What is the metaverse and what does it mean for learning & development? – Pt. 1

Regular readers of our monthly newsletter ‘Reality Check‘ (sign-up here if not already) will know that there’s a new buzzword in town, the metaverse. Alternatively, you may have heard it mentioned in many other articles, talks or blog posts as there’s A LOT of chatter right now about what it is, what it means and who’s building it. There are a number of companies and organisations who are sticking the term metaverse onto their apps and platforms, hoping for a free ticket aboard the hype train.

What we plan on doing here is collating all that chatter and noise and refining it into something meaningful for the learning & development, training and simulation sectors, to help you understand how to be ready for and how to embrace it in the near future.

This will become a linked series of blog posts to be released over the coming weeks and months, as it’s a fairly large topic with much to cover. For this part we will address just the basics and point you in places to start your wider reading about what is the metaverse, before in later blog posts we’ll look at what it could mean for L&D specifically.

What is (and isn’t) the metaverse?

We are obligated to cover the fact that the term was first coined by Neal Stephenson in his earlier cyberpunk, sci-fi novel “Snow Crash“. Here he envisioned the metaverse as being a VR-based virtual world that encompasses a number of purposes and use cases. It’s one of the essential reading list books for those looking to take a deeper dive into everything around the history of VR, so we recommend you go pick up a copy and make up your own minds, in that regard.

One of the very few OGs (Original Guru) of the metaverse, Tony Parisi who works at Unity and is known as a co-creator of VRML (if you’re old enough to remember the 1st 3D web programming language), has compiled a well-informed “7 Rules of the Metaverse“. This is a great place to start when we look at defining what it is, or should be. His post covers each rule in more depth but we have listed them out below at a high level.

Rule #1. There is only one Metaverse.

Rule #2. The Metaverse is for everyone.

Rule #3. Nobody controls the Metaverse.

Rule #4. The Metaverse is open.

Rule #5. The Metaverse is hardware-independent.

Rule #6. The Metaverse is a Network.

Rule #7. The Metaverse is the Internet.

Here we agree that the metaverse isn’t a specific app, platform or walled-garden experience. Think of it as the next evolution of the internet, a term that covers all the standards, networks layers, protocols and APIs that combine to form a means of delivery for content and experiences we imbibe through the web. Similarly, there should be no barriers to entry, the metaverse should be accessible to all, again much like the internet.

So to a degree, web3 will form part of the structure of the metaverse and like the internet, we will need standards bodies and organisations. Much like W3C today, who are able to independently ensure these new guidelines enable developers to create content and experiences that will work across devices that adhere to these standards. But what does web3 mean? We’ll cover that off in a later part of this ongoing blog post series.

Another metaverse OG, Avi Bar-Zeev, has scribed many of his thoughts about the recent increase of awareness and application of the term, warts and all. Whilst there is language we wouldn’t use in our blog posts or newsletters, Ari’s background and knowledge of the subject allows him to provide an honest and transparent look at what it all could mean. Following on from Tony’s post, Avi also looks at what needs to happen and who is best suited to enable that, in his post “World War “M” and the Curse of the Metaverse“.

Sticking with Avi for a moment, he also gave a fascinating talk at the recent AWE21 XR conference that dived a little deeper into the stages and other names around the metaverse. You can watch this for free here, with an accompanying blog post to expand upon some of the specific topics covered, called “Beyond Meta: The 7 Verses“.

So if we take these rules and definitions of verses shared above, we can start to understand at least what the metaverse isn’t. If you need more help understanding, Matthew Ball, a silicon valley VC, has a useful set of metaverse primer guides that will allow you to dive a bit deeper.

First and foremost, the metaverse isn’t available today, at least how we want to see it exist. We opened with the gambit that many companies are applying the term to their apps and platforms as they exist today. If we compare these app and platform feature sets and capabilities, it is clear that they shouldn’t be labelled with the metaverse tag.

However that’s not to say that they couldn’t become part of the metaverse in the future, but considering we are still defining what the metaverse is, how it operates and more, there’s clearly a bit of marketing smoke and mirrors going on here to catch out the unwary, or those who are looking for the next bubble to jump into financially. Whilst they exist as is at present, i.e. they can bring external content in but there it remains, stuck within their individual walled gardens unable to escape to other ‘verses, then they aren’t the metaverse. The last thing we want to see is a realisation of the book/film “Ready Player One” where everything is owned and controlled by one company.

Who’s building the metaverse?

As mentioned above, we need the standards, protocols and definitions for how the metaverse operates before we can build portals within it (like the web). Whilst there are some companies who have publicly stated that they are building the metaverse, it’s as yet unclear to see who is going to contribute most to the version we need to see, as opposed to the version we might end up with. As Avi states, will metaverse even be the term we end up with being used most frequently to apply to what is being created anyway? But for now, we’ll stick with it until that more popular name appears organically.

Khronos GroupOpen XR: The Khronos Group is an open, non-profit, member-driven consortium of over 150 industry-leading companies creating advanced, royalty-free interoperability standards for 3D graphics, augmented and virtual reality, parallel programming, vision acceleration and machine learning.

XRSI: XR Safety Initiative (XRSI) is a 501(c)(3) worldwide not-for-profit organization that promotes privacy, security, and ethics in the immersive environments (virtual reality, mixed reality, and augmented reality).

W3C: The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international community where Member organizations, a full-time staff, and the public work together to develop Web standards. Led by Web inventor and Director Tim Berners-Lee and CEO Jeffrey Jaffe, W3C’s mission is to lead the Web to its full potential

Meta: Formerly known as Facebook, Meta has spent $10Bn in 2021 re-aligning the company towards building the metaverse. The recent Connect Keynote highlighted their plan and direction for the next few years, along with news that they are launching a $100M immersive learning fund and looking to hire 10,000 people in EU to enable them to achieve this.

Microsoft: For us, beyond providing Windows OS, Microsoft has been steadily supporting their Mixed Reality efforts through WMR VR headsets and HoloLens and HoloLens 2 devices, with Azure Cloud services for creating spatial positioning. Recently they have announced MS Mesh, a system to allow immersive collaboration and sharing of 3D data across platforms and devices and early signs of interoperability are appearing with partnerships between Teams and Horizon Workrooms for Meta (Oculus) Quest 2.

Google: Whilst Google have been rather quiet of late in regards to their immersive technologies, after Google Cardboard VR and Daydream View VR devices and early AR platforms with Tango, recent news highlights that there are still things happening, as they have collated and combined all their immersive technology departments into one centralised effort.

Unity: Unity are one of the most widely used 3D engines with 40+ platforms supported. It’s our main development environment for many of our projects and whilst originally seemingly more focused on enabling the democratisation of game development, they are now actively looking at other sectors like AEC and other forms of entertainment. Many of the Unity tools and platforms look to widen support and ease development and interoperability for immersive experience development and deployment.

Epic: Epic develops Unreal, the other main 3D engine associated with high-end graphics and shiny realtime effects (Unity does a good job too). Epic also develops Fortnite, one of the most popular gaming IPs this decade, which is becoming far more than just a straight-forward battle royale game. Some of the most visited and largest audience-size concerts have occurred in Fortnite during lockdown.

Amazon: Whilst mostly known as the largest online shopping go-to location for buying anything, Amazon also owns the main AWS cloud server infrastructure that will likely power many parts of the metaverse moving fowards. They also dabble in creating their own 3D engine, tools and digital content delivery platforms so should not be ruled out as a major player moving fowards.

Apple: Last but not least and by no means less important, Apple is well known for investing and acquiring companies, watching, waiting, letting others release and make mistakes, evaluating what did and didn’t work and then unleashing their products to market with huge amounts of marketing around them. So perhaps the metaverse doesn’t arrive until Apple says it does?

As Matthew Ball says, “There may not be 100 players, but it is still a Battle Royale”. He goes into greater depth about each potential player in his blog post on the subject.

It’s easy to see that there are some major corporations with financial incentives to own and control the metaverse, whatever it ends up being. Many of them are members of the open, non-profits groups who are looking at the standards and protocols, and many noises have been made about interoperability so for now we will have to take these at face value and assume they will all remain good faith actors within the development.

So we hope we’ve helped you understand a bit more what we and others are thinking about the metaverse, in regards to what it is, or isn’t and who is building it. In our next blog post we will look at some further components of the metaverse and then specifically about how these could be incorporated into, or even disrupt immersive learning and L&D.

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We’re always happy to talk to you about how immersive technologies can engage your employees and customers. If you have a learning objective in mind, or simply want to know more about VR, send us a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.