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What is the Metaverse?

This website is partly about me and partly about "The Metaverse". So what is a metaverse? A lot of contradictory statements come out when you ask that question, but the simple answer is, The Metaverse is a 3D Internet.

There Egypt

Ask the average geek what There represents, though, and he or she can tell you in an instant: It's a metaverse. The word comes from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, a 1992 science-fiction novel that describes a hyperrealistic digital world (the Metaverse) where people spend the bulk of their leisure time and disposable income. But it's come to serve as shorthand for a long-standing dream among tech insiders -- the vision of a parallel virtual universe in which the world's communication networks come to life. It's a scheme whose kewlness needs no explanation for the average computer hacker or sci-fi fan, and it's largely because earlier metaverse builders took the merit of their projects for granted that so many of their attempts failed. – From an Article by Julian Dibbell Business 2.0 (March 2003)

Actually, it does require an explanation. In fact, there are some basic ones that need asked:

"OK, this metaverse is a game. What do you do with it? How do you play? What is the object of the game?", good question. I don't know. But look around, isn't it pretty?

Second Life Dance Party

The Philosophy of the Metaverse

I won't bore you with the history, or comparison of 3D social games like previous essays. Instead I want to get to the heart of the matter and explain what in my mind makes up a metaverse, take a look at what we have now, and see where we have to go. As I see it, the primary components of a metaverse are:

  1. 3D - Some say the Internet itself is a metaverse, and in a sense that is true, but there is a depth in 3D worlds that you do not get on the rest of the 2D web. 3D will never replace the ease and convenience of 2D, instead 3D will enhance and and expand.
  2. Avatar Based - Your name and your avatar is the representation of you in the 3D environment. The more options available in creating your avatar, the more you can make your identity unique and personal. Just like in real life I recognize people by their face, in games I can recognize people by their avatar.
  3. Multiple Communication Methods - Some like text, some like speech, some like using animation triggers to express themselves, or give gifts. The purpose of a metaverse is to communicate, so the more methods available the better.
  4. User Created Content - Whether it be buildings in Second Life, or geo-tagging photos on Google Earth, or customizing your room in IMVU, user created content is a must have for any successful metaverse endeavor. I've heard building in Second Life compared to blogging. Instead of saying something in text, you say something in an environment you build.
  5. Stuff to Do - This should be obvious. The purpose of 3D environments you can reach online is to meet people. As in real life, sitting around and talking only lasts so long, it is more interesting to actually go do stuff and chat while you are doing it. While social online games give you the ability to create content, they tend to lack stuff to actually do. MMORPGs give you stuff to do, but lack the ability to create custom content.
  6. Web Interfacing Tools - Content is always a problem in 3D worlds, but luckily we have the internet, which contains lots and lots of content. The best 3D environments provide ways of accessing that content (music, video, pictures, sounds, database content, etc.) and bringing it into the game to share with others.
  7. Communication Tools - In game IMs, out of game e-mails, social profiles and networking, web space for screenshots, blogs, and sharing and porting in-game content to the outside. Help Wikis for all games are growing in popularity.
  8. Game Launching – Think XBox Live, where you meet up with your friends, pick a multiplayer game to play, you all load up the game and suddenly you are all teamed together. Obviously XBox Live has this ability, but XBox Live is all text until you get into the game. Playstation 3 Home is a 3D social world that lets you do this too. If we really want to have a “Metaverse” this is the way to do it: Tie all the individual online games together, let players carry their identity from game to game, and provide a way to move in groups between games.

Now anyone familiar with the world of 3D gaming knows that there does not exist a single game capable of all of the above. Second Life technically can do the first 7. If we can achieve all 8 parts, we would have a real 3D internet with all the various online games linked to one another like the world wide web. 

Today's 3D web is similar to the 2D web of the 1980's. Second Life is like the AOL in the late 80's, a privately held subset of the internet that demonstrates the potential. The 3D version of World Wide Web is still not standardized, and no one has written a workable browser yet because of it.

But that is not to say there are not organizations out there hammering out these issues right now.

A Bar in IMVU

Virtual Third Places

So why is this so important? What's the point?

I believe that metaverse games represent the "third places" of the 21st century. Well the term "third place" comes from the book The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg.

Oldenburg identifies third places, or "great good places," as the public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact. In contrast to first places (home) and second places (work), third places allow people to put aside their concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversation around them. Third places “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.” Oldenburg suggests that beer gardens, main streets, pubs, cafés, coffeehouses, post offices, and other third places are the heart of a community's social vitality and the foundation of a functioning democracy. They promote social equality by leveling the status of guests, provide a setting for grassroots politics, create habits of public association, and offer psychological support to individuals and communities. 

So, in the world of suburbia where these "third places" seem to be disappearing, what is there to replace them?

While it is definitely not for everybody, I believe that virtual worlds, whether it be games designed to be social places like IMVU or Second Life or MMORPG's like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars, or console gaming meeting places like XBOX Live or Playstation Home have a good shot at fulfilling that role.

The Metaverse is on its way to becoming real, and offers a social environment where people cut off from one another geographically can meet and socialize with all the benefits of real "third places".

Shiverpeak Mountains in Guild Wars

What Next?

What is currently in existence is attempts to do just that, and they are succeeding to a point. World of Warcraft is replacing golf as the popular place for business people to hang out and socialize after work. But Massively Multiplayer Online Games do not have to be about war and violence. We are seeing the rise of sports MMOs, racing MMOs, and video gaming MMOs.

Web 2.0 sites are integrating with 3D social games as well, like IMVU, Twinity and Kaneva. Currently in development are 3D game building tool kits like Multiverse and Project Darkstar an open source Second Life emulator server project called Open Simulator, and 3D desktops like Croquet

Then you have 3D Wikipedia style projects: Google Earth is giving people Sketchup software to build a 3D version of planet Earth. Microsoft is working on a competitive product called Microsoft Virtual Earth, who they hope to market to businesses. Microsoft is also working on a 3D way to organize 2D web photos called PhotosynthCelestia is a 3D model of space where the skies are charted and data about objects in space are dynamically pulled off the internet.

Conclusion

Everything I listed here is still basically at the experimental stage. The 3D internet is currently where the 2D internet was in the 1980s -- a lot of independent parts. What I hope to see in the near future is a standardized foundation for others to build on, the way the WWW standards built the internet we have today. Add in virtual reality control methods (the Wii controller is a step in that direction) and The Metaverse will open up to everybody.

None of the current engines are strong enough or flexible enough to do such a thing yet, but it is obvious that is where we are headed.

In the mean time we have what we have. Life on the cutting edge -- Life in the Metaverse.