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Bubbles And Building Blocks
On zooming out from the zeitgeist.
According to a recent article by Business Insider, the Metaverse is dead.
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Six months prior, it was proclaimed that NFTs too had gone the way of the Dodo.
And due to our love of a good technological funeral, I’m sure the media outlets are already drafting their eulogies for AI.
I find it odd how the hype->dead cycle goes these days, our treatment of emerging technologies is no longer rational in the slightest. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re an evangelical convert or a cynical dogmatist, the behaviours are the same.
On the one side, they’re off ‘to the moon’, fawning over new developments with an almost religious fervour, touting all of the many ills that could be solved if only we embrace technology X, Y or Z; often based on the shallowest of takes, written out in disjointed threads of 140 character ‘insights’. They flock together into their excited cliques, revelling in the effervescent energy of newness, bouncing off of one another to push the collective into obsession and overdrive.
And on the other we have the sneering armchair critics, ready to throw their judgement and bile on anything that may suggest a change to their beloved status quo. They gleefully proclaim ‘fad’, ‘snake oil’ or ‘scam’ of anything that dares to catch fire, because they’ll be damned if something new has the audacity to stick or scale on their watch. They love to perch in the cheap seats, chucking stones and insults at those they deem naive enough to enter the arena to explore what’s on offer. And soon enough, they’ll be patting themselves on the back and the parroting of ‘I told you so’ will reverberate around their echo chamber, as the warm fuzzy feeling of schadenfreude arrives via even the smallest hint of deflated expectations or a lack of instant results.
It may seem like they’re two very separate species, but in reality they’re two sides of the same coin.
And that’s because they’re both riding the hype train. But whilst one group is looking up the mountain, plotting their ascent to the summit, the other is peering into the perceived perils below, awaiting what they believe to be an inevitable crash.
The problem is that after a heady ‘15 minutes of fame’ journey with a rollercoaster of highs and lows, promises and pitfalls, decrees and drama - they both decide to jump off when the train reaches its first stop, having had their fill of spectacle and excitement and showing little to no interest in where the train is headed next, now that it’s on more stable ground.
And yes, I’m massively overdoing the train metaphors here, but I’m channelling my inner Francis Bourgeois to articulate the issue - which is that regardless of which side of the fanboi/doomsdayer fence they sit on, they’re all stuck in the bubble and once it goes pop, they bounce off to the next.
But bubbles are bubbles precisely because they represent the initial overinflated expectations and enthusiasm everyone has when something potentially life and/or business altering enters the fray.
The misunderstanding everyone has about them is twofold:
The belief that bubbles are inherently bad.
And that once they pop, the game is over.
Neither of these embedded concepts represent reality.
In his brilliant piece ‘Well-Behaved Bubbles Often Make History’, Byrne Hobart states that:
“The right kind of bubble, at the right time, can exert a powerful positive effect on the world. A bubble is an objectively irrational shared belief in a better potential future.”
Bubbles bring energy, they bring talent, they bring money, resources and motivation.
Yes, they’re often overinflated, but that initial upfront rush sows the seeds for the real work to begin, and once the fluff and the fantastical falls away, those foundational projects continue on.
Just think back to the dot com bubble, whilst many players fell by the wayside, Microsoft, Amazon, eBay, Qualcomm, and Cisco laid the groundwork to become the giants they are today.
And that’s just as true now as it was back then.
When people say ‘the Metaverse is dead’, they’re often referring to the dystopian vision of us all sat in shipping containers a la Ready Player One, wearing VR headsets so we can inhabit Zuckerberg’s unimaginative and utterly depressing animated conference rooms, where we’d gather to have inane conversations and observe one another’s floating legless torsos, sharing canned laughter and meaningless emoji-filled chat, whilst the real world burns around us.
And if that’s what you understand the Metaverse to be, then I get it. I don’t think anyone’s going to get excited about a future as a virtual Stepford wife, stuck inside a saccharine digital hellscape of dismembered avatars and lacklustre Cheetos haunted houses.
Count me out.
But that definition of the Metaverse isn’t correct. And therefore, sounding its death knell is both inaccurate and premature.
The true meaning of the Metaverse isn’t about building a singular place.
It isn’t about us abandoning the real world to escape to a virtual one.
It isn’t about us replicating the most boring parts of our lives in the digital realm.
And it isn’t about us losing our humanness to become disconnected and disembodied robots.
It’s actually a lot more technical and boring than most people care to understand, and so we’ve created these assumptions to fill in the blanks - suddenly two-plus-two equals seventeen.
The real Metaverse refers to an immersive and interoperable successor to the internet we know and use today.
‘Immersive’ simply refers to our ability to easily switch between the real world and the virtual, to the point of us not even noticing the jump. Today, we use devices to log-in, to connect, to explore. The promise of the Metaverse is that in the future the two will become symbiotic and we’ll get the best of both - the virtual will enhance and add magic to the real, and the real will provide context and grounding for the virtual. It’s not about abandonment of our world, it’s about the augmentation of it.
‘Interoperable’ refers to a shared programming language and standards, which will become the rails upon which the Metaverse is built. This would allow all companies to use the same base, creating an ecosystem of experiences you can navigate fluidly and openly. So rather than having to log in and out of different games, services and platforms and being unable to take your data with you due to closed infrastructure - you could (in theory) easily move from one to the other without friction. It’s essentially promising to unlock the gates and open up the potential of a truly connected universe.
And underpinning both of these key pillars are myriad technologies that will support it all - from XR, to universal coding languages, privacy and provenance tracking, new types of virtual goods, currencies, creative tools, economies and so much more.
And they’re absolutely underway.
It’s rumoured that Apple will be announcing the launch of their new XR headset on June 5th, having scheduled a ‘special event’ on that day. If true, they could be on the verge of propelling us further towards a Metaverse future by ticking the ‘immersive’ box and helping us to begin to explore what an interdependent real and virtual world could look like - for them, this is a big bet in favour of the Metaverse, not against it.
Being realistic, the price tag alone (circa $3k) will mean that a lot of people will not get access to this first device, so the sea change will be somewhat stymied. But as we know from the roll outs of all of the groundbreaking hardware that Apple has released - adoption tends to go up, while price trends down over time, so let’s see how it pans out. But it’s exciting and absolutely one to watch.
Meanwhile Apple’s arch nemesis, Epic, also has a lot of forks in the fire.
Tim Sweeney has been vocal about his belief in an open Metaverse and has been actively building towards it for years, so much so that when he saw the Business Insider ‘death of the Metaverse’ piece, his reaction was this…
Epic have recently deployed some seriously amazing tools that could become the basis of the Metaverse, with a focus on the second pillar of ‘interoperability’.
‘Verse’ is a new coding language, which is currently being nurtured in Fortnite via the UEFN (Unreal Editor For Fortnite), but is due to roll out into the wider Unreal Engine 5 gaming engine in the near future and from there…everywhere. The purpose of ‘Verse’ is to create a timeless, simple, but infinitely scalable language with which anyone can build anything - moving towards the idea of a shared standard and shared rails, which could then open up more fluid navigation and movement of data between different systems. It may sound dull as dishwater, but it’s very fucking cool and its implications are huge.
The second is UEFN and Unreal Engine, both massive leaps forward when it comes to creator tools: opening up shared asset libraries, virtual marketplaces, the ability to lift and leverage a players social graph from one game to the next and so on. These are all examples of how making creation easier and more efficient, of opening up new economies and incentives and allowing for the fluid movement of players and data between them all can spur a huge influx of new concepts, worlds and ideas, which is the very fabric of what the metaverse will be built from, allowing for more people to add creatively to an ever-expanding and interwoven tapestry.
These are two of the biggest technology companies on the planet, both leaning heavily into what the Metaverse promises to be and could be, funnelling resources and energy into making it happen.
And Zuckerberg? Contrary to popular belief (and lazy headlines), he’s also full steam ahead.
So that’s the Metaverse somewhat resurrected, but can AI avoid an early demise in the eyes of the hype crowd and head shakers?
I’m not going to attempt to explain AI in any kind of detail in this piece. It’s huge, complex and multilayered. I don’t think you could even really explain it in a War And Peace-style door stop of a book. But what I do want to touch upon is how AI slots into and accelerates the Metaverse…less of a bubble, more of a building block.
The ability for us to create our own worlds and experiences is going to be a central tenet of what the Metaverse promises to deliver. But right now, most of us can’t code, have zero design expertise and no idea how to leverage data to meet our very specific needs.
Already platforms such as Roblox and Unreal Engine are embedding AI to allow anyone to bring their ideas to life using simple text prompts.
Based on the example below, I could create a driving game, design the colour and spec of the car, the cityscape, the rules and the weather, simply by typing in what I want it to be. No code needed.
The same is happening in design tools such as Canva and Adobe with their ‘Firefly’ release - allowing anyone to enter a prompt or command and see it visualised beautifully on screen in front of them - from insane imagery, to professional presentations, kids birthday party invites and virtual clothing design.
And when it comes to the true utopian vision for the Metaverse of personalisation at scale, AI is moving the needle rapidly in that direction. The ‘Avengers’ director, Joe Russo, recently stated that he believes AI will be making personalised movies in just two years time:
“You could walk into your house and say, ‘hey, I want a movie starring my photoreal avatar and Marilyn Monroe's photoreal avatar. I want it to be a rom-com because I've had a rough day,' and it renders a very competent story with dialogue that mimics your voice - a rom-com starring you that's 90 minutes long. So you can curate your story specifically for you."
Pixar is already working on this.
We’ll also see the advent of personalised learning, fictional ‘choose your own adventure’ experiences, individualised gameplay narratives and much more.
AI creation tools can and will remove the barriers to anyone being able to imagine, build and connect within an open Metaverse. Suddenly we all have computational and creative superpowers and the unlock on that is 🤯.
But in a world where everything is generated (via AI) and you can create derivatives (see Grimes AI voice engine), remixes (if Lord Of The Rings was made by Wes Anderson) and even outright rip offs (the Weeknd and Drake track), how do we know what’s real? How do we know who to credit or who should get paid for providing the initial inspiration? How do we track truth, reward originality or just have the ability to say who owns what iteration of an IP?
Yep, that’s right, it’s time to exhume the NFTs and resuscitate the blockchain…
Let’s be clear, an NFT is not a jpeg of a monkey. It’s also not a 2D drawing of a shiba inu dog, a cat in a hat, a penguin with a neckerchief or a pixelated punk. In fact, NFTs are not anthropomorphic animal pictures at all.
Rather, they are simply unique pointers to URLs or a virtual locations where a digital object is housed - it could be a music file, an item of virtual clothing, a membership card or something else entirely. The NFT acts as a kind of certificate of authenticity and ownership, generated once a transaction has taken place that has been proven on the blockchain - an immutable and unchangeable ledger.
It all sounds pretty complicated and it can be, but in basic terms, NFTs allow us to embed, track and prove the provenance of virtual content. Exactly what we need in an era when provenance is going to be continuously called into question.
Is a clip of Kanye singing a new song real or generated?
Is a Wes Anderson-style short film really from him or made as an homage by a fan?
Is a picture of Donald Trump dressed as a giant turd on the streets of New York a photo of an actual event or just a generated metaphor meant to be representative of his behaviour?
Each of these elements would need to be searchable and verifiable in order for us to prove they came from either credible sources or generated ones. We want to be able to say for sure that something is the real deal or a great fake. Because as we move forward into this new era where we literally cannot believe our eyes or our ears, we need some method to help us figure out which way is up.
NFTs and the blockchain could solve that for us. Suddenly the use case is no longer about spending $1M on a profile picture of a dog wearing a gold chain and an eye patch which you can flex(?) on Twitter, but instead it becomes about providing us with a critically important process for delineating between veracity and illusion.
And that’s only one such way that NFTs, tokens and ledgers are going to become of increasing consequence for us and how they too will help to underpin the Metaverse as it is being shaped and scaled. There are a plethora of other examples such as how we can port our identities from place to place, how they’ll reshape loyalty, become the backbone of creator marketplaces and much more.
All of this is to say that the real meat of new technologies happens once the hype train has pulled into the first station, when the champions and cynics have disembarked following their short-lived passage of possibility or pessimism, both declaring the ride well and truly over.
It’s once the dust settles and the somewhat deflated bubble quietly morphs into building blocks that the real substance and significance is revealed. That’s when the dedicated remain - the architects, artisans, collaborators and true change-makers. And that’s when you can see it all slotting together, spring-boarding and connecting, like Lego blocks to create the sum of the parts, the bigger and bolder visions.
The Metaverse isn’t dead, it’s being created as we speak - brought to life by other ‘hyped-then-deceased’ technologies and trends such as AR, NFTs, blockchain, virtual goods, AI and the creator economy.
Yet we can’t see it, because whether detractor or defender, we’re all guilty of only bothering to understand these emerging opportunities in the shallowest of terms - either cheering or jeering from the sidelines. We love to see things in black and white, forgetting that the magic is always in the grey. We make big sweeping prognostications that fail to take into account the messy middle and the nuance needed to move towards real progress, missing the wood for the trees.
It’s a habit that is making us myopic, and therefore it’s one we desperately need to break.
Originally, I meant this to be a tweet storm.
Then it became a mini-rant.
Now, it’s more of a moderately sized one.
But really all I wanted to achieve is one thing - for you to open up your mind to the real pace of change and to see the world through that lens, rather than that of the breakneck zeitgeist that encourages us to chew something up and spit it out in mere seconds of the internet clock.
There’s a saying I used to have written up on the chalkboard in my kitchen, a mantra for life I suppose - ‘Hold the vision, trust the process’ - it seems apt to share in this context, because progress happens fast, then slow, then all at once.
So maybe let’s stay on the train, even if only for one more stop.
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