In my novel, Presence, I imagine what social and business networking in the year 2051 will be like. Put another way, what will be the equivalent of Facebook in thirty-five years?
It’s almost impossible to predict. Think back to 1981: did anyone even come close to predicting the Facebook of 2016? No. Not even William Gibson could imagine that (indeed he regularly berates himself in interviews for not including cellphones in his famous 1984 novel Neuromancer; but he shouldn’t be hard on himself, because he got so much else right). My point is that predicting the future is very difficult. But it’s fun to imagine, particularly when there are signs that our future is beginning to be built. That’s certainly the case with the Metaverse in 2016.
The Metaverse is a term coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash. It means a virtual reality space where users can interact with other people. In Stephenson’s novel, avatars socialize and do business in 3D bars and virtual neighborhoods. The plot of the novel was far fetched, as the sword-wielding protagonist depicted above illustrates. But the Metaverse itself seemed do-able in the coming decades, from a technological point of view. Especially considering the hype for virtual reality in the 1990s.
However, in the three decades after Snow Crash was published, the closest any company came to building the Metaverse was Second Life. And that wasn’t even VR. Second Life, a 3D world navigated via plain old personal computer, launched in 2003. But its popularity peaked in 2008, when it had about half a million active users. So Second Life only ever achieved a tiny fraction of Facebook’s eventual user base.
One of the main reasons Second Life never took off was that it is too obviously unreal. It’s a cartoon world, full of giant rabbits and fake personas. For half a million Second Life users, that’s an acceptable way to socialize and/or do business. But for the vast majority of people, it is not. Simply put, if the Metaverse is ever going to be taken up by mainstream users, it needs to feel more real. Which is where the latest generation of VR headsets come in.
2016: Enter Virtual Reality
In 2016, virtual reality has finally become a consumer technology. Three breakthrough VR headsets have been (or will be) released this year. Facebook’s Oculus Rift came out in March, the HTC Vive in April, and Sony’s Playstation VR is due in October. Any of these devices could yet become a platform for the Metaverse.
Interestingly, the company that runs Second Life – Linden Lab – is now one of the frontrunners to create a Metaverse. It has a separate project called Sansar, which will be optimized for VR devices like Oculus Rift. Linden Lab states that Project Sansar will focus on social experiences, through avatars that have “exceptional visual fidelity, 3D audio, and physics simulation.” It’ll be a kind of WordPress for VR, says the company. Another potential Metaverse is High Fidelity, founded by Second Life inventor Phillip Rosedale. High Fidelity even uses the Stephenson term: “The Metaverse begins now,” the homepage declares.
It remains to be seen how well Sansar and High Fidelity do, but the fact that both are content creation platforms is a hint at what’s needed for a modern day Metaverse to take off.
Most people will only use VR once there are good tools to socialize and network with. If there is a criticism of the 2016 range of VR headsets, it’s that they’re primarily aimed at gamers. Although that will change over the next few years, as non-gaming VR experiences such as movies, sport and music become more widely available. A true Metaverse will need those things, and more. To relate the problem to the Web’s evolution, it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that the World Wide Web took off – because that’s when it became easy for people to collaborate and create content. Tools like WordPress, Twitter and Facebook were the enablers. For the Metaverse to happen, it’s going to need similar content creation tools for VR.
Indeed, perhaps a good way to define the Metaverse now is that it should be a combination of Virtual Reality and the World Wide Web. After all, the Web was built on top of open formats – the hypertext protocol, hyperlinks, open formats like HTML. That’s a great platform for VR to build on, too. The danger of course is that Facebook, in particular, builds its VR Metaverse as a closed platform. Facebook already owns one of the key VR tools – the Oculus Rift – so things may well head down the closed, proprietary path. Let’s hope not.
My conclusion for this newsletter is that there is no Metaverse in 2016, but the tools have arrived to build one. So the Metaverse seems, to use Kevin Kelly’s term, inevitable.
What will the future Metaverse look like? Well, that’s why I wrote my novel, Presence. In the book, I imagine a fully functional Metaverse in 2051. What’s more, I imagine that it’s a proprietary platform! My Facebook-like company is named Doppel. Naturally, things don’t go according to plan for Doppel, or the main characters who live and work inside its Metaverse. But you’ll just need to buy the book on September 28 to find out the rest…
Image credit: Hiro Protagonist, from Snow Crash; by IzzyMedrano
Presence, my science fiction novel about the future of VR, is now available on Amazon.