What Is a True Metaverse?

Book cover for Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, by Bruce Jensen

Will Burns, the Vice-Chair for IEEE’s Virtual Worlds Standard Group and a blogger whose work I have talked about before on this blog, gave a recent interview to Wagner James Au of the blog New World Notes, where he talks about what he thinks is—and isn’t—a true metaverse. It turns out that Will helped refine the definition of the term metaverse, which was first used by the science fiction novelist Neal Stephenson in his 1992 book Snow Crash:

Will first helped craft a definition in 2008, inspired by Neal Stephenson’s original description in Snow Crash, which IEEE adapted in 2013. “Now, if you type the word Metaverse into Google, it pops up with that definition from Wikipedia, which in turn cites the IEEE Virtual Worlds Standard group for it.”

In Will’s opinion, a currently-in-alpha MMORPG/MMO called Dual Universe (which I have also written about) comes the closest to being a “true” metaverse. He is quoted in Wagner’s blogpost:

“As you can see,” says Will, “they not only have 1200+ concurrency and able to scale, they also have a persistent universe with planets. I have to reiterate that last point — an actual virtual universe that is persistent.”

“Not that I want to disparage Philip Rosedale and his team, or even Ebbe Altberg and Linden Lab, whether this is Second Life, High Fidelity, etc,” Will went on. “But the honest truth is, 300 or 500+ concurrency isn’t very impressive to me when I know what is possible, and generally how it is made possible two years ago. It’s not very impressive when a hybrid decentralization method would ultimately shatter those paltry numbers.”

So, it would seem that he’s not that terribly impressed by reports that High Fidelity can now get over 350 avatars in a single domain. He goes on to say:

However: “[H]ere’s the problem: that platform and others, who all call themselves a Metaverse, are all off on the wrong foot, and locked into their particular paradigms. Unless we’re taking things like Dual Universe into account, it’s just an echo chamber among the pretenders about their accomplishments and milestones. Lots of nice virtual worlds, but that’s about it. While everyone else is waving around the ‘Metaverse’ title and debating who is better, or who is going to be the Metaverse, it’s the shallow end of the kiddie pool by comparison to Dual Universe or even No Man’s Sky.”

“It comes across like I’m salty or disparaging,” he says, “when I’m really not intending it like that. But it has to be said that we are amid a VR hype where nobody wants to look at things with a critical eye. I see a large group of virtual worlds crowning themselves as a Metaverse because it’s marketing hype. But ‘a’ Metaverse sounds as silly to me as saying ‘We are an Internet’. What we have are very impressive (or in some cases less impressive) virtual worlds:

“Second Life comes out as a MetaWorld at best, but even struggles there. Sansar took the Worlds Inc. model, just like Blue Mars, so they are a MetaWorld at best, but isolated non-connected spaces perceptually. High Fidelity follows that same route and comes across like Cybertown or Worlds Inc back in the 90s. It’s like we’ve all taken a large step backwards and harbored collective amnesia about the past while declaring our current progress as top of the line when in reality we’re retreading old ground. Rehashing the past approaches with maybe a technical twist.”

Then compare the capacities of these new worlds with what’s happening technically with Dual Universe:

“[T]o me, watching things from the sidelines, despite spending twenty or so years helping to better define the Metaverse with a great amount of awesome people… it’s like watching used car salespeople trying to tell the public that their Honda Civic is a Bugatti Veyron or the Millennium Falcon. It does a disservice to call every virtual world a Metaverse because it deliberately waters down what it actually is and could/should be. It comes down to: I expect better, and so should everyone who even remotely gives a damn about the future of The Metaverse.”

I think that Will is being overly critical here, which perhaps is understandable when you realize that he was part of a team of academics who worked on a carefully crafted definition of the word “metaverse”, and the social VR/virtual world marketplace has essentially ignored this definition and come up with their own, slightly different, version. Here is the definition of metaverse from Wikipedia, which is on my definitions of terms page:

The metaverse is a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the internet. The word metaverse is a portmanteau of the prefix “meta” (meaning “beyond”) and “universe” and is typically used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe. The term was coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, where humans, as avatars, interact with each other and software agents, in a three-dimensional space that uses the metaphor of the real world. (Source: Wikipedia).

The Wikipedia page goes on to state:

Conceptually, the Metaverse describes a future internet of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe.

And it links to the IEEE Virtual World Standard Working Group archive, which is quite interesting to browse through if you have the time.

My take on all this? I think that the definitions of all words tend to slowly evolve over time, and I believe that the term “metaverse” is not necessarily so strictly or formally defined as it was back when the IEEE Virtual Worlds Standards Group was doing their work. The term is still very useful as an umbrella term when referring to virtual world and social VR platforms, even MMOs, whether or not they are “an actual virtual universe that is persistent”, which Will Burns seems to feel is an essential requirement of a “true” metaverse.

What do you think? Sound off in the comments!