What Is the Metaverse? Even the Experts Aren’t Sure

Industry leaders discuss the promise and potential dangers of a developing virtual frontier.

May 06, 2022

| by Kevin Cool
A photo illustration of a girl with VR glasses immersed in pink liquid with neon lighting. Credit: iStock/AntonioSolano

Legal and policy considerations for the metaverse are more pressing than technological challenges. | iStock/AntonioSolano

When students at Stanford Graduate School of Business chose the metaverse as the theme for this year’s Future of Arts, Media, and Entertainment Conference, they kept returning to the same question: What exactly is the metaverse?

It turns out they aren’t the only ones struggling to define it. Speaker after speaker at the conference, held recently at Stanford GSB, offered their interpretations of the metaverse, and none could identify a common vision. They included leading figures in online gaming and augmented reality, representing companies that have hosted some of the world’s most popular multiplayer games.

Students wearing VR headsets at a booth at the FAME conference. Credit: Julia Yu

Students tried out a VR application during a break in the conference. | Julia Yu

The lack of a single definition may be why the metaverse still lives mostly in the imagination. Broadly speaking, it describes a virtual space inhabited by multiple users who can interact with each other, a dreamland where you can unshackle from the pesky constraints of everyday life. The term covers a lot of ground, ranging from online games that already exist all the way to a futuristic virtual universe — one vast interconnected network in which users, via their avatars, could travel effortlessly between worlds. What the speakers at the conference seem to agree on is that the metaverse is going to be a very big deal, with profound implications for business.

Craig Donato, MBA ’13, chief business officer at the gaming platform Roblox, believes the metaverse is characterized by two key features: social connection and immersiveness. “I think metaverse is about sharing space, doing things with other people,” he said. “They need some sort of context, and a lot of the games on Roblox are just shared context. You’re hit with a disaster, and you work together to survive it. It feels like you’re inside [that world]. I think our job is to enable, create or produce these shared experiences.”

That social aspect differentiates the metaverse from the internet as we know it, says Matthew Henick, vice president of metaverse development at Epic, whose game Fortnite has earned the company millions of fans and billions of dollars. “For me, the most simplistic way to think about the metaverse is as a new organizing principle,” he said. “When you think about access on the internet, you think of going to websites or clicking on an app. The metaverse means there’s a new organizing principle that is going to be around social interactive experiences. When you choose to go to the metaverse, you’re choosing to go into an experience.”

Gaming may be the most common gateway to the metaverse, but Donato says its potential goes far beyond amusements like Adopt Me!, Roblox’s hugely popular pet simulator. “We work with a company called FIRST Robotics that does robot competitions. Robot kits cost about 1,000 bucks, right? Well, they are creating a virtual version to provide kits for free. Now, any kid, anywhere, can learn to program a robot. Or how do students look at history? What if kids could not only study Rosa Parks, but they could be Rosa Parks on that bus that day, or they could play the role of the bus driver or someone in the back of the bus. How do we use these technologies to make them transformational?”

Unanswered Questions

The metaverse means there’s a new organizing principle that is going to be around social interactive experiences.
Matthew Henick

Whatever the metaverse may become, a tangle of knots must first be unwound. Doug Scott, CMO at Twitch, says part of the magic of interactive virtual spaces is their ability to bring people together around a common interest. But whether those communities will be affirming and positive, or a cesspool of toxicity, depends on the values that developers instill. “We are a super-social species. We want to connect with each other and that’s what we do, given the opportunity,” said Scott, MBA ’02. “Communities start to form, so thinking about how we nurture and manage those communities is really critical.”

Mehran Sahami, a professor of computer science at Stanford, offered a cautionary word about how the metaverse would operate. What are the rules, and who gets to make them? “I would love to see a thousand flowers bloom, but I’m worried about the governance structure,” he said. “How do we balance things like national security versus privacy?”

Craig Donato speaking to the audience at the FAME conference. Credit: Julia Yu

Craig Donato, chief business officer of Roblox, describes an experiment his company did to create a 3D skate park in a virtual environment. | Julia Yu

He also wonders what happens when commercial interests collide with users’ dreams of a metaverse without boundaries. Sahami noted that, historically, internet platforms have been “monopolistic” — their users can’t easily switch from one to another. If one company takes a dominant market position, will it cooperate with others to build a more robust and open ecosystem?

Donato agrees that interoperability is key and believes it will develop as metaverse markets mature. “Right now, we are building the scaffolding and all the infrastructure that needs to go around it,” he said. “I think we will see multiple metaverse platforms develop that will then interoperate and those boundaries will get increasingly blurry. It’s about making as big a pie as possible.”

Henick, who earned a master’s in digital media studies at Stanford, pointed out that although the technical challenges for creating the metaverse are large, they are known. Solving them will take time, but he’s less concerned about them than other “more urgent” legal and policy considerations. “Those are the questions I would like all of us to be thinking about,” he said.

The Metaverse Generation

Metaverse development is attracting huge sums of money, energy, and attention not only from companies but from content creators eager to explore this new playground. Frederic Descamps, co-founder and CEO of Manticore Games, says the possibilities presented by the metaverse will inspire a new generation of innovators. Moreover, he believes it will lead to “the democratization of game creation,” a much-needed paradigm shift in an industry that is “still very closed, very limited and limiting.”

“The successful metaverse plays will be surprising,” said Descamps, MBA ’03.

The prospect of a virtual world that could be a platform for product placement, entertainment events (Fortnite has hosted in-game concerts with Ariana Grande and Travis Scott), and brand-building has also grabbed the attention of major retailers. Roblox has been experimenting with some of them. “One example would be Vans, who we have had a chance to work with, to develop an experiential way to interact with their brand,” Donato said. “They were originally a skate company, so they went back to the roots of their founders and created a 3D skate park. It’s been fascinating to see all this unfold and figure out what it means to do fashion in the metaverse.”

Much of the promise represented by this new frontier, Donato noted, is that an entire generation has been raised with digital technology and is as comfortable in virtual worlds as the physical one. “This younger generation does not see them as separate,” he said. “They live their lives in both at the same time. They just see it differently. A lot of what we try to do is view the metaverse through their eyes.”

Henick agrees. “Sociologically and psychologically, our brains are already wired for the metaverse. Which means that if we figure out what the metaverse actually is, it’s going to happen really fast, and we have to be prepared for it.”

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