This is just a quick housekeeping note: my blogposts will be few and far between during the month of September! However, I will still be working with my co-producer and director, Carlos Austin, on the next couple of episodes of season two of the Metaverse Newscast (if you’re interested, you can watch episode 1 of season 2 here). Carlos and I have some exciting shows lined up for you!
The start of the Fall term is always a very busy period for me in my full-time paying job as a university science and agriculture librarian, and I hope you will understand that I can only do so much juggling at one time! Please rest assured that I will return to regular blogging once things are a little less hectic in my life. 😉
I am on holidays this week, and today I decided to set aside a couple of days to read through—and write a review of—a recently published book by the venture capitalist Matthew Ball, author of the Metaverse Primer and lead creator of the Ball Metaverse Index (whom I have written about before on this blog). The title of his new book is The Metaverse: and How It Will Revolutionize Everything.
As Matthew Ball writes in the introduction to his book:
In 2018, I began writing a series of online essays on the Metaverse, then an obscure and fringe concept. In the years since, these essays have been read by millions of people as the Metaverse has transitioned from the world of paperback science fiction to the front page of the New York Times and corporate strategy reports around the world.
The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything updates, expands, and recasts everything I’ve previously written on the Metaverse. The book’s core purpose is to offer a clear, comprehensive, and authoritative definition of this still inchoate idea. Yet my ambitions are broader: I hope to help you understand what’s required to realize the Metaverse, why entire generations will eventually move to and live inside it, and how it will forever alter our daily lives, our work, and how we think.
Yes, Ball capitalizes “Metaverse” throughout his book, which I find unnecessary and annoying. However, “Internet” was also usually capitalized in its earliest years of existence before most people settled on lower-case-i internet, so there is some precedent here.
It is not until chapter three, after a brief historical and philosophical discussion of the concept, that Matthew Ball provides his own definition of the metaverse (smartly leaving aside a discussion of blockchain until later on in the book):
A massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.
After laying the groundwork with history and definitions in the first four chapters, in Part II of his book Matthew Ball discusses in seven chapters the various components which he feels go into the building of a metaverse: networking, computing, virtual world engines, interoperability, hardware, payment systems, and blockchain technology.
In chapter 5 (Networking), Ball uses popular games such as Microsoft Flight Simulator to explain concepts such as network bandwidth and latency, and how game and metaverse companies work around such limitations. Chapter 6 covers the computational requirements and trade-offs in building the metaverse, while chapter 7 looks at virtual world engines such as Unreal and Unity. Chapter 8 addresses the thorny issue of metaverse interoperability and standards (i.e., the ability to take your avatar and its possessions from one virtual world to another). In chapter 9, Ball offers a concise overview of VR and AR hardware, calling it “the hardest technology challenge of our time”. Chapter 10 discusses a key component of the current and future metaverse, payment rails (e.g. credit cards, PayPal, Venmo) and the associated economics of buying and selling on metaverse platforms.
Finally, in chapter 11, Matthew Ball addresses the controversial and contentious issue of blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), stating “some observers today believe that blockchain is structurally required for the metaverse to become a reality, while others find that claim absurd.” Obviously, this book was written well before the current crypto crash, but Ball attempts to write a balanced take on the subject, including an entire section about the various obstacles currently facing the blockchain. He wraps up this chapter by stating:
How much of the blockchain remains hype versus how much is (potential) reality remains uncertain—not unlike the current state of the Metaverse. However, one of the central lessons of the computing era is that the platforms that best serve developers and users will win. Blockchains have a long way to go, but many see their immutability and transparency as the best way to ensure the interests of these two constituencies [i.e., platforms and developers] remain prioritized as the Metaverse economy grows.
The real meat of this book is in Part III, subtitled “How the Metaverse Will Revolutionize Everything”. In it, Matthew looks into his crystal ball and makes some predictions about how the metaverse will develop and be used across a range of industries, including education, entertainment, fashion and advertising, lifestyle businesses—even sex and sex work!
In a subsection of Chapter 14 titled “Why Trust Matters More Than Ever”, in a discussion of corporate strategies, Matthew Ball writes the following:
My great hope for the Metaverse is that it will produce a “race to trust.” To attract developers, the major platforms are investing billions to make it easier, cheaper, and faster to build better and more profitable virtual goods, spaces, and worlds. But they’re also showing a renewed interest in proving—through policy— that they deserve to be a partner, not just a publisher or platform. This has always been a good business strategy, but the enormity of the investment required to build the Metaverse, and the trust it requires from developers, has placed this strategy front and centre.
In the final chapter of his book (Metaversal Existence), Ball broadens his view to discuss how the metaverse will impact society, and what policies might be necessary to address that impact. Matthew warns:
Misinformation and election tampering will likely increase, making our current-day complications of out-of-context sound bites, trolling tweets, and faulty scientific claims feel quaint. Decentralization, often seen as the solution to many of the problems created by the tech giants, will also make moderation more difficult, malcontents harder to stop, and illicit fundraising far less difficult. Even when limited primarily to text, photos, and videos, harassment has been a seemingly unstoppable blight in the digital world—one that has already ruined many lives and harmed many more. There are several hypothesized strategies to minimize “Metaverse abuse.” For example, users may need to give other users explicit levels of permission to interact in given spaces (e.g., for motion capture, the ability to interact via haptics, etc.), and platforms will also automatically block certain capabilities (“no-touch zones”). However, novel forms of harassment will doubtlessly emerge. We are right to be terrified by what “revenge porn” might look like in the Metaverse, powered by high-fidelity avatars, deepfakes, synthetic voice construction, motion capture, and other emergent virtual and physical technologies.
He adds, “for the same reasons the metaverse is so disruptive—it’s unpredictable, recursive, and still vague—it is impossible to know what problems will emerge, how best to solve those which already exist, and how best to steer it.”
Matthew’s book is packed full of interesting anecdotes, such as the following tidbit from chapter one:
Not long after Tencent publicly unveiled its vision of hyper-digital reality, the Communist Party of China (CCP) began its biggest-ever crackdown of its domestic gaming industry. Among several new policies was a prohibition on minors playing video games Monday through Thursday that also limited their play from 8 pm. to 9 pm. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights (in other words, it was impossible for a minor to play a video game for more than three hours per week). In addition, companies such as Tencent would use their facial recognition software and a player’s national ID to periodically ensure that these rules were not being skirted by a gamer borrowing an older user’s device. Tencent also pledged $15 billion in aid for “sustainable social value,” which Bloomberg said would be focused on “areas like increasing incomes for the poor, improving medical assistance, promoting rural economic efficiency and subsidizing education programs.” Alibaba, China’s second-largest company, committed a similar amount only two weeks later. The message from the CCP was clear: look to your countrymen and women, not virtual avatars.
The CCP’s concerns about the growing role of gaming content and platforms in public life became more explicit in August, when the state-owned Security Times warned its readers that the Metaverse is a “grand and illusionary concept” and “blindly investing [in it] will ultimately come back to bite you?“
While Ball sprinkles footnotes throughout his book, there were not nearly enough to satisfy this librarian! As I tell my students when doing information literacy training, footnotes are useful to find what sources the author refers to, so you can look them up yourself. For example, in chapter one he writes the following tantalizing but non-footnoted sentence, without further explanation:
Stephenson’s novels have been cited as the inspiration for various cryptocurrency projects and non-cryptographic efforts to build decentralized computer networks, as well as the production of CGI-based movies which are watched at home but generated live through the motion-captured performance of actors that might be tens of thousands of miles away.
Now, after reading that, wouldn’t you also like to know the source of this information, and the names of such productions? More footnotes, please! (Also, I’m not sure that “cryptographic” is the correct adjective here, as Ball seems to be using the term to refer to non-blockchain or non-cryptocurrency projects in this sentence.)
Also, while Ball is quick to use popular games such as Fortnite and Roblox to explain various terms and concepts throughout the book, I found it rather frustrating that he was not nearly as quick in drawing examples from the many metaverse platforms which already exist (e.g. VRChat, Rec Room, Sansar, NeosVR). I mean, this is a book about the metaverse; why not use more examples from existing social VR and virtual worlds? I know he’s a busy venture capitalist, but it makes me wonder how many metaverse platforms Matthew actually visited in his pre-writing travels. The book would have greatly benefited from that extra virtual legwork, if not by him then by his research assistants!
But these are picky little quibbles; overall, the book is an excellent introduction to the metaverse, and an informative overview for users new to the concept and wondering what all the recent fuss is about. Even those readers who have many years of experience with the metaverse will learn some new things which they did not know before. I can recommend this book, and I look forward to Matthew Ball’s future writing on the topic.
Thank you to the person who gifted me a copy of Matthew Ball’s book!
I am happy to announce that the long-awaited season 2 of the Metaverse Newscast has begun! For our first episode of the second season, I interviewed Jason Moore and Chris McBride of the MetaMovie project! We talked about their latest immersive theatre production, called Alien Rescue, which I had previously reviewed here (October 2021).
I’d like to thank Carlos Austin, my co-producer and director for this season, along with Victor Posa, who did additional camerawork. Oh, and I do apologize for my avatar in this episode! I used one of the mouth-enabled robots from the avatar setup room in Neos, to use with my Vive Facial Tracker, but I didn’t realize until after we stopped filming that my avatar’s tongue was sticking out a lot of the time! (Oh well, live and learn! I’ll probably switch to a different avatar the next time we record in NeosVR.)
As somebody who writes about social VR and flatscreen virtual worlds on this blog, with a popular Discord server packed with metaverse fanatics and a front-row seat on pretty much everything that has been happening in this space, let me tell you, the past twelve months have been a wild ride. You can even see it in my blog statistics of the number of visitors and views the RyanSchultz.com blog has attracted over the past year:
Together, these events sparked a greater awareness among the general public of the metaverse (as indicated by a corresponding increase in traffic to my blog). However, it would appear that the ongoing crypto crash, combined with Meta’s recent woes and missteps, are causing people to sour on the concept. (And by “people”, I mean the general public, not the metaverse fanatics, content creators and world builders whom I tend to hang out with!)
As an illustration of this, I would like to focus on a recent announcement made by Mark Zuckerberg, about the expansion of their flagship consumer social VR platform, Horizon Worlds, from Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. into two new countries, France and Spain:
The first thing I think of when I look at this picture is: hoo boy, somebody working in Meta’s PR department is gonna get fired! You’re trying to sell people on Horizon Worlds with this unappealing, uninspiring, and frankly ugly image on Twitter?
The response to this on two different subreddit communities on Reddit, r/technology and r/Buttcoin, proves to be quite illuminating. (By the way, r/Buttcoin is the blockchain, crypto, and NFTs snark community, where we cryptoskeptics and critics love to discuss and dissect the latest shenanigans, antics, and scams in that world!)
It looks like Mark Zuckerberg watched Ready Player One and thought he would be able to recreate that universe with MS Paint.
“Looking forward to seeing people explore and build immersive worlds!” :: “Work in my content mill, peasants.”
The more money they dump into this dumpster fire, the better chance Facebook finally collapses into the abyss. So keep doing it Zuck.
One much-upvoted comment reads as follows:
No one is building a $1500-2500 PC with [a] dedicated GPU to add a Facebook $600 VR headset to attend work meetings in a virtual space that looks like a kids CGI series from 2004 at a mass adoption level, where the majority of the public would use it daily for 8 hours at work then again for another 4-6 hours “for fun” at home, as the Meta dystopian dream suggests.
Meta has already been subsidizing the costs of their currently meh headset, which they just increased the prices of, as they were losing too much money.
For this to work, the hardware has to be good enough for grandma to be able to buy it on a pension, put it on out of the box and it just works, and it does not make her sick to her stomach in 5-20 minutes due to the low frame rates and quality.
That’s the barrier of entry to the space you need to be able to target… if that old guy at your office struggles with getting their mic to work on MS Teams for a video call every day, as the manager he is not going to order $100,000 worth of gear for your department that is hard to setup and use to meet in the metaverse.
This thing is dead on arrival, but Facebook is also dying/dead in it’s current form, so this Hail Mary [pass] is all they have.
The thing is, this happens all the time with Zuckerberg and his metaverse because Horizon Worlds has looked terrible since its inception and has barely gotten any better over the years, where its avatars still look like Miis from 2012 and they still don’t have legs.
Granted, I understand that showing 2D screenshots of VR is difficult, and that VR generally lags behind traditional console and PC gaming in terms of graphics. And yet that doesn’t change the fact that even within VR, Horizon Worlds is one of the worst-looking offerings I have seen, and that Meta has spent something like $10 billion chasing its Horizon, VR-centric version of the metaverse, even embarrassingly changing their company name to reflect that. And…this is the result.
If I was a Meta stockholder I would be selling the minute I saw that screenshot.
He (and many others) are hoping that nobody remembers Second Life ever existed, let alone that it still does. It has a dedicated audience of somewhere between half to one million users and that’s kinda it. I suspect the future for “the metaverse” is similar.
One r/Buttcoin member posted the following detailed comment:
This is the part I don’t understand. Any “meta” style environment will be incredibly limited in terms of graphics and gameplay due to the need to have a high number of players at once. So who is the target audience?
• Someone looking to play a game is going to go with something like Grand Theft Auto V (and continue to move on to the next biggest thing when they come out). • The live concerts! aspect of the website seems equally absurd given the graphical limitations and that this would be less entertaining than watching a concert on TV. • Your casual Farmville-style person isn’t shelling out hundreds of dollars for a VR headset. • For their “practical” concepts like virtual stores, it seems to invalidate the concept of buying metaverse land as either the system will allow for fast travel style movement (making “premium” land a joke), or not allow for this travelling and completely turn off their customer base for this.
I just don’t see where the interest comes from.
And I chuckled at this wag’s opinion:
Second Life managed to survive because it fostered a community of weirdo people who fetishized the environment. I think the only person who fetishizes Facebook’s metaverse is Zuckerberg.
Absolutely SAVAGE! I live. Somebody else posted this gem to the r/Buttcoin subreddit:
So, what does all this mean? Well, it looks as though the concept of the metaverse, at least among the general public, is going to sustain some reputational damage, at least in the short term (12 to 24 months). Perhaps it was inevitable that there would be such a swing from irrational metaverse exuberance to equally irrational metaverse distaste, even disgust.
Also, this “trough of disillusionment” means that it’s going to be harder to sell consumers and businesses on the metaverse. This will apply both to behemoth corporations like Meta, Apple, and Alphabet (the parent company of Google), as well as to much smaller metaverse-building companies. As I have said before, not all platforms currently being worked on will survive this rough period.
Earlier this week, the alien-wearing-a-human-skin-suit known to us as Mark Zuckerberg posted a VR selfie from inside his company’s metaverse project, Horizon Worlds. The selfie showed off the Eiffel Tower and was meant to announce that his metaverse is expanding to more countries. Instead, however, people immediately began dunking on the terrible picture, the ugly avatar, and how it all looked like it fell out of a 2005 edutainment game…
And that brings us to 2022, where Zuckerberg’s avatar is a legless knock-off of a Nintendo Mii with some really weird buttons and the eyes of a corpse. And this isn’t just how Zuckerberg looks, this is the way all avatars appear in Horizon Worlds. I’ve played enough Horizon Worlds to tell you that the missing legs quickly cease to matter. But the lack of style and the cold, dead aesthetic never goes away.
Sure, part of the reason these avatars and worlds look simple and ugly compared to modern video games comes down to the limited VR hardware in Quest 2 and Facebook’s desire to make VR content that can run on as many devices as possible.
On the other hand, I can find Nintendo DS and Sony PS Vita games with better, nicer-looking art and models than what we’ve been shown so far in Facebook’s metaverse. I also don’t think you can blame the people making this stuff, as I assume they are more than capable of doing better and more vibrant things. But more and more, it seems that isn’t what Meta and Zucklehead want. Instead, they are focused on making a product that can be consumed by the masses and which lacks any defining characteristics in an attempt to get more people to dive in.
This is the exact opposite approach we see in more community-driven VR metaverses like VR Chat, which looks better and feels warmer and more inviting. In comparison, Horizon Worlds looks like an animated video I’d walk by in some fancy hospital while I look for the bathroom.
And if this bland and ugly metaverse is the future Mark Zuckerberg wants and is investing billions of dollars into, I’m worried that it could end up winning out over other, better alternatives simply because he has the money and resources to squash or buy up competitors. Well, if it does win out, at least I’ll be able to skip it and not buy a new VR headset.
Spending by major crypto firms, including the trading platforms Crypto.com, Coinbase Global Inc. and FTX, fell to $36,000 in July in the US, according to ISpot. That’s the lowest monthly total since January 2021 and is down from a high of $84.5 million in February, when the industry flooded the airwaves around the Super Bowl.
Again, Yeee-OUCH!!! And it looks like things are not going to get better anytime soon, as inflation roars and recession looms. People have more important things to worry about (like keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads) than buying virtual real estate on the blockchain!