In Neal Stephenson’s 1992 book Snow Crash, he imagines a world where society largely exists within a virtual realm which he christens “the Metaverse”. People access the Metaverse through virtual reality (VR) headsets, and once in, they enter a completely digital urban world that behaves much like the “real” world in terms of how people use it. In the Metaverse, people live out their lives much as they would in the real world, hanging out with friends in shopping centers or talking with business associates in private lounges. Everything in the Metaverse is just as real as the physical world in terms of how people interact with each other.
A couple decades later, Ernest Cline released his book Ready Player One, which built on Stephenson’s premise of a virtual alternate reality. But he took it to a much more vivid and colorful level. In Ready Player One, society primarily operates within the virtual realm, although it is not called the Metaverse in this novel. People go to work, school, do their shopping, play video games, and hang out with friends, all within consoles connected to VR headsets called the OASIS. Physical, treadmill-like devices allow them to move around in 3D space, and users wear haptic clothing in order to “feel” in this virtual environment.
Fast-forward to today, and “Metaverse” is suddenly a buzzword in the blockchain space. The popularity of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) has led to new interest in how our lives are shifting into the virtual realm. At this time, the convergence of gaming, VR tech, social media and blockchain tech are making both Stephenson’s and Cline’s worlds a reality.
Web 1.0 defined the AOL era of the Internet, where people would go online just to look up information or send emails and chats. Then came Web 2.0, which is the current social media era, where we’re now sharing high volumes of information about ourselves, news, and media with the ability to monetize that data. What comes next is Web 3.0, which is when the blockchain layer becomes ubiquitous across the Internet, and we no longer need to rely on centralized social media platforms to distribute and monetize our content.
We are transitioning into the Web 3.0 era as more blockchain services and decentralized applications (DApps) come online. For example, any website that requires you to “connect a wallet” to use its services is part of this Web 3.0 ecosystem. The blockchain layer of the internet allows you to carry your identity and assets wherever you go on the Internet. And Web 3.0 is the base layer for the Metaverse.
NFTs, which are digitally-scarce, one-of-a-kind blockchain tokens, are what ultimately add value to Web 3.0 and the Metaverse. An economy based on limited supply and demand is what motivates people to form a market around goods. Digital goods inherit that characteristic through blockchain tech and NFTs. And of course, cryptocurrencies are the native currencies for trading these goods.
Early 3D Metaverse platforms such as Decentraland and The Sandbox utilize NFTs in the form of virtual real estate and in-game items, effectively encoding the virtual realm with finite land and resources that will follow the same supply and demand curves as physical reality.
Overall, NFTs and crypto are creating an “Internet of value” that will incentivize people to further participate in activities going on in virtual environments.
Gaming, VR, and blockchain converge
Gamers are no strangers to taking part in digital economies and immersing themselves in 3D virtual environments. So it’s no surprise that Metaverse tech such as VR is first finding adoption within the gaming industry. In addition, video games have already pioneered the idea of massively multiplayer online (MMO) structures, which allow people from all over the world to connect and cooperate in virtual spaces. Ultimately, the Metaverse will be one giant MMO with an economy that anyone can participate in, and gamers will be the first adopters of these spaces.
VR hasn’t yet taken off to the point of mass adoption. Right now, most games and 3D virtual environments are experienced on 2D screens. But as VR technology gets better, people will see the practical applications it has. Most complaints people have about current VR tech are the bad graphics quality, the price, and the lack of mobility. It’s mostly a niche market at the moment, but over time the graphics will get better, the price will come down, and they will be less clunky and energy-consuming.
Likewise, there are very few Metaverse games that are actually playable, with the aforementioned Decentraland and The Sandbox being the best examples for now. But even those games leave a lot to be desired in terms of usability and features. There are some exciting things you can already do, but overall they feel like beta releases. However, as Metaverse games receive more attention, they will likely receive more funding, which means better production using state-of-the-art technology. One high profile collaboration has been between Enjin and Microsoft to help foster blockchain-based gaming mechanics into existing franchises.
Once VR tech has advanced sufficiently, we’ll be able to immerse ourselves in realistic 3D virtual environments for a low cost. Second, more video games — particularly the big franchises like World of Warcraft, for example — will need to adopt blockchain technology allowing for in-game items to be part of a larger digital economy through NFTs and cryptocurrencies. And lastly, the general public will start to see how they can extract value by participating in a digital economy, and that 3D virtual worlds aren’t just for gaming, but for connecting and productivity.
The Metaverse platforms that we see today are just early examples of what will be possible in the coming decade as these trends are taken more seriously.
The fully realized Metaverse
Fueled partially by the COVID-19 pandemic, people are becoming more accustomed to shopping and connecting with others online. The Metaverse takes this to the next level and adds 3D virtual environments and digital scarcity that an economy can be built upon. Gamers will likely pioneer the transition into the Metaverse while the masses follow behind as they realize the practical use cases beyond gaming.
Here’s a possible future scenario:
You wake up in the morning and follow your typical hygienic routine. But instead of making a commute to work or school, you throw on your VR headset. A character selection screen appears where you can choose the avatar you want to present as for the day. You might have a different avatar for your professional or personal life. Or maybe you stick with one avatar that looks a lot like you, but you can select different outfits. Your avatar and each item of clothing and accessories it wears is an NFT that you’ve purchased from an online marketplace. Each item is digitally unique and can easily be resold.
If you had the money, perhaps you even start your virtual day off in a house built using virtual real estate NFTs you invested in awhile back. And maybe your house is filled with NFT items you’ve purchased and collected over time.
You can travel spatially through the Metaverse in a vehicle, bike, or scooter that is also an NFT, or you can pay some crypto to teleport to your destination. Maybe you’ll stop by a coffee shop on your way to work which initiates a Postmates delivery of a caffeinated beverage to your physical home IRL. At work or school in the Metaverse, you meet with others who also log into their VR devices and display their avatars of choice. Maybe you work at an advertising firm that designs billboards for big corporations that go up across the local Metaverse quadrant you’re in. You’re paid by the minute thanks to blockchain “salary streaming” technology.
After work, you switch avatars or outfits and hit the town. Teleport or walk with friends to a movie theater where anyone in the world can tune in to the same film. The owners of this particular theater have a rare collection of NFT films that few people have ever seen. Maybe you’ll attend an art gallery where a local patron has rare, interactive NFT art on display. Or perhaps you prefer going to a concert or club. You know of a cool one that disables gravity physics periodically throughout the night. The DJ plays songs they purchased as NFTs that came packed (through unlockcable content) with immersive visuals for partygoers to enjoy. Entry into this club requires you to show proof that you own one of their membership NFTs.
Or maybe you prefer meeting with friends and teleporting into a game world where you team up and go on quests and raids. Your squad is good at discovering rare NFT items that can later be sold on marketplaces for cryptocurrencies that can be used anywhere in the Metaverse or IRL. Some gamers do this for a living. What’s more, you’re able to carry your same avatars and items into any other game world since the blockchain allows for cross-platform gaming through bridging mechanics.
All the while, you can “select” other avatars you see out in public and view their public inventory, which shows what rare designer NFTs they’re wearing, or which exclusive NFT communities they’re a part of. Just yesterday, you saw someone repping a Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT avatar, so you know they’re a high-status multi-millionaire with exclusive access to The Swamp Lounge.
So far, I’ve mainly discussed the Metaverse as if it will be solely accessed through fully immersive VR tech, but the Metaverse can be overlayed across physical reality as well. For people who would like to access the Metaverse without total immersion, the advent of augmented reality (AR) wearables will allow the Metaverse and the real world to be experienced simultaneously. Putting on AR glasses, for example, can display graphical images over physical structures or people, showing information related to their status in the Metaverse. While wearing your AR glasses, looking at the person standing next to you on the subway train could show them wearing their super rare NFT outfit even though they are dressed casually IRL.
This barely scratches the surface of what’s possible in a Metaverse built on the blockchain substrate. And while this may seem far-off and sci-fi, the start of this is already very much in production.
Start preparing for the Metaverse now
In summary, the Metaverse is the blending of physical and virtual reality with a digital economy that has value based on artificial scarcity fueled by NFTs and cryptocurrencies.
It sounds prophetic and heavenly as if some utopian world awaits us on the other side of our struggles. But realistically, the Metaverse is just the culmination of the advances of a handful of existing technologies. It won’t solve most of our problems, but it can open a new world of possibility, especially for those who have struggled to find a purpose within the systems that have existed up until now. This is also not to say that those who are early adopters of Metaverse technology will instantly be well-off. Still, it does increase their chances of capturing a share of the market before it is oversaturated. Rest assured, even after the mainstream adoption of Metaverse tech, there will still be ample opportunity for growth in this burgeoning digital medium.
That said, now would be a perfect time to begin preparing for society’s shift into Metaverse-like worlds. Already it’s possible to invest in cryptocurrencies and NFTs that will likely be widely used in the Metaverse. Likewise, the new digital economy will require service providers from all sorts of industries. From artists to marketers, programmers, educators, designers, lawyers, and more, the industries that grow within the Metaverse will likely mimic many existing ones. At the same time, expect new jobs and use cases to form that haven’t even been thought of yet as these virtual worlds and economies mature.
Given past and current trends, it’s arguable that a Metaverse was inevitable. Sci-fi, after all, has a pretty good track record of predicting the future, as it is usually speculating on future trends based on past and current data. Just read Snow Crash or Ready Player One for an idea of what’s to come. And, of course, join the Afrocrypto community to gain access to helpful resources and stay up-to-date on all current trends in this space.