Threads of the Metaverse — A Comparative Framework for Virtual Worlds

By Rizwan Virk, College of Global Futures, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, ASU

DRAFT FOR FEEDBACK, August, 2022, send feedback to rvirk1@asu.edu

Abstract

While the term, Metaverse has gained popularity in recent years, the exact definition of what is “the Metaverse” vs. “a Metaverse” remains a bit fuzzy. While there is no agreed upon definition, there is general agreement on some of the elements which make up the metaverse, often referring to 3D virtual world technology or Web3 cryptocurrency. In this paper, after reviewing a few different definitions of the term, rather than proposing a new definition, I propose a functional framework of the elements which make up a Metaverse. By agreeing on these elements, we can then compare different proto-metaverses in both science fiction (where the term originated) as well as historical MMORPGs and current centralized and decentralized metaverse contenders. Further, we can identify the various issues that commonly occur within a Metaverse, ranging from technical issues, to interoperability, to social and human dimensions of science and technology, borrowed from STS concepts.

Introduction

The term “Metaverse” was introduced in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash. In that novel, The Metaverse, was a single virtual world that could be navigated with avatars (a term popularized by the novel but first used in Lucasfilm’s Habitat in the late 1980s). The Metaverse imaginary presented by Stephenson was a combination of what the Internet is used for today, but in the form of a virtual world or 3d game.

Since then, this imaginary has been embraced by groups of technology enthusiasts who have tried to bring various aspects of this vision to life. This included entrepreneurs and computer programmers who attempted to intentionally build what are often referred to as proto-metaverses in the 1990s (example: ActiveWorlds) and in the 2000s (Second Life or There.com). Unlike the entrepreneurs who built these specific worlds, who were fans of Snow Crash an intentionally trying to bring The Metaverse to life, many other entrepreneurs have been caught up in building similar visions without having read or been exposed to the original depiction of the Metaverse. In the 2010s, many of those building virtual worlds were exposed to another imaginary, that of Ready Player One, which had a virtual reality environment called the OASIS, which functioned in some ways, as a more modern “Metaverse” taking into account the developments of the World Wide Web and MMORPGs in the decades since.

This included entrepreneurial teams like those building Oculus, which was acquired by Facebook in 2014 and has become the cornerstone of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse strategy. In 2021, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was changing its name to Meta, and would be investing $10 billion into the building of “The Metaverse”.

While the term Metaverse has becomes extremely popular in the tech and the mainstream press over the past few years, there is no single agreed upon definition of what the Metaverse is, and this has created not only confusion about what is the Metaverse, but also confusion about what does not constitute the metaverse.

What is the Metaverse Exactly?

In fact, today the term seems to encompass everything new in consumer web, including not just 3d avatars and virtual worlds, but cryptocurrency, blockchains, web3, NFTs, virtual reality, augmented reality, digital twins and much more. Some have called the Metaverse the “next generation” of the internet, which would support including almost any technologies.

Some definitions that have been put forward give us elements of the metaverse, but not necessarily a concise definition or way to rule in or out what is a Metaverse, or what isn’t a Metaverse. XR Today, emphasizes the technology of the. Metaverse in its definition:

The metaverse can be defined as a simulated digital environment that uses augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and blockchain, along with concepts from social media, to create spaces for rich user interaction mimicking the real world.

–XR Today[1]

On the other end of the spectrum are more expansive definitions, such as those put forward by American Century and by Cathy Hackl:

The metaverse is an immersive, next-generation version of the internet that could play a significant role in our lives.

— American Century[2]

…I tend to have a pretty expansive view of what the metaverse is. I believe it’s a convergence of our physical and digital lives

— Cathy Hackl, McKinsey Podcast[3]

Hackl goes on, in the same interview, to state that she had a ritual to look at the dictionary each morning to see if the term Metaverse was included or defined and as of the date of that podcast, this had not been defined.

Mathew Ball, whose essays in 2018 and 2019 were partly responsible for getting players in the tech industry to start using the term “Metaverse publicly”, also offers a definition that is relatively long but more specific, in his book, The Metaverse and How It Will Revolutionize Everything, in a chapter titled, “Finally — A Definition”:

A massively scaled and interoperable network of real time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications and payments”

–Matthew Ball, The Metaverse and How It Will Revolutionize Everything

Jon Radoff, author of the Building the Metaverse blog and CEO of Beamable[4], states as part ofa. Pew Research report on the Metavserse that the Metaverse is not just an imaginary but that it exists:

“The metaverse exists. The most-common definitions of the ‘metaverse’ are:

1) an embodied virtual-reality experience;

2) a Web3 framework for economic interoperability;

3) a creative platform for experiences (e.g., Roblox).

“Some current versions may be a hybrid of these. I think all of these ‘product-centric’ definitions fail to look at the underlying culture and social change. The fundamental shift is toward thinking of virtual property and virtual identity as ‘real’ and/or important ….” [5]

Reflecting the confusion that often is attached to the Metaverse, Wired highlights this uncertainty:

TO HEAR TECH CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg or Satya Nadella talk about it, the metaverse is the future of the internet. Or it’s a video game. Or maybe it’s a deeply uncomfortable, worse version of Zoom?

–Wired[6]

It is the nature of tech terms to evolve based upon common usage by consumers and by industry participants. For example, when the term “Internet” entered popular usage in the 1990s, most consumers and industry actors were not referring to the specific protocols that make up the Internet (which had been around for decades), but rather to the World Wide Web and email, two specific protocols and the tools that the tech industry was building that used those protocols. Today, in common parlance the Internet, refers to mobile applications, the mobile and desktop web, and connectivity between different types of applications.

The term “Metaverse” is also evolving and any academic discussion of the Metaverse should keep this in mind. Today, in some cases, the Metaverse is meant to describe a specific environment, whether run by a specific company — for example, Roblox describes its platform as a Metaverse, even though it is not connected to other environments, it contains many sub-environments. Second Life, which was introduced in 2004, has been described by the founder of its parent company, Linden Labs, Philip Rosedale as an attempt to build out Stephenson’s vision of The Metaverse, and may still be one of the best examples of a “metaverse economy” today. In this respect, what we have today are “metaverses” and a “metaverse” might refer to a specific environment that functions as a metaverse.

On the other hand, the Metaverse is used in a less specific way that recounts the usage of cyberspace. While the term was introduced by William Gibson in his novel, Neuromancer (1984), it began to be used more generally in the 1990s to represent anything that was “on the Internet”. Gibson acknowledged that his vision of cyberspace is not what the term is used for today.(TODO: reference)

For this paper, I’d like to propose a simpler definition, which can be used to describe a “Metaverse” or “the Metaverse”, but then move beyond the need for definitions to examine what components make up a Metaverse.

The Metaverse is one or more virtual worlds/spaces that can be inhabited and explored by avatars.

While this definition does not have the usual laundry list of technologies, it is broad enough to encompass desktop 3d worlds, mobile 2d worlds, NFT-based metaverse, and virtual economies of all types, including cryptocurrencies and blockchains. Since the term avatar is commonly accepted today as a representation of the “player”, this definition, which wouldn’t suffice in 1992, is quite acceptable today.

Other Frameworks for the Metaverse

In this paper, I would propose that while there is no agreement on exactly what the metaverse is, there is general agreement on the various elements that make up a “metaverse”. The laundry of technologies that are grouped under the term “Metaverse” are enabling technologies (5G or VR for example). However, the specific technologies are mentioned as ways to achieve certain kinds of functionality that is commonly understood to make up the Metaverse imaginary, and are implemented by individual metaverses, which may need to be interoperable if we are ever to have a single all encompassing “The Metaverse”.

I call these the “threads of the metaverse” (see Figure 1), since they can be woven together in various ways to create different instantiations of the overarching concept. Since these threads are functional they can correspond not only to specific technologies but also to an ever changing list of companies working to achieve this functionality either as enabling tools (for example, Ready Player One is working on the digital identity thread) across metaverses, or we can look at how a specific metaverse implements each of these threads.

The threads, although they are listed independently, aren’t really independent — they work together to build a Metaverse, just as individual threads by themselves do not make an outfit. The way that the threads are implemented also raises issues that go beyond the framework or the technology and delve into areas that impact the broader world and groups of people within it. These issues are sometimes borrowed from the field of STS, or Science and Technology Studies, which look at how technology and science are socially constructed and how they often have unintended consequences on the society after they are adopted. [7]

Figure 1: A graphical representation of some of the Threads of the Metaverse [8]

Before getting into the specific threads (horizontal rows) and the columns of this framework, a version of which is shown in Figure 1, let’s explore other frameworks and ways of thinking about the Metaverse. The threads also weave into higher level functional aspects of the Metaverse, which I call “themes of the metaverse”, such as the “work in the metaverse”, but these themes will be addressed in a separate paper.

Other Frameworks

Others have proposed frameworks for understanding the Metaverse. I will mention two which were introduced or released in recent books (in 2022).

The Framework for the Metaverse by Mathew Ball was introduced in his essay of that name in 2021, and then expanded upon in his book, Navigating the Metaverse. Ball’s framework is more about dividing the Metaverse into its component layers, starting with the Hardware and networking up to the payments: [9]

  1. Hardware.
  2. Networking.
  3. Compute.
  4. Virtual Platforms.
  5. Interchange Tools and Standards.
  6. Payments.
  7. Metaverse Content, Services, and Assets.
  8. User Behaviors.

Another very high level framework was introduced in Navigating the Metaverse, whose description and vision of the Metaverse is more content-centric. and consists of three general elements: [10]

1. Immersion

2. Identity

3. Ownership.

These three elements are a good minimal framework for the functional aspect of the Metaverse and are expanded upon in their book.

My goal with the Threads of the Metaverse is to go deeper into specific elements and provide not just a set of components but a way to compare different metaverse environments.

A Comparative Framework

One of the benefits of this framework is that it can be used, in either textual (long form analysis) or tabular (summary) format to provide comparison and contrast between different metaverse environments. These environments could be actual metaverse platforms which have been released, or they could be fictional representations of a Metaverse. For example, An extensive analysis, including differentiation of the Metaverse imaginaries of Snow Crash and Ready Player One were conducted by the author using this frameworks as way to guide the comparison.[11] A similar approach could be used to compare for example, Meta’s Horizon Worlds to the OASIS in Ready Player One, etc.

The threads of the metaverse are assembled not just into a metaverse, but are woven together into the Themes of the Metaverse, a companion to this model which deals with higher level applications of metaverse technology. For example, working in the metaverse, is a higher level theme that relies on different aggregations of these threads. These themes are described briefly at the end of this paper.

The Threads: An Overview

A short summary is provided here of the initial threads which are meant to be universal across both an analysis of imaginaries, and could be used in an analysis of any other aspect of the emerging metaverse, including standards/interoperability as well as products provided by technology companies.

Threads (and the subthreads) of the Metaverse may be thought of as the building blocks of the metaverse at a component level. While not every implementation or imaginary of the metaverse will have the same technical details for each of these threads, they generally will include some implementation of the general idea of each thread. Each thread also raises social issues both within and outside the metaverse, as well as interoperability and technical issues.

The threads themselves are not distinct and intersect with each other, both in terms of technical connections (an Avatar, from thread #1, obviously lives in a venue, thread #3, and has digital objects, thread #2), but also through social issues which impact each of the threads.

The initial diagram (figure 1) shows only 5 threads, but there can be subthreads, and additional threads that didn’t make it into the diagram. Some of these threads are described below;

THREAD: Avatars, Presence and Digital identity.

This thread is about the representation of the user in the metaverse, as an avatar of some kind. Each metaverse environment has a slightly different style of avatars, and some allow much more customizability than others.

Some require anthropomorphic avatars (that look human), others have no limits (robots and rabbits are both allowed). In Snow Crash’s metaverse, for example, the avatars were generally shown as anthropomorphic, but it was explicitly stated that they could be anything else. In Ready Player One, for example, we see avatars representing many different characters from popular culture in addition to the standard human avatars. For example, in some metaverses, avatars are only penguins (Club Penguin, which reached over 200 million registered users before being shut down by its parent company, Disney); in others avatars only have the top half of their bodies (as In Meta’s Horizon Worlds, whose initial version of avatars were without legs).

One social issue related to this thread is whether the avatars are identomorphic, a term defined by the author, as an avatar which resembles the physical characteristics of the player. While this is generally not required by any particular metaverse platform, this hits on the issue of social standards, which are perhaps best illustrated by metaverse imaginaries. This is accentuated by the number of people who meet in the Metaverse and have a long history there before meeting irl (in real life)[12]. In Ready Player One (in the book) for example, Parzival’s best friend Aech has a very different representation in world and irl:

In the virtual-reality OASIS, she’s known by her male avatar, Aech, a burly figure with a hulking presence. But in the real world, Aech is Helen Harris, an African American woman who is gay in the books. [13]

The complexity of identity in the metaverse is one that is accentuated by studies of gaming, such as this one about young women in Pakistan, “‘I Can Be Who I Am When I Play Tekken 7’: E-Sports Women Participants from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” [16]

In Snow Crash, Hiro’s avatar is a dead ringer for Hiro himself, as it seems are many of the business-related avatars. Metaverse companies today are rushing to create more realistic looking avatars, with some, like Ready Player Me, able to generate identomorphic avatars based on a photo of the person, which can then be used across environments. Other companies like Roblox and Epic (parents of Fortnite) are releasing their own more sophisticated avatar engines (including Metahuman from Epic).

The ability to create avatars that look “good” is an economic issue which is also related to this thread. Avatars that are popular or which have prestigious clothing (often unveiled during promotions of films and brands in environments like Roblox or Fortnite) convey social status. In Snow Crash, just the ability to program also conveyed social status, and new players who had not spent any money on their avatars were known as Clints and Brandys. In Second Life, it was very common to identify a noob by a generic avatar that hasn’t upgraded either its clothes or skins or hairstyles, etc.

Another issue is the 2D vs. 3D nature of avatars. In one of the first graphical adventure games (single player) released by Atari, the avatar was just a square dot. As these games got more sophisticated, everyone played with the same avatar (in King’s Quest or Legend of Zelda), and only when games became multiplayer did the need for customizing the avatars become a major issue of the metaverse. Another vector in looking at avatars is the more realistic vs. stylistic avatars.

Another issue that comes into play is how avatars interact with each other, and what types of relationships they have, formally or informally. Most metaverses will have a friends list, but in virtual worlds like Second Life, avatars can have formal “partners”, i.e. the avatars can marry and this is memorialized within the game. Some metaverses allow for co-ownership of plots of land, etc. In some metaverses (Second Life included), an avatar can have a “job” which creates a formal relationship between a virtual employer and that avatar.

A sub-thread of this thread, which might expand into its own thread as metaverse platforms develop, is AI Avatars in the metaverse. These are commonly referred to as NPCs, or non-player characters in games. NPCs are typically very simple characters with a limited autonomy and vocabulary, but the recent merger of AI-trained chatbots with sophisticated avatars, like those used in virtual influencers, is a trend to follow. If these AI Avatars (or “Aivies”) are able to become independent. An example of this is Kuki (or Mitsuko) from Pandora Bots, which developed from chatbots. By merging the chatbot technology with a sophisticated avatar from Metahumans, and including voice recognition and voice synthesis, it appears that kuki is a full-fledged virtual character that lives in the metaverse, and you can visit with her in environments like Roblox.

The remaining threads are described in much less detail for the purposes of this paper, but eventually will be added to expanded versions of the framework, with the various columns filled out.

THREAD: Digital Objects in the Metaverse.

This thread is not so much about venues in the metaverse, but objects that exist in the metaverse. Social scientists and anthropologists think of these objects as “artifacts”, which is an appropriate term for the virtual as well as the physical world. Boelstorff et al reminds us: “The range of these objects is near limitless and includes clothing and armor, furniture, weapons, accessories, toys, functional objects, knickknacks … “ and also “architecture”. [14] In Boelstorff et al, virtual objects “are not limited to things avatars can hold in their virtual hands: they also include less portable objects like buildings and trees”[15] and even elements of the landscape, though in our model, are categorizing these into the venues of the metaverse. In recent years, this definition has grown to include NFTs, which track ownership of objects, virtual or real, but are particularly useful for tracking ownership

THREAD: Venues in the Metaverse.

This thread is about the geography of the virtual world. Does it include a fixed amount of virtual space or is it expandable? Are individual “plots of land” susceptible to ownership, or are they communal? How is that ownership tracked? Who or what can access and be present in different parts? Usually different metaverses have slightly different rules for geography and land. Some metaverse have a map that is based only on the real Earth and that is the sum of the venues. Others have multiple planets, and some have “islands” — these are the units of division of the metaverse.

THREAD : The Economy of the Metaverse

This thread is about how the economy of a particular metaverse works. This May involve an “uber virtual currency” that is used across the metaverse, such as Linden Dollars from Second Life, which was one of the first virtual currencies to have an exchange rate with the USD. It may also involve how that currency is acquired (Purchased via dollars), or if it is a cryptocurrency with its own blockchain, or if an existing standard currency is used throughout (USD) for example, or a cryptocurrency (ETH for example). This also includes methods of exchange within the metaverse itself and tracking of ownership.

THREAD: Customizing the Metaverse

This is a more technical thread that is about the mechanism for customizing the metaverse. At the highest level, there is customizing of avatars and venues, which are typically (but not always) done through creator tools that allow for the creation of objects using WYSIWYG tools. Some environments have their own language that allows for scripting (or allow using JavaScript). Early visions of the metaverse required coding to do any customizations whatsoever, and there are now tools that let you build at a high level, like that shown off by Meta where verbal commands generate scenes (“a beach”, “a tree”).

THREAD: Accessing the Metaverse.

This thread is about accessibility on multiple different levels. On the physical level, there is the method of accessing the metaverse — does it require a PC, a mobile phone, a set of Virtual Reality goggles, Augmented Reality goggles, or can it be accessed through a web browser? Another aspect is how the Metaverse relates to access from different parts of society, in terms of who has access to the metaverse, and who has, through money, access to more parts of the metaverse, which touches on socioeconomic factors.

You will notice that the diagram in Figure 1 doesn’t include all of these threads, and has at last one thread that is not defined in this paper. This is to emphasize that this is not a fixed framework, but one that can be expanded or contracted based on the purpose — whether for detailed analysis of a metaverse or for higher level comparisons.

Future Work: Assembling Threads into Themes

The themes of the metaverse gets at higher level uses of the metaverse. A particular theme might cut across all of the threads, or might primarily be concerned with two or more threads. In this way, the themes might also be thought of as 1) use cases, from the point of view of users, and 2) cross-metaverse implementations and usually involve some element of the real world.

  • Work in the Metaverse. This encompasses not only the elements of an economy, but how existing companies will have employees work in the Metaverse, as well as content creators and others whose source of income will be in the Metaverse itself.
  • Socializing within the Metaverse. This encompasses both how individuals that know each other socialize with one another, as well as how new relationships are formed and the lifecycle of these online relationships.
  • Entertainment within the Metaverse. This encompasses both play ing video games, as well as how franchises and IP holders, such as film companies and musicians are deploying to the Metaverse.
  • Industries and the Metaverse. This theme is a catch all for how specific vertical industries might be using the metaverse. For example, Fashion in the Metaverse, Education in the Metaverse, Engineering in the Metaverse.
  • Interoperability across the Metaverse — more so than any specific metaverse, this theme is concerned with standards that may be applied (or may not be) to help make the various metaverse smore
  • Governance and Ownership — this theme is about the governance of the Metaverse itself, whether it is owned by a specific company, a foundation, a DAO, or resides on private services and is more of a protocol.
  • Social standards within the metaverse. This theme is about standards of behavior inside the metaverse, but which is not really part of the physical rules but rather is one of the social dimensions of any virtual world or metaverse.

This is a draft paper soliciting feedback on this model, feel free to add to the comments or to email rvirk1@asu.edu.

References

Acuna, K. (n.d.). “Ready Player One” botched the book’s biggest reveal and the movie suffers for it. Insider. Retrieved August 17, 2022, from https://www.insider.com/ready-player-one-aech-gay-reveal-2018-3

Anderson, J., & Rainie, L. (2022, June 30). The Metaverse in 2040. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2022/06/30/the-metaverse-in-2040/

Ball, M. (2022). The metaverse: And how it will revolutionize everything (First edition). Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company.

Ball, Mathew. (n.d.). Framework for the Metaverse — . Matthewball.Vc. Retrieved August 17, 2022, from https://www.matthewball.vc/all/forwardtothemetaverseprimer

Rob Brookby, Nalin Yogasundram, & Mark Krutty. (2022, January 7). The Metaverse: The Next Generation of the Internet. https://www.americancentury.com/insights/metaverse-next-generation-internet/

Boellstorff, T. (Ed.). (2012). Ethnography and virtual worlds: A handbook of method. Princeton University Press.

Hackl, C., Lueth, D., & Bartolo, T. D. (2022). Navigating the metaverse: A guide to limitless possibilities in a WEB 3.0 world. Wiley.

Hussain, Umer, et al. “‘I Can Be Who I Am When I Play Tekken 7’: E-Sports Women Participants from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” Games and Culture, vol. 16, no. 8, Dec. 2021, pp. 978–1000. SAGE Journals, https://doi.org/10.1177/15554120211005360.

McKinsey Digital. (n.d.). What is the metaverse — And what does it mean for business? | McKinsey. Retrieved August 17, 2022, from https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-digital/our-insights/what-is-the-metaverse-and-what-does-it-mean-for-business

Ravenscraft, Eric. (n.d.). What Is the Metaverse, Exactly? | WIRED. Wired. Retrieved August 17, 2022, from https://www.wired.com/story/what-is-the-metaverse/

Virk, Rizwan. (2022). Metaverse Imaginaries in Science Fiction: Snow Crash and Ready Player One [Academic manuscript].

XR Today. Metaverse Meaning — What is this New World Everyone’s Talking About? (2022, January 10). XR Today. https://www.xrtoday.com/mixed-reality/metaverse-meaning/

[1] https://www.xrtoday.com/mixed-reality/metaverse-meaning/

[2] https://www.americancentury.com/insights/metaverse-next-generation-internet/

[3] https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-digital/our-insights/what-is-the-metaverse-and-what-does-it-mean-for-business

[4] Disclosure: the author is an investor in Beamable.

[5] https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2022/06/30/the-metaverse-in-2040/

[6] https://www.wired.com/story/what-is-the-metaverse/

[7] HSD is the program name at ASU for Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology.

[8] available online as a PDF , this is only a v1 as the author is still developing

[9] https://www.matthewball.vc/all/forwardtothemetaverseprimer

[10] Hackl, et. al (2022)..

[11] Virk, R., Metaverse Imaginaries in Science Fiction, 2022

[12] A not uncommon event in environments like Second Life and VRChat, as evidenced by some of the documentaries created, Life 2.0 and We Met in VR.

[13] https://www.insider.com/ready-player-one-aech-gay-reveal-2018-3

[14] (Boellstorff, 2012), p 122.

[15] Ibid, p 123

[16] (Hussain, 2021)

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Riz Virk

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