The Metaverse and the Virtual Home

If this is your first time visiting Metaversing, please read:

This blog is about going beyond the science fiction descriptions of the Metaverse and actually fleshing out some of the concepts, designs, and details that are useful in bringing it to life. The ideas described here are not to be interpreted as the exclusive way for the Metaverse to be designed. We’re here to put a stake in the ground. We hope to start the conversation (where it doesn’t already exist) and to move the conversation forward.

"The Basement" from Ready Player One, recreated in Second Life, via New World Notes Blog

“The Basement” from Ready Player One, recreated in Second Life. Image Source: New World Notes Blog

I’m convinced that the Virtual Home is at the center of the user experience in the Metaverse. There is so much ground to cover, more than will fit in a single post. How do I convey a universe?

My design sensibility tells me that we’re going to have to iterate this over time in order to figure out what exactly this space needs to be. My gut tells me that we’re going to need quite a bit of competition to make those iterations happen.

The Virtual Home is born out of four concepts: the Launch Pad, the Personal Space, the Utility Space, and the Trusted Space. We’ll talk about each of these, and then we’ll talk about three different ways that this set of concepts play out.

The set of four concepts for the Virtual Home

Launch Pad: A beginning. A spawn point. The Windows desktop. Home base. The 1995 Yahoo! guide to the Internet. In real life, it is where you wake up in the morning and start your day. The Virtual Home should be the point from which your journey through the virtual reality begins, and where you eventually return.

The Windows 8.1 start menu. Wrong for the PC desktop, completely wrong for Virtual Reality. (Image Source: TechCrunch)

The Windows 8.1 start screen. It worked well for touchscreen tablets, but not for the desktop PC. Can Microsoft avoid the temptation to extend the design into Virtual Reality with a Minority Report set of inputs? Do our users want an interface with the casual ease of a touchscreen tablet? The utilitarian function of a PC? Something else? (Image Source: TechCrunch)

Personal Space: The ability to create without seeking outside permission. A place for building, for customizing, and for self expression. The place where you bring back some of the cool things you’ve found in the Metaverse. A trophy wall (as mentioned in an earlier post) which is filled with rewards from other worlds. Pinterest. Your Minecraft castle (or cave).

Utility Space: Useful widgets. Locally saved functions. Management of your preferred providers (media providers, music providers, pizza providers, storage providers, etc). A shared standard. In a later post, I may describe this as a bridge to a single virtual reality experience.

Trusted Space: The privacy of one’s residence. Complete control over content. Information you might not want to reveal or actions you might not want to do in a public space. A place for safe objects that aren’t allowed to report back on user behavior.

The Launch Pad, Personal Space, Utility Space, and Trusted space are at the core of the Virtual Home concept. As mentioned, we’re going to discuss how these four pieces play with three other topics: the pocket universe, service providers, and finally, the worlds adjacent to the Metaverse.

The pocket universe: security, real-estate, travel, and resource location

The Personal Space and the Trusted Space the core properties that I want to embrace in the Virtual Home. We want a navigable environment that is closed off from most of the outside world, and we want to keep the contents in the Virtual Home secure.

The Personal and Trusted aspects suggest that we want a well defined trust boundary to surround our code. I’ll have to defer that conversation to a later article.

It also suggests that we don’t want someone else in the Metaverse to be able to randomly stumble upon our home, even if only just to view the models and textures contained within. For this reason, I’m going to select a non-Euclidean space as the area in which our Virtual Home resides. Access is tightly controlled (whitelisted) and what happens inside the space is not visible to those on the outside.

Parcel for rent in Second Life for US$5/month.

Land and property rental are common in some virtual environments. In Second Life, you do not start with any land; it must be purchased. Here is one such parcel for rent Second Life. (Listing was selected at random, no known relation.)

It is apparent that users are going to start with a piece of property: their own home. They’ll be able to populate it as they see fit. That isn’t to say that there won’t be a market for virtual real-estate. Real-estate (which also includes a hosting service) has been a core revenue generator for years at Linden Labs. It’s just that private personal space won’t need to be bought and sold at a premium. Eventually, we may need a mechanism to keep the homescape from accumulating (lag-inducing) clutter.

It is worth noting that extensive use of private space would tend to reduce a feeling of community in a greater virtual environment. Perhaps as a nod to a more traditional notion of the Metaverse, the shell of user’s Virtual Home could exist in a publicly accessible virtual landscape, but the actual interior would belong in a pocket universe. (The TARDIS from Doctor Who is a great example of how this concept works out.) Fortunately, the Virtual Home is not the whole of the Metaverse.

Basing the player in a pocket universe also informs us how we might travel in the Metaverse. The prevailing notion has been that the Metaverse is a singular and contiguous three-dimensional space. Conventionally, you might walk, fly, or teleport to the X, Y, and Z coordinates of where you want to go. With a non-Euclidean pocket universe, that model can work out a little differently. We’ll revisit this later in another article.

If you can't get past the desktop icon model, at least work it into the theme. (Image Source: LitReactor)

How will the Launch Pad function work? The causal user will want something more than a list of destinations as icons or text results in a dialog box. In an advanced implementation, perhaps the user tells The Librarian (a Siri with a virtual presence) something about the destination that they’re looking for. The matches are displayed in screens along the wall. The user presses one of them, and then walks through the door and into their selection. The power user will likely prefer a no-nonsense approach. Image Source: LitReactor, The Matrix

The Trusted Space also seems to suggest that not only do we want to keep our Virtual Home private from other users but, where possible, we also want to keep it private from service providers. The Utility Space aspects tells us that the Virtual Home is going to have basic services that we always want available and configurable. A combination of these things tells me that the Virtual Home is something we want running on our own hardware. That hardware could be built into the HMD. It could be built into a laptop, desktop, game console, smartphone, or it could be running in a dedicated media server.

I’ve said several times now that we need to be careful about using the sci-fi Metaverse as an example to follow, but this is another case where sci-fi seems to have mostly gotten it right. Ready Player One and Snow Crash both have VR gear with a limited off-network internal environment built into it. In the Snow Crash universe, the functionality was far more complex and allowed for an Intelligent Agent to run inside that space. We have to be careful about the flow of information. Without a set of enforced rules, most users will blindly give up security for convenience.

The service provider: resource location, privacy, benefits, and advertising.

If I were a service provider, I might follow the Virtual Home approach… with a twist. I’d appreciate the overall idea, but I would want something where I was the provider of a service, not of software. I may not overtly bring this to the users’ attention, but I would assume a role inside the users’ Trusted Space, and I would collect or even host their personal details on my servers.

As a service provider, I would offer some additional features as part of the arrangement. The Home would automatically be backed up and accessible from any location with Internet connectivity. I would address security concerns globally on my centralized architecture. I would manage the VR marketplace where people can obtain objects and customizations for their personal environment.

Because the Virtual Home acts as the Launch pad, I would let my advertising partners take advantage of my control of the Home environment to promote their destinations. As much as I could convince my users to accept it, I’d throw in some overt advertisements or perhaps some subtle product placements. I could temporarily create a bonus room to their house to run a very special in-world promotion.

I would want to know what kind of things my users have in their Virtual Home, what kind of activities they perform there, where they go, and what their preferences are. All of these things may give me better insight into how to sell advertisements to them. I would steer them towards my preferred set of providers for the Utility Space, and every time they sit down with a good friend in the Metaverse and use their preferred provider to share a real-world pizza, I would receive a commission.

The Virtual Home: more than just the Metaverse

It is important to note that the Virtual Home won’t just act as a launch pad for Metaverse destinations. It also acts as a launch pad for local software such as the intelligent agent mentioned earlier, video games, and any manner of virtual reality applications that exist outside of the Metaverse. It doesn’t just launch the Metaverse. It launches VR applications, too.

The Gallery: Six Elements "The Gallery Greenlit & Valve VR Experience!"

The Gallery: Six Elements “The Gallery Greenlit & Valve VR Experience!”

If I’m a service provider, I’m going to have to have my own marketplace to sell VR software, too. Perhaps I can offer some bonus integration features? The Virtual Home will become the Windows Desktop, the Yahoo! Guide, and the Steam Store for virtual reality.

For years to come, non-Metaverse software is going to be the driver for consumer adoption for VR hardware. Games will help us figure out the details of critical Metaverse components (for example: the user interface, diverse sensor inputs, and avatar movement). As mentioned in the introduction, the Metaverse will need a lot of iterative refinement. We can achieve some of this through video games.

For the Metaverse to succeed, it needs to not just run side-by-side with the gaming market, but to latch itself onto it. The Virtual Home will help keep that marriage together. I expect to see some cross-pollination, such as Metaverse destinations and reward items for virtual reality games. (I would expect Valve Software to be the master of this.)

In this article, I originally included an introduction to a related concept which I called the Real Home. It served as an additional bridge between the Metaverse and Augmented Reality. I have so many concepts to share and so little space; I’m going to have to save that for another article as well.

Wrapping up

I’ve gone way over budget with the number of words in this article, and yet there is so much more about the Virtual Home that we could discuss. I realize that I have yet to talk about the structure of the Metaverse, which ties up more of the loose ends. That, too, will be the topic of an upcoming article.

In this article, we outlined one core component of the Metaverse: the Virtual Home. We covered the Launch Pad, Personal Space, Utility Space, and Trusted Space. We looked into three different ways those worked together: in the pocket universe, with service providers, and in bringing together the worlds which are adjacent to the Metaverse.

Does the Virtual Home make sense? Does the overall design resonate with you? Let me know.

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