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The metaverse architect

In the evolving landscape of digital realms, the concept of the Metaverse has diverse interpretations, sparking debates and controversies.

While the Metavethics Institute delved into the exploration of this virtual frontier, we realized that defining the metaverse is not a straightforward task at all.

The currently most widely accepted definition comes from Matthew Ball, media analyst and former head of strategy at Amazon Studios, as outlined in his blog and later in the book "The Metaverse."

According to Ball, the Metaverse is "an interoperable and large-scale network of three-dimensional virtual worlds represented in real-time, which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence and continuity of data such as identity, history, acquired rights, objects, communications, and payments."

Recently, Alessio Mazzolotti and Aaron Brancotti, in their book “#MetaverseArchitect - Skillset per costruire altri mondi” from the publisher Franco Angeli (Italian only for now), critically examined Ball's definition, identifying certain aspects that may not fully satisfy the complexities of the Metaverse.

In response, they proposed an alternative definition that aims to offer a more cohesive and nuanced understanding which we find worth discussing.

Alessio Mazzolotti and Aaron Brancotti. Photography Peppe Tortora.

One of the points the authors need to clarify is the notion of 'three-dimensional virtual worlds' within Ball's definition.

This concept evokes a vision of the Metaverse confined to VR, reminiscent of the classic dystopian scenario complete with obligatory cyberpunk visors and associated clichés.

However, Matthew Ball, immediately after providing his 'best swing' (quote), is quick to emphasize: ‘Very commonly, the Metaverse is misdescribed as virtual reality. In reality, VR is just one way to experience the Metaverse.

Saying VR is the Metaverse is like saying mobile internet is an app. It's worth noting that hundreds of millions [of users] already engage daily with virtual worlds (and spend tens of billions of hours monthly) without any VR/AR/MR/XR devices.

As a corollary to this, VR headsets are no more the Metaverse than smartphones are mobile internet.

This implies criticism in the rebranding of Facebook to Meta, their advertising claims, and their push toward headset-based VR, where Mark Zuckerberg invested billions of dollars with the acquisition and development of their (once Oculus) Quest products.

From there, the collective idea that the Metaverse is a new buzzword for the good old Virtual Reality of the nineties, and the complete miss - in the vision of Mazzolotti and Brancotti - of the social aspects and purpose which are core to Facebook’s planetary success.

These (and other) considerations finally lead the authors to identify four “pillars” of the Metaverse, which we find an interesting and somewhat more scientific approach.

By defining the minimum set of properties a system must have, we can dissect it more efficiently. Take one away, and the system will not satisfy the definition.

The Metaverse Architect book, from Alessio Mazzolotti and Aaron Brancotti.

The Four Pillars Of The Metaverse

  1. A new interaction paradigm: Spatial Computing. After several transformations in the ways humans and machines interact - from command line interfaces to graphical GUIs with windows and icons to cellular phones and, quite interestingly, back to textual input when interacting with the latest AI systems - we are now at a point where machines know about three-dimensional space. This is not new, the authors argue: we use GPS navigators on our cell phones for years, and this comes from the world of robotics, where machines need to know how to move in the same space they share with us. But the fact that the data ocean we are immersed in can be spatialized, localized, and augmented with information that sets what we need to know in the exact tridimensional place we need them is something which is simply too convenient for not using it. Interestingly, Apple has completely avoided the term “Metaverse” in their launch of the Vision Pro, calling it a spatial computer.

  2. A conceptual representation of reality: the Reality-Virtuality Continuum. This also is not new, being a model by Paul Milgram which dates back to the nineties. The basic concept is quite simple: the existence of a continuum is imagined, ranging from 'completely real' to 'completely synthetic' (i.e., Virtual Reality), encompassing various degrees of overlap between the two extremes (Augmented and Extended Reality, etc). This even fits something like the Internet of Things, where reality is augmented with sensors, giving a much broader spectrum of what the Metaverse can be.

  3. A social, collaborative, multiuser nature. Here the authors completely agree with Ball with the need for a synchronous and persistent experience, which also forms the basis for the deeply human-centric approach of the book.

  4. A purpose. Why should one approach this new scenario? New technologies need motivation.

This definition leads to the fact that there are many metaverses, not just one, and only time will tell us if “the Metaverse” will emerge from a fusion of them under some standards like the Metaverse Standards Forum is developing and proposing, or for some evident technological superiority of some company, or for something we cannot even think of right now.

For sure, the Web is something we must look at, because a lot of what the Metavethics Institute is bound to investigate is already there, and the actual scenario is very similar to the pre-Web situation with dozens of hypertext proposals and technologies.

In the word of the authors, "The adoption of a solution always depends on the verdict of the public and without a good user experience feasible projects cease to exist”, and that “good” is exactly what the Metavethics Institute is working on.

At the Metavethics Institute, we are creating evidence-based findings to help organizations establish ethical policies and standards for emerging technologies to enable sustainable, ethical, and inclusive efforts for AR, MR and VR. 

Thank you Aaron Brancotti - aka Babele Dunnit - and Alessio Mazzolotti.

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