What is the Metaverse?

This is a question I've been asked many times since Facebook's decision to rebrand as Meta. The answer is, to borrow phrase from Facebook... "it's complicated."

by flipperpa on Nov. 9, 2021, 10:33 p.m.

Random Virtual Reality

First, A Quick Answer

So what is the metaverse? A clinical answer to the question might be, "a persistent, three-dimensional virtual space in which people can interact via avatars in a plethora of interesting ways." The idealist in me would insist that the metaverse should be, "the ultimate blank canvas for our dreams, a place where people can explore new levels of intellectual curiosity, whimsy, and hopefully, mutual understanding on a level playing field."

The Origin of the Term Metaverse

I first read the term "metaverse" as a senior in high school. I had been programming computers since I was about six years old, so by this time, I had been tinkering with code and hardware for over a decade. I was beginning to dream of a future where the internet would be part of our daily lives. In his 2006 book, Techno-Cultural Evolution: Cycles of Creation and Conflict, William McDonald Wallace argues that human evolution has had three major spikes after crucial inventions have come to be:

It is a compelling thought and could explain the growing pains humanity has been experiencing the past two decades. Humans aren't huge fans of change, and the internet and globalization have changed everything. The rate of accelerated change is affecting even the most ardent techies among us, and it is something humanity will continue to wrestle with for generations to come.

Before I was a teenager, I loved playing with computers because it was the next logical step beyond Lego, but by high school, I had begun to understand that everything was about to change: EVERYTHING. I had started using my modem to network with people around Philadelphia, and discovered multi-node BBS's, where we could chat and play games together in virtual spaces, including a game called Infinity Complex, which sucked down many hours of my friends and my time. I graduated from high school in June 1992, the same month that Neal Stephenson released his seminal cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash. This was the book in which he coined the term "metaverse", to describe a persistent three-dimension space experienced as a city, called "the Street."

More of My Background

I read Snow Crash over the summer of 1992, and it fueled my dreams, inspiring me to create an individualized major at the University of Pennsylvania. We were making our own worlds on the internet, including PennMOO, and all-text-based chat world on campus. I graduated in 1996 with a degree combining Computer Science, Psychology, Cognitive Science, and Philosophy. Throughout college, I was an early adopter of anything and everything to do with virtual reality. I was one of the early adopters of ActiveWorlds (you can search for FlipperPA on their early citizen list!), Worlds.NET, Virtual Places, and many others. I spent countless hours online. I am friends to this day with some of the wonderful people I met through these virtual worlds; the bonds created are real, and the friendships have lasted for decades.

I wrote my senior thesis on using computers alongside the human mind for better understanding, which now sounds obvious, but was novel at the time. By the end of college, I was dreaming of this elusive "metaverse" coming to fruition. I wanted it to be a better way forward for humanity.

My Obsessions and Addictions

I should mention that I'm an addict. I can get obsessive about things. I have always been full-on into technology my entire life, but by the end of college, I was also an alcoholic. With the demand for technology professionals never ceasing, the two tended to go hand-in-hand. Idiotic catchphrases like "work hard, play hard" gave me the excuse I wanted to continue to allow my behavior to slide. I'm now recovered, but for much of what you're about to read, I was a functional active alcoholic.

The Second Life Years

I wasn't the only person inspired by this novel: Philip Rosedale cites it as his primary inspiration for founding Linden Lab. Linden Lab was the company that created the virtual world Second Life - who were largely the subject of the last wave of hype about virtual worlds, circa 2005 through 2008. I joined Second Life almost exactly 18 years ago at the time of this writing: November 14th, 2003. The Chief Technology Officer of Linden Lab, Cory Ondrejka, would go on to become Vice President of Engineering for Facebook, and is largely responsible for convincing Mark Zuckerberg to purchase Oculus. Cory Ondrejka had taken the bold step of announcing that any creation in Second Life would remain the intellectual property of the creator. I saw the article on Slashdot and created my account minutes later. A week later, I bought a new laptop with a powerful graphics card, and it was off to the races.

It wasn't long before I was the first person to buy an entire mainland simulator - a virtual section of land, 256 meters by 256 meters, or about 16 acres. It was called Indigo, and I assembled a crew of friends to help build it out. This is where I first experienced the feeling of building my dreams on a blank canvas. It was amazing, and I was immersed. It wasn't long before I became friends with many of the employees and upper management of Linden Lab, including Philip, Cory, and Robin Harper, the VP of Community Development. They were amazing minds in an amazing startup during a wonderful time.

Second Life got a lot of coverage because of avatars having sex. This always seemed a bit absurd to me. Humans are sexual creatures. Most new technologies are first used, and pushed to their limits, by sex-related industries. People viewing pornography seems to be largely accepted by society. Yet, a virtual world sexual encounter, where there is an actual person on the other end and not a recording, is weird for some reason? That never quite made sense to me. I had a friend in Second Life, charming and hilarious, who was wheelchair-bound. He met his wife through Second Life and told me he would never have had the confidence to meet a woman without it.

Second Life also made things like Brigadoon possible. Brigadoon was a private area of Second Life, where children with Asperger's Syndrome could congregate. They could learn social skills by communicating with one another, all from the comfort of their own homes. This was amazingly effective, and an unexpected byproduct of this was, it became an incredible support network for the parents. The Second Life community raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life in incredibly creative ways. This is just the tip of the iceberg of uplifting stories from the Second Life community.

With a few friends and my former wife, I was a founding member of The Second Life Community Convention, which I organized from 2005 through 2007. 2005's convention in New York was 150 people; nine months later in San Francisco, we had a second in 2006, with 500 people. In 2007, with the hype cycle in full force, we had over 1,000 people show up in Chicago for SLCC 2007.

During this time, I also started a company on a dare by accident, entirely virtually. It was called SLBoutique, and it was a website where anyone who created content in the virtual world could sell it through a common web portal. Items were delivered in real-time in the virtual world via XML-RPC calls to objects in the virtual world from the web, and payments were made in real time to the sellers. I decided to take it a step further and began selling real-world items - such as computer monitors and video cards - for Second Life's currency, the Linden dollar. This got me coverage in BusinessWeek, MTV, The Guardian, and many other outlets. My former wife and I were featured on MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, and ABC... all over the place. It was a crazy time.

In the era of BitCoin, it is crazy to think that I was the first person to sell real-world items for a virtual currency, and I did it on a drunken dare!

So What Now?

I consider Cory Ondrejka a friend, but I am saddened that Facebook has gotten involved in virtual worlds and have trouble reconciling that the person who ensured that Second Life residents retained their intellectual property would start the ball rolling for one of the worst companies in the world to dominate virtual reality. I can think of very few people who will be a worse steward of the potential of the metaverse than Mark Zuckerberg.

We have finally reached a point where technology is catching up with our dreams, through products like the Valve Index, HTC Vive, and Oculus, and I'm watching Facebook do what they always do: buy out any potential competitor. They've bought Oculus, and released a $300 model which is dominating the marketplace. They are requiring a Facebook account to use it. They have purchased the development company that makes one of my favorite games, Beat Saber.

I wake up every morning and do a 45-minute workout with my virtual reality headset on, and people don't seem to think it is that weird anymore. I've got friends I've made through virtual worlds for over 25 years. Just because Mark Zuckerberg puts out a press release doesn't change what we can do, and I hope we choose more wisely than we have with Facebook. I believe the data show that Trump never becomes President without Facebook, and that 650,000 Americans likely would be alive without Trump putting himself before the country during this pandemic. And yet, Zuckerberg continues to put his algorithm and profits above human life. It is despicable.

The metaverse is theoretical; the metaverse is NOT Facebook's Meta. The metaverse is a vast potential that no one owns. We can still make the metaverse the place of OUR dreams.