The term metaverse continues to be a runaway train in gaming, media and XR worlds. Though it has legitimate principles and promise — most astutely examined by Matthew Ball and Avi Bar-Zeev –it’s been obscured through overuse in generalist editorials and marketing materials.

In broad terms, metaverse denotes virtual domains that host placeshifted participants for synchronous interaction. Mark Zuckerberg calls it an “embodied internet,” while Tim Sweeney calls it a “real-time 3D social medium where people can create and engage in shared experiences.”

But this ritual of defining the metaverse is a double-edged sword. It’s too early and abstract for concrete definition, yet it helps to conceptualize it and relate it to familiar technologies. For example, the web’s interoperability and standards make it a go-to model for metaverse musings.

To add to this chorus of voices in a hopefully productive way, ARtillery Intelligence (our research arm) recently presented some metaverse basics at a virtual event. We’re featuring the recording for this week’s XR Talks, with embedded video and narrative takeaways below.

XR Talks: Bringing Discipline to Metaverse Mania

Uncertain Terms

Though it’s difficult to define the metaverse in certain terms, there are examples of metaverse-like fiefdoms that we can point to today. The most cited examples are MMOs like Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox – though they’re too walled and isolated to collectively represent a metaverse.

These games and experiences have metaverse-like properties because they host time-synchronized interaction between place-shifted participants. In other words, you can interact and converse with other people in real-time, but you’re transported virtually to a shared digital space.

Taking that model to its logical conclusion gets you to more immersive – and largely VR-based – experiences which are mostly seen in books and Hollywood depictions like Ready Player One. This gets closer to Mark Zuckerberg’s definition of an embodied Internet.

But even Zuckerberg admits that in order for the metaverse to truly scale, it can’t be limited to VR. Facebook is all about scale and network effect, so it knows – despite its own vested interest in VR –that a prospective metaverse scales better as a cross-platform endeavor.

What’s Behind Facebook’s Metaverse Play?

Follow the Money

Fictional depictions like Ready Player One provide a few other metaverse models and concepts worth examining. For one, the Oasis, as it is known in the book, is interoperable: players can jump from one experience to another seamlessly and with their customized avatar.

But one thing that makes this interoperability possible is also a metaverse possibility that scares people: ownership by one company. The Oasis isn’t decentralized like the web but rather operated by one company (and the threat of another taking over) that controls its workings.

Many are afraid that this could portend what a company like Facebook might try to do. But despite misperceptions to this effect, Facebook is explicitly intent on keeping the metaverse open and decentralized like the web. And if you don’t believe it….follow the money.

In other words, Facebook makes tens of billions of dollars every quarter by being a gateway to, and social framework around, a massively scaled and decentralized web. It would diminish its own addressable market (advertisers) if it were to build its own insular web or metaverse.

What’s Behind Facebook’s Metaverse Play? Part II

Universal Access Point

Speaking of the web, this could be a model and foundation for the metaverse as noted. In fact, MetaVRrse founder & CEO Alan Smithson quipped during a recent panel discussion that we moderated: “We already have a metaverse….it’s called the Internet.” And he’s right.

The difference between today’s web and the metaverse that’s being discussed and conceptualized throughout the tech world is the “embodied” part of Zuckerberg’s definition. But regardless of the UX and dimension, the web could still provide an important framework.

In other words, the web has some of the metaverse’s wish-list of ingredients mentioned in the preceding sections – interoperability, decentralization, openness, and standards. It has a universal access point (the browser), common protocols (HTTPS), and languages (HTML).

But all of that said, the web isn’t perfect. Could the conceptualization and construction of a new paradigm – whether it’s called the metaverse or something else – offer an opportunity? Could we hit the reset button on sub-optimal attributes of the web (privacy, inequity)?

Can Niantic Unlock the Real-World Metaverse?

The Metavearth

In much of the above, the metaverse is discussed in VR contexts, or at least in today’s non-VR metaverse-like fiefdoms such as Fortnite and Roblox. But what about AR? Will there be a metaverse that’s geo-anchored to the real world? This is what we’ve been calling the metavearth.

To be fair, the concept of geo-anchored data that enables AR experiences is already classified under the AR cloud. It’s also a topic we’ve unpacked in our Space Race series, and a report by our research arm, ARtillery Intelligence. But could the metavearth further contextualize it?

Indeed one of AR’s battlegrounds will be in augmenting the world in location-relevant ways. That could be wayfinding with Google Live View, or visual search with Google Lens. It’s about annotating the world with data that can enable AR devices to render meaningful content.

But before we get too caught up in future-gazing, this real-world version of the metaverse will take as long or longer to construct than its virtual counterpart. It will require a spatial-web stack including hardware, 5G/Edge, spatial mapping data, apps, and relevance engines (Google?). 

Who Will Build the Metavearth?

Developer Mindset

Lastly, it’s worth reiterating a point teased in the preceding sections: the metaverse – or whatever we end up calling it – will be a moving target that takes decades to fully actualize. Similarly, its use cases and points of value could be things we haven’t even imagined yet.

This is like trying to conceptualize the iPhone in 1985. Even later, no one conceptualized Uber when the iPhone first launched. It took a few years living with that new form factor for native thinking – utilizing the unique capabilities of the form factor – to seep into the developer mindset.

There are several other examples from the smartphone era such as Foursquare, Spotify, and Snapchat. These and several other smartphone-native innovations only came after the form factor was introduced – sometimes years later. This will likely be the case for the metaverse.

So the takeaway is to keep an open mind about how this can play out, but also manage your own expectations in that the metaverse is not here yet and won’t be for years or decades. But along that path, there will be metaverse milestones that get us closer and have standalone value.

We’ll pause there and cue the full video presentation below…

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