The interest in my professional research into virtual environments peaked a few months ago, when friends and colleagues began asking for a crash course. There has been an explosion of noise and hype around something called “the metaverse,” and their interest reflects that.
This is a beginner’s guide for those who are new to the game. Virtual reality (though related) and crypto/Web3 by themselves are not the metaverse, but mainstream media frequently confuses these concepts (though also related). Yes, it is perplexing. To the best of my ability, I’ve tried to lay everything out for you.
What Is Metaverse?
99.999% of the time the term “metaverse” can be replaced with “internet” and the sentence will still be understood. So what’s the big deal about this new buzzword? “We’re using the term as a proxy for a sense that everything is about to change,” analyst Doug Thompson said.
In other words, if the metaverse is nothing but the internet, what can we expect to change there? That’s why I’ve divided this article into four sections:
What are game engines?
I’d define the metaverse as the internet, but also as a spatial (and often 3D) and game-engine driven collection of virtual environments. Assuming you’re not a cynic, this definition will already sound like a made-up buzzword salad if you’re like most people.
It’s important to begin with the most obvious way we currently access the internet: computers, if you want to understand the shifts taking place there.
As a starting point, it’s helpful to look back at the evolution of computer interfaces. This refers to how humans communicate with computers in order to get them to do what we want.
Working with computers has become so simple that we take it for granted, but this wasn’t always the case.
Command lines (like MS-DOS) followed punch cards and allowed users to interact with the system via text input. In fact, the graphical user interface (GUI) was what brought computers into the mainstream (GUI). At this point, most of us consider it “just how they work today” that using a computer involves taking pictures. Non-programmers like us are able to interact with everything from ATMs to ticketing machines thanks to user interfaces (GUIs).
What’s the point of going back in time?
The point is that as the development described above progressed, more and more people were able to work with computers. Clay Bavor, a Google employee who has written extensively about this topic, sums it up thusly:
“Over the past several decades, computers have become more widely accessible, useful, and valuable to us every time people made them work more like us—every time we removed an abstraction between us and them. As a result, we were able to develop our skills and increase our output.
Today, the next great computing interface is emerging, but it doesn’t yet have a good name. An augmented reality, virtual reality, or mixed-reality system may be something you’ve heard of in the past. Three-dimensional space is a common denominator among these concepts. That’s a big deal, I tell you.
Jody Medich, an interface designer at Singularity University, taught me the importance of 3D space for the human brain. What’s the point? In the beginning, we exist in a three-dimensional world. We are born into a 3D world. It makes sense that our brains and bodies are designed to work together in 3D.
These interfaces are now commonly referred to as “spatial computing.” Many spatial computing experts don’t see themselves as part of this metaverse hoopla, so be careful not to confuse this with that. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
Think about why you don’t often see grandparents playing video games on their consoles. It takes time to perfect your motor skills so that you can properly smash buttons on a controller. Furthermore, we take for granted that we had to learn the motor skills to type.
We are, however, seeing a rise in the number of grandparents playing Nintendo Wii games. Swing your arms while holding a video game controller. It’s simple and intuitive, so anyone can use it. That’s a spatial interface, then. More people, including many grandparents, could learn to use computers. This is the big deal.
For the most part, you should think of spatial objects as having the ability to move around. In this sense, a traditional video game like Fortnite is spatial (you move around), whereas a Zoom call is not controlled using a spatial interface. But, and I don’t mean to overcomplicate things, there’s also spatial audio to consider.
Protectwise is a good illustration of why this is important (now a Verizon company). Security professionals rely on these tools to keep their computers safe from cyberattacks. In most cases, people who work in cybersecurity spend their days staring at log files to get an idea of what’s going on. What if that data could be used to create a virtual environment? It’s like playing a video game patrolling your company’s computer system now.. Since it’s more intuitive, more people could do it. What do you think?
Metaverse Building Tools: Game Engines
Next decade’s technology may be influenced by game engines. That may sound outlandish, but I’m not trying to offend anyone. But bear with me.
A game engine is a piece of software used by video game developers to create and run their creations. For example, in these programmes you can import 3D models, apply movement rules, and add sound effects. Unity was used to create the Protectwise object shown above.
Because “video game” connotes a lighthearted or non-serious activity, it is also a misleading term in business contexts. Although game engines are powering the computing interfaces for all kinds of industries, they are becoming increasingly important as the world becomes more digital.
“…game engines are basically eating the world,” Aaron Lewis eloquently observes. Everything from urban planning to architecture to automotive engineering to live music and events to filmmaking has shifted to using Unreal Engine and Unity for many of their design processes.
Take a look at the new electric Hummer, which is the first vehicle to feature an Unreal Engine-based user interface (UX). The dashboard of the vehicle displays information from the vehicle’s sensors in 3D. This is a real-world application of spatial computation.
As for the term “digital twin,” it refers to the idea that physical objects (such as a Hummer) can use their sensor data to create a software copy of themselves on the computer. This allows humans to interact with computer-generated industrial objects as if they were real ones. ”
Using a digital twin in the Unity game engine, Hong Kong International Airport’s Terminal 1 provides a real-time view of passenger activity and equipment that may require repair. Think of it as a 3D photo of the terminal.
Unreal and Unity are the two most important game engines to be familiar with, but there is much more going on in the industry than I can cover here. Fortnite’s publisher Epic Games owns Unreal and Unity is a publicly traded company. As an individual who has only ever used Unity (because it is designed to be beginner-friendly), I can attest to this.
Game engines will, as a final thought, improve at a rate that will stun you over the course of the next ten years. Everyone went crazy over the demo release of the latest Unreal Engine 5, even if you didn’t see it. Estella Tse provided a succinct explanation of why this is such a big deal.
My classmate sent this to me, and it absolutely blew my mind:
Graphics will no longer look like “graphics” in the coming decade, according to this prediction. In the near future, we’ll be able to experience photorealistic virtual environments that resemble the real world. As a result, you should try to see past the cartoonish aesthetic that much of today’s metaverse coverage will imbue you with..
As an example, think of Beyond Sports, a Dutch company that uses Unity and real-time positional data taken from sports to render live events as they are happening inside virtual reality. Ten years from now, imagine yourself in a virtual world where you and your friends are able to interact with each other in real time.
Generation Virtual Spaces
Since spatial computing and game engines have been introduced, mainstream coverage of the metaverse now begins with these two technologies.
We’ll be logging into “places” in the future internet via virtual environments. They’re also a bit of a conundrum. Discord (an online messaging platform) and Twitter, in many ways, are already virtual spaces where people meet and exchange messages and information. There are two types of virtual environments I’m looking at here:
- The first is augmented reality in the real world.
- Second, there are the more traditional online or purely digital virtual environments that require the use of a computer (or a VR headset) in order to access, although this distinction is arbitrary and already disappears.
The real-world application of augmented reality (AR) can be seen in Pokémon Go. 3D characters are placed on top of the real world in a spatial game built with Unity. If so, does it mean that Pokémon Go can be considered a part of the metaverse? Well, yeah, I guess, sure, who knows (I guess I’m saying). The current definition is a bit shaky. Media coverage should be aware that we’re still in the “define your terms” stage, so be careful.
As a result, technology companies are scrambling to build what’s known as the mirrorworld or the augmented reality cloud. The term “digital twin” has the same connotation as “digital twin.” Adding a virtual layer on top of our everyday world is as simple as taking the airport terminal design and applying it to the entire planet. If you’d like to learn more about this topic, I’ve written an entire article about it.
As a result, the metaverse won’t just be a collection of random game worlds created by developers. Even the entire planet and even your car will be digitally replicated in a similar way in the future. Sitting in your backyard with family members as avatars or using a VR headset to tour other cities in real time will become more commonplace in the future.
If you’ve never heard of Second Life, it’s a collection of user-created virtual worlds that you can visit as an avatar. There are millions of users, and a lot happens there. When the media claims that something is “the first” virtual-based thing, it’s a good reminder that it’s probably not true.
Second Life has its own currency, the Linden Dollar, which is used to buy and sell virtual goods and services.
In today’s world, there are a slew of platforms that could be considered heirs to the Second Life model. It’s getting serious; one of these, Rec Room, just raised $145 million at a valuation of $3.5 billion; VRChat, Altspace, Decentraland, and Somnium Space are just a few of the many other platforms that are available to you.
Talking about how games like Fortnite and Roblox are nascent metaverse experiences is also a popular trend in metaverse talk (which is true). While they appear to be games, they are actually spaces where people gather and increasingly attend Travis Scott and Lil Nas X concerts..
Beyond Sports, Pokémon Go, Fortnite, and Roblox are just a few examples of what the metaverse envisions as a future interconnected network of digital environments—a sort of internet for doing stuff.
Sansar, a virtual world platform developed by the same company that created Second Life, was the first step in my journey into virtual worlds. Fnatic, a user of the service, built this space for Sam to show me around (one of the biggest eSports teams in the world). Sam is in Los Angeles, and I’m at home in San Francisco using a virtual reality headset:
My attention was drawn to the fact that Sam and I were “walking around” in the virtual world. A retail e-commerce site for online clothing purchases was also available. As in the mid-90s, CEOs may be scratching their heads at all the metaverse noise. It’s safe to say that in the future, most companies will have some kind of 3D virtual environment.
We’re closing the gap between real-life experiences (going to a concert, hanging out with friends, etc.) and online experiences with spatial computing, game engines, and virtual environments like these. Like Ready Player One, which was adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg, these concepts are pointing toward.
The metaverse is further described in this way: Finally, the metaverse is not only the internet, but also a collection of virtual worlds powered by game engines.