Exit the Internet, Enter the Metaverse: Your Online Future is in 3D | The metaverse

vFuture capitalist Matthew Ball first wrote about metaverse in 2018 and his essays have become essential reading for entrepreneurs and tech watchers who are trying to understand or profit from the net Mark Zuckerberg and many others predict they will replace the Internet. Ball is the former head of strategy at Amazon Studios and the first book by him, The Metaverse: Like It Want Revolutionshe Everythingis released later in July.

What is it the metaverse?
It is a persistent network of 3D spaces. Almost everything online today – all applications, digital operating systems, web pages – run on common protocols and technologies that connect them. The metaverse it is a 3D elevation of the online world, embracing augmented reality – virtual simulations invisible in the world around us – as well as much of consumer leisure and socializing.

So the metaverse does not imply virtual reality (VR)?
I think it’s important to separate access devices and specific experiences from the metaverse in general. A good analogy would be the mobile internet: apps are not the mobile internet. Not only can you access the mobile internet from a web browser, but you can do it without any visual interface. You can say, “Hey Siri, what time is it?” and you are accessing the mobile internet from your phone. virtual reality or AR (augmented reality) headphones may be a popular way to access the metaverse, but they are not a prerequisite.

Would you describe everything that exists today as a metaverse?
The closest examples would be consumer leisure oriented gaming platforms such as Minecraft or Roblox: Popular experiences reaching tens of millions of people every day, tightly integrating millions of different virtual worlds. But it’s still quite modest and would be a bit like characterizing a 1990s GeoCities or Yahoo or AOL portal as a manifestation of the Internet as we know it today.

the computer game's second life is seen as a precursor to the metaverse.
The computer game Second Life is seen as a precursor to the metaverse. Photography: Friedrich Stark/Alamy

Bringing it back even further than Minecraft, the online virtual world Second Life is often presented as a proto-metaverse. What distinguishes it from reality?
It’s a good example. Second life underlines the fact that this is not a new idea. In my book I talk about the fact that the term dates back 30 years, but the theory and early literature around it spanned almost a century. Second Life was one of the first examples and one of the most important and successful; it had a relatively independent economy where users could transact with each other for a fee rather than being middlemaned by the platform. It was designed around unstructured play, there was no game goal. It was about what you wanted to do and express with the people around you.

But what is also important is to compare it with today. Second Life at its peak around 2006 had a few million monthly users. It’s entirely possible right now Roblox has more on the platform. Part of that reflects substantial improvements in ease of creation — we’ve gone from something amateur and professional hobbyists can do to something a child can do. And so in Second Life, we not only see the lineage of the metaverse, but we can also trace its trajectory. Over time, the capabilities of these platforms grow, the time and reach of these platforms grow, as does their economic value.

Should we expect the metaverse to be an anarchic utopia?
Some believe this is the end of civilization and nation-state community, but I think that is unlikely. A combination of growing influence of regional actors plus increasing government regulation is actually more likely to produce a stronger regional identity.

The internet relies on underground pipes and underground pipes are physical infrastructure held within national borders. That’s why Kuwait can turn off the Internet if they want. That’s why Middle Eastern and Asian governments can choose to block certain opportunities and access to information platforms. Regulation [of the internet] it’s getting stronger and more diverse globally every year. As more culture moves online, we tend to find that the companies best able to cater to related business opportunities are local.

What issues need to be resolved before you see something begin to approach your vision?
We are in a phase where we have no conventions. There is no English, there is no USD, there is no metric system, there is no intermodal shipping container. And so, when we want to share the virtual world, we often can’t. Expansion which is seen as a top priority now.

What are the real world problems does the metaverse actually solve?
In many, if not most cases, having an immersive 3D environment is a more intuitive and productive way to communicate information and ideas. Humans haven’t evolved for thousands of years to touch 2D interfaces.

We know in education, for example, that school Zoom wasn’t particularly engaging and that YouTube videos aren’t the best way to learn. So we can understand the possible benefits of an immersive education: entering a circulatory system, building a Rubé Goldberg machine [one that accomplishes a simple task in the most complicated way possible], going through different gravitational environments or learning physiotherapy, not by looking at a video screen, but with touch sensors with 3D representation and gait analysis. We can certainly assume that some elements of this will enrich our experience and have a better impact than the current Internet.

matthew ball:
Matthew Ball: “Many fundamental problems of the mobile and cloud era will be exacerbated in the metaverse.” Photography: Gabor Jurina

I work hard in the book to talk about the underlying technologies and their power. And that’s because the technology is fundamentally recursive. Didn’t understand TCP/IP [transmission control protocol/internet protocol] or the internet in 1995 that would lead you to understand, believe, or clearly visualize life in 2022: TikTok’s role in the Billboard charts; the criticality of messaging, filters and ephemeral emojis for one of the largest communication platforms in the world; the role of commission-free stock trading during a pandemic. And that’s because what happens in all technological ages is that a new technology is created that manifests or reveals an underlying behavior.

Will people do their banking and apply for a mortgage in the metaverse? Or are there some things that you think will stay like 2D internet only?
We will continue to do a lot in 2D. In fact, we have a clear case study for this, which is how much we still do on PCs rather than mobile devices, how much we do using landline internet rather than mobile devices. Emails, phone calls, quick text messages are very likely to be even better in 2D, or at least will be for the foreseeable future, but when it comes to digital banking or applying for a permit, there are already areas where we can see some of that advance. Volumetric video, or what many would call holography, is here. There is a classic line from Neuromancer, one of the first science fiction novels focusing on the ideas of the metaverse, which says that the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed. Holography is here and its returns are extraordinary. We see a 30-50% increase in memory retention through holographic video, a 30-50% increase in non-verbal communication, a 20-30% increase in eye contact. And so in the years to come, we shouldn’t be surprised to find holographic screens in a DMV [local office of the US department of motor vehicles]at a high-end retailer and more.

Are there ethical concerns we should be thinking about now, rather than after there are a billion users?
In 2022, we are still struggling with many fundamental issues of the mobile and cloud age: data rights, data security, data literacy, platform power, platform regulation, disinformation and disinformation, radicalization, role of algorithms in our daily lives , online happiness, toxicity and harassment. And they will all become exacerbated in the metaverse.

In many cases, the few lessons we have learned will become more difficult. Moderating in a 3D space requires different technologies and policies than moderating in 2D text. One of the challenges here is that many of the biggest problems in the social age weren’t predictable and actually required quite a bit of testing.

One of the goals behind my book is to give constituents, users, developers, consumers, and regulators a better view of what the future is likely to be so they can positively influence that outcome. Big tech is hurtling into the metaverse because we know what happens during a platform switch: companies that lead, switch; business models that thrive, change; the philosophies that are supported, change. And if they know that future is on the horizon, then at this point, during a platform switch, we as consumers have an opportunity to choose who drives and how. This is a very difficult intra-cycle. Very few of us will switch smartphone providers, very few of us will switch social network companies, very few of us will switch the content networks we consume from. But during track changes, we have this option.

How sure are you that this future is it going to happen?
There are things we can be sure of. I am absolutely certain that we will increasingly use 3D simulations to build and manage the world around us. We’re already using it to design and manage cities, airports, and more today. The Ready Player One-esque version of the future, where we go to school, collect virtual coins, wear our favorite skin: this is the least important and least predictable aspect of our future.

We may find that most of what I’ve written comes true, but it’s very likely that we don’t use the term metaverse: we could just be talking about the internet, we could say 3D internet, we could be talking about a completely different word. I am also sure that an ever-increasing share of our time, work, leisure, spending, wealth, happiness, activity and learning will take place within virtually simulated or virtually supported environments. This is the fundamental revolution. Exactly what that means on a day-to-day basis, exactly what it means for 5pm when you get home from work – isn’t clear.

  • The Metaverse: How It Will Revolutionize Everything by Matthew Ball is published by WW Norton & Co on 19th July (£22). To support the Keeper and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop. com. Shipping costs may apply