Like any self-respecting geek, I read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash in my early 20s. It was a transformative experience and likely drove much of my interest in the tech industry as a whole. For the uninitiated, this is where the term metaverse was coined, it encompassed a virtual world where players (represented by avatars) lived and played. Like the real world, it had its own economy, class systems, and centers of powers and influence. You can find a more recent albeit a watered-down version of Stephenson’s vision in form of Ready Player One.
I remember finishing Snow Crash and thinking to myself, “Hot damn, I can’t wait!”. Well, some 20 years later I’m still waiting. There have of course been many advancements and several valiant attempts during this time. And yet, for the most part, our online existences are still just various types of news or video feeds. Not exactly the limitless frontier found in the pages of the book. Much less of a metaverse, more like a metaworse really.
So what gives? Where’s dat metaverse? Well, let’s first take a look at a few of the major attempts to bring that vision to life.
In the mid-nineties, one of the first major initiatives to create the metaverse started with VRML or Virtual Reality Markup Language. Much like HTML, it was meant to create a standard language that can be read by all web browsers. Even though ecommerce was still in its infancy at the time there was much talk about how we would all be browsing 3D immersive web stores. As you can probably imagine this has not happened. In fact, Amazon has barely changed after all these years, at least on the front end.
The winner of next-generation commerce turned out to be Amazon Prime and 1-click ordering. In other words, it was more important to reduce customer purchasing friction instead of adding bulky 3D experiences.
Another attempt to bring us the metaverse was Second Life. This was perhaps one of the more successful implementations and I spent a lot of late nights exploring and building here. And I wasn’t alone. There were millions of players and at one point the in-world economy was larger than several developing nations. It’s fair to say it was also a bit of a cultural phenomenon, dominating the tech news cycles for several years.
However in the end the technology simply didn’t scale. This was before AWS (Amazon Web Services) and other scaling technologies that global web services depend on today. As a result, the experience was often clunky to say the least. As gaming consoles and PC gaming continued to push the limits in terms of realism and graphics Second Life fell far behind. For what it’s worth the service is still online and sees about 40,000 concurrent users today.
Fast forward a few more years and it seemed we were once again on the cusp of living in the metaverse. While the idea of VR goggles was not new, Oculus made significant advancements to reduce the cost and overall bulk of these devices. Again I jumped in and plunked down the cash to get one of the early developer kits. Although as I recall I actually purchased them with Bitcoin which I suppose is the most cyberpunk way one could acquire such a device. Considering today’s value of Bitcoin that device only cost me about $30,000 had I held onto the Bitcoin instead.
Even the early Oculus devices were a great experience. But adoption was low and like many new technologies, they lacked the ‘killer app’ to drive mass adoption. Still, there was interest in what they could become, so much so that Facebook plunked down $2B to acquire the company. But even after a year plus of lockdowns, and a time when people needed a virtual world to replace the one they lost, I didn’t see everyone running out to pick up a headset.
The New Facebook
And now to the present day and the big blue elephant in the room. Facebook has not given up on Oculus. Instead, they have continued to iterate and reinvest in the technology. Now it seems they are betting the whole farm on what Oculus can represent. Facebook wants to not only help build the metaverse they want to become it. An easy argument to make is this is all just to deflect from the bad attention they continue to receive as a social media company. But can they become successful in this transition? Who knows. Although with almost 3 billion eyeballs already fixated on their various apps even moving a small portion of those eyeballs into their metaverse would make it the largest virtual world ever.
We’ll find out more this week at Facebook Connect, their annual event for all things VR and AR. There have been rumors of a name change. There have also been indications from Facebook themselves they will now focus on younger audiences. I think this is related. After all, younger demographics are much more likely to try something new and as digital natives the metaverse isn’t such an abstract concept for them to grasp. Online gaming, influencers, and NFTs have primed them well for this potential future.
But when I think back to Snow Crash and Ready Player One there is one major commonality. These virtual worlds grew because the real world was simply so awful. The characters didn’t use the metaverse to supplement their real life, they used it to escape it. So it makes me wonder is that the trigger needed to drive mass adoption into the metaverse? We can create that new virtual world but not until the one we have is much more awful.
How awful are we talking about here? Well in the book Snow Crash, anarcho-capitalism has run wild, with private companies and wealthy individuals owning pretty much everything, including nation-states. There’s little trust in the monetary system due to the USA printing money and driving massive hyperinflation. As a result, most transactions are now done with anonymous crypto payments. Finally, and this is where the title comes from, there’s a deadly virus spreading both in the digital and real world…
Dang, doesn’t it just suck when life imitates art?
Update: Facebook is now Meta