The sci-fi Metaverse is bad (and you need to leave it behind)


Source: Larry Elmore’s Shadowrun artwork via the Monkey in the Cage podcast

Wikipedia defines Metaverse as “a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the internet.” The concept was not defined by computer scientists as much as it was brought to life by science fiction writers. They envisioned a singular persistent and logically consistent world like our own which only exists inside of a computer.

I believe that the Metaverse is coming. But when it comes to actually implementing a Metaverse, why do so many people believe that the science fiction version of the Metaverse should be our blueprint? Let’s take a look at the world of sci-fi for a bit.

From a writer’s perspective, it makes a great deal of sense to have a virtual world that is analogous to our own. It is easy to write compelling stories for an alternate world that is just like ours, but with the one major difference of it being virtual. “If it can happen in the real world, then I can have it happen in virtual reality.” However, there have been no hard design or implementation problems (scaling up to a large number of users, for example) which have been solved by these writers. These authors, to be fair, have mixed in some really great ideas, and they’ve done a good job of illustrating what a Metaverse can be.

Beyond the general idea, there isn’t much consistency between science fiction writers about many of the underlying rules of a Metaverse. How do people pay to use the Metaverse? One writer might say that citizens pay money to subscribe to a virtual reality or communications service. However, another writer might say that the connection is free, but transportation from one in-world zone to another costs money.

If a player’s avatar gets killed in the Metaverse, what happens to their character? One writer might say that when your avatar is killed, you start over with a basic character with no possessions. Another writer would say that you wait for an automatic graveyard daemon that takes away your corpse, and then your avatar would reappear, otherwise unscathed, just as it was before the mishap.  (As an aside, I would note that these simple differences would have a very profound effect inside the virtual environment. Seemingly small design decisions have very large consequences.)

We need to be careful when we come across these contrived details to take a step back and evaluate them with a critical eye. These concepts may work well in the science fiction universe in which they exist, but they may not be well-considered characteristics of an implementation. Often, the main purpose of these technical details is to serve as a specific plot point which must be exploited or overcome by the characters. (Those who have read Ready Player One and Snow Crash should recognize how those implementation details were used as plot points in their respective stories.)

Some concepts that have been taken away from science fiction may have been less explicit. Remember how I said that science fiction writers envisioned the Metaverse as a “singular, persistent, and logically consistent world, like our own, but which only exists inside of a computer”? None of those things have to be true.

Were you disheartened that a company which is known for tracking users, data mining, and advertising had purchased Oculus VR and is going to put its resources behind building the Metaverse? I can’t help you there. Did you believe that you would have to play by their rules to use The Metaverse, or not at all? You shouldn’t believe it. If we throw away one assumption, The Metaverse (as a singular entity), and replace it with a Multiverse (no longer a singular Metaverse), then things change drastically.

Is there room for more than one Metaverse? You better believe it. Nobody is going to nail the design and implementation details anytime soon. (I hinted at this in my initial post, Your Metaverse design sucks, and this is a topic we’ll discuss more about later.) Technology aside, I’d also encourage you to consider the business side of things.

When the Metaverse concept is popularized, large companies will finally understand it and want to jump into business. When faced with a choice between going on their own or buying an existing player, buying is going to be a very attractive option for those entering the field. We’re going to see a batch of Multiverse millionaires spring up over the next ten years. True, it is hard to discount the network effect and first-mover advantage in Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR, and we’ll take that on in a later discussion.

In closing, although the Metaverse concept was popularized and illustrated through science fiction, the constraints created by writers may not serve well as technical constraints in an actual implementation. Fiction is not a safe blueprint to build upon. In future posts, I plan to look at these assumptions in more detail, and to see how some of them might be useful for us to discard.

Where do you think that Science Fiction got the real-world Metaverse concept right? Got it wrong?

[EDIT: Based on reader feedback, I added a few clarifications on May 5th-6th, 2014.]

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4 responses to “The sci-fi Metaverse is bad (and you need to leave it behind)”

  1. neninov says :

    I actually think the Metaverse (Multiverse is a better term) will be VERY decentralized. Sure there’ll be main hotspots for big forums, (internet forums will take on the form of Roman forums), but I think it’ll take on a structure like the internet has today, where you have millions of different sites or servers or locations.

    Hell, websites/places/servers don’t even have to be based around a company or service. I could start running a server and invite friends to join, and bam we have ourselves a little community server thing on which we can host multiplayer games and pretty much do whatever we feel like. Communities might take form in a way that servers for videogames are formed today, with a dedicated group of active members and moderators, except they wouldn’t be limited to one game. Call them Server Communities, call them guilds, call them families, it’ll be neat. I can get some friends and members to help pay for the server to keep the community up.

    Imagine people owning and running their own businesses and locations. Imagine a guy running a Medieval RP server thing where he’s king and manages all the upkeeping while people go around adventuring. Imagine a guy who runs a colosseum type battle server which is it’s own game, not dependent on any other outside “inventory” bullshit, he can run betting on who will win and people can come to fight or spectate big matches. Or you could just have a group of friends who all hang out together and play whatever they feel like on weekends.

    So many possibilities. As long as we ensure that our outside infrastructure is stable and that we aren’t going to be invaded by aliens or all killed by global warming, looks like we’re headed for a marxist utopia where everyone has the freedom to do anything anywhere with no limitations on birthright or property.

    Welcome to the future [])

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