A framework for the coming immersive reality
The Metaverse is the next significant development in global communications.
The strangeness and novelty of this new digital capability is generating confusion. Ideas abound, unmoored from practice and practical reality. Well-intentioned but naive seekers are grasping for a conceptual foundation on which to base their work and place their bets. Entrenched players with specific agendas are attempting to favorably direct the conversation in an early bid for market dominance. All of this becomes amplified, removed from context, and repeated with increasing noise added to the original signal via social media.
Ultimately, none of this public discourse will matter. There will come a day when we look upon what we have accomplished, and know that we have done it. As of now, we do not know exactly what shape the Metaverse will take. That does not matter, either. What matters is that someday, a global network of spatially organized, predominantly 3D content will be available to all without restriction, for use in all human endeavors — a new and profoundly transformational medium, enabled by major innovations in hardware, human-computer interface, network infrastructure, creator tools and digital economies.
In the meantime, in order to avoid more confusion, and with the sole intent of keeping all eyes on the prize, that is, building a Metaverse intended for the greatest good for the greatest number, it appears that some clarification and guidance are needed.
Herein are seven Rules that frame the Metaverse, by which we may direct our ongoing work and against which we can evaluate progress.
Bear in mind while reading the Rules:
- The Rules are axiomatic.
- The Rules are hypotheses, distilled from decades of experience and insights from many practitioners.
- The Rules are already generally embraced by many in principle. They may not be embraced by all. It doesn’t matter, for they describe an inevitability.
- The Rules are not up for debate; history and practice will ultimately judge their validity.
A Metaverse that does not follow the Rules (follow here in the sense of cohere with i.e. logically, versus act in accordance with i.e. prescriptively) is not the Metaverse, but something else.
Humbly submitted, in service to the great work.
Rule #1. There is only one Metaverse.
Rule #2: The Metaverse is for everyone.
Rule #3: Nobody controls the Metaverse.
Rule #4: The Metaverse is open.
Rule #5: The Metaverse is hardware-independent.
Rule #6: The Metaverse is a Network.
Rule #7: The Metaverse is the Internet.
Explanation of the Rules
Rule #1. There is only one Metaverse.
There is only one Metaverse. It is the sum total of all publicly accessible virtual worlds, real-time 3D content and related media that are connected on an open global network, controlled by none and accessible to all.
- The term “a Metaverse” is not appropriate when referring to a place in the Metaverse. When referring to a place in the Metaverse, correct terms are “world,” “virtual world,” “space,” “environment,” “node,” “zone,” or a similar designation still to be determined and broadly accepted. Similarly, the word “Metaverses” is not appropriate when referring to multiple such places in the Metaverse.
- If one refers to such a place as being “a Metaverse,” they are not describing the Metaverse. They are describing a game, a theme park, or a walled garden community that has many characteristics in common with the Metaverse, such as 3D spaces, places, and people. But none of these is “a Metaverse,” because there is only one Metaverse. The term “a Metaverse” in this context is meaningless. Likewise, the plural form “Metaverses” is meaningless in this sense; more so, it is an aberration.
- The term “a Metaverse” is appropriate when used in the abstract, for example, when saying “a Metaverse controlled by [entity X] is not a Metaverse that I want to live in.” Likewise, the word “Metaverses” appropriate when used in the abstract, as in the statement: “In the near future, many people will claim to be building ‘Metaverses’, but they won’t be, for there is only one Metaverse.”
Reread the above substituting “Internet” or “Web” for “Metaverse,” and “site” for “world,” if further clarity is required.
Rule #2: The Metaverse is for everyone.
The Metaverse is for everyone, as defined by our most broad societal rules of inclusion. This is not a political or socioeconomic statement; it is an ethnographic one that has political and socioeconomic implications.
- Systems in the Metaverse must accommodate a breadth of conceivable use cases and the user personas for which they are designed. Generally, this means any 2D or 3D experience delivered over the network infrastructure of the Metaverse, regardless of the intended use case. Examples of this principle are: a “virtual product” i.e. an interactive real-time 3D model depicting a physical good; an animated artwork; a game, as one would generally understand the term, with avatars, non-player characters, environments, objects, interaction mechanics, win states.
- Virtual presence is not a precondition or defining characteristic. Users may or may not have an avatar in order to interact in the Metaverse. Not all use cases require presence, or embodiment. In fact, for some use cases this is a misfeature.
- Virtual environments, while being a predominant type of experience in the Metaverse, are not a precondition or defining characteristic. Simple 3D objects, and in fact all media types, are incorporated; presentation style and information architecture are in service to the use case. If one were then to ask about 2D or non-spatialized content in the Metaverse, “how is this different from the Web?” one reply would be: “It is Web content, experienced in the Metaverse,” for the Metaverse subsumes the Web (see Rule #7).
- While this is a very narrowly scoped qualifier, it bears emphasis because of a common confusion: the Metaverse is not just a video game, or even a network of video games. Granted, much of the production value, interaction mechanics, and economics in the Metaverse will be “game-like” or perceived as such by dint of being experienced in 3D. But most of the experiences in the Metaverse will not be games, nor will those experiencing them be “gamers” in the colloquial sense. There will be games in the Metaverse; but there will be many other types of experiences, too.
- Because the Metaverse enables the broadest set of use cases, it must accommodate the motivations of its creators and consumers across business, society and academia. This has inherent economic implications, namely that for many uses it cannot be prohibitively expensive to create and distribute content and must provide easy, unfettered access for all visitors.
- Rule #5 will further elaborate on accessibility and device-independence, in conjunction with this Rule.
Rule #3: Nobody controls the Metaverse.
Nobody controls the Metaverse. It is the universal commons for digital communication and commerce, intermediated as needs dictate, governed as required for the common interest, toward the greatest good for the greatest number.
Capital and attention, the twin coins of the realm, will doubtless drive much innovation and enterprise in the Metaverse. Both engines are voracious in their needs to consolidate and control, to create unfair advantage, and to maximize returns. These forces, while delivering heretofore unimaginable value in the digital age, have always been in dynamic tension with the needs of creators and consumers. Such tension will become even more pronounced in the Metaverse, as the world’s largest corporations vie for the biggest prize yet, and the overreach seen in the Internet era threatens to reach civilization-threatening scope (if it has not already).
Attempts to control the Metaverse by corporate entities are doomed to fail:
- Any Metaverse controlled by a single entity will be inherently limited in scale, due to free market competition. Generally, consumers want the widest range of options and the best value (however defined).
- Any Metaverse controlled by a single entity will be inherently limited in scale, due to its inability to offer a complete solution. If for no other reason than a practical one, no single company can offer every product and solve every need for every type of stakeholder. One company may be able to deliver a slice of commonly used functionality, such as search or discovery, which may over time expand to reach monopolistic influence, but that company will effectively control only that vertical slice.
- A small number of destinations may become the big properties in the Metaverse — the film studios and entertainment conglomerate analogs in this new world — but as the last several decades have proven, such enterprises are extremely vulnerable to disruption from new media formats and distribution infrastructure.
- Any self-proclaimed Metaverse controlled by a single entity will be rebuffed by a growing class of creators and consumers who have experienced the destructive effects of an Internet originally intended for all but eventually controlled by x-opolies. This wholesale rejection is already underway, as evidenced by creator economy communities and NFT marketplaces.
- The forces of decentralization are in play and gathering power. Decentralized Finance (DeFi), decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and other blockchain-based infrastructure have moved beyond experimentation and low return on investment to an early deployment phase. Web3 technology is already becoming an early foundation of the Metaverse and will play a critical role going forward. In particular, identity, privacy, payments and economies in the Metaverse will be shaped by these initiatives.
- Some industry players may establish early advantage by exploiting economies of scale and offer loss-leader products, but any advantage will be temporary.
The foregoing notwithstanding, the Metaverse will need intermediary technical service providers tied to oversight bodies, similar to Domain Name Service and ICANN. Further, the Web 2.0 era has demonstrated the dangers of leaving a vacuum in governance. One would expect the creators of the Metaverse to consider proper safeguards now — we should not wait too long and think we can fix things later, when it comes to something of such consequence in human affairs. It will be interesting to see how significant a role decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) play in the this new phase of the information age, and how legacy governmental and regulatory entities adapt to this rapidly changing order.
Attempts to control the Metaverse by government entities are another matter, and outside the scope of these Rules.
Rule #4: The Metaverse is open.
The Metaverse is open. It is built upon interoperable technologies and tools, connected via rigorously defined and broadly agreed-upon free and open communications standards.
- Any communications medium of import is necessarily based on standards, from telephone, radio and television to the Web. You are reading these Rules now because you have a computer or mobile device connected to the Internet, running software that speaks the language of the Web. None of this would be possible without multiple standards defining media formats, wire protocols for their transfer, and agreed-upon presentation and interaction rules.
- Open, interoperable technology provides the most assured way for the Metaverse to scale. Closed systems and proprietary technologies have inherent limits to scale, despite conferring short-term advantage. No single product or suite of products solves all problems; interoperable products allow for more flexible combinations that can address more needs. This is the technical analog to the scalability issues inherent in closed systems cited in Rule #3.
- An open ecosystem of software and hardware offers greater choice to creators and consumers. Greater choice means more and more varied content, more success for creators, and more opportunity for tool and platform providers, enabling a virtuous cycle.
- Ironically, any salient example of a monopoly in today’s Internet world is built on open standards. The largest social networks, search engines and consumer hardware companies have ridden the back of the Web to create proprietary advantage by delivering added value at the price of lock-in in some way or other, such as brand monopoly, closed ecosystems or network effects.
- Proprietary products and solutions always move faster and compete more effectively than standards-based ones in the short term. Companies can offer their own capabilities and meet market needs with speed, whereas open solutions necessarily take time to achieve consensus and deploy at scale. This is a natural by-product of the standardization process, but it often leads to the notion that standards-based solutions are inferior. While this is sometimes true, it is largely not true in the long term, as standards eventually reach feature parity. However, this does not stop detractors and bad actors seeking proprietary advantage from trying to exploit the misconception.
- It is not always ill intent that puts us on a path to market domination by a small few; sometimes it is simply convenience and consumer value that only large-scale platforms can provide. We hang on a knife edge in the Web 2.0/mobile computing era, having to continually choose between convenience and autonomy; there is a significant backlash against this in the emerging Metaverse. (See also Rule #3.)
- Notwithstanding the obvious general benefits of open systems, today’s standards are likely not sufficient to support the infrastructure of the Metaverse. The current formats and protocols provide an excellent starting point, but further development is needed. Additionally, legacy software such as web browsers may be reaching a breaking point in terms of compatibility requirements and architecture. They have kept pace admirably over more than twenty years, but they were always designed for a 2D-first information universe, in a time before ubiquitous mobile devices and emergent spatial computing, and in a world of predominantly asynchronous online communication. It may finally be time to go back to the drawing board when it comes to concepts around browsers, user agents, object models, protocols, persistent state and so on.
Rule #5: The Metaverse is hardware-independent.
The Metaverse is hardware-independent, accessible on any device regardless of display type and form factor.
- A defining characteristic of the Metaverse is spatially organized, predominantly real-time 3D content. For that content to be accessible to all, it must be able to be presented on the broadest range of hardware, including, within reason, the devices already in users’ possession.
- While Metaverse content may be three-dimensional, display technology does not have to be. Experiences as prosaic as photorealistic 3D “virtual products” that can be rotated, zoomed, explored and configured before purchase, and as a fantastical as cartoon-rendered multiplayer game worlds, can be rendered beautifully at real-time frame rates on a 2D display attached to a modern computer or mobile device. This is the reality of today’s computing world, and every configuration from the phones in our pockets, to the latest fully powered personal computers, to room-scale display walls and projections, allows amazing creations to be delivered to consumers now without the need for a new type of display device.
- Despite its obvious allure and the public’s fascination with virtual and augmented reality, immersion is not a precondition for the success of the Metaverse. Full immersion in our information and experiences is a long dreamed-of capability dating back to the original pioneering work in virtual reality. For some applications, the user experience of the Metaverse will doubtless be enhanced by immersive hardware devices, but these are by no means essential for its large-scale deployment and success in the near term.
- Creating for specific form factors inherently limits scale. If the intent of content is for it to be experienced as widely as possible, then it should be designed and implemented to run on any device. Responsive design techniques pioneered for web and mobile web will have their analogs in the Metaverse, featuring content that can run on flat screen mobile devices, flat screen computer displays, display walls, immersive virtual reality headsets, mobile augmented reality, headworn augmented reality, holographic displays, and so on. Obviously, these experiences would not be identical across the different device types, but rather progressively enhanced to optimize the experience for that device. Some experiences will be designed as XR-first, with simple 2D fallbacks; others will be created as omni-channel content intended to run well across several types of hardware and form factors.
- Accessibility is paramount. Content should be designed with accessibility in mind, making the foregoing aspects of this Rule even more critical. In addition to not relying on specific device types and user interface techniques, experiences should be designed flexibly to accommodate individuals with disabilities or impairments. The Metaverse is for everyone (see Rule #2).
Rule #6: The Metaverse is a Network.
The Metaverse is a computer network connecting the world’s publicly accessible virtual experiences, real-time 3D content and related media.
From a technical standpoint, the Metaverse is a network of computers delivering and presenting digital information. Its novel power is in the ability to present that information to its users in the form of 3D spaces, places, objects and characters, to facilitate communication for a wide range of uses.
- The Metaverse is not a computer program, but rather multiple computer programs and processes exchanging information via network protocols.
- The Metaverse is not a browser or other application or executable; rather, applications act as user agents (termed “clients,” “browsers,” “engines” and so forth) to provide access to the experiences in the Metaverse.
- The Metaverse is not a specific experience, game or online destination; those are places (or “worlds,” “spaces” or a similar term) within the Metaverse. There will doubtless be very popular destinations in the Metaverse; these could easily be confused with the Metaverse, but they are not the Metaverse, which is one and only (see Rule #1).
- The Metaverse is not a specific onramp or access point. There will be portals, search engines, directories and other such services that help users locate places and navigate the Metaverse — but these are maps for the Metaverse, not the Metaverse itself.
- All of the above are implemented in a way that is commonly accepted across software systems powering the Metaverse, i.e. not tied to a specific product or implementation, adhering to media formats and communications protocols established through open processes, and presented in a consistent manner (see Rule #4).
From a functionality standpoint, the Metaverse is a network that connects everyone and offers them the following capabilities:
- To access, peruse or otherwise experience content, without undue friction;
- To establish one or more identities that represent the self (required for some experiences, but not all), and to create one or more embodiments to represent the self (avatars);
- To communicate asynchronously or in real-time by a variety of methods, including text, voice, and gestures;
- To create and publish, without undue friction, 3D, spatial and related content and experiences in a variety of forms using a range of digital media types;
- To affect our surrounding virtual environment, as appropriate, given sufficient permissions by the owner;
- To engage in business and commerce, with as broad a set of choices as possible for access, personal identity, social connection, data storage, content creation, content distribution, and payments.
The Metaverse requires no functional description beyond the above general capabilities; any attempt to do so is unnecessarily reductive. Only the future will tell us what the prevailing modes of creative expression and compelling use cases are in the Metaverse.
Rule #7: The Metaverse is the Internet.
The Metaverse is the Internet, enhanced and upgraded to consistently deliver 3D content, spatially organized information and experiences, and real-time synchronous communication.
- The Internet is the global communications infrastructure that connects all of us. It is the foundation of an increasing percentage of our daily lives, including social interaction, work, play, learning and commerce. It is, in every way, the digital commons. This will not change with the coming of the Metaverse; the Internet will merely adapt, expand and offer new information services — as it has always done — to encompass what we are envisioning as the Metaverse.
- Conversely, the Internet is not the Metaverse, at least not yet. The Internet of today is inching its way toward greater capabilities, and will form the basis of the Metaverse of tomorrow. In many ways, it is already a prototypical form of the Metaverse, playing host to years of ongoing innovation and experimentation in delivering real-time 3D content, rich media, and virtual worlds. But more work needs to be done.
- Beyond technical definitions, the Internet embodies an approach: an open, collaborative and consensus-driven way to develop technologies and tools. Protocols, file formats and creation software have co-evolved over the course of decades, expanding to include those of the World Wide Web and various other services. Governing bodies define rigorous standards, but much work also happens through exemplar implementations, intellectual property contributions and collaborative open source projects, all in an interplay that continually upgrades the fabric of our communications infrastructure.
Some have suggested that because the requirements of networked, real-time 3D virtual worlds are so unique and intensive, some new kind of network must be designed for the Metaverse. This is not only largely untrue, but it is naive and a practical non-starter.
- In terms of feasibility, we have scores of existence proofs of commercially successful Internet protocol-based 3D games and multiplayer experiences, the most performance- and resource-intensive of applications. We also have decades of working Internet media types that support the dynamic delivery of 3D content, and recently developed formats such as glTF and USDZ are now being used to power experiences for hundreds of millions of Internet users. The WebGL and WebXR APIs for browsers have demonstrated that user agents can support feature-rich 3D rendering and immersive capabilities with high performance, though performance limits are definitely being tested. Suggestions to aggressively remake the Internet or to create a whole new network are coming from persons with little technical knowledge, complete ignorance of what already exists, and/or inexperience in the evolving and resilient nature of the Internet — or from knowledgable actors with a specific agenda.
- There are cogent arguments to be made for revisiting many aspects of Internet and Web design on the way to the Metaverse. However, the notion of a wholesale redesign is ludicrous. There is too much invested the current infrastructure, and too high switching costs inherent in such a change, that it will simply never happen. Where possible, legacy Internet and Web services will be subsumed into new paradigms, and novel methods of user access, content distribution, visual presentation, real-time communication and interaction developed as needed.
- Fortunately, the Internet is nonpareil in its ability to adapt. Flexibility was inherent in the initial designs, and it remains a cornerstone. Far more likely than a rewrite is a series of evolutionary advancements here and there, punctuated by an occasional revolutionary leap via the introduction of an entirely new capability. Along the way, much though perhaps not all legacy Internet and Web content will be preserved, though likely presented in different forms.
- There are some obvious candidates for full upgrades, new approaches or completely new efforts. The Document Object Model and Cascading Style Sheets were designed for a 2D information world; 3D is confined to a rectangle within that page layout, with bolt-on support for fullscreen rendering and stereoscopy. The organizing principle of the Metaverse, however, will be the scene, environment or some such 3D construct. After all, the Metaverse is not about documents— it is about shared 3D spaces and content, and real-time communication. Immersive interaction such as head tracking, haptic inputs and real-world environment awareness are enabled through clumsy designs grafted onto legacy 2D models; a laudable effort to date but hardly ideal. Shared and/or persistent object state is another area for investigation. Multiplayer game worlds have long solved for this, though in bespoke ways. In the past, interoperable solutions have been few and far between; however by now there may be enough overlap in design patterns and practical knowledge, and a collective willingness, to keep trying.
- Stakeholder need will drive innovation. The current Web3 movement toward decentralization, for example, is an important step toward putting power back in the hands of consumers and producers, for distribution, payments and identity verification. This will have implications on how and where some information is maintained in the Metaverse. On the other hand, this in no way implies that we should favor decentralization in all layers, such as in data storage or network topology; approaches should be judged on their own merits with respect to features, performance, privacy and security.
While there are many compelling reasons to consider revisions and upgrades, we already have the starting point and many of the building blocks for the Metaverse. The Metaverse is the Internet, and the Internet the foundation upon which the Metaverse will be built.
Much of the foregoing should not have needed to be said; and yet, it had to.
People ecstatic about the potential of a Metaverse are getting caught up in the excitement. While the enthusiasm is infectious, and this should rightly be a time of joy — we are, after all, on the cusp of something truly transformative — a tempering of expectations and lowering of temperatures is advisable. There is a lot to do in the years ahead. And while many of us are doing our best to work toward a shared vision and understanding, others are only in it for themselves. Therefore, caution is also in order: don’t believe everything you hear.
At the same time, this doesn’t have to be as hard as it seems. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, building on the work of so many who have come before. There is a wealth of collective experience, and already many working components. Let’s not reinvent wheels unless absolutely necessary. And let’s not mistake the accidents of today’s implementations for the essence of their underlying value: although many foundational pieces are nascent, broken, or improperly wired up, many of the core ideas are sound. Also to our advantage, we have a plastic playground in the Internet, and a global community of collaborators to bring on the journey with us.
In essence, this is what the seven Rules are saying. The Metaverse is tantalizingly close, possibly within the next few years — that is, if we don’t overcomplicate things and make it take longer. The Metaverse is the next evolution of the Internet; nothing more, and nothing less. Keep it simple, stay focused on the goal, and the Metaverse of our dreams will become reality.