Dispatch — Aug 01, 2021

Reality, Ownership, Scarcity

Capture from an Unreal Engine 5 demo, running live on Playstation 5

The people I read and follow could be classified in various groups. One of those, perhaps the one that brings the most value and keeps me on the bird site, is my group of peers, people with similar interests and sensibilities, who’s opinion I respect. When they critique (or bitch) about something, especially when it’s contrary to my thinking, I pay attention to what they are saying and consider my position. And sometimes re-consider. Strong opinions loosely held and all that.

One of the reasons The Alpine Review and Sentiers were named in ways that don’t say anything about what’s covered (except metaphorically, both alluding to perspectives, directions, paths, maps, territory, etc.) is that words get appropriated, stretched, diluted, and a topic you loved suddenly ends up represented by a word you despise, or at the very least one that doesn’t represent the view you have on the subject. Picking something more metaphorical or with no connection at all helps prevent that. Even so, the appropriation, to my mind, is a real issue.

The Metaverse ticks both of those boxes. People I respect are very critical of the ‘field’ at the moment, and the word is getting distorted and re-appropriated. Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote Synthetic Reality & The Metaverse for members (it’s now public). Although I was positive about the topic, already back then I edged my bets by also using ‘synthetic reality,’ and have since pretty much completely switched to the latter. With the latest critiques and in the process of considering my own opinion, I wanted to separate the two and see where or if there’s some valuable meat (protein?) on the bone.

Right now I’m considering, and it’s very early stage, something like a three axes model for the various ideas of what the Metaverse is. I spoiled them in the title, lets take them in reverse order. But first, the Neal Stephenson-based Wikipedia description:

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. The word “metaverse” is a portmanteau of the prefix “meta” (meaning beyond) and “universe”; the term is typically used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe.

Scarcity

Are things scarce or can they be easily copied? Are you being digital or trying to recreate the scarcity of atoms?

Scarcity as an economic concept ”refers to the basic fact of life that there exists only a finite amount of human and nonhuman resources which the best technical knowledge is capable of using to produce only limited maximum amounts of each economic good.” If the conditions of scarcity didn’t exist and an “infinite amount of every good could be produced or human wants fully satisfied … there would be no economic goods, i.e. goods that are relatively scarce…”

To greatly oversimplify, we might say that in the digital world there is originally no scarcity, and much of capitalist activity in digital has to do with making bits scarce like atoms. Logins, paywalls, DRM, NFTs, all ways of restricting access to something that would otherwise be accessible and copyable. When you access a webpage or even stream a song, you’re basically copying it over to your computer. Various practices try to prevent that so the thing you are copying needs to be paid for and is unique(ish).

Blockchains are ledgers. Distributed, normally not owned by any one entity, constructed so you don’t need to trust the person you are transacting with, and immutable. But still ledgers. Early on they were of course used for currency but it was also hoped they’d be used to track the uniqueness of things made of atoms. Like knowing that that specific fish was fished at that specific time and keeping track of all the steps to your hands in the grocery store. Or nuts and bolts tracked all the way to being screwed together in a plane.

Currencies kind of went wild and the tracking hasn’t happened so much. The current wave of interest, beyond getting rich with coins, is in making digital art unique with NFTs. Non fungible tokens basically make a digital file unique (insert multiple caveats here) and sellable as such. Hence the recent gold rush.

Once you make digital art unique, what might be the next thing? Well, anything digital really, and some have decided that lots of the consumer goods of ‘real life’ could also be made scarce and sold. Clothes, faces, weapons, furniture, houses, cars, name it. And where do you use and sell those things? Why, in a virtual world of course!!

And this is the vision, I believe, the people mentioned above are critiquing, as well as one end of the first axis. A version of the Metaverse could be plentiful, with stuff copied left and right and some kind of ‘view source’ to know how to build your own, or it could be like the world of atoms, where everything is scarce and needs to be paid for. The Blockyverse.

Ownership

The second axis concerns who owns the Metaverse itself. It could go a few ways and already people (companies) are using the same word for vastly different interpretations and plans as to who owns what. (Even Zuckerberg wants to build it, ffs!!)

Who owns the experience, and how much of the stack for building worlds is owned by one entity?

The original public web was completely open, you could run a server on your home computer but more likely you were renting space on someone else’s computer (server). But by and large, it was all open, built on open standards and you could move your website and files to any other server.

Microsoft, in the heydays of Windows and Office, were the original digital owned platform. Have a read of Ben Thompson’s The Bill Gates Line to better understand the distinction between what various people call a ‘platform.’ Gates’s definition goes like this:

A platform is when the economic value of everybody that uses it, exceeds the value of the company that creates it. Then it’s a platform.

You could build almost any Windows software you wanted and sell it, if you built it correctly it would work on their platform.

That Thompson piece compares Microsoft with Facebook and that’s another type of platform and ownership. You can create an app or page on FB but you have much less control over what you can do, who can see it, or how long it will work correctly. Microsoft could change their API in the same way but didn’t, because they had a different vision and configuration of platform. Apple if probably kind of halfway between the two but for now where the lines fall exactly is not that relevant.

Roblox is kind of like Microsoft, not as opened because you are doing everything on their servers but you can also build whatever worlds you want with little oversight.

The OASIS in Ready Player One is often the Metaverse of reference. If I remember correctly, it’s kind of like Roblox because you can build lots of things but it’s definitely got loads of scarcity and the whole point of the book is that since it’s owned by one entity, that entity can be loose or aggressive about monetizing its position.

My ideal would be one end of that axis, an Openverse like the open web, where a set of standards is agreed upon and people can build whatever they want on it. Sure, there are servers, but you can have your own or move between them, and software exists to build what you dream of. There likely would be gates and scarcity, but the whole is built on open standards.

Reality

The third axis is actually where I can frame what I’m most interested in and a big part of why I switched to talking about ‘synthetic reality.’

To which degree is the technology and its application connected to reality?

OASIS, Roblox, Minecraft, and the Blockyverse, are all purely digital worlds mostly replicating the physical world and remixing it with fantasies. Most Metaverses, the Blockyverse, and OASIS, let you ‘become digital’ with goggles and gloves and suits and treadmills and suspended rigs and haptics but you basically teleport to that world. It’s not connected to the physical world other than through the sensations within the suit.

But the same tools, whether it be software or all those goggles and haptics, can be used for XR. Here I’m using it as shorthand for any ‘extension of reality,’ roughly like in this interview with Aleissia Laidacker, so that would include VR, AR, and MR.

As I mentioned in my Metaverse piece last year, software like the Unreal Engine is being used in games but also in TV and movie special effects. Architecture, some planning for cities, and healthcare are all fields where roughly the same tools are used to create digital twins of physical places and people to simulate various situations.

Some digital information, objects, and creatures will, to a certain extent ‘live’ and be accessible in the physical world through some representation. ‘Layers’ of reality will be (are being) added through glasses way before something sufficiently advanced to honestly be called a Metaverse ever exists.

Avatars are celebrities on Instagram and Youtube, human influencers are competing with synthetic ones, fake news is becoming a puppet theatre where bad actors impersonate known figures, most forms of art are being recreated completely or in centaur fashion with software and synthetic assistants. There is actually way more synthetic stuff in the real world than there are people physically active in the digital, for example with VR. Those are all not the Metaverse, but also inklings of where things might go, all are examples of synthetic reality.

Here’s something I imagine happening soon that uses the tools I’d categorize under ‘early stage Metaverse’ that have nothing to do with the Blockyverse vision. Pick a world like Assassins’ Creed, Grand Theft Auto, Death Stranding or Call of Duty, but it might happen with Mandalorian first. You can watch a movie (or tv series) with actual actors, exactly like you would today, but you can also switch modes and diverge the story by playing one of the characters, or simply switch viewing angles or focus on a specific character, or start a game from scratch.

Parts of this are done right now, but the point is that soon the movie will be shot with actors in a live synthetic world surrounding them instead of a green screen, and when you buy the movie you can also use it as a game world. Same effects, same actors, same tools, same visuals, same life-like quality. Not a movie-based game, not cinematics in a game, not an interactive game with limited options. A full world, at movie quality, with an existing narrative provided, which you can remix or play through, or create in. Movie, meets game, meets Machinima, perhaps meets Roblox / Minecraft.

That’s the next stage, then put it online, add persistence, have avatars (and accounts) that can go from one world to the next, then tools and platforms you can create your own worlds one. Although of course it might very well happen the other way around, with ‘civilians’ building tools and settings that studios start using and with which they publish their own properties.

Long story short, people on different coordinates of the three axes are positioning themselves for a variety of endgames but the merging of the tools and interim steps are actually much more interesting to track right now and offer much more varied potentials than those 4-5-6 futures currently vying for the word Metaverse.

So, I’ll keep largely using ‘synthetic reality’ but lets not let the Blockyverse people completely hijack the Metaverse word, lets not let the full ownership platform pushers hijack it either, and for goddess’ sake don’t let Zuck do it! There could still be, years from now, an Openverse, and in the mean time the things created as interim steps are often valuable and intriguing to track, independently of where along my three axes the Metaverse flavour of the month is situated.