Meta Platforms CEO Mark Zuckerberg is one of the world’s biggest proponents of the metaverse. He promises it’ll become a central part of our lives, and along with that, he has a vision of a unified virtual world where multiple realms will work together seamlessly. Users will be able to transition from one metaverse to another with minimal friction, or so the promise goes.
But achieving this may not be so simple if current technology trends are anything to go by.
Most companies have very different ideas of what the metaverse is, or should become. The key stakeholders, each with their own ideas, know only too well how powerful the platform is. Meta’s Facebook, Apple’s iPhone, and Tencent’s WeChat are just a few examples of why it’s so important to control the underlying platform. If you want to make an app for the iPhone for example, you’ll need to pay a portion of its revenues to Tim Cook and co.
It’s due to this platform power-grab that you can’t send a message from WhatsApp to someone on Viber, for example. The two platforms are independent and not interoperable. To talk to someone on WhatsApp, you have to be on that platform.
The future of everything
Broadly speaking, the metaverse refers to a realm of 3D, virtual environments that people will come to explore digitally, using an avatar. It’s made up of multiple digital zones that are best explored through virtual reality headsets. With the right headset, you can play a new generation of immersive video games, don your digital avatar and head off to a virtual party or hang out lounge, go shopping, get some work done, and much more besides.
While the metaverse is often spoken of as something futuristic, it’s arguably already here, accessible through all manner of video games and virtual worlds like Decentraland.
Zuckerberg’s advocacy of the metaverse has ensured the idea has gotten plenty of attention over the last year. The Facebook founder pitches the metaverse as a new, digital realm that will be built by multiple players, based on open standards.
“Teleporting around the metaverse is going to be like clicking a link on the internet,” Zuckerberg said last year when he rebranded Facebook as Meta Platforms. “It’s an open standard. In order to unlock the potential of the metaverse, there needs to be interoperability. When you buy something or create something, your items will be useful in a lot of contexts, and you’re not going to be locked into one world or platform.”
This vision of interoperability makes sense in a future of multiple, disparate virtual worlds. It would ensure people don’t have to make duplicate purchases, such as buying a different avatar for each virtual domain they visit. Those digital assets, such as a pair of funky Nike sneakers, will be represented by non-fungible tokens that record ownership onto the blockchain technology that also underpins cryptocurrency, ensuring that you “own” whatever it is you acquire within the metaverse.
No room for walled gardens
Zuckerberg’s vision of a unified metaverse makes sense in that much of the internet technology we use is based on common standards. This is what makes it possible for an email sent from Outlook to arrive in Gmail, and for a website to appear the same in Google Chrome or Firefox, for example. Big technology companies also benefit from numerous, collaboratively-developed open-source software projects, such as Linux.
However, most newer technology platforms tend to be characterized by the idea of a walled garden that’s controlled by a single company. It’s a trend that suggests that, instead of the open and seamlessly-explorable web of digital worlds proposed by Zuckerberg, the metaverse will instead evolve into a web of virtual siloes that’s almost impossible to navigate. Picture an ocean of different services, with separate logins and currencies, different contact lists, and item inventories, each of which can only be accessed with a special kind of VR headset.
Facebook remains such a sticky service because its users feel as if they can’t afford to leave. Enticing all of your friends and contacts to jump ship to an alternative social media network is impossible because for them to do so, they’d also have to convince all of their friends and contacts too.
The same is true of existing metaverses. Projects like Second Life, Decentraland, and The Sandbox have all built their own, independent metaverses that run on different blockchains and use unique cryptocurrency tokens. Purchase an NFT-based item in The Sandbox, for example, and it’s stuck there – you can’t bridge that item to another metaverse.
Meta, which is building its very own virtual domain in the shape of Horizon Worlds, has called for interoperability and open standards to be built into the metaverse from day one. It’s an approach that would ensure greater accessibility between different metaverses.
Fact is, we will need multiple metaverses. People will visit one digital world to hang out with their friends, and another one that their employer says must be used for work. Then they’ll visit yet more metaverses to meet their needs for shopping, for entertainment (say, attending a virtual concert). These different metaverses will require their own, customized content moderation policies and governance models, and be built on different technological infrastructures suited to their needs.
Building Metaverse interoperability
Separate patches of digital turf will ultimately come to define the metaverse, so it’s clear we can all benefit from some common infrastructure. Thankfully, there are several projects that can help with this.
One of the most important players in metaverse interoperability could be Flare Network, a Layer-1 blockchain whose goal is to connect everything, including both decentralized and traditional networks. Flare’s State Connector is a tool that’s able to prove the state of any blockchain network in a secure and decentralized manner, enabling metaverses running on them to connect with any kind of data source. It can even tap non-smart contract blockchains such as Bitcoin, providing a way for other blockchains to interact with them.
Flare has already secured a key partnership with Metropolis World, an emerging metaverse that aims to connect with all others. Using Flare’s State Connector, Metropolis World has a way to bridge assets to and from other virtual worlds, such as Decentraland and The Sandbox.
Another promising project is Open AR Cloud, created by the nonprofit Open AR Cloud Association. The initiative is building a digital mirror of the real world that can be used by any kind of Augmented Reality Headset. Developers can tap into the OpenXR API to write software that’s compatible with any kind of VR and AR headset.
The metaverse will spawn into a multiverse of dozens, likely even hundreds of independent metaverses all doing their own thing. In this reality, the need for interoperability will become essential in order to provide users with a way to exchange data and information across these metaverses and transition seamlessly from one to the next.
If the metaverse is to live up to its promise of an exciting, borderless virtual expanse, interoperability will be the only thing that makes it happen, which is why open standards cannot be ignored.