needs to be a purpose beyond the initial ‘this is cool’. 

At SpaceForm, we’re building a community platform for designers to prototype their ideas rapidly using metaverse technologies. It’s a very clear purpose. Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite have clear purposes in the gaming space. Meta is clearly betting on social to drive growth and engagement in the metaverse, others in retail and finance. It’s going to be fascinating to see what new purposes beyond these emerge.

It only gets interesting, when interesting people are involved

Today’s big tech firms are going to dominate the social metaverse, and if their current platforms are anything to go by, they’ll build walled gardens with little ability to move data between them. This unlocks opportunities for new content creators and experience builders to build open ecosystems and platforms. Maybe this is going to be the start of the next wave of big tech or more accurately, distributed tech businesses?

Lots of metaverses will emerge, our bet is that this is where new ideas, creative innovation and business models will happen. Storytellers, creators, entrepreneurs and entertainers will all meet and create worlds easily, securely and collectively. The key ingredient to this is an open structure that allows our content, our avatars and our valuable data to move between platforms. In today’s internet, sharing images and video between sites has been pretty easy but in 3D worlds with 3D data, this becomes much more challenging. 

For example, you have an amazing new HQ for your metaverse-enabled art gallery, you want it to be on all the major platforms but the challenge of converting it to many different formats isn’t small. You’ll have to think about how the doors, stairs and lifts work  – how do you add inventory to the gallery, how do people buy it and in what format? If you can’t bring your HQ into all the major platforms, you are missing a big slice of your audience, and if it looks bad, it affects your business and the artists you represent. All of this requires time and investment, which means your gallery will only appear in the biggest, most popular metaverse platforms or find a universal, standards-based format that means it can be ported across any open metaverse platform and just work.

There’s lots of potential solutions, including the use of universal file formats like USD and distributed intelligence of Web3, but once these are agreed and adopted widely, creators can get on with building incredible experiences that connect with audiences on any device and platform. Unlocking the promise of finding the next generation of tech-enabled creative worlds. 

The end of the beginning

There are lots of varying opinions on when the metaverse will start, if it really already exists and where it will go, but it’s really just an old idea in new tech clothing. Most of the building blocks are around in simple forms, the next 5-10 years are going to be about solving the hard technical problems. The hardest one? Data interoperability.

We started SpaceForm because we have two eyes...

This is the next iteration of the spatial internet, which is going to represent trillions of dollars of new opportunities as industries are disrupted, including 3D design. At SpaceForm, our mission is to connect today’s designers to the metaverse. We know they have the skills and training to become the leading advocates of human-led 3D design, in a world without boundaries. But technically, psychologically and culturally it’s not easy shifting thinking from bits to atoms.

If we’re going to make the metaverse meaningful, relevant and, above all, human, todays’ architects, product, automotive and fashion designers are going to be needed more than ever. Our mission at SpaceForm is to make this as easy as possible for these creators, for any audience, anywhere.

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