December 23, 2021

The Cyber ‘Big Bang’: What is the Metaverse?

The metaverse is no longer science fiction — spearheaded by online gaming and big tech’s push for virtual reality, it is emerging as an implementable reality with blockchain at its core.
4 min

Origins of the Metaverse

Neal Stephenson coined the term ‘metaverse’ in his 1992 novel Snow Crash and envisioned a virtually shared space that fused physical reality with virtual worlds where users can interact using avatars – a digital persona. Taken from the prefix ‘meta’, meaning beyond or transcending, the idea proposes the digitisation of our physical lives such that we work, learn, and socialise within a 3D virtual reality.

This migration to cyberspace is well underway. Intensified by the restriction of physical movement and public spaces during the pandemic, we have increasingly relied on the internet for education, industry, art, and social activities. The metaverse promises to transform social media’s ‘likes’ and Zoom’s 2D-grid meeting rooms with interactive and immersive worlds that exist as a persistent shared realm and perceived virtual universe.

Technological advancements in the space of augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI), and blockchain are driving the transition from our current usage of the internet to the metaverse. The metaverse will integrate all these technologies so that interactions between the real and virtual worlds are as tight and seamless as possible.

The cyber ‘Big Bang’ will birth a new social form that can be designed from the ground up. We are currently in the development stage of the metaverse and must deal with questions surrounding governance, incentives, and design infrastructure. This is a vital period in determining our future, especially when keeping in mind John Culkin’s adage that ‘we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us’. Put simply, we should ask ourselves: What world do we want to live in and how can we build it?

Meta: Facebook's Bet on the Metaverse

Programmers, investors, CEOs, futurists, and philosophers have all presented unique ideas in an attempt to stake their claim in the metaverse. Broad corporate and academic interest has been sparked in view of the world as tabula rasa, where new forms of social interaction, entertainment, economics, and politics can be coded into existence. Of course, the monetisation of the metaverse is another strong attractor and it is no surprise that the world’s tech giants have bet their future on it. Facebook’s rebranding as Meta is Zuckerberg’s most recent commitment toward developing a ‘metaverse company’ following their launch of VR platform Horizon and their $10 billion investment in Reality Labs — an AR and VR design hub. Amazon, Alphabet (Google), and Microsoft have all expressed interest in creating the metaverse and, given the irretrievable costs involved in developing a metaverse system, these companies are perhaps the best placed to actualise the digital universe.

Observing the dominance of big tech in the world, it is not hard to identify the inherent flaws in our current centralised systems. Namely, that a small group of actors have total control over who uses the system, how the system is run, and how users engage and interact with the system. Moreover, use of the system (i.e., data) is monitored, shared, and owned by that small group of actors. While centralised systems certainly have a place, to think that the entirety of the metaverse would be owned and controlled by a handful of technocrats arouses images of a cyberpunk-esque dystopia. For this reason, decentralised technologies likes blockchain have been advocated as inbuilt features of the metaverse so that they are fundamental to the creation of avatars, content, the virtual economy, governance, security, and privacy.

Where does Blockchain fit in?

Blockchain is quite literally a building block of the metaverse and can be used to ensure its security and operation. Aside from its obvious application in digital currencies, blockchain technology is necessary for storing user generated data, which in the metaverse would amount to an inconceivable figure. As opposed to traditional centralised storage systems (e.g., cloud-based storage) where users’ data is commodified outside of their purview, a distributive data-management system allows users to control their own data and provides them with transparency of how their data is used. What’s more, Blockchain can guarantee the security of shared data and introduce smart contract and access control to track the data-accessing behaviour of all users.

Perhaps the widest and most profound application of blockchain technology in the metaverse is the way it will bridge and connect different worlds. An open metaverse requires a public and distributed infrastructure where users can jump between privately created virtual worlds and seamlessly move throughout the metaverse’s multiplicity of platforms — the technical term for this is interoperability. It is useful then to think of the metaverse not as a localised virtual realm but the fabric that connects different realms — the technological space between places that unifies the entire system. Mini-metaverses such as Decentraland have already leveraged blockchain technology on the Ethereum network and allows users to buy land or non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Users can then develop ‘plots’ where the core content has emerged as the exhibition of digital art.

Blockchain technology is invaluable in creating a unified, shared and collective virtual space. Yet, the advent of the metaverse as an interactive, immersive, and persistent 3D world still faces significant challenges. With the progression and refinement of blockchain and other technologies, we will see the metaverse become integrated into the physical world and our everyday reality. While this may be a daunting prospect for some, Jaron Lanier — the founder of the field of virtual reality — has said that the greatest value of simulated realities is that they enhance our appreciation of the richness and complexity of the physical world. The metaverse is not a replacement for the real world but will co-evolve with it. Utilising blockchain technology, the metaverse presents new habitats for humanity where users can create their own meaning and enrich the virtual world while doing so.

Check out part 2 of our metaverse deep dive here: Major Players in The Metaverse

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