So I'm starting a blog to talk about the metaverse. Problem is, some people moan when they hear the word metaverse. In every industry and in every community, naming is hard. We all end up having really strong opinions about names and starting naming wars.
(Yeah, okay, that's Star Wars. But try to find an image for naming wars.)
It's true that names our important. They can help reduce the friction to reach and understand the underlying concept. And names are symbols. Inevitably, we're going to care about where those symbols come from, and what other things they may also represent or have represented in the path. For example, people have stopped using the svastika sign after the Nazis took ownership of it, even though it was originally a religious symbol in India.
And now VR is finally kicking off, and we're all pushing ahead trying to figure out the basics of how this new platform will work. But here we are, arguing again and again over names. Is it VR/AR or XR. What is XR? What about Mixed Reality vs Augmented Reality? Is it the Metaverse or Cyberspace or just Social VR? And what is going on with different companies and their respective marketing strategies deciding to make life even harder just because? Tyriel sums it up great in this tweet:
can all this companies stop giving different names to everything?? Metaverse is magic verse now, Virtual reality is xreality is mixedreality but mixed reality is not augmented reality nor virtual reality— Tyriel 🔛 Virtual Reality Tech (@Tyrielwood) October 10, 2018
Metaverse, Cyberspace, Internet?
So here I am, trying to start a blog about something that I'm unsure how to name. This uncertainty made we wonder when this issue even started and why. So lets start with Metaverse. A quick search and I'm in Wikipedia. Might be like the 27th time I´ve opened the Metaverse page on Wikipedia.
The Metaverse is 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.
And that's just one definition. If you search for metaverse related blog posts on Medium, on the Web in general, in Twitter threads, or watch different talks, you'll get different definitions. Recently, Tim Sweeney from Epic Games gave a talk at Siggraph outlining what's necessary to build the metaverse. He gave another definition:
It’s a real-time 3d social medium where people can create and engage in shared experience as equal participants in an economy with societal impact.
Both definitions agree on shared virtual space, but Sweeney goes even further requiring participants to be of equal status, and for the metaverse to have a built-in "economy with societal impact". That would mean that most existing Social VR applications wouldn't count as a metaverse. Most still don't have an economy and clearly prioritise employee/moderators over their users.
We could also look at science fiction. The term was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash. The metaverse there is maintained by an open standards group, so that's aligned with the concept of an open metaverse. But what if we consider the case of the Oasis from Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It is not called a metaverse, but it's widely considered as such. This usage of the term wouldn't fit with Sweeney's definition. It have an economy with societal impact but is controlled by a single organization who has the final say on the development of their metaverses.
And is it "A metaverse" or "THE metaverse"? Can there be multiple metaverses or by definition it should the global digital platform like the Internet? (This discussion quickly becomes more complicated if we start talking about the balkanization of the Internet.)
There are concerns with throwing the term around lightly. Many people are tired after seeing others pursuing the dream of the metaverse. After talking with a few people and seeing comments online, I believe this tiredness stems from 1 main reason:
Many companies feel like they're only willing to build the metaverse by themselves and take full credit for it.
I can see why many, specially those behind Sweeney's definition of an open metaverse, would roll their eyes when they see this. It just doesn't align with what many of us believe to be the way to build a metaverse. Another issue is that the metaverse is very hard to build and we're far away from a technical standpoint as well. If you put these two together, we end up having companies promoting that they're building a metaverse when it's both a closed garden and limited technically. And that can get tiring.
Also, as it's different companies pursuing different metaverses and defending that their one is the best one. Or maybe even that it's the only true metaverse due to some specific definition they made up to align with their project.
Avaer, from Exokit, also pushed this perspective in a Twitter thread recently that's definitely worht a read:
This was mainly a criticism on some crypto-metaverse projects where people do an ICO selling their investors on a metaverse that they will build themselves. Avaer defends that you can't even call that a metaverse. More akin to the definition by Sweeney, the metaverse is only a metaverse when it's open, not for profit and worked on by many different organizations.
In another thread discussing the metaverse, James Baicoianu from JanusVR brought an interesting perspective (it's worth reading his whole thread):
I think the metaverse is a lot like heaven/enlightenment, intangible concepts, ideas that one day all our burdens will lift, and we're in a place where we're free to experience the bliss of existing on an infinite plane alongside everyone we love, but it's different for everybody— James Baicoianu (@bai0) November 25, 2019
So is the Metaverse some unattainable utopian vision of technology? With such slow progress, many broken promises and seeing different companies fighting over building their own metaverse, it can sure feel like it.
I'm quite optimistic here. I acknowledge that building the metaverse is hard and will take time. I don't enjoy the marketing speech from many projects, but it's good that different people and organizations are pushing the boundaries of what we can do and experimenting with what a metaverse is. This is a necessary process. The World Wide Web also competed with other similar networks of information. But we need to keep in mind that these are experiments. Siloed social VR platforms won't work just because they solve some technical issues. We need to take the good ideas from the different projects and end up working together on standards that will allow for a much better experience with technology.
It does seem though that the community has a certain common understanding of what a metaverse is. Even if we don't fulfil our individual specific definitions of a metaverse, I do believe that will we end up with a popular technological platform that's something similar to the averages of our definitions. And I don't think our definitions are that different.
And what about VR/AR/MR/XR/Whatever Reality? Ben Lang, from RoadToVR, recently dared to get into the debate and received 70 replies 😅:
Again, let's go to Wikipedia. The term Virtual Reality was popularised by Jaron Lanier in the 80s. But it's a technology that goes back to the first stereoscopic images in the XIX century. Even if we don't go that far back, we had the Sensorama in the 1950s, and the Sword of Damocles in the 1960s. What was it called then?
It seems like it didn't really have a name until Artificial Reality was thrown around in the late 1960s. Myron Kruegere used it for a set of projects that culminated in the VIDEOPLACE, a CAVE-like remote working system. CAVE stands for Cave automatic virtual environment, and is a room with a set of projectors that display virtual content on the walls in the correct perspective so you feel inside that virtual world. That content also adapts to your movements inside the room. The VIDEOPLACE was simpler, with just one projector, and you could see other people as silhouettes.
But it seems that Virtual Reality won the naming war. We finally had something we all agreed on. And it lasted for a couple decades and now VR has become popular again, and with it, AR too. And with it, many new companies working in the space.
We have Microsoft trying to sell us on Mixed Reality. Magic Leap also with Mixed Reality. Intel tried really badly to sell us on Merged Reality. Some people have started using XR to talk about both and we even have standards like OpenXR and WebXR for unified APIs that will work for AR and VR. What does the X mean? No idea. Unknown variable. You can substitute it for a V, A or M (or whatever new mode of reality some marketer comes up with) as you please. It's an easy way to avoid the whole argument.
Is there really a difference between Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality? (Let's just ignore Merged Reality.) Microsoft and Magic Leap sure thinks so. For them, AR is 2D overlays without any spatial perception while MR understands your environment and places holograms that can interact with it. Facebook/Oculus stick with Augmented Reality.
There's even a Mixed Reality continuum:
What the heck is Augmented Virtuality??!! And let's look at another example. Say you're in VR, and you're wearing a virtual augmented reality headset. Is that Mixed Reality? Naming can just get too hard if we insist on going down all the possible rabbit holes.
And I still don't feel like I have a clear answer. All I want is to be able to share my ideas, and here I am, stuck because we still haven't agreed on a common language as a community. I don't want to impose my ideas or names on others. I really wanted to end this search with a strong conclusion.
In then end, I decided to go with the following 3 principles to decide on names.
- I want to keep things simple.
- I want to use the terminology with the most agreement.
- No company/marketing terms.
And that's why I'm going to be using:
- Virtual Reality: Hardware and software that hides the physical world and instead tricks your senses into seeing (hearing, smelling, feeling, tasting?) a virtual environment.
- Augmented Reality: Hardware and software that tricks your senses into seeing (hearing, smelling, feeling, tasting?) virtual content superimposed on the physical world.
- XR: Shorthand for VR and AR.
- Metaverse*: Software platform of shared and interconnected 3D content.
* I have no idea how to capitalize it. Sometime I feel like I'm talking about THE Metaverse and that it needs a capital M, sometimes it feels more generic and I go with lower case. Sorry for the inconsistency!
So from here onwards, I'll be using these names. It's not set in stone and I am open to feedback and the community changing their opinions as to what the best terminology is.
These are vague definitions on purpose. I believe there's still a lot to explore in the space and terms mustn't limit us. You can easily compare my definition for metaverse with Sweeney's and there's a clear difference. I want his definition to come true, but the term comes from science fiction where, for example, people weren't equal participants. And let's face it, the more open the definition, the more varied things I can write about in this blog.
The most important thing here is that we stop confusing end users and focus on working together in making these technologies a success. Fighting over marketing terms won't push us even an inch closer to the finish line. We all roughly understand these terms in similar ways so it's not worth fighting over it.
And you might argue if this topic is not worth spending time on, why did I write a whole blog post about it? The answer is easy. To avoid this discussion in the future. I want to focus on writing and talking about many things related to the metaverse and XR space, and if someone dislikes my usage of the terms, I can just point them to this blog post.
I understand names and words change and that's fine too. If I need to change the terms I use, I'll write an update to this post outlining my new terms. It's just a way to not have to explain myself over and over. I don't have any strong opinions about the words themselves as long as they help to get my points across.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaverse (Includes a very interesting list of older virtual world projects)