Metaverse Imaginaries, Sci Fi Vignette #1: The Future of Work, Land, Investing in the Metaverse
As part of my doctoral research on the metaverse, I am creating some sci-fi vignettes which can be used as “imaginaries” of the future of the metaverse. An “imaginary” is a term that social scientists like to use to talk about a vision of the future, usually (thought not always) rooted in science fiction, which starts out with a small group but then gets adopted by a larger collective, companies and governments, etc. and becomes a “sociotechnical imaginary”.
As you may know, the term “metaverse” was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 sci fi cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash. As part of my research I was reading it again and here is the actual quote, and you could consider Stephenson’s description the original imaginary fo the metaverse( Hiro is the main character of the book as revealed by his last name, Protagnoist):
“He’s in a computer generated universe that’s drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place known as the Metaverse. Hiro spends a lot of time in the Metaverse … in the Metaverse, Hiro Protagonist is a warrior-prince.”
It turns out that in Snow Crash, the goggles were a mix of AR (Augmented Reality) and VR.
I have created a very detailed analysis of the Snow Crash and how it relates to what’s being built today, which will be published separately.
Another imaginary that’s perhaps even better known today is Ready Player One, where the “OASIS” becomes the metaverse, and since this was published in 2010, it has a number of updated aspects which relate to the Internet and the Web, in addition to VR technology. Each Metaverse Imaginary vignette will have a specific theme (see below) and incorporate multiple threads (see below). I will also add some commentary eventually about the state of the imaginary vis a vis startups and larger companies that are toiling to turn these imaginaries into reality. I’m putting these up for feedback and to spur discussion about the various future scenarios of the metaverse.
Let’s jump right into the first vignette, with a short discussion of analyzing this and other imaginaries afterwards. I put these up to get feedback and spur discussion, so see the questions at the end.
Vignette #1: Virtual Employees and Land and Businesses in the Metaverse
Andreas woke up in the morning — it was 7 am in Dubai. He had moved here after spending a few years in Silicon Valley, after leaving his native country of Germany.
The first thing he did was to check on his virtual properties. In the past he might have used his phone but he just put on his meta-glasses, which had lenses that he updated every year with his prescription. They were no bigger than the physical glasses he had worn at the start of his career. Now 35, he had become an investor in the metaverse during his Silicon Valley days, and now most of his time was spent managing his portfolio of virtual properties.
Up came the prices of his 2 properties in North America and 5 in Germany. They had gone up in value — his portfolio was up at least 1 million versecoins this quarter. He swiped his finger in the air over the virtual prices, first to the left to get the historical prices, and then to the right when a virtual menu of currencies popped up. Andreas mock-tapped his finger and then chose Euros to see the conversion using the latest exchange rate. The converted value of the properties, both in terms of what he had paid, his gain and loss, and the rent and other income he had collected showed up.
He swirled his finger around the first property, one in Berlin, and then another sub row popped up. It showed the traffic of the avatars that had visited and the money they had spent on buying virtual goods for their avatars that he offered. It was an eSports lounge where avatars gathered from around the world and played games and competed with each other.
His take was shown alongside the total amount spent. Since he hadn’t created the actual games they played, they had come from existing game companies like EA and Zynga and Epic and Microsoft/Activision, who kept most of the profits from the games. However, since he was the host of these particular tournaments, his virtual eSports lounge got a cut.
While he didn’t collect any money on the virtual skins within the games, Andreas did make money on virtual drinks that players bought for each other and the decorative items they bought for their clothing on their avatars. These items represented both big brands and small indie artists. The latest collection, from an item known only as OtherworldlyClaire, a woman (at least a female-looking avatar) with blue hair that had a decidedly anime look who had approached him about featuring her artwork. He brought up the inventory of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, commonly called nifty’s that had been sold and noticed. Since OtherworldlyClaire had been the featured artists over the past 24 hours, they were mostly sales of her work, though another artist who had science fiction landscapes from last year had also sold some items.
Andreas had just gotten a message from an artist who was from Kenya who had some interestingly looking afro-futurist pieces that could be put on virtual t-shirts and hung on virtual houses. He would go visit her gallery on his next scouting trip as he decided which ones to feature next month.
Andreas called up the virtual manager: “Atsuko” he said out loud. She had an realistic anime look, which made sense for his audience for this particular gallery, a gamer-type audience for this particular gallery.
“Hello Mr. Andreas, ”came the voice of the twenty-something looking virtual woman who appeared in to him to hang in space over his living room, though it was augmented via his glasses. His apartment’s living room wall on one side was glass, looking out on to the city.
The view was interesting, which was one of the reasons he’d bought the condo on the 35th floor of one of Dubai’s exclusive buildings that mostly had European or North American or Chinese residents. If he lifted his chin up, changing the angle of the glasses it almost looked like Atsuko was floating in the clouds next to one of the other office buildings, the Technology Center which housed the middle eastern headquarters of all the big tech companies, including Lightwise, which made the glasses that he was wearing, and Narnia avatars, which was the largest provider of cross-platform avatars across the world, in addition to the legacy tech giants that had survived from the pre metaverse days like Meta, Microsoft, Google.
He used his right thumb to gesture and moved her avatar to the coffee table so she was centered. “There are currently 15 avatars in the Berlin Gaming Lounge location, they are only playing games sporadically, as far as I can tell from their public identities, which are all anthropomorphic, they are mostly students from various parts of Europe and a few from Brazil, where it is the middle of the night.”
Andreas nodded. It was a fairly routine way for his virtual employee to talk to him. He knew that Atsuko was also currently catering to each of the avatars in the lounge. “Show me,” he said out loud, and his view shifted, now into more of a virtual reality as his apartment disappeared and he was surrounded by the gamers lounge. He wasn’t actually there, neither was his avatar, this was “ghost mode”, where he could visit a part of the metaverse, particularly one where he had admin rights, unobtrusively. He saw that the 15 avatars were in two groups and a few individuals.
“Where’s Arwen,” he asked, looking at the bar, where there was a virtual Atsuko standing.
“She hasn’t shown up,” said Atsuko matter-of-factly.
“How many times is that?” he asked, staring at Atsuko’s VR avatar behind the bar, which was more detailed and realistic than the augment that had been floating in his living room. She had different colored eyes, heterochromia, which had become one standard way to distinguish AI avatars from real humans.
“This is the third time this month that Arwen has missed a shift.” He sighed. It was always the same issue with human employees- they often cancelled at the last minute due to some real world emergency involving their kids or parents or boyfriends or girlfriends. But, even with the level of AI understanding and the restrictions on identifying them, the humans still could tell when a virtual employee was human and he preferred to have human bartenders during peak times.
Still it was better than when he’d first encountered virtual humans in the metaverse, or meta-humans as they were now colloquially called. Like Xerox, it had been the name of a product from Epic, but now had taken on all kinds of humans, but particularly those that were AI and had realistic looking avatars.
A call came through. He indicated by tapping his right ring finger against a specific point on his palm that he wanted to go to his home in the metaverse. It was Rajiv, his friend from Silicon Valley.
He was suddenly in a Virtual Reality version of his apartment, looking out over a similar landscape, but much more sci-fi with all kinds of vehicles floating around in what looked like organized virtual highways in the sky outside of Virtual Dubai. If you looked closely you could see that there were many steampunk-like airships amongst the more futuristic Star Wars like designs. Technically you didn’t need an airship or a spaceship to float around the metaverse, but there was a restriction to flying avatars above 500 feet, which had been put in place by the MAA, the metaverse aviation association subgroup of this particular metaverse’s governance body. The MAA didn’t let just any aircraft fly, but it had to have some justification in the design why it would work, with a few exceptions from popular sci fiction.
Rajiv’s avatar, which looked just like the geeky Indian guy that had become one of his best friends when he was living in Silicon Valley popped into his virtual living room.
“Hey man,” said Rajiv.
“What’s up?” said Andreas, impatiently. They knew each other well enough to not require the usual pleasantries or catching up.
“I’ve got the lead on a new virtual property, it seems really promising … “ started Rajiv.
“Where is it?” asked Andreas. “Virtual Shanghai… they just opened up a new section of the city and only locals are about to buy.
“Oh that’s expensive,” said Andreas. “You’re not a local, though…” Rajiv’s home in the metaverse, or at least in earthverse-2, an open sourced metaverse that had realistic locations based on real locations on Earth, was in Silicon Valley, where he lived.
Another avatar popped up next to Rajiv. “Oh yes I am, meet Yucheng, my Shanghai alter-ego.” Both avatars smiled at the same time and made the same gestures.
It wasn’t unusual to have different avatars and more than one identity in different parts of the verse, but usually that was restricted to fantasy and video game sims where you might take on alien avatar or a warrior or wizard or even fuzzy. It was frowned on for an identimorph in a realistic plane like the earthverse to have another identity. It wasn’t illegal, just considered a little shady.
“Listen, “ Yucheng said, sounding a lot like Rajiv but the voice had been altered. “We have tenants lined up already, we need to get in on the pre-sale now… how much spare Bitcoin or versecoins do you have available?”
THEME: The Future of Work, Metaverse Economy
Keywords: near future, AR, virtual land, AI employees, humans working in the metaverse, NFTs
Threads: avatars, AI, digital objects, venues, investments, identomorphic avatars
Analysis and Framework, and Future Vignettes
I haven’t fully done a commentary on this vignette, but you can see the various technologies at work, including goggles that go from AR to VR, virtual AI characters who can help the user as well as be employees, as well as aspects of the Metaverse economy.
The Frameworks that I’m going to use to analyze these is one that I came up with in the fall of 2022 when every started to talk about the metaverse, but not everyone could agree on what that was. This framework consists of the threads of the metaverse, which are like the functional building blocks of a working metaverse, and the themes of the metaverse, which are like higher level use cases.
They also incorporate various threads of the metaverse, or the functional building blocks of the metaverse, which I detail in a separate article, but which are also meant to spur discussion about technology and social issues:
- Identity and Avatars
- AI and Virtual Humans
- Venues in the Metaverse
- Digital Objects
- Bridging the Gap Between Physical and Virtual
- Human Interface
These threads are assembled into themes, which initially include:
- The Future of Work
- The Metaverse Economy
- The Future of Socializing
- Metaverse and Entertainment
- Customizability and Interoperability
- Social Standards in the Metaverse
This first vignette was focused on the themseof “the future of Work in the metaverse” and “The Metaverse Economy”. We’ll be exploring these combined with other themes, perhaps doing a deeper dive into the threads and components of the metaverse as well.
Things to Think About
I’m putting these up for feedback and to spur discussion, so feel free to leave comments. Some questions to think about include:
- How far in the future is this vignette? (1 year, 5 years, 10 years)?
- What are some of the technologies that we already have, and what are some of the technologies that still need to be developed?
- Is the development a simple matter of better engineering, or
- How does this vignette reflect on issues of identity in the “real” world and how those identities are reflected in avatars?
- What is the role of AI and virtual humans in the metaverse ? How far away are we from “virtual employees” or “AI Avatars” that can do work for us when we aren’t logged in?
- How does this relatively short imaginary, relate to past imaginaries (TV shows, movies, or books) and how does this measure up with various visions of the Metaverse being put forward by companies like Meta, Microsoft, NVidia, Epic, Unity, Decentraland, Upland, The SandBox or others?
A link to the next metaverse imaginary in the seres, sci fi vignette #2 is here.