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The Metaverse needs a W3C — call it the W3D.

In the welter of VR/AR/MR/XR announcements of the past 3 weeks, some of the most interesting quotes came from the CEO of Facebook. In a major announcement of a shift of focus of the entire company (and a complete rebranding of the company, now named “Meta”), Mark Zuckerberg said:

“In order to unlock the potential of the Metaverse, there needs to be
interoperability… you want to know that when you buy something or create something that your items will be useful in a lot of contexts and you’re not going to be locked into one world or platform.”

Facebook is rebranding to Meta because the focus of the company is shifting to “The Metaverse” — a grand vision of humanity working and playing *inside* of a digital world where users have real presence with that world and each other — a world where users can buy digital goods and have digital experiences that are simply not possible in the physical world.

Let’s take a look at a couple of scenarios:

  1. You sign your family up to “Colorado River Rafting Adventures” in the Metaverse. Your family all dons their headsets (including your cousin in Milwaukee and your nephew in Istanbul) and you ride the rapids down the Colorado, having tons of fun. Along the way, you snap photos of your family’s avatars having a blast. After the trip, you decide to hang one of those photos in your virtual home and send another to your sister so she can see how much fun her son had. There is a problem, though: your home environment is on a Microsoft system, your sister’s is one run by Apple and the rafting experience was done on a system owned by Meta. How can you share media made on one system with the other systems?
  2. You attend a concert in the Metaverse for one of your favorite bands. You are delighted to get an invite to the afterparty where you purchase a band T-shirt for your avatar, meet the band members and get them to autograph it. You’d like to be able to wear that T-shirt everywhere that you go in the Metaverse (bragging rights!). How are you going to do that when new Metaverse host systems are popping up all of the time? How are we going to standardize the “currency” across host systems?
  3. You’re in a work meeting in the Metaverse. This is a cross collaboration involving members from different organizations with their Metaverse environments hosted on different providers. You present a full 3D presentation containing holograms to show various data graphs and schematics. You authored these using a tool in your organization’s Metaverse host but you need to be able to share and update them with all team members across multiple organizations and hosting systems.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s comments of interoperability are welcome. But this begs the question: How is this going to work? Where are the standards going to be defined?

This is far too important a question to leave until the Metaverse is engaging
mainstream users and folks are being locked into siloed walled gardens
determined by the company that they bought the technology from.

There a number of major problems with the walled garden approach.

Fragmenting technology.

Anyone old enough to remember the VHS vs. Betamax wars knows how a lack of standards can massively slow down adoption of a new technology. Fragmenting of the industry across different standards must be avoided at all costs when it comes to the Metaverse.

Unfortunately, this fragmentation is already happening.

An example is the technology of avatars — a graphical representation of a user that represents the user in the virtual world. There are multiple standards around avatars and virtually no reuse between systems.

For instance, there is no forward compatibility from Oculus v1 to v2 avatars and the ReadyPlayerMe avatar system is completely different from either. VR software vendors could see avatars as a way to lock users into their platform, since the user sometimes spends considerable time, effort and money developing their avatar.

There needs to be a standardized way to allow the user to:

  • own their avatar
  • secure their avatar against theft and fraud
  • transport their avatar across *all* Metaverse operating systems.

Standardization will become even more crucial when lifelike, Codec Avatars become reality.

Avatars are just one example of a vast number of technologies that will need to be standardized to make the Metaverse work seamlessly for its user base. From avatars to virtual living rooms to virtual clothing to art and everything in between, there needs to be a mechanism to standardize the technologies that will underpin the Metaverse.

Technology ownership fights.

The history of technology is replete with stories of fights over the ownership
of a technology. In the software industry this usually stems from missing or inadequate legal arrangements that fail to forsee how a technology will be used in the future.

The Metaverse as being envisioned now (a very large network containing billions of users) absolutely cannot be hidebound by technology ownership fights. That would kill it before it even got off the ground.

To avoid costly and time-consuming ownership fights, the Metaverse needs a legal basis to future-proof baseline, seed-corn, technologies.

Solution: A Metaverse W3D

The W3C is an excellent model to use to move forward on this technology. Back in 1994, Tim Berners-Lee — the inventor of the Web — saw the need for a standards body that could set Web-wide standards so that content authored by any vendor’s tool could be viewed on any vendor’s browser.

Establishing interoperability standards was critical for the explosive growth of the Web that we’ve seen over the past 27+ years. Without that, it simply would not have been possible to have the millions of Web applications and billions of Web pages that exist today.

The W3C provides the structure and process to standardize Web technologies. Proposals are submitted and everyone, no matter the size of their organization, gets to comment on these technologies. In fact, the W3C encourages members of the public to comment on technologies that it is standardizing.

Because the W3C gave structure to the Web standardization process, we were able to:

Avoid fights over technology infrastructure.

Ownership fights usually take place because a lot of money is at stake. The Web has been able to avoid this because of the early formation of the W3C. By laying down ground rules that “no one owns the core Web technologies”, the W3C forced for-profit organizations to make their money on “derivative products and services” rather than the primary technology itself (i.e. the principle being “don’t eat your own seed corn”).

Force organizations to have a minimum level of engagement.

The W3C demands a certain level of engagement from its member organizations. This includes:

  • Donation of developed in-house technology to the consortium.
  • Commitment of time and energy of various parties to implement nascent standards and adjust them as implementor experience is fed back in to the standardization process.
  • Donation of the time of staff members to establishing these standards, including travel & meeting time (given the nature of the Metaverse, ‘travel’ might not be required for its standards body :-)).
  • Financial support of the W3C itself by its member organizations.

No encumbering patents.

The W3C set a patent policy that requires those involved in the standards
process to make a commitment to making technology that they do patent
royalty-free to implementers and users of technologies standardized by the W3C.

This ensures that both implementers and users can freely use the technologies now and in the future, standardized by the W3C, without worrying about patent fees or lawsuits. This is also critical to move the Metaverse forward.

If the Metaverse is to achieve “liftoff”, an organization embodying a similar structure and process is a great place to start. It is important that we have interoperability standards. But just as important, we need standards owned by no-one and everyone. No lock in, no false “bait and switch” with “standards” encumbered by patents or fees.

Result: Success.

The W3C has been a resounding success. There are currently over 450 organizations, including major for-profit companies, that abide by the above stipulations and have built business models that have earned billons of dollars for them and their shareholders by *sharing* the baseline technology, rather than hoarding it or trying to lock the user into proprietary technologies. In fact, this mechanism ‘grows the (market) pie’ significantly.

A caveat: One downside to standards bodies is that they can become so formalized and rigid that they stand in the way of achieving consensus in a timely manner. This certainly happened with the W3C when it came to web applications and it took the intervention of a competing standards body, WHAT-WG, to jolt them out of ‘analysis-paralysis’.

Call To Action.

This is a call to action for all companies that want to have a stake in the
Metaverse, which is to say the future of the Internet.

Everything is going to change again — a change more momentous than the Web — and we need to be prepared.

This is not hyperbole.

A Metaverse standards body needs to be established *now*. If Meta, Microsoft, Google, Apple and others are serious about building the Metaverse, then this body needs to have a charter similar to the W3C, since we are at the start of building something much more impactful than the Web.

It is truly that important.

I’ve created a Discord server — W3D— to kick things off and provide a common space for discussion.

Bill Edney spends his day in an Oculus headset and Immersed creating software tools like the Sherpa.

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