The Third Wave
It’s Metaverse time. But are we ready?
After decades of fiction, friction and failure, it appears that we are finally poised to realize a collective dream of that shared, immersive virtual reality known as The Metaverse.
I’ve been working on the Metaverse since 1994. Arguably, I wrote the first-ever specs and software for the thing. I have continued in the field, largely uninterrupted, over the course of nearly three decades. Throughout that time my mission has never changed: to use the power of real-time 3D graphics to connect people. Period; full stop. To me, this is what The Metaverse means, and any other attempt to otherwise describe or define it is unnecessarily reductive, and ultimately unproductive.
That said, in future postings I will offer some defining principles and guidelines (my so-called “seven rules,” which have already somehow gone viral). But that’s for another day; today is about taking stock of where we are as we launch into the third wave of a decades-long revolution to make our computers work better for us.
Episode III: A New Hype
Given my lengthy tenure in Metaverseland, I am both amused and bemused by the sudden hype around this. But I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. Mark Zuckerberg recently made some bold statements, backed by tangible moves, and the industry is scrambling to follow. It’s more than tech herd mentality; we are getting substantive signals that it may finally be Metaverse time.
- The suits are circling. In the wake of Facebook’s new positioning as a Metaverse company, execs at a multitude of tech and media outfits have put it front and center of their strategy, or are at least saying they have a Metaverse strategy. Leading the pack are game engine companies like my employer Unity and graphics chip powerhouses such as NVIDIA. These companies are laying the groundwork by delivering miraculous real-time 3D tech on a regular basis, and they are built on solid business models delivering significant commercial value. They will indeed be foundational for the Metaverse. But these days you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an ad agency or tech startup that has the word Metaverse in a strategy deck, too. Sensing a Next Big Thing, people don’t want to have to play catch-up like they did with the Internet or mobile. Mind you, the term Metaverse isn’t new, nor is the vision, despite various attempts at rewriting history. But now that His Eminence has given voice to it, the Metaverse exists by fiat. So let it be written; so let it be done. And everyone is pouring in.
- The pundits are pontificating. A new class of self-appointed “experts” are jockeying for position as thought leaders. Eye strain-inducing Metaverse “roadmap” infographics abound — as if anyone knows how this is actually going to play out. There is endless debate among the technorati over terminology, whether we should use the M word at all (too dystopian!), how we should use it (singular or plural? noun and verb?), can it be replaced by something more descriptive, and so on. New standards and interoperability initiatives have popped up — often blatantly ignoring existing solutions and antecedents — led by a crop of newbs, poised to make rookie mistakes all over again. (If only there was an easy way for them to research what’s out there… some kind of online thing…) On the financial side, investor Matthew Ball has achieved fame with his thoughtful (if not technically deep) writings on the subject. Even Jim Cramer has gotten into the act — he loves 3D. Or 3D tech stocks, anyway. So, you know, people are saying.
- The kids are creating. Most significantly, the creator class in an ascendant economy is making all kinds of Metaverse stuff: interactive 3D content in Fortnite, Roblox and VRChat, NFTs on myriad platforms, and open and decentralized worlds in Decentraland, to name a few. This is important, because otherwise the two previous points could just as well suggest a hype bubble. Without a real economy of real creators making real money on all this virtual stuff, the Metaverse will just be a flash in the pan. But of course we must needs ask: will creators be fairly compensated? Today’s survey says yes, as the platforms appear to be genuine in their desire to properly remunerate people. (Though mileage does vary; look at the extreme differential between what Roblox doles out to the kids versus the modest fees levied by NFT marketplaces.) But we’ve seen the movie before: generally, tech platforms have done a poor job in lining up the proper economic incentives for creators. These days it does seem to be moving in the right direction, and hope springs eternal.
An Old Idea
In his foreword to the Metaverse Primer, Matthew Ball rightly observes that technology transformation does not occur in discrete chunks identifiable by a single moment in time, but rather as a series of overlapping developments — waves — that occur over a period of time. One can’t point to exactly when the telephony era began, for example, even though we can precisely date the time and place of Bell’s invention. But we do know that some years later, everyone was telephoning. And then, not too long after that, telephones became an indispensable part of life. This is true for the Metaverse as well: one can’t point to a specific invention or reduction to practice, or identify a point in time at which it began. Several innovations in hardware, software and communications have paved the way. We can, however, look at the waves of change that have come before and begin to plot the trends going forward.
Despite its apparent novelty, we are actually in a third wave of development of the Metaverse, the roots of which stretch back over more than fifty years. I find this comforting, given the massive hype that is building. Technology takes time, and many iterations, mistakes and failures before we get things right. Along with innovation, adoption has to keep pace, else initiatives starve for resources and get shelved — sometimes forever. A bust of the Metaverse hype bubble (if that is what this is) would be a major setback. But it seems like things are lining up this time around.
The three waves of transformation on our path to the Metaverse can be roughly divided as follows. Note that these phases can’t be placed neatly into discrete time buckets, and they don’t exist in isolation. Hardware innovations in 3D display technology wouldn’t be nearly as useful without advances in real-time rendering software. The explosion around the Internet wouldn’t have taken place without the availability of inexpensive personal computers; and so on. Such innovations occurred independently but they also co-evolved. The same for the Metaverse: an interplay among successive inventions across multiple fields over decades has brought us to where we are now. The following is nowhere near a comprehensive history, and it omits key players and personalities. These are just the highlights.
The First Wave: Immersion
Virtual Reality 1.0 (1968–1996)
From the late 1960’s to the mid 1990’s, in parallel with the penetration of computers into the office and eventually into the home, scores of inventors pursued dreams of technology that would fully immerse us in our information.
These “ultimate displays,” starting with Ivan Sutherland’s Sword of Damocles system, came to be known as Virtual Reality, a term coined by Jaron Lanier, who founded the seminal startup VPL with a mission to commercialize VR. The head-mounted display (HMD) systems of the time were technically crude and prohibitively expensive. They were nowhere near ready for broad consumer adoption; that would have to wait for over twenty years after the crash and burn of VPL and other startups of the era. But they did inspire many of us who worked in the next wave.
The Second Wave: Connection
Online Communities, The Web, and Real-time 3D (1985–2012)
Starting in the mid-1980’s, the world went online. It happened in full force by the late nineties, as computers got cheap and dialup modems became readily available. This enabled so many amazing new applications, but most importantly it gave people the ability to play on MUDs and communicate interactively on BBBs systems, transcending geography. The Web made the Internet user-friendly, putting a visual skin on it and giving publishers a new, mostly unfettered way to deliver media. Along the way, it toppled Compuserve, AOL and Prodigy, the big three walled-garden online services of the time. (Well, AOL bought in to the web and got bigger… because, really, the Web eats everything in its path.) Computers got even faster, and real-time 3D came to the fore driven by video gaming.
The explosion of computer power combined with the proliferation of the Internet inspired some of us to take a second stab at immersion, dubbed alternately “The Metaverse” or “Cyberspace” after the fictional digital universes in Snow Crash and Burning Chrome, respectively. Consumer VR pioneer Mark Pesce, fresh off licking his wounds from his last startup, somehow found me (a story for another time), and together we created the first 3D prototype for the Metaverse, combining open source web libraries with a real-time rendering library for the PC. The result: hyperlinked 3D worlds rendered in a web browser using plugins and/or companion apps. Mark and I also wrote the original designs and specification for a media format that would come to be known as Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML). The biggest players in the tech industry rallied around VRML, a hype bubble formed, and within a few short years it became the first international standard for real-time graphics on the Web. It was a big deal.
VRML ultimately fizzled out by the late 1990’s. It was too early in terms of commercial adoption. It was also a matter of too much too soon, as the world was still coming to grips with the basics of the Web. However, our work inspired others, most notably Philip Rosedale, who left Internet video pioneer Real Networks to create Second Life, arguably the first-ever fully working Metaverse system: a 3D-rendered virtual universe on the Internet. Not open; not at billions-scale; but a good start. Most of the tech of this time ultimately crashed and burned, but Second Life survives to this day with a thriving community.
The other 3D survivors, in fact winners of this era were massively multiplayer games like Everquest and Ultima Online, and the geographic visualization system Keyhole. The software that would eventually become Google Earth was the first mass-market real-time 3D visualization tool for consumers. Its origins are tangled up with the circuitous path of a video game startup that pivoted to mapping for intelligence agencies (and apparently mired in a huge controversy over IP). Regardless of its tortuous history, Google Earth was the first large scale deployment of what we’re now calling the Digital Twin: an interactive 3D replica of a real-world thing — in this case, our planet — with real-time information overlaid and integrated.
By the early 2000’s, these twin pillars of play and communication were both realized at large scale in 3D. They were closed systems — not the Metaverse in the form most of us dream about — but they were existence proofs. It was only a matter of time. But it would still be a long time, because the lion’s share of the world’s attention went into social networking and mobile computing, back then still primarily 2D affairs. The world was getting more connected, more real-time, more playful, and more on the go. The supercomputers in our pockets changed everything, again. And those innovations figure heavily in the third wave.
The Third Wave: Convergence
Virtual Reality 2.0, Game Engines, WebGL, WebXR, and Web3 (2009–)
The Metaverse is the web, it just has a 2D interface. — Vlad Vukićević, creator of WebGL
We’re already a decade into a new wave, maybe the last one on the way to the Metaverse. All that has come before, plus a new phase of intense innovation, are coming together to engender an era of connected real-time 3D for everyone.
One could mark the beginning of this era as the Oculus Kickstarter campaign in 2012. Young Palmer Luckey, inspired in part by the novel Ready Player One (a very Snow Crash-like story btw), soldered bits and pieces together into a crude virtual reality HMD in his Orange County garage. He somehow got the attention of John Carmack and the Scaleform Mafia, and Oculus’ historic crowdfunding haul gave them the tailwind to make a few versions of their Rift headset, leading ultimately to their acquisition by Facebook in 2014. This was clearly a watershed moment. In one fell swoop, that deal legitimized an endeavor that had many of us (myself included) scratching our heads for a few years. Suddenly, VR was a thing again.
Despite its amazing capabilities, WebGL never received much fanfare. It quietly worked its way into the Internet fabric, getting embedded in all the browsers. It’s still around, a permanent part of the Web family of tech. Version 2 is shipping. But it was always a bit of a bridesmaid, as the industry focused on mobile computing and game engines. Its thunder was also stolen, at least for a time, by the VR 2.0 boom a few years later, as all eyes were on Oculus.
But these things come around. Interestingly, the very thing that sucked oxygen from WebGL cast a spotlight on it just a little while later. With VR, and more broadly XR hardware coming to the fore, suddenly all development needed to take place in 3D. Most of that was happening in game engines like Unity, delivered in native applications; but experiments in bringing stereoscopic 3D, head tracking and 3D controller support into web browsers ensued, and a few short years later WebXR was implemented and on its way to standardization by the W3C. People were realizing the importance of no-download, no-gatekeeper, no-friction access to immersive content. One more essential piece came into play in 2012: glTF. This new 3D format that I am proud to have helped design and shepherd for several years has become an international standard. Where VRML had failed to gain purchase, glTF is now extremely popular and is used to deliver interactive 3D content for web, mobile, and XR. Presumably, it will become a foundational component of our nascent Metaverse.
At the same time all of that amazingness was unfolding, mobile computing got faster, computer vision algorithms got smarter, and phones got cameras. Lots of cameras. This has paved the away for augmented reality to rise alongside VR, and ultimately overtake it in scale. Snapchat and Pokémon GO have done more to educate the mainstream on the wonders of immersive content than any VR experience. We’re already seeing debates around whether real world-rooted AR and imaginary world-based VR are part of a continuum or completely different things, and where each fits in with the idea of a Metaverse. To me, the distinction is artificial. The common element is real-time 3D, and the common goal is to make our computers work better for us — in any context.
The final major dynamic in this third wave march to the Metaverse is the explosion in popularity of large-scale virtual worlds: mega sandbox environments like Fortnite, Roblox, Minecraft. They are largely driven by game mechanics disguised as creator platforms, so they aren’t true open worlds. They aren’t interoperable, which seem like table stakes for anything we will rightly call a Metaverse going forward. But they are dramatic proof points and prodigious economic engines. We can think of them as the Compuserve, AOL and Prodigy of today: necessary but not sufficient; waypoints en route to the ultimate destination. One or more of them might even migrate to the open Metaverse down the line. But if history is any indication, they won’t do so willingly; they will be dragged kicking and screaming by unassailable market forces.
This is the trillion dollar question.
The conditions are set. A lot of the underlying enabling technologies are in place and maturing nicely. We have impactful existence proofs. Many of us already have an inkling on how to make much of it interoperable — though this is one of the key areas where we can screw it up big time if we either overthink it on the one hand, or trivialize it on the other. Identity, ownership, and fair creator economics — the things neither Web or mobile platforms have ever gotten quite right — are also being solved for, but many challenges remain. We also have entrenched interests jockeying for position. At best, the playing field won’t be level from day one; at worst, there will be major setbacks that will take years to recover from. We can do this the easy way, or we can do it the hard way. I imagine it will be some of both.
But there are overwhelming forces driving us to figure it out soon: socioeconomic, geopolitical, ecological, epidemiological. Every day, we make too much stuff; we burn too much energy; we hurt too many people. 3D can virtualize our things, collapse distance, inform us, and help facilitate mutual understanding - assuming we also have the proper safeguards and governance. Along the way, entire industries will be hatched, and fortunes made. If you think the Internet changed everything… well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
The only way out of this is through, and into the Metaverse. That is, if we make one that is by us and for us. Connected. In 3D.
I hope we’re ready.