Meta-what? What is the Metaverse?
DeFi & NFT Taskforce lead Philipp Hartmannsgruber begins his exploration of the Metaverse. Since this article was originally published on Coinmonks, it should be seen as another installment in our Guest Article Series.
In this article, I give my personal understanding of the Metaverse. I start with Neal Stephenson, who invented the term Metaverse in a science fiction novel in 1992. From there I make the link to Cyberspace, Fortnite, and Facebook. The main part is dedicated to Matthew Ball and his essay from January 2020, where he defines the Metaverse in seven core attributes and what will likely be part of the Metaverse but will not be the Metaverse. Finally, I will answer the question of what the Metaverse is and give my thoughts about who will or won’t build it.
I. Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse
As far as I know, Neal Stephenson invented the term “Metaverse” in his science fiction novel “Snow Crash” in 1992. With this cyberpunk novel, Stephenson achieved his breakthrough. The internet was in an early stage (like Bitcoin today), but he already thought about what will come next (like Lightning).
In his novel, the Metaverse was a cyberspace home to avatars (think Second Life, 2003 or Ready Player One, 2018), but also to software daemons. In short, anything and everything happened in the Metaverse. The drug “Snow Crash” was not just a cyberdrug in his Metaverse, but also a computer virus — and something more. When taken, it even infects the person behind the avatar in real life. In a way, “Snow Crash” bleeds his way into reality.
In general, the Metaverse from the book isn’t something to look forward to in the future. Stephenson didn’t dream up a nice place to live. His Metaverse is a fictional world ruled by large corporations and organized crime. People can get out of the metaverse, but the physical world is devastated by mass poverty. A lot of people in the book never leave the Metaverse and subsequently become completely dysfunctional. 
II. Cyberspace, Fortnite, Metaverse
It is interesting then, that large and powerful companies like Fortnite, Facebook, Microsoft, and more are betting heavily on the Metaverse. The concept of the Metaverse of Neal Stephenson isn’t that different from the term “Cyberspace” defined by the science-fiction author William Gibson in 1982. Like Stephenson’s Metaverse, Cyberspace wasn’t a nice place to live in.  Nonetheless, the term Cyberspace established itself and is often used today to describe the World Wide Web.
So, the word Cyberspace is old news. Metaverse on the other hand sounds fancy and is linguistically modern. Apparently, companies can easily raise a billion US-Dollars with it, like the Fortnite-creator Epic Games in April 2021. According to CEO Tim Sweeney, the money is intended to implement the long-term vision of the company of a Metaverse. 
III. Matthew Ball’s Metaverse
What is it that Tim Sweeney, Mark Zuckerberg, and others out of the Silicon Valley expect from the Metaverse? For this, we look to the Metaverse-essay from Matthew Ball. Although Ball states that
“the full vision for the Metaverse remains hard to define, seemingly fantastical, and decades away”, 
he defines seven core attributes for the Metaverse. It must:
- Be persistent — it never “resets”, “pauses” or “ends”, it just continues indefinitely.
- Be synchronous and live — pre-scheduled and self-contained events will happen just as they do in “real life”. The Metaverse will be a living experience that exists consistently for everyone and in real-time.
- Be without any cap to concurrent users, while also providing each user with an individual sense of “presence” — everyone can be a part of the Metaverse and participate in a specific event/place/activity together, at the same time, and with individual agency.
- Be a fully functioning economy — individuals and businesses will be able to create, own, invest, sell, and be rewarded for a wide range of “work” that produces “value” that is recognized by others.
- Be an experience that spans both the digital and physical worlds, private and public networks/experiences, and open and closed platforms.
- Offer unprecedented interoperability of e.g., data, digital items/assets, and content across each of these experiences — your Counter-Strike gun skin, for example, should also be able to be used to decorate a gun in Fortnite, or be gifted to a friend through Facebook. Similarly, a car designed for Rocket League (or even for Porsche’s website) could be brought over to work in Roblox. Today, the digital world basically acts as though it were a mall where every store used its own currency, required proprietary ID cards, had proprietary units of measurement for things like shoes or calories, and different dress codes, etc. This has to change for a proper Metaverse to work.
Be populated by “content” and “experiences” created and operated by a wide range of contributors, some of whom are independent individuals, while others might be informally organized groups or commercially-focused enterprises
In no. 6 the focus is on gaming and generating even more money with in-game objects and mixing media assets from movies, books, and games everywhere. Avatars, virtual equipment, and virtual land/houses are already a central money source for game developers. Ownership of in-game assets, the platform on which you have them, and what you can do with them could be a part of Metaverse but is not the Metaverse. As Ball wrote,
“the Metaverse isn’t a game, a piece of hardware, or an online experience. This is like saying World of Warcraft, the iPhone, or Google is the Internet. They are digital worlds, devices, services, websites, etc. The Internet is a wide set of protocols, technology, tubes and languages, plus access devices and content and communication experiences atop them. Metaverse will be too”. 
To narrow it further, Ball thinks that the following analogies are likely to be part of the Metaverse, but aren’t really the Metaverse:
- A “virtual world” — Virtual worlds and games with AI-driven characters have existed for decades, as have those populated with “real” humans in real-time. This isn’t a “meta” (Greek for “beyond”) universe, just a synthetic and fictional one designed for a single purpose (a game).
- A “virtual space” — Digital content experiences like Second Life are often seen as “proto-Metaverses” because they (a) lack game-like goals or skill systems; (b) are virtual hangouts that persist; (c) offer nearly synchronous content updates; and (d) have real humans represented by digital avatars. However, these are not sufficient attributes for the Metaverse.
- “Virtual reality” — VR is a way to experience a virtual world or space. Sense of presence in a digital world is not sufficient on its own for a Metaverse. It‘s like saying you have a thriving city, just because you can see and walk around it; a thriving city is defined by its bustling economy, society, culture, and more.
- A “digital and virtual economy” — These, too, already exist. Individual games such as World of Warcraft have long had functioning economies where real people trade virtual goods for real money or perform virtual tasks in exchange for real money. In addition, platforms such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, as well as technologies such as Bitcoin, are based around the hiring of individuals/businesses/computational power to perform virtual and digital tasks. We are already transacting at scale for purely digital items for purely digital activities via purely digital marketplaces.
- A “game” — Fortnite has many elements of the Metaverse. It (a) mashes up IP; (b) has a consistent identity that spans multiple closed platforms; (c) is a gateway to a myriad of experiences, some of which are purely social; (d) compensates creators for creating content, etc. However, as is the case with Ready Player One, it remains too narrow in what it does, how far it extends, and what “work” can occur (at least for now). While the Metaverse may have some game-like goals, include games, and involve gamification, it is not itself a game, nor is it oriented around specific objectives.
- A “virtual theme park or Disneyland” — The “attractions” will be infinite, and not be centrally “designed” or programmed like Disneyland, nor will they all be about fun and entertainment. In addition, the distribution of engagement will have a very long tail.
- A “new app store” — No one needs another way to open apps, nor would doing so “in VR” (as an example) unlock/enable the sorts of value supposed by a successor to the Internet. The Metaverse is substantively different from today’s Internet/mobile models, architecture, and priorities.
- A “new UGC platform” — The Metaverse is not just another YouTube or Facebook-like platform in which countless individuals can “create”, “share”, and “monetize” content, and where the most popular content represents only the tiniest share of overall consumption. The Metaverse will be a place in which proper empires are invested in and built, and where these highly capitalized businesses can fully serve customers, control APIs/data, unit economics, etc. In addition, it’s likely that, as with the web, a dozen or so platforms hold a significant share of user time, experiences, content, etc. 
IV. So, what is the Metaverse?
From my point of view, it is a concept of a persistent, online, 3D universe that combines different virtual spaces. It can be seen as a future iteration of the internet, which will allow users to work, meet, game, and socialize together in it. Right now, the metaverse isn’t in existence, but some platforms contain metaverse-like elements; like video games where in-game events are hosted and virtual economies are created.
Cryptocurrencies are a great fit for the virtual economies of the metaverse. There can be different types of utility tokens and virtual collectibles. For payments (and of course store of value) Bitcoin, or more precisely the Lightning Network, would be perfect. For NFTs, at least for now, Ethereum, Polygon, Solana, and perhaps the Binance Smart Chain are the means of choice, even if you have to make different trade-offs in terms of decentralization and speed. Also, other features of blockchain technology like DAOs can provide transparent and reliable governance systems.
V. Who will build the Metaverse?
For companies like Facebook, it’s the race to build the next platform, to host as much as possible there, to save intellectual property rights and virtual property. If Facebook built the Metaverse, it would benefit massively. It already has more users, daily usage, and user-generated content creation than any other platform on earth; with a Metaverse, it would increase that even further in a significant way.
But will Facebook really build the Metaverse? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I believe Facebook and other tech companies will build parts of it, and together they will be virtual spaces in the Metaverse, but they won’t be the entire Metaverse. We will see…
To be continued.
 Neal Stephenson, “Snow Crash”, Bantam Books, 1992, New York.
 William Gibson, “Neuromancer”, ACE, 1984.
 Epic Games, “Announcing a $1 Billion Funding Round to Support Epic’s Long-Term Vision for the Metaverse“, April 13, 2021, https://www.epicgames.com/site/en-US/news/announcing-a-1-billion-funding-round-to-support-epics-long-term-vision-for-the-metaverse.
 Matthew Bell, “The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find it, Who Will Build It, and Fortnite”, January 13, 2020 https://www.matthewball.vc/all/themetaverse.
Please note: This is a short overview over the Metaverse (which is evolving by nature) and was written in October 2021.This article may be updated.
I am aware that there are many more exciting topics around the Metaverse. In order to not make the text even longer, I have focused on a first overview.
Other topics will be addressed in the next Metaverse article, which will take the nine-part update “The Metaverse Primer” by Matthew Ball, June 2021 into account.
If you want to criticize or endorse the article or parts of it, feel free to contact me via E-Mail or on any other social network. In my Linktr.ee you can find Podcast & YouTube interviews, as well as my own Podcast “Decrypted — Blockchain & Bitcoin mit Philipp”.
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Philipp J.A. Hartmannsgruber holds a master’s degree in Finance & Accounting. He is Head of Corporates & Digital Markets at CM-Equity AG and Head of Operations of the Blockchain Bundesverband (Bundesblock).
In 2019 he founded ShareHope, a non-profit NGO, right now in stealth-mode.
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