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Star-Trekking Across the Metaverse

“If dreams could be sold, what would you buy?” This is how virtual reality (VR) was introduced to the masses for the first time (according to my research) on television—believe it or not, in 1991.

VR suffered many limitations, and, while it was embraced by a number of geeks, it was never really able to cross the technology adoption chasm (referenced in Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore, 1991). This was mainly due to the obvious challenges of compute power, limitation in data storage, price of hardware, and complexity of the software making it hard for the masses to adopt.

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I remember one thing in particular (besides how heavy the goggles were): How quickly I became seasick.

However, after the initial hype, VR and augmented reality (AR) quietly advanced, while submerging now and then. Several attempts were made in the VR domain, such as Facebook’s attempt with the Oculus VR acquisition.

In AR, Google Glass stirred up a lot of excitement, as did others, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens, but again, they weren’t able to live up to the expectation of the masses and died quietly, leaving the field again to the geeks. Even Second Life gave up last year on its VR attempt.

It seems a renewed attempt is in the air, probably stirred by the fact that due to COVID-19 so many people were restricted to home and remote work. Plus, there has been a continuous pouring of money into this space. It remains to be seen if the chasm for VR and AR can be jumped this time. If so, it might be because of the rise of the metaverse.

The Metaverse Beckons

There are some words that you have never heard of and when you hear them for the first time—bam! From that instant, you hear them every day and read them everywhere. “Metaverse” is such a word. The metaverse is quickly rising on the hype cycle. This is most likely because the big guns think it is time to go all-in, making you think that metaverse might be the next big thing after AI in the last decade. For example, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said to his employees earlier this year: “Our overarch-ing goal across all of these initiatives is to help bring the metaverse to life.”

While definitions are still evolving as to what the metaverse really is, the phrase was first coined in Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel. It refers to a convergence of physical, augmented, and virtual reality in a shared online space. I like to think of the metaverse simply as the universe of data. As with our real universe, humanity is still in the dark about most of its secrets (think of Spock’s words in Star Trek: “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it”), and we are at the brink of exploring it. AR and VR are just the first glimpses we see of it.

With the renewed interest, the pioneers are starting a new gold rush—the pioneers this time being techies, creators, and artists. What will help those pioneers with claim-ing a stake in the metaverse—and defending it against piracy—is the progress made in digital rights management. For the very first time, mature blockchains will be available to safeguard intellectual property rights, similar to the trend to store non-fungible tokens (NFTs) on Ethereum.  

Also, digital currencies will make life easier to trade within the metaverse—either with the most likely suspects such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, or Cardano or the new ones popping up that are specifically suited for the metaverse.

The result is a digital artifact created in (or for) the metaverse, protected and sold using the advancements made in blockchain and NFTs. This means the metaverse will have the option to build an economy on par with the one in the physical world. I can hear you say, “But Second Life already had a currency called Linden Dollars.” True, but they were only purchasable and could only be spent with Linden Lab.

Digital Currency

So, having a digital currency that can cross the boundaries between our world and the metaverse will undoubtedly raise the stakes, and, for sure, spark all kinds of new ventures. Where the startups might be creating the equivalent of small planets where you can entertain yourself if you have the cash, the big Digital Natives will most likely create their own Milky Way—or even galaxy—in the metaverse. (If you have ever watched Ready Player One, you will grasp what I am alluding to.)

But before doing so, the metaverse has to grow up, just as the internet did in the early 1990s. Based on the initial excitement, it is most likely that AR and VR initiatives will be the prevalent ones.

The obvious candidates to succeed in the early stages are the gaming companies, such as Epic, which is pushing the boundaries with Fortnite and is hosting events such as digital concerts (most recently the Ariana Grande concert). Ecommerce and retail will follow suit. New companies such as The Fabricant, which makes unique digital clothes for your avatar, might be next. But B2C companies will not be the only ones trying to understand how to exploit the metaverse; there is also a big role there for the B2B industry.

What Does the Metaverse Look Like?

What the real metaverse will look like in the end, nobody knows. But I imagine that someday we might plug into the metaverse through neuralinks (such as those described in Tad Williams’ science fiction series Otherlands). Farfetched? I don’t think so; after all, these kinds of links are now being explored by Elon Musk’s Neuralink. If you have seen the video where a monkey implanted with the neuralink is playing Ping Pong, you know that that farfetched science fiction idea is coming seriously close to reality. However, what will probably make or break the metaverse will be its capability to capture data from its surroundings and even the biosphere.

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