We’ve discussed weak signals, how to spot trends, and the risk of missing them. Now, let’s shift streams and explore the recent trend getting the most press coverage and attention: the metaverse.
Currently, there’s no standard definition for the metaverse, reminding me of how the internet was viewed back in the early 90s. At the time, we used the word “internet” without truly understanding what it meant. Did it mean AOL? Did it include intranets? And what was this thing called “the information superhighway?”
Like the internet once was, the metaverse is likely to be the source of a lot of potential disruption moving forward. It could replace today’s internet with connected virtual worlds, creating an internet of experiences instead of content. But why all this metaverse buzz now? VR has been around for decades, as have virtual worlds like Second Life.
One reason is apparent enough: Facebook became Meta and announced that it would be investing billions in the metaverse. Perhaps more than that, however, is that four technologies are maturing concurrently, coming together to make the metaverse truly viable. These technologies include spatial computing, game engines, virtual environments, and virtual economies.
From Fortnite to virtual reality (VR), spatial computing is essential to our current and future digital experiences. In previous iterations of computer games and virtual worlds, we moved using 2D mouse pointers on screens. Now, more and more, we are transitioning to 3D experiences, which feels much closer to how we move around in the physical world. Spatial computing allows users to digitally interact in 3D vs 2D, which is more much intuitive for most people, and allows us to interact with a digital world in a very similar way to how we navigate the physical world. VR/AR/MR are good examples of this, but so is playing Fortnite on your phone.
Game engines are the software tools developers use to build 3D video games, but they’re not just about video games anymore. They’ve become more sophisticated and are now used in applications from agriculture to the driver interface in the new all-electric Hummer. They have also become incredibly realistic, making them the perfect solution for building hyper-detailed virtual worlds in the metaverse. Powerful game engines, like Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 5 and Unity Technologies’ Unity Engine, are equipped with tools that can create large-scale open worlds with incredible detail. They’ve already contributed to popular games like Fortnite and Pokémon Go and are well-suited to the creation of the metaverse.
When you pair spatial computing with game engines, you get an explosion of virtual environments. These aren’t just entirely made-up virtual worlds but also digital replicas of buildings and locations from the real world, also known as digital twins. These replicas can be used for retail, education, the future of work, and more. Today, companies have websites. Tomorrow, companies could also have virtual worlds or locations that can be used to interact with customers, partners, and employees. And someday, there could even be a digital twin of the whole earth!
For example, NBA teams can (and are) outfitting their physical stadiums with hundreds of video cameras that capture the action in real-time and instantly convert it into a metaverse version of the stadium where people can virtually watch the game. These users can choose any seat in the stadium, watch the game in the metaverse instead of in-person, and still get close to the same experience.
The fourth technology trend that’s coming together to create the metaverse today is something we call virtual economies. People want to make purchases in virtual worlds. They want to buy clothes for their digital avatars. They want to buy special powers. They want to purchase virtual sneakers or digital tools. And they’re willing to spend a lot of money purchasing those digital items. In 2018 and 2019, Fortnite generated $9 billion through its virtual economy. However, the problem with today’s virtual economies is that you can’t buy something in one world and use it in another. It’s also challenging to convert virtual items into real-world cash. This is where NFTs come in: they allow everyone to own their digital assets. In theory, these assets could be used across different virtual worlds and could be more easily sold, traded, or converted into cash. NFTs have the potential to implement a pan-world virtual economy for the Metaverse that isn’t tied to a specific company or virtual environment. They give people and consumers the ability to own their digital assets and information, rather than these being owned by the operators of the virtual worlds themselves, and this is why they are currently garnering so much attention.
The emergence of these four related technologies and trends makes the metaverse the topic of today and potentially the internet of tomorrow. Together, they are unlocking several vital elements that will power the metaverse and make it engaging and immersive. As these technologies mature, we move closer to the internet of tomorrow.
What other technologies do you think will be essential for the metaverse?