In many conversations, I get asked “what in your view is the metaverse?”
In my humble opinion, the metaverse is when virtual and digital worlds merge together: the less crazy part is what humans experience in digital worlds, the more consequential part is how virtual beings and digital content (content not made by humans) proliferate across all mediums.
A lot of the metaverse madness is around mixed reality and creating games/virtual worlds with the hypothesis that we will be spending more time within virtual worlds. First of all, I personally would like to reject that hypothesis. I don’t think we will be spending any more dedicated time within virtual worlds / games than we do today (we already do quite a bit). The gaming market has grown significantly over decades and will continue with the same/similar growth but nothing beyond that.
However, I very strongly believe that many of our 2D text based applications will evolve with new user experiences around interaction, engagement and immersion. Many will jump at this to push their claim that AR > VR. Once again, I don't think it matters as AR and VR too will converge very soon.
The metaverse killer app would be more like TikTok and less like any game, which means it will be social, personalized, bite-sized and with infinite content on top of being immersive, interactive and engaging.
Mobile will still be the #1 platform where users will discover content, at least in the short to mid term. The best analogy imo is that mobile will be used for content discovery and when a user stumbles across anything which is interesting enough that they'd like to consume it in more immersive settings such as desktop/laptop and AR/VR. This means that it will be ideal for a metaverse solution to be x-platform: work across mobile, desktop, console, AR, VR etc.
For infinite content the social media platforms of yesteryears have relied on network effects and user generated content. Almost everyone who is on Twitter is contributing to content themselves and the % of users who are content contributors would be highest on platforms like Twitter and lower on platforms like YT. It is directly correlated to the effort of creating content on the platform.
Naturally speaking, users need to be provided tools to create user generated content in metaverse platforms if they have any ambition to scale and be global products. But making metaverse content is not as easy as tweeting or recording a video. At least not yet, but if you had watched Apple’s WWDC for the past 2 years you would have realized that a lot of work is being done silently by the tech giant such as 3D scan, etc. Other significant efforts are being made by other tech giants / many other participants in the ecosystem.
But for the first time platforms do not have to rely on user generated content with aggressive network effects for infinite content. Checkout DALL-E or Stable Diffusion if you haven't already. Here is some oversimplified napkin math for some time in the near future:
- DALL-E 2 is 1 frame per second. Tik Tok is some 30 FPS
- Increasing compute capability by 100x (which happens every decade) gets us to parallel reality with no human generated content
Even if this math is wildly off, you should still get the point that soon enough we will be utilizing AI for content generation.
Now the content generation doesn’t end just as pixels on screen. Applies equally well to any other kind of content we consume: text, audio.. GPT-3, Lambda etc.. it's only getting better.. These could be Twitter bots or AI NPCs within the ‘metaverse’.
When you have infinite content, what becomes important is discovery and curated content. This is what Google / search engines brought to the world and organized the world’s data. This was further enhanced by AI algorithms used for discovery and curated content for social media apps such as Facebook / TikTok etc. Extending this in immersive 3D spaces is the next step. The key difference being is that it's not just about searching/discovering/curating immersive content, it is about creating immersive content with the right prompts; think along the lines of DALL-E for 3D and beyond.
Now: Google up Milky Way. You see an image or a video of our galaxy
Future: Take me to an immersive space depicting the Milky Way. Then you are transported to different representations of the Milky Way - modeled on physics or an artistic representation.
Furthermore, due to infinite content spread across platforms/mediums it becomes extremely important for you to have a personal AI agent for discovery and curation - think Siri, Alexa but one which is really your personal AI agent and is not tied to one platform.
Such an agent will have total access and control over your life and in many ways may even understand your behavior better than yourself. Needless to say that in such a case privacy driven algorithms become extremely important.
Now coming to the most controversial topic of all - NFTs, crypto and blockchain. Unfortunately NFTs got a bad rep on their debut to be highly speculative assets (in a low interest, low risk macro environment) and also to be very honest most of the pfp/collection projects were just distasteful driven by FOMO and marred with rampant scams. Let’s zoom out of it for a second.
Anyone still debating the use case for NFTs despite acknowledging that they represent ownership and authenticity on a publicly distributed blockchain by stating that “but the images can be right clicked and saved” struggles with understanding human behavior. Brand and authenticity matter. A Ralph Lauren T Shirt and a Nike T Shirt matters vs any of the counterfeits that exist and there exist quite a lot; pretty sure there are more counterfeits of these brands than the originals. But an even more important implication is where do we want the power to be concentrated in the supply chain of media. This subtle point has many important implications. Is it with the content creators or with the platform? Is it with the public or centralized authorities? Inevitably, if the content is not owned by creators/users and they are not provided a frictionless right of exit, the power lies with the platform.
Furthermore, the more data a platform has, the better AI they have and they have access to your information. While many are worried about whether AI has sentience or not, I personally think that while the debate is intellectually worthwhile, it is marred with anthropomorphism - us trying to evaluate it under our lens as humans.
The facts about AI are:
- The output functions can be non deterministic
- If you do not further R&D and your understanding of it, you will lose competitiveness at org, industry, nation level (implying that the technology will be developed whether you do it or not, cuz if you don't your competitors will)
- It can perform tasks which were safely considered to be done by humans - conversations, creating art, etc.
- It has a potential to enhance our productivity immensely
- It can help us to unlock our own creativity deeply
So in short, the tech has far reaching consequences. What does it imply and what needs to be done?
Dunking on data mining companies like Google / Facebook has become a public sport. Not so long ago, these companies were collectively supported by us, lauded by us. We wanted them to win and they did. And now we don't like them anymore? What went wrong? Do these companies inherently plan to be evil? I don't think so. This is the prime definition of a Frankenstein. You create it and it becomes something which you do not want it to be. But the key thing is that you always have an inkling and fear that you are in the process of creating a Frankenstein and you still do it, regardless. Such is the nature of technology.
Remember the time when Google’s internal policy vocally was “Don’t be evil”? Simply because they knew the potential and power of what they had with users' data as well as the technology. If history has taught us anything, it is simply that by choice “Don’t be evil” never works, especially in the case of private companies which have non-democratic power structures.
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Technology is becoming only more powerful with much bigger consequences. The data created and captured in metaverse apps will be much higher and not lower.
The answer is to switch from “Don't be evil” to “Can't be evil”. How?
- Radical transparency around user data and algorithms which determine our freedom of reach and freedom of speech
- Democratization of technology
- Frictionless right of exit
Let’s try to put everything together and see what we get..
We are imagining a world in which anyone can build out fantasies and immersive applications, supported by AI. Far enough into the future, we would be able to imagine and bring these immersive spaces to life with text prompts, just like a magical spell. These applications would be accessible across mediums and platforms as well as connect us without any boundaries. We will be able to discover virtual worlds on mobile and then have immersive experiences on our laptop/desktop as well as MR devices. While technology adoption would take time for mixed reality headsets, it is extremely important for such applications to also be accessible by the hardware of today - laptop, desktop and mobile.
All of this would be powered by radically transparent open source opinion agnostic infrastructure, with data hosted on public blockchains, supported by micro-transactions and the potential to run as a peer-to-peer decentralized network.
There would be a range of applications which would pop up for social, entertainment, education and commerce.
Social : Immersive spaces which enable social presence, where users can manipulate objects in their surroundings leading to better cooperation and collective building. A simplistic use case would be a team meeting where we have a 3D whiteboard. A more nuanced example would be a space in which users can create 3D art together. For some segments of the population dating would be a viable use case too.
Education : Immersive spaces teaching kids about solar systems, the atomic structure, geographical artifacts as well as a depiction of 18th century renaissance Europe
Entertainment : From gaming to art to virtual concerts everything fits in here.
Commerce : Initial use case would involve brands utilizing metaverse spaces for product placements and brand activation. Clever evolved use cases would be around DeFi around virtual goods and spaces.
This sounds like a crazy future - one where technology unlocks creativity. And an even crazier business and social model - one which believes that open source technology can result in sustainable business for good.
In every technological innovation of the past 5 decades - hardware innovation has been the most difficult. While it still holds true, a challenge of metaverse products is that the software is also very difficult. Because it needs to be x-platform, x-medium and an amalgamation of many technologies. The metaverse stack needs to support social (networking: audio/video), 3D / 2D representation, a broad category of tools to facilitate user generated content, complemented by AI and runs across multiple hardware/platforms. On top of that, doing this in a radically open, transparent way with a business model that supports digital ownership and content creators without walled gardens.
This is what we have been tirelessly building at Webaverse for years and we feel that we are just getting started. For some it sounds like technological utopia, on the other hand is the technological dystopia which comes up in 95% of scifi with a mention of Metaverse in it. I am super long humanity and I do not believe that humanity is doomed. But, I also believe that the best way to predict the future is to invent it.
I believe the ideals of crypto are well suited for such an endeavor. It is a radically different view of the world, powered by the ideals of open source technology, opening up a new paradigm of freedom..
In the words of Satoshi:
“We can win a major battle in the arms race and gain a new territory of freedom for several years”
And Hal Finey:
“The computer can be used as a tool to liberate and protect the people, rather than to control them”
Somewhere along the way, we lost the plot. While incentive structures are core to crypto, we focused on aggressive unsustainable growth promising 20-30% yields and a culture of shilling, creating FOMO based on prices. Whether we accept it or not, crypto is in a crisis. It is losing its utopian narrative and may still survive as an investment asset only or a global gambling platform where value changes hands. To this year, when I used to onboard ppl to crypto I used to cite the 08' crisis as one of the biggest reasons for losing trust in the “system”. We have successfully created a crisis 14 years later. We heard cries of a bailout. If anything, this is hypocritical to the existence of trustless, decentralized financial networks.
For me, crypto is the rails powering exchange without boundaries - virtual decentralized medium of exchange and/or store of value.
And the metaverse is an open digital society, unlocking everyone's creativity and allowing maximum participation, powered by these rails.
It is just obvious that it should be built this way. If we cannot, we have lost one of the most important fights of our generations - to build an open accessible fun metaverse based on principles. This for me is Ikigai. I hope it is for others as well.