What is the Metaverse? What is the difference with Web3 and Web 3.0? Is there one or more Metaverses? First article in a series that seeks to better understand the phenomenon and add some context, defining the Metaverse beyond the hype.
- The Metaverse is a network of interconnected, interoperable, immersive and persistent virtual spaces;
- Web3 is a movement working for the decentralization of the Internet through the blockchain;
- Web 3.0 is a changing, vague catch-all name, which can be understood as the spatialization of the Internet with the transition from 2D to 3D;
- There is only one Metaverse.
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Table of Contents
Metaverse: origin of the concept
The concept of the Metaverse has its origins in a novel by Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash, which in 1992 described a global virtual world, an evolution of the Internet, accessible in VR. Each user embodies the avatar of his choice to enter the Metaverse at any time, making it a kind of virtual parallel world, a welcome escape in an anxious reality. Because the Metaverse is at its core, like many business ideas in the tech world, a dystopia.
Defining Stephenson’s Metaverse can be summarized by:
- A single virtual world shared by all, always online, always accessible;
- An immersive VR experience ;
- An economy and ecosystem connected to the real world (actions in the Metaverse have importance and weight in reality and vice versa);
- A dystopia.
Of course, Snow Crash is fiction. We should not expect this way of defining the Metaverse to be the one we are interested in. It is rather a starting point that must be transposed, adapted to reality : it is for example very unlikely that there is only one virtual world, or that everyone accesses it only in VR.
Defining the Metaverse
If we transpose the concept of Metaverse into the reality of 2022, we can begin by identifying the essence of what a Metaverse is on a general level:
- A shared, unique, persistent virtual space ;
- Immersive, based on the XR more broadly;
- Based on a virtual economy connected to real life, and therefore invested by the worlds of work, commerce, industry.
We can thus define the Metaverse as a network of interconnected, interoperable, immersive and persistent virtual spaces.
- A network because a single virtual world is an unrealistic scenario;
- Virtual spaces (not worlds) that range from the most complex (online games, Fortnite, Roblox, Second Life) to the simplest (the visualization of a 3D shoe on a web page);
- Interconnected, allowing passage from one space to another in a seamless way;
- Interoperable, making use of 3D standards which have yet to be defined and would allow to transfer avatars or objects from one space to another;
- Immersive (or rather going towards immersion), either via AR by integrating seamlessly into reality, or through immersion devices such as VR;
- Persistent, always accessible, always online, like a web page.
Another simpler way of defining the Metaverse makes it an immersive version of the Internet, spatialized, with which we can interact in a more natural way and whose 2D content, images and videos will be replaced by 3D objects that we can manipulate, animate, enrich as we wish. This evolution will be based largely on game engines (Unreal Engine and Unity in the majority of cases) and a myriad of actors, already active in video games or 3D, whose latest experiences give us a glimpse of what could be the Metaverse of tomorrow.
By making the link with what already exists (Internet, XR, video games and other online experiences), we can try to go beyond the Metaverse as a sci-fi concept and adapt it more subtly to our reality. Rather than a single virtual world, a network of virtual spaces ; rather than a strictly VR experience, a movement towards immersion based on XR more generally and coexists with the “flat” experience of the web browser. And rather than a virtual jungle where everything would be mixed, a more or less porous compartmentalization between different spaces, places of work, leisure or sociability. Since these different circles are subject to different rules and expectations, it seems unlikely to connect them without any restrictions.
Do not take my word for it. Take a look at what some of the big names in the industry are saying:
Rule #1. There is only one Metaverse.Tony Parisi, Unity Head of XR Ads and E-Commerce & VR Pioneer
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.
The Metaverse is a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which 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.Matthew Ball, VC and CEO at Epyllion
I would define the metaverse as a shared, persistent, real-time and social online space that has its own economy and feels like you’re inside an immersive and interconnected world. And it’s not just one world, it’s a whole collection of them.Dean Takahashi, Journalist and Lead Writer at Venturebeat
What is Web3?
Although the concept of Web3 (without the “.0”) is related to the Metaverse, it is an independent concept that is often confused with it – knowingly or unknowingly.
Web3 is a movement that advocates a decentralized version of the Internet, based on blockchain, cryptocurrencies and smart contracts (NFT). Web3 as a concept contains nothing that is intrinsically tied to 3D, or VR, or even XR; it is a space that has indeed emerged with crypto as an object of speculation or as a financial tool. I’d argue that is also a movement, in the sense that it carries a fair amount of “activism” and ideology in a bottom up fashion, embodied by a large and active community (most of the time grassroots, sometimes victim of astroturfing). This difference is not small, since the Metaverse is carried by tech giants while the Web3 players are smaller, more agile, more volatile too. It is a new and bubbling ecosystem for some, a jungle for others.
The term “Web3” refers to an iteration of the Web: it would be a new version, an evolution of the Internet, moving from a centralized ecosystem consisting of captive spaces and private databases (Facebook, Google, Amazon…) to a decentralized system where transactions and ownership are managed by the blockchain following a “code is law” philosophy.
The Web3 therefore exists independently of the Metaverse : we can easily imagine financial, legal, organizational applications unrelated to 3D, XR or any other component of the Metaverse – applications that were also the majority until the recent Meta “boom”. Crypto itself is a financial tool, and even the explosion of NFT first resulted in the exchange of works in 2D format. The most well-known NFT projects, from the Bored Ape Yacht Club to Cryptopunks, are originally based on simple images, before becoming more ambitious projects that incorporate a “Metaverse” component into their road map.
The link between Web3 and the Metaverse lies in the emergence of a virtual economy, especially through the use of NFTs that would make it possible to establish virtual property, although the reality is a little more complex than that. The idea is that blockchain would be the backbone of a new decentralized virtual economy where users own their avatars and objects, which they could sell, buy or transfer independently. Web3 is thus presented as one of the pillars of the Metaverse by being the source of the principle of ownership and scarcity in a network of immersive virtual spaces.
Web3 also represents a broader movement that seeks to revolutionize general aspects of society and organizations following the principle of decentralization. The community is developing alternative financial systems, new modes of governance (DAOs), working on data storage, certification, cryptography… decentralized data storage is also an interesting element for the future of the Web, whatever it may be. In short, Web3 is a neighboring but different concept, regardless of the exact way of defining the Metaverse. The imprecise use of these terms only reinforces the general confusion by mixing “everything that’s going on” under interchangeable labels emptied of their meaning.
What is Web 3.0?
Many commentators use the terms “Web3” and “Web 3.0” as synonyms, which poses several problems.
Web 3.0 is a catch-all word that represents the evolution of Web 2.0. However, opinions differ on what this evolution represents: the world of crypto puts forward decentralization, the world of XR speaks of spatialization, Tim Berners-Lee defined it as the “semantic web”, everyone sees what they want to see.
To understand the difference, it is more interesting to start from the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, a new paradigm focused on the simplicity of use and the participation of users in an interactive way. Web 2.0 is the advent of wikis and social networks. There are two important things to remember:
- Web 2.0 was an evolution, not a revolution, on a largely formal and utilitarian level;
- Web 2.0 was a rather consensual notion, with little to no ideological considerations.
This is where the problem lies: Web3 as the emergence of a virtual economy based on the blockchain, is:
- A revolution that seeks to profoundly change the way the Internet or even society as a whole functions;
- A very controversial movement, tinged with anarcho-capitalism and libertarianism for some, essentially pointless for others… There is a plethora of articles, essays, comments entirely dedicated to Web3 bashing. Many traditional players are uncomfortable when it comes to blockchain, either out of skepticism or out of fear for public backlash.
Without even taking sides, we can still see that the controversial and revolutionary nature of Web3 makes it a rather different phenomenon from Web 2.0.
So what is Web 3.0? We can see it as a phenomenon of spatialization: Web 3.0 is simply the spatialization of the Internet, that is to say the fusion between the physical and the digital, in particular through the transition from the Internet to 3D, unlike Web 2.0 which is essentially made of images and videos.
Web 3.0 as a spatialized Internet is a slightly simpler concept than the previous two, more related to the form and convergence of several technologies as well as increased capabilities in terms of computing and bandwidth. One could criticize the Metaverse as being a stroke of paint on this older concept, to make it both sexier and more vague; however, some aspects of the spatial Web are just as vague or far from being realized. As things stand, the concept of “Web 3.0”, which has remained unclear, should rather be avoided, unless we want to create even more confusion.
One or more Metaverses?
Some mention “Metaverses” in a plural form. Yet not only is the Metaverse a single world in the original concept, it is also a new phenomenon – if not, what’s the point?
We can therefore distinguish two ways of defining the Metaverse: “many Metaverses” or a single Metaverse.
Defining the “many Metaverses”
The “many Metaverses” approach (the “Canada Dry” definition of the Metaverse as I have read elsewhere) is that of a virtual world, like an online video game – and, logically, there would be several Metaverses since there are several virtual worlds: the Fortnite Metaverse, the Roblox MetaVerse, the Meta MetaVerse, the Decentraland Metaverse… This is tantamount to talking about multiple “Internets”: the YouTube Internet, the Wikipedia Internet, the Facebook Internet and so on.
Online virtual worlds have been around since the 90s, Second Life for example appeared in 2003. If “a Metaverse” is simply a virtual world, then we are indeed blowing hot air since there is practically no innovation. If we follow this definition, the only real novelty is that the corporate world has just found out about online video games in 2022. It is then understandable that the video game industry sometimes views the Metaverse with disdain: all that noise and investment for something that’s been around for almost 30 years!
Defining the single Metaverse
The definition of a single Metaverse is a much more interesting concept: a single interconnected, interoperable, immersive and persistent network, a radically new concept that does not yet exist and that would disrupt the way we live online. This is where the potential of a new virtual economy, new ways of working, communicating and interacting lies.
This vision is all the more interesting because it revolves around a project where several industries converge, from video games to fashion and the art world, where everything has yet to be invented and where we still have to solve fascinating problems, technical or cultural. It is because the Metaverse does not exist that it is fascinating – if the concept were limited to what we can see today, we would have to ask ourselves: “is that it?”.
The Metaverse does not exist (yet)
The most important thing to take away from all this is that the Metaverse is a project, an evolution to come, and that it does not yet exist.
In a way, we are still facing today the same issues as before in creating interconnected and interoperable virtual spaces. We still have the same limitations in terms of computing power or bandwidth; any game developer will tell you that managing an online experience is a real headache, even if it’s limited to a few dozen users simultaneously. How can we define the Metaverse as a space where only a handful of people can be in the same place at the same time?
In the same way, interoperability is still a dream. In reality, transferring a 3D object from one space to another is a feat or a nightmare. Unlike images or video, a 3D asset is a bundle of several different elements: multiple geometries, multiple textures, a rig, animations, and all this defined by parameters that differ from one environment to another. Each transfer must therefore be specifically and exhaustively prepared, with the implications that we imagine on the legal, technical and organizational side.
As Matthew Ball states, a virtual world works the opposite of real life : in reality, an object is by default available everywhere, unless we apply special restrictions – I can wear Addidas shoes in a Nike store, as long as the security guard does not mind. In a virtual space, on the contrary, any element is by default limited to this space alone, unless you develop standards and agreements that allow it to be transferred elsewhere. USD and the work of Khronos group seem to be paving the way.
If we compare these difficulties to the Internet, it would be like imagining a world where only a few dozen people can look at the same web page at the same time. And if someone wanted to post an image of website A on website B, the two would have to agree and define a process and particular criteria to allow the transfer of certain images, with very specific characteristics, between A and B (and nowhere else).
Defining the Metaverse as a phenomenon
In any case, whether we are skeptics or believers, it is clear that the Metaverse as a phenomenon has imposed itself without a doubt. Whatever the exact way of defining the Metaverse is, whatever its future, it perhaps represents more than anything a convergence of several technologies and several socio-cultural trends that come together today. Many industries have felt the wind rise and are looking towards the horizon, where sectors as different as video games, fashion, blockchain, AI, XR meet.
In a way, the Metaverse is a convenient way to name a certain Zeitgeist, which we more generally called “virtualization” two years ago. The boundaries between real and the virtual things are being blurred, although it is difficult to guess exactly what will emerge from this blend.
Sources and resources
- The Seven Rules of the Metaverse by Tony Parisi
- The Metaverse Primer by Matthew Ball
- Metaverses that aren’t really Metaverses by Dean Takahashi
- Money in the Metaverse by Anna Wiener
- The Metaverse Isn’t a Destination. It’s a Metaphor by Scott Stein
- How to Explain the “Metaverse” to Your Grandparents
- Interdimensionality and Interoperability in the Metaverse
- Real-time round-up: the metaverse and emerging 2022 trends (Epic Games)