Why this book: I’m fascinated by the idea of humans developing a parallel virtual “world” in which they can act out, or try out lives that they don’t live in the physical, or “real” world. That is happening, and this book comes highly recommended as an explanation as to the status of the ongoing development of the Metaverse.
Summary in 3 Sentences: The author outlines for techies and non-techies (like me) alike, the origins of the idea of the Metaverse, offers a working definition, what is happening today (as of 2022) and the many challenges that must be faced to develop the Metaverse as many envision it. He talks a lot about the world of computer gaming which he notes is breaking trail and incrementally solving many of the problems that must be overcome for the Metaverse to evolve and become a reality. And he concludes with how he envisions a Metaverse changing much of how we live and spend our time, challenges in sorting through the pros and cons, and making a few tentative predictions for the future.
My Impressions: Extremely well written book which covers a lot of territory in this very complex issue. I can’t say that I understood all of it – since much of how the Metaverse will evolve will be built upon the technologies and lessons learned in the current world of advanced computer gaming – and I have not participated in that world. But it is a world that is evolving rapidly, and the evolution of computer gaming is bringing the Metaverse to us more quickly. Many believe that the Metaverse is the next evolutionary step. Some will say that we are already in the early stages of the Metaverse, but it will take a decade or more for us to get to the next large step, and that will be in increments as well – also probably tied to gaming.
The author is not only articulate, but also (from my perspective) well versed and informed in the world of computers, gaming, tech business, and the digital economy. All of those are key pieces of the puzzle that will become “the” Metaverse. He begins by giving us his definition of the Metaverse and what the idea represents, which also is somewhat controversial. The term itself came from Neal Stephenson’s science fiction futuristic novel Snow Crash, which the author claims provides the inspirational ideal for the Metaverse.
He divides the book into three parts and below, I offer a few thoughts about each:
Part 1: What is the Metaverse which includes chapters entitled A brief History of the Future, Confusion and Uncertainty, a Definition (Finally,) and The Next Internet.
His chapter entitled “A Definition (finally)” offers his contribution to the controversy of what the idea of Metaverse represents. At present it is more than simply an ideal – the rest of the book makes the case how indeed the world of tech and gaming is rapidly moving in this direction, though in the conclusion of the book, he notes that the future is almost impossible to predict. He notes that the Metaverse and Web3 (he claims they are not the same) are “successor states” to the internet that we know it today. He states “…the principles of Web3 are likely critical to establishing a thriving Metaverse.”
His working definition is: A massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments. In that chapter, he has sections about each of the these aspects of the metaverse and some of the challenges associated with each of them – sections with titles like:Virtual Worlds, 3D, Real-time rendered, Interoperable Network, Massively Scaled, Persistence, Synchronous, Unlimited Users and Individual Presence.
He explains why gaming companies are in the lead in developing that future thriving Metaverse – they have the developers, they are making huge amounts of money that is needed to develop the technology to drive the Metaverse, they are already fully engaged in creating and rendering realistic 3D online environments in which people will want to synchronously engage with others, and where they want and choose to spend time.
Part 2 Building the Metaverse includes chapters entitled Networking, Computing, Virtual World Engines, Interoperability, Hardware, Payment Rails, Blockchains. This section of the book examines the many challenges of building a Metaverse, and was a challenge for me to follow because I am so new to this world, which demands a greater understanding of computer networking, gaming, and hardware than I have. But I give the author credit for regularly stopping to provide metaphors for some of his arguments that helped me to understand how this world relates to the world that I know. He addresses bandwidth issues, technical challenges with “latency” – how long it takes for a computer to receive, load and render information it gets from another source – and he goes into some depth on the challenges of real-time rendered virtual 3D worlds, especially when one is measuring time in tiny fractions of a second. He notes that “latency is the greatest networking obstacle on the way to the Metaverse” and that “Every single additional user to a virtual world only compounds synchronization challenges.”
The chapter on Computing lays out pretty clearly the technical challenges of creating a Metaverse that people envision, that would be accessible and interactive with people all over the world. The animation rendered in the Metaverse would need to be created every .016 seconds, and would require a supercomputer to serve concurrent users all over the world. To create the Metaverse that is envisioned, “…accessible to billions of humans in real time will require a 1000 times increase in computational efficiency from today’s state of the art.”
We are also dealing with the variety and limitations in the personal computational devices used by those accessing the internet, and eventually the Metaverse. Likewise the capacities of the networks will be a limitation. Really smart people are working on these problems and possible solutions are being explored, such as renting enterprise grade equipment for finite windows, accessing and using the unused computational capacity of millions of personal and commercial computers when they are not being used. This option is already being explored by UC Berkeley (SETI@HOME) in their search for alien life. Blockchains also provide both the technological mechanism for decentralized computing as well as an economic model. One thing is certain he says, “The availability and limitations to compute will shape which Metaverse experiences are possible, for whom, when, and where.”
He describes how eventually the huge challenge will be developing the means for different “universes” to interact and for changes and experiences in one, to carry over into another. But he says that these different platforms, with their own rules and competing standards are not a Metaverse, rather they are multiple meta-galaxies, and until standards and competing 3D formats and exchanges become interoperable, people will have to choose between platforms and technologies – like between Android and Apple, between a variety of email platforms, video sharing tools, Mac or Windows, etc That is essentially what gamers have to do today. The book points out that “As the global economy continues to shift to virtual worlds, these cross-platform and cross-developer technologies will become a core part of global society.”
The chapter on Payment Rails was fascinating. The business side of gaming that is and will continue to fuel the Metaverse has many challenges which he describes. Competing companies create firewalls and some have developed key services and price structures that inhibit innovation in software and other new technologies. As he tells it, this payment rails dimension has been very frustrating and inhibiting to the most creative and innovative game and technology developers. “The policies of Apple and Google limit the growth potential not only of virtual world platforms, but also the internet at large.”
“The concept, history, and future of the Metaverse are all intimately tied to gaming, as we’ve seen, and this fact is perhaps most obvious when we look at the basic code of the virtual worlds.”
The chapter on Blockchains is complicated, but he concludes with five very different and competing views of the role of Blockchains as it might affect the Metaverse. These competing views are:
- Blockchains are a wasteful technology propped up by scams and fads.
- Blockchains are inferior to most, if not all alternative databases, contracts and computing structures, but have some value.
- Though Blockchains will not become dominant for storing data, they will become key to many experiences, application, and business models.
- Blockchains are not just critical technology, but also key to disrupting today’s platform paradigm.
- Blockchains are essentially a requirement for the Metaverse that we imagine.
The author seems to lean toward views 4 and 5. After describing so many challenges and obstacles to creating the Metaverse, he says: “So why am I optimistic that, given all these complications, there will be a Metaverse? Economics.” p127
Part 3: How the Metaverse will Revolutionize Everything. This was the most fun section to read. It includes chapters entitled: “When will the Metaverse Arrive?” “Meta-Business,” “Metaverse Winners and Losers,” and “Metaverse existence,” concluding with a chapter “Spectators All. “
The author notes that though as much as 70% of app store revenue comes from gamers, the virtual world is still not part of the lives of the vast majority of people. Fewer that 1 in 14 people routinely engage with the virtual world, and these are almost exclusively gamers, and these people at this point have only marginal influence over society at large. But as we know, this stuff can move pretty quickly when it gets traction and reaches exit velocity. He notes that cross-platform interoperability remains a huge obstacle and will be essential to the development of the Metaverse. He also notes what he calls ‘the ongoing destigmatization of time spent in virtual worlds, ” and how gaming and virtual reality involvement is gaining broader acceptance.
He points to two key factors: 1. how the “underlying technologies required for the metaverse are improving on an annual basis, and 2. there is an ongoing march of generational change – more than 75% of American children game on a single platform – Roblox. (including my own grandchildren) and with these two factors – the idea and the reality of the Metaverse is gaining increasing, almost unstoppable momentum.
In this section he addresses a number of fascinating ways that increasing use of virtual reality tools and links to the Metaverse will impact so much of what we do and how we live, including education, dating, mindfulness, meditation and physio and psycho – theraby, sex work, movies and interactive entertainment, fashion and advertising, industry, urban planning, medical diagnosis and surgery.
In his chapter on “Metaverse Winners and Losers” he addresses the so-called GAFAM tech giants (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) who are already positioning themselves to compete well in the new world. and how their competition is in some ways actually slowing down the momentum toward the Metaverse “ideal.” But there are new disruptors out there who are not well known today, but who, in the near future, could be the new change agents in this realm and tech giants of the future – and they include the gaming companies such as Epic Games, Unity and Roblox and other players such as Intel and Nvidia. He notes that the real battle will be between centralization and decentralization. Centralization involves control and stability, but it hampers creativity and progress.
He points to how the tech landscape and power structures will need to change for Web 3.0 (a term frequently conflated with the Metaverse) to be an overall positive force in society and peoples lives. He describes how most of us look to the future to improve on many of the disappointments of Web 2.0 which provides us free services in exchange for our data, which the tech behemoths use to manipulate us and to serve their ends (buy products from their advertisers.)
In his chapter “Metaversal Existence” the author points to many of the concerns that the future Metaverse poses for those of us who want less tracking, manipulation, misinformation, unsolicited advertisement, harassment and abuse from unknown tech manipulators in our digital and non-digital lives. And he foresees some interesting moral and cultural challenges that the Metaverse will pose, for example, asking whether it will be acceptable for a white man’s avatar to be that of an Aboriginal woman.
And he addresses the likelihood that the Metaverse will widen the “digital divide,” in that more affluent countries will have access to the joys, sorrows and advantages of the Metaverse, but most of the developing world will not, and will be relegated to supporting those countries which are rapidly moving into a whole new cultural dimension, thereby widening the gap between the developed and developing worlds.
On the positive side, he comments: “Few among us dreamed of retirement and a long life in order to spend half of each of our remaining days watching TV. The Metaverse may offer no substitute for actually sailing in the Caribbean, but manning a virtual sailboat alongside old friends is likely to come pretty close and offer all sorts of digital-only perks – and beat watching midday Fox News or MSNBC.”
He addresses the role of government in regulating the Metaverse, and preventing the worst abuses. He proposes that “government take on a more serious approach to data collection, usage, rights and penalties.” As an interim step to a single Metaverse, he sees multiple national Metaverses, given that different governments will have different protocols for the rights of individuals and corporations, and the role of government oversight. He notes that “It’s a good bet that China’s Metaverse will be even more different from and centrally controlled compared to that of Western nations.”
He concludes with “I am certain about much of the future. It will be increasingly centered around real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds. Network bandwidth, latency, and reliability will improve. The amount of computing power will increase, thus enabling higher concurrency, greater persistency, more sophisticated simulations, and altogether new experiences…. By the end of the decade, we’ll agree the Metaverse has arrived and it will be worth many trillions.”
But he reminds us of a quote by Tim Sweeney: “If one central company gains control of the Metaverse, they will become more powerful than any government and be a god on Earth.”
He concludes his book by noting that the trajectory of the Metaverse will be similar to the trajectory of smart phones and social media. “Eventually, a thing that seems trivial – a mobile phone, a touch screen, a video game – becomes essential, and ends up changing the world in ways both predicted and never even considered.”