Preparing a session for the IE University faculty on the metaverse that I delivered on Wednesday, I came across a good article that classified the attributes needed to establish, explain or understand the differences between the metaverse as such, and proposals such as Meta’s Horizon Worlds and the like.
As far as I’m concerned, Meta’s idea of the metaverse is simply a glorified video game that looks an awful lot like Second Life two decades back, including the way it is sold to companies, “buy viewers, buy space, get developers to paint your scenery, etc.” — and which, in reality, doesn’t really provide much more than a platform for users to move around, meet, socialize, talk, etc. Anyone who enters Horizon Worlds and similar proposals can see it clearly: a Unity development with legless avatars.
In my presentation, I explained the crypto world, starting with cryptocurrencies, moving on to the blockchain and moving on to the things that can be done on it: wallets, tokenization, smart contracts and DAOs. With that introduction to the use of cryptocurrency, I moved on to Web 3, concluding that a real metaverse had to be, above all, a completely open source environment, a decentralized platform, without any terms of service or equivalent, in which anyone could create their own presence supported by a cryptographic standard, and whose rules would emerge from the user community itself, democratically through distributed autonomous organization. These are precisely the attributes that we can see in this table, and which differentiate the metaverse, which does not yet exist, from another much simpler and less ambitious concept that is simply a virtual world.
Having established this difference, things are much clearer: Second Life? A virtual world, in fact, one of the pioneers. Horizon Worlds? Another virtual world (but without legs), by which Meta hopes to sell a lot of Oculus viewers. Microsoft Mesh? Another virtual world, at least for now, but in this case run by Microsoft. In short, virtual worlds, glorified video games in which many companies, driven by the desire to seem more modern than anyone else, will inject resources by buying viewers, paying for virtual land (in reality, space on a server), and hiring designers and developers to draw their facilities where customers can hang out, hold meetings and generally impress everyone along the lines of “see how modern I am, I have a presence in the metaverse.”
Things start to get fuzzier with Decentraland. Why? Because in addition to its video game on steroids image, it’s possible to log in with a username and password, but we can also do so through a wallet, and there is a DAO that allows us to vote on decisions that affect how the environment works, along with a currency, MANA, that uses the Ethereum blockchain; what’s more, its architecture is open source. These attributes, which non-believers in cryptocurrency will dismiss, are what makes Decentraland closer to the concept of metaverse. It may not be one yet, but it’s a good basis for helping the public understand a particular model of interaction and use.
In fact, a virtual reality viewer is not even a requirement, nor should it be. A metaverse can be accessed via a traditional screen, with a keyboard and mouse. A viewer is an attempt to obtain a more immersive interface, but also conditions use because of the ergonomics involved.
Should businesses have a presence in the metaverse? It depends, but for educational institutions, it may be necessary if they believe that in the future, there will be some things we will do on a regular basis in these types of immersive environments. At my institution, we’re working on it, but it’s going to require a lot more than signing agreements, spending millions on virtual reality viewers, buying land and building stages. It also requires training employees, and above all, choosing something that has a chance of evolving into a real metaverse, not a glorified video game run by a company that sets the rules. In the metaverse you can establish your presence, in a virtual world you can only be part of a platform that, when it feels like it, will change the rules or force you to pay more.
Understanding the difference between a metaverse and a virtual world is essential before deciding which suits our purpose. The former could, at a given moment, include many of the elements of the future of the web, of a much more decentralized web, in which we manage our identity and our data, and where we can build our presence. The second is simply an updated version of Second Life. In conclusion, we need to be careful where we decide to have a presence and which contracts we sign, because there have always been carpet baggers ready to make money at the expense of those who want to appear more modern than anyone else.