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Coming to terms with the metaverse

illustration of a person standing next to a large monitor with a grid and icons representing the metaverse

Crypto, blockchain, digital ‘twinning’, extended reality, NFTs… this is just a sampling of the jargon of the metaverse.

By now, you’ve probably heard a lot about the metaverse, mostly surrounding gaming and social media platforms like the Meta (formerly Facebook) rebranding and their foray into the virtual world. Meta’s Horizon VR platform has already attracted 300,000 users, a clear sign of their intended dominance in this area.¹

There are many ideas about what the metaverse is and how it will evolve in the future. The metaverse incorporates many technology elements at a basic level like Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality. The promise of the metaverse is found in the convergence of digital and physical worlds. The metaverse can be thought of as one shared, virtual space where people identified by their own digital avatar will work, play, shop, attend meetings and concerts and live their lives – all recorded on blockchain.

The metaverse has massive social and financial implications. Today’s metaverses are already connected to many supporting economies, such as the NFT and gaming markets. Because NFTs are digital assets that live in the blockchain network, they represent unique collectible items that cannot be replicated, and investor interest is high. Cryptocurrency and NFT enthusiasts, digitally-savvy consumers, tech and gaming developers, and gaming content creators are among those betting on continued interest in the metaverse, and even a single (at least in concept), shared space of the future.

Dividing up today’s metaverses 

One way to categorize today’s siloed metaverses (versus the more unified but interconnected metaverse of the future) are the centralized and decentralized structures, associated with Web 2.0 and Web 3.0, respectively, investment banking firm J.P. Morgan notes in its “Opportunities in the Metaverse” report.² 

The Web 2.0 metaverse

Web 2.0 is today’s interactive web, such as Twitter and Wikipedia. The centralized structure of this metaverse is also found in gaming platforms such as Roblox, Fortnite, Second Life, and World of Warcraft. Data storage is centralized and digital assets stay within the platform.³

Much like a publicly held company, decisions involving these businesses are based on adding shareholder value. Within Web 2.0 gaming, identities are based on in-app avatars. Credit cards and debit cards are typically the payment types accepted on these platforms.

The Web 3.0 metaverse

Web 3.0 is an intelligent web that embraces machine learning, data mining, and blockchain. The gaming platforms of Sandbox and Decentraland, among others, represent Web 3.0. These environments are based on a self-organizing, mission-based community of people, known as a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO). Within these gaming metaverses, data storage is decentralized and native tokens are issued to enable participation in governance, with decisions based on user consensus. As community-governed metaverses, digital assets are owned through NFTs, making them transferable, and various crypto wallets are accepted. Gaming identities are based on Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI), a digital identity that users can control and use between any service, or anonymous private-key-based identities.⁴

The metaverse of the future?

The technology consulting firm Gartner defines the metaverse as a “collective virtual open space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical and digital reality. It is physically persistent and provides enhanced immersive experiences.”⁵ The term “persistent” means not only in general terms but in metaverse terms, such as a “continuity of existence; the continuation of virtual life regardless of whether people are online or offline.”⁶

Technically speaking, Gartner notes this more singular version of the metaverse would not exist in one big space, but would consist of  “independent, yet interconnected networks that will use yet-to-be-determined protocols for communications.” ⁷

As a result of this interconnectivity, no single vendor will own this interconnected metaverse space, which will be entirely device-independent. In its December 2021 “Emerging Technologies” report, Gartner said the technologies of the metaverse aren’t developed yet, noting the metaverse is “outside of the eight-year time frame that usually dictates what we include in this research, it extends computing ability by an order of magnitude beyond what is available today and fundamentally changes how individuals and organizations interact with each other and the world.”

If there are any takeaways of today’s in-flux metaverse, it is that the spaces, technologies and currencies of the metaverse—let alone its broader implications around democratized data, decentralized finance, data sharing and privacy—are both rapidly developing and to be determined.

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