Since my article on WebVR last month, I’ve gotten requests to better explain the concept of the Metaverse and why I’ve declared WebVR the undisputed missing link that will finally spark the next iteration of the Internet.
WebVR is the free JavaScript API developed by Mozilla that lets you drive VR experiences through a web browser. It has recently enjoyed a surge of support in the industry thanks to the increasing focus on the “immersive web” being pushed by the likes of Google, Oculus, Samsung, and Microsoft.
WebVR can deliver immersive online experiences without downloads or installs, and it maintains all of the rights and freedoms we have all grown accustomed to with the Internet like open, affordable access, which is partly why it stands in a league of its own. But the most exciting thing about WebVR — and the community around it — is that it is building a new version of the Internet — an immersive version, called the Metaverse.
Ever since Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel, Snow Crash, geeks, dorks, and nerds have all been referencing the Metaverse as a dreamy virtual domain that is free of physical constraints and societal status, filled with boundless possibilities limited only by our imagination and creativity.
While the word itself may have lost its original impact throughout the years, becoming trite for many, sounding reminiscent of corny ‘90s catchphrases like “cyberspace”, it is in fact the reason many, like myself, were attracted to the industry in the first place. Indeed, in its absence, the meaning, significance, and role of this emerging tech dries up considerably.
Here’s how Sean White, SVP of Emerging Technologies at Mozilla, describes the Metaverse: “It’s part of the natural evolution, an extension, of how we connect with computation, with each other, and with the world around us. The last several years have seen a proliferation of interaction paradigms that are moving out of pure research and are unified through the Metaverse, and as this happens, we want positive actors in the space — ones that put people first. This has the potential to truly empower learning, creative expression, critical thinking, and connection across the globe.”
“Many people have tried and failed to build the Metaverse,” VentureBeat’s Dean Takahashi wrote last December, in a piece that interviewed Tim Sweeney after his talk at the VRX virtual reality conference in San Francisco.
Sweeney has put a lot of thought into the concept and believes gaming engines will be the platforms for building the Metaverse (a point I disagree with him on). He’s not alone in making that bet. It’s easy to think of the socialized digital worlds of Second Life and its VR successors, Linden Lab and High Fidelity, as models for a Metaverse. But I think the concept of the Metaverse goes far beyond the capacity of gaming engines.
“No platform can be the Metaverse; it can only be a protocol supported by multiple platforms from different vendors,” WebVR developer and Mozilla AFrame contributor Fabien Benetou told me.
Above: Welcome to the first night club in the Metaverse: A-Saturday-Night by Mozilla VR.
I previously defined the Metaverse as an interconnected array of virtual reality experiences, tools, and products. It’s a singularity that includes within it the plurality of an infinite variety of virtual forms, not in a way that maps to the real universe it’s named after, but according to whatever we as creators decide is useful or interesting enough to conjure up.
A game engine offers a very narrow range of digital expression in comparison, and it’s unrealistic to expect such platforms to handle circumstances they’re utterly unequipped to deal, such as enabling inter-operability between competing devices and platforms.
“If those applications open themselves to be used inside a wider system that will be the Metaverse, then they will survive, otherwise people will abandon them to go where everybody is. And I don’t think everybody is going to use a walled garden app, as there is no single system competing with the Web interface,” Thomas Balouet, cofounder of WebVR-based startup LucidWeb, told me.
Platforms that think they can be the core of the Metaverse are putting the cart before the horse.
WebVR is the key here because it enables the Metaverse rather than attempting to preconceive and contrive how it forms, what it looks like, and what rules it should follow. Any effort to write such rules will prove futile because they will attempt to force the Metaverse to be something before it’s had a chance to figure that out on its own terms.
WebVR is the most obvious candidate for the job because it’s an open protocol and not a closed platform and therefore can serve as a binding force that bridges and connects disparate mediums together.
Above: Real-time virtual art co-creation with A-Painter by Mozilla VR.
“The Metaverse is one. It should connect all VR experience regardless of them being web-based or native. It implies, though, that they have to be connected somehow, and for that the Internet with its capital “I”, network of networks, seems like the most obvious solution,” Benetou told me.
It all starts by creating the underlying infrastructure that enables would-be creators to build the immersive web one piece at a time, and this stands in direct parallel to how the Internet formed. That’s what the Metaverse is, a parallel Internet that enjoys an additional dimension in expressing itself.
There can be no privatized platform that decides what’s right or wrong when it comes to content. The Internet is a big decentralized and democratized experiment that has been crowdsourced piece by piece, and in large part organically. The Metaverse must be, too.
“The content should attract users, involve them in navigating from a WebVR experiment about a new movie, to the review of this movie, to a forum where users with 3D avatars talk about the movie, to some not directly related content one of the other users talked about and brought up in the 3D space as a link to another experience,” said Balouet.
Above: A showcase of what the Metaverse is like by JanusVR.
To make all of this possible, and soon, the WebVR developer community is building out core metaversal functions, the most pressing of which is traversal “deep” linking, which allows users to travel seamlessly between one specific virtual space to the next without having to remove their headset.
“Backpacks” are another core construct being built to support a Metaverse. These are portable storage units that allow users to carry data from one experience to the next, like a virtual wallet filled with virtual currencies and virtual goods, or stored 360-degree videos of earlier experiences they’d like to transport and share or use elsewhere.
Other essentials currently under development are security, defining and enabling social interactions, and developing avatars and forms of identity that hold constant or change while you travel through very different virtual worlds and mediums.
The Metaverse itself will likely grow and spread quickly, beyond the scope of what WebVR offers in isolation, encapsulating technology like blockchains, AI, bots, haptic gear, and IoT all under one roof. And the Metaverse will extend the definition of immersion to include, for example, web-based augmented reality — like what we’re already seeing as early WebAR frameworks.
“Many interesting ideas are out there that bridge and mix worlds, physical and virtual. Let’s think libraries like AR.js. What is immersion?” said Diego Gonzalez, Developer Advocate for Samsung Internet. “Why should web-based, geolocated, beacon-powered (physical web), and even experiences not dependent on screens be left out of the metaverse?”
The VR industry is currently trying to prove itself to the market by pushing its products to consumers and praising the value-adds like a used car salesman, without imparting a bigger picture, story, or context that would otherwise instill genuine meaning for why this particular emerging tech is so important to us as a society. WebVR’s ability to turn the simple browser into a vehicle for building the immersive web, and eventually the Metaverse, is what makes it so exciting.