There are few things more fascinating than looking up at the night sky. What else seems so immediate and yet so far away and unknown? Despite a history of impressive efforts to visit other planets and send crafts into deep space, we still have much to learn about the galaxy that surrounds us. Can we not look at the metaverse in the same way?
Here on earth, reality is transforming. AR and VR experiences teeter on the edge of the mainstream, and great strides have been made toward what appears to be emerging as a third iteration of the digital age. Many see web3 as a sea change in all aspects of our techno-driven future, from its core infrastructure to business models and decentralized equity ownership. Web3 contemplates a borderless economy, rewards day-trading behavior, and creates new methods for accumulating wealth as a contributor. Some see it evolving into a libertarian utopia with an underlying intent to shift ownership of data away from corporations and governments, something the internet originally seemed capable of during its formative years. Even authenticity, ravished by web 2.0, seems poised for a comeback with the potential of NFTs. But what seems furthest from ever being realized is something much more ambiguous and alluring all at the same time. Something called a metaverse.
People will always profit from taking risks and being first, but for every Elon Musk, there will always be those that appear as visionary one day, only to wind up looking like Newt Gingrich on Capitol Hill in Second Life years later. In 1993, Newt touted a new era of humanity in a place that is now obsolete. Will Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon sharing printouts of their digital apes be looked upon in the same way 5, 15, or 30 years from now? Will the rebrand of Facebook into Meta be seen as historically significant as Steve Jobs pulling an iPod out of his pocket? Or just a laughable blip in our efforts to evolve. Only time will tell.
The present is the most reliable tool we have for inventing the future, something we help our clients do every day at Engine Digital. But the video and keynote Meta used to introduce the world to their version of a metaverse suggests an interpretation of a future that does little for understanding tangible opportunities in the now. In Meta’s metaverse sizzle video, a group of creative-looking young people step into a Henri Rousseau painting that comes to life around them, connecting their new product to the idea of a trippy, dreamy, space for creative expression that winds up introducing more questions than answers. That’s because it’s all an illusion, a simulation, nothing in that video has actually been made.
What’s real, and what isn’t?
This hasn’t stopped brands with deep pockets from creating experiences that are apparently taking place in the metaverse, and there’s no shortage of articles with headlines like: “What Marketers Need to Know About the Metaverse,” which is weird when you realize the metaverse doesn’t exist. Calling any of the disparate digital spaces, worlds, currencies, and an even wider array of assets that make up our current digital state a metaverse is like saying World of Warcraft, the iPhone, or Google is the internet. They are not the internet. They are digital experiences, devices, services, and websites that give us the ability to access siloed experiences and artifacts. Until a universal protocol is developed that the metaverse can be built on, similar to when HTTP was developed, allowing us to link any page with anything on it to any other page, creating an endless web of pages, there cannot be a metaverse.
As pessimistic as all this sounds, we have to recognize that something is undoubtedly happening. Something big. Something that has the potential to transform humanity in a profound, if not unsettling way. But what is it? Perhaps a better way to answer this question, while engaging with the opportunities a metaverse could present us with, is through the sum of its parts. That’s what we did with black holes. It was only until recently that we have been able to see a black hole, but we’ve known of their existence for decades because of their effect on other stars and gasses around them. Using this analogy, could we not break down the metaverse in the same way? Allowing us to work with the elements forming around the idea of it, rather than trying to prematurely create a potentially embarrassing, and ultimately pointless, interpretation of the future?
A guide to the eight elements of the metaverse.
The following eight elements are all contributing in some way to what could become a singular and universal virtual world. Each one has the potential to be radically transformed, whether or not such a thing as a metaverse becomes real. Each element offers real, tangible opportunities to those of us looking to capitalize on nonexistent concepts with what actually exists in the present. You’ve probably heard of them by name, but might not know the opportunities within each of them.
Consider this, then, your guide to the eight elements:
1) Decentralization — The liberation of data from a singular, authoritative group. Because of the relatively new way of independently storing data on a blockchain, Organizations can relinquish control of how entities create and govern themselves, forming Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAO). DAOs can enable anyone to participate without the monetization of their data. All the work of maintaining a database that would normally be handled by a company can now be operated by a fancy algorithm that works by a consensus mechanism to maintain the integrity of the data it holds, granting anyone the ability to inspect a public blockchain’s code or see the record of any transaction.
2) Singularity — The mashing together of applications and content from different IPs into a single expression. People are already beginning to hack together content and media sources manually to create their own experiences — listening to a live DJ set on Twitch while conversing with friends who are listening to the same thing while playing World of Warcraft together, for example — but for a metaverse to exist, the element of singularity must reach a level of maturity where it becomes seamless.
3) Consistency — A persistent, always-on, macrocosm that’s governed by an identifiable visual language, system of rules, and principles that span its entirety. Although the physical world is vastly different from region to region, it’s still connected through a consistent ecological design system that’s been evolving for roughly four billion years. Similarly, whether experiencing the metaverse in a siloed experience or an expression of multiple data sources, for it to be universal the metaverse will have to be formed by a consistent and recognized sense of itself.
4) Economy — A framework for the consumption of goods and services, enabling exchanges of value and the currencies associated with them. The development of the blockchain is intrinsically connected to Bitcoin, which is why the element of economy is arguably the most mature element of the metaverse. Cryptocurrencies have enabled transactions of physical and virtual assets across networks, and are free from any centralized government or bank, connecting them to the element of Decentralization. However, an economy in the real world isn’t just exchanges of currency. An economy in the metaverse will be no different. Cryptocurrencies are just fungible tokens — meaning they’re mutually interchangeable, as opposed to a non-fungible token (NFT) that’s unique and can’t be replaced with something else. Tokens are really just secure, verifiable, and transparent entries in a blockchain, and they can be attached to anything, from monetary items to tangible goods, allowing for a flourishing economy.
5) Persistence — The continued or prolonged existence of a place that never stops. Many virtual worlds are built around gaming environments that are sometimes built around tasks and goals, or narratives that start, stop, or reset. The metaverse should never stop, rest, or end. For the metaverse to exist there can be no game over.
6) Interoperability — Characteristics of a system or product that works with other systems or products. Right now, our digital world is like a mall where every store uses its own currency and proprietary ID cards and units of measurement for defining assets like clothing, recognized units of something, like calories, or codes of behavior like the way we dress. The element of Interoperability is vital to the realization of the metaverse so that items, assets, and content can be acquired and used across its entirety. Imagine the digital skin on your weapon in Counter-Strike used on your avatar’s body in Fortnite, or gifted to a friend on Facebook. Or a car designed for Rocket League that’s purchasable on Ferrari’s website and used in Roblox. NFTs are interoperable, but the assets they’re tied to are not, meaning Fortnite might be able to recognize the NFT that verifies your Nikes as unique, valuable, and yours, but you may not be able to put them on your avatar because the actual digital asset itself isn’t coded with something that works with Fortnite. By looking at the element of Interoperability you can see how far we are from a metaverse.
7) Identity — The qualities, beliefs, personality traits, appearance, and/or expressions that characterize a person or group. The idea of a metaverse suggests a hyper-heightened level of online engagement where safety, security, and privacy will likely be radically transformed, opening up the potential for both improvement and detriment. Our current digital experiences have already revealed our need to do better, not just from a safety, security, and privacy perspective, but with representation and inclusion too. The metaverse is poised to take us into uncharted territory, and while it could offer a blank slate for inclusivity and diversity, it also has the potential to completely overhaul what it means to be human. Exciting! Terrifying.
8) Convergence — A state of union or merging between our physical and digital worlds. When and if it does become reality, a metaverse could transform the infrastructure layer of our digital world, and the physical one too, including the services and platforms atop them, the way they work, and the things they sell. It’s already happening. Lineups of people desperate to get into Bored Ape Yacht Club events and parties are there because objects they purchased in the digital sphere have power, influence, and value in the real world.
Working with the elements.
It’s as good a guess as any as to whether or not the metaverse will become what Mark Zuckerberg and many others suggest it to be. Already, it seems the term is giving way to a more accurate description of our ever-growing collection of virtual worlds and experiences that some are calling the “multiverse,” but now that you’re grounded in the components contributing to the formation of our digital future, the catch-all phrase we use to describe them becomes less relevant.
The eight elements outlined here are real. They exist. They are both a product of, and currently contributing to, a new iteration of the internet. By working with all, or even just one of these elements, we’re able to engage with the opportunities inherent in them, allowing us to build actual, useful things in the present while we move toward the future in a sustainable way. If you want to call it metaverse, well, that’s entirely up to you.
If you’re looking to engage your brand or organization with web3, and opportunities related to the elements of the metaverse, reach out. We’re here to help our client partners plan, design, and deploy strategies that help them to take advantage of the now, in order to invent their future.