9 Megatrends Shaping the Metaverse
In this article, I identify 9 megatrends — exponential shifts that are already underway on a global scale — and how they will shape the future of the metaverse.
Most of the megatrends are a blend of both technology and social change. Here are the megatrends I’ll discuss:
By looking at the 9 megatrends here, we are given a chance to “pull back the camera lens” and see a picture of the wider landscape upon which we’re constructing the metaverse.
People increasingly regard the virtual world to be as real as the physical world.
In the physical world, trust is how relationships and institutions function. It is the basis of how businesses flourish within legal systems, how our money market continues to operate, and a form of measure for our connections. Trust has made each of these systems scalable.
As trust continues to increase in the “virtual” realm — with online friends, virtual items and crypto assets, smart contracts, and live online experiences — it will increase the scalability of the metaverse and the industries that support it.
But within any large trend, there is frequently a countertrend; as people value the virtual world more, it will embolden those who seek to exploit it.
Cybercrime is one example that many people are unfortunately familiar with: phishing to steal your accounts, various online frauds, ransomware attacks and spreading malware are a few examples.
Online bullying, abuse, cheating in games, and cheating in relationships, will all increase in harmfulness due to the fact that people believe virtual relationships and property to be real. These behaviors will surge as more value is placed onto them, with higher investments from companies intended to fight crime and abuse.
Products alone will not solve these problems. It will also take education, training, virtual literacy, and supportive communities and understanding parents.
Low-code and no-code application platforms (LCAP) provide higher-level abstractions (such as visual scaffolding and drag-and-drop tooling) to replace the hand-coding of processes, logic and applications.
The most obvious benefit of this trend is that non-programmers can do some of the work that programmers previously did. However, this doesn’t fully capture the impact, or why companies are adopting these platforms.
A great deal of the “magic” of LCAP is the large amount of automation that happens underneath the visual layer: the automation of workflow, deployment, security, scaling, and integration with various data endpoints. Often, this complexity and scaling is what takes up the bulk of developing Internet applications.
The result will be not only a shift in who does the work, but a massive reduction in the quantity of work required to create applications.
Gartner forecasts that by 2023, over 50% of large enterprises will use LCAPs to operate at least part of their infrastructure.
Similarly, many of these developers are moving towards a serverless architecture (a somewhat confusing term, because usually there are servers, just none that you need to deploy, manage or code yourself).
At the opposite end of the enterprise, you have an increasing number of creator tools that are making it easy to create metaverse content, script complex behaviors, and participate in commerce.
There’s received wisdom that products either cater to the enterprise or they cater to small business, but that’s not quite true. Although it is usually hard for “enterprise” tech to scale down to individuals, there are plenty of examples where things were able to be in the hands of the individuals which became the easiest option for the enterprise as well. That includes just about anything Adobe has ever made. More recently, no-code/low-code platforms like Shopify power everything from small businesses to some of the largest brands in the world (Hasbro, Budweiser, etc.).
The metaverse will increasingly be built by a wider population of creators and supported by a deeper catalog of plug-in applications and logic.
Machines are doing more of the jobs that were previously done by human beings. This includes domains sometimes called deep learning, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.
We live in a world where advertising messages, merchandising and online engagement is tuned by learning algorithms. We are in the early innings of natural language processing and image recognition. In the physical world, we’re tantalizingly close to applications such as autonomous vehicles.
In the metaverse, machine intelligence converges with every other trend you see here.
It will impact creativity, as computers become collaborators in the creative process — just look at how AI Dungeon generates stories, or how Promethean AI can set up a virtual landscape — and imagine how much further this will come over the coming decade.
AI will be used to design the microchips that power the metaverse, and generate code to assist programmers.
Machines will interpret gestures, predict where our eyes will look, recognize emotions and even the firing of our neurons.
Machine intelligence will be hooked into our no-code and low-code application platforms, where they’ll operate as part of the service architecture as well as design advisors.
Agents powered by our preferences and interests will surface the information we want, when we want it.
And virtual beings will increasingly populate the worlds we visit.
Rise of Cybernetics
Cybernetics have already arrived. They are not as evenly distributed nor as developed and amazing as they will be in the future.
Cybernetics is about the integration of human sensory and motor systems with computers. Existing examples draw upon videogame input/output devices, wearables, mobile phone accelerometers, and VR headsets.
Miniaturization and high-speed networking have transitioned devices from stationary workstations to mobile supercomputers in our pockets. These computers are getting closer to our bodies.
We are transitioning from looking at computers from an outside perspective to a future where we’ll occupy virtual space and live in a world where computing is all around us.
“Smartphone” already feels like an archaic term, because these aren’t phones — they are highly portable computers that happen to have a telephony application preinstalled. We can already occupy virtual space through VR headsets like the Oculus, which are responsive to our eyes, head position and gestures. When these become smartglasses, we’ll be able to bring this experience to more of the world surrounding us. In the future, we might even have functional smart contact lenses.
Light field technology may even allow us to project photons — with their accompanying depth of field — to the retina, allowing your eye to focus on different parts of a virtual scene, resulting in a truly holographic experience.
These devices will increasingly interpret our voice instructions, our gestures and our biometrics. And neural interfaces may even allow us devices to understand our intentions — perhaps even faster than we know ourselves.
The consequence? The metaverse will not simply be a place we go into. The metaverse will be everywhere around us.
And the convergence of wearable and mobile technology is not simply one of technology: it is a social change. It will change the organization of our homes, our public transit, our neighborhoods and our workplaces. It will change how you meet people, order a meal, discover the world, and collaborate on projects.
Challenges by Open Systems
The original intent of the Internet was a highly distributed, decentralized network of interoperable computers and applications.
The Internet today is dominated by several very large platforms that act as gatekeepers and tollbooths.
Yet technology and open standards are emerging that may democratize the future of the metaverse.
WebAssembly (Wasm) promises to deliver fast, safe, sandboxed binary applications for the open web. WebGL and WebXR will contribute to graphical and immersive experiences that can be delivered outside of the application stores. Platforms like Unity Data-Oriented Technology Stack (DOTS) are taking advantage of these platforms to deliver compact, efficient binaries that perform at the level the metaverse will demand (in particular, Project Tiny at Unity).
Open Systems are also a social phenomenon, because they allow widespread collaboration between software engineering projects. Reed’s Law, which predicted the exponential value of applications such as Slack or WhatsApp, can be applied to the Open Source movement — which is essentially a permissionless social network of software developers.
Open Source and open platforms like Wasm could maximize the number of potential collaborators, creating more value than all of the permissioned platforms combined. Permissionless platforms like Linux and PC ought to thrive in this future as well.
Likewise, people may regain sovereignty over their own data using technologies such as zero-knowledge proofs and decentralized digital identity systems. This may encourage consumers to trust more of their personal data to Internet applications — simply because they don’t need to trust anyone.
We have the potential for an exponential lift in network effects, if we can free applications and data to do so.
What Open Source and Open Internet do for software and applications, blockchains — a distributed ledger technology — can do for assets and data.
Blockchains allow for trustless data exchanges; decentralized authority, a record of history and provenance, provable scarcity of assets. When decentralized, a blockchain allows for permissionless participation, or governance through a decentralized autonomous organization.
Programmability is a key application of blockchains. While not all blockchains have inherent programmability, it’s a key aspect of Ethereum and other “smart contract” chains.
Why is this so important? It’s the network effects again. The more nodes that can participate in the network, the higher the value of the network, and as groups can form around certain activities (games, financial legos, etc.), the value of the network is increased further per Reed’s Law.
The value contribution is exponential. More individuals, more applications and more components to assemble from equals more smart contracts, and more decentralized applications.
Blockchains are considered “trustless” because you don’t need to trust any one authority; the trust is in the blockchain itself.
The collective long tail distribution of all these trustless applications, contracts and components is what gives blockchains their social scalability.
Network effects already paved the way for on-chain data feeds (oracles) that can be used as conditions in smart contracts; this has given rise to decentralized lending, decentralized finance, and decentralized asset exchanges. The emergence of blockchain computing may replace some aspects of cloud computing; and the rise of non-fungible assets may become the basis of virtual goods in an emerging generation of games, avatar customizations and metaverse experiences.
This is just the beginning of the possibilities when you unleash assets, data and programmable contracts into the open Internet.
Walled Garden Ecosystems
Walled Gardens — and I use this term with love because gardens can be beautiful and organized — benefit from all of the other megatrends that impact the metaverse.
Not every application or every world will be open. Sometimes permission, integration, curation, and control are desirable features of a platform or application. Roblox would never have become popular had it not been for the ensemble of these features.
Ironically, walled gardens also benefit from the open systems that challenge them. They utilize the same open-source and blockchains as anyone else, and many customers may feel safer inside them.
Walled gardens aren’t a problem. That there are too few walled gardens is the problem of the current ecosystem of 2021. It should be easy for you to create your own walled garden and invite other creators to participate, add, modify and interconnect according to the rules you’ve defined.
As there are more and more walled gardens, a question is how each will be discovered. There are hierarchical discovery systems such as Roblox, which function as a “YouTube for games,” driven by search and popularity. Since people like curation and developers like access to large audiences, this will continue. But methods for portable avatars, portable social networks, and interoperability are on the horizon — and this may network together various walled gardens using open platforms while sparking new opportunities for discovery and curation.
In the future, we may have a hypermedia-like structure where portals network different worlds and experiences together — the virtual worlds equivalent of hyperlinks on web pages. Hyperportals for the metaverse?
Accelerating Distributed Networks
5G networks will improve mobile networking speeds, concurrency and latency by orders of magnitude. And 5G is not the end of the road: 6G will improve these metrics by another 10–100X. We should see 10 Gbps speeds with latency down to 1ms within the decade.
The accelerating speeds are necessary to support the metaverse, but it is really the network effects that take place when all of the participants in the network are able to share real-time data that offers some of the most interesting applications.
As the local network layer is no longer the bottleneck, the emphasis will shift towards moving more computing power directly to the “far” edge of the network. Sometimes this will be at the local cell tower; sometimes it might be right inside your home, where information will be preprocessed and surfaced to your cybernetic devices.
Much of the AI that powers applications will happen on the edge, as it will be too slow to process everything in a remote/centralized manner. The future requires that the constellation of local computing devices and data feeds interoperate quickly. This will sometimes mean prediction at the edge, for applications in the metaverse where predictions of behaviors and physics are accurate enough.
For years, the way almost every game with 3D graphics generated real-time imagery was through a collection of hacks called shader programming. Ray tracing uses the physics of light to simulate how images look based on how photons bounce between and through different materials. Ray tracing can create far more beautiful and realistic images — which is why it is used for pre-rendered content such as movies — but takes an enormous increase in processing power.
But real-time raytracing is on the way.
It is just one example of how we’ll be simulating reality inside our machines. For example, one of the use cases of NVIDIA’s Omniverse platform is performing simulated fluid dynamics: imagine being able to accurately depict a river, or simulating an HVAC system (which could be used to determine how resilient a building is during a pandemic involving a respiratory disease). Then imagine all of these simulations and AI engines plugged into an interoperable framework that allows logic and prediction to simulate a world of virtual machines, objects, environments and people.
Data will also come from an exponentially-increasing number of feeds from the physical world. This includes geospatial data and traffic data; digital twins of physical objects instrumented to report all of their properties, oracles that report financial data to smart contracts; and real-time data about people and processes.
We won’t simply have an Internet of Things — we’ll have an Internet of Everything — integrated with predictive analytics, AI and real-time visualization.
These innovations will enable a metaverse that can layer over and predict the real-world — while also powering the next generation of games based on actual physics — more beautiful and immersive than anything experienced thus far.
The Metaverse is Accelerating
The metaverse will transform the ways we socialize, work and play; the megatrends I’ve shared may give you some ideas of how.
If you’re intrigued by the possibilities of the metaverse, you’ll enjoy flipping through the deck I assembled:
Continue your exploration of the metaverse by looking at it through some additional lenses:
- Through the lens of disruption — in particular, how Creator Economies evolve over time gives us a roadmap of how the metaverse is likely to unfold.
- Through the lens of of the market’s value-chain: the structure of how value flows from one industry to another to enable metaverse experiences.
- Through the lens of the market — organizing the list of companies that are competing to make various aspects of the metaverse.
- Some of the global changes — from climate to urbanization to shifting economic power — are summarized in this report from BlackRock — for those who want to pull the camera lens even further back than the metaverse.