Some people claim that the metaverse is already here. Others believe that it’s coming but is still a thing of the future. Members of that second camp usually cite interoperability as the key piece of tech holding us back.
In the true metaverse, they argue, we won’t be locked into or out of certain digital experiences – we’ll be able to move from one virtual world to another like walking from one store in a mall to another. Is the secret to achieving this seemingly distant future as simple as adding links?
A Metaverse of Links
A lot of VR platforms (Engage, Altspace, Frame, thanks to a recent update) make it very easy to move from one virtual world to another within the platform – even without going through navigation menus, in some cases. Can moving from one platform to another be that easy?
I’ve been thinking about this at least since the second day of the Augmented World Expo, when “[email protected]” premiered (you can now watch the recording on YouTube). In the play by Ben Erwin and Terry xR. Schussler, the lead role, played by technologist Sophia Moshasha, tries to sell competing virtual world platforms on an “open navigation API.”
It seemed like a new idea at the time. But, thinking about it, I’d seen it before.
The software used by Moshasha’s character in the play – and in real life to allow the play to be put on in multiple different virtual worlds – had already been used by Moshasha and Julie Smithson to host the second annual Polys in February. Taking place in the “meta-multiverse” the hosts used “portals” to move through viewing parties happening in different virtual worlds.
Even earlier than that, the Ready Player Golf VR golf charity event (with which Moshasha and Erwin are also involved) uses portals to move from the green in Golf+ to the clubhouse in Engage. It turns out that all of this was done with links, incorporated with clever innovation.
What kind of software allows these cross-platform movements? And who is building them?
Immers Space is led by Dulce Baerga, William Murphy, and Quinn Madson. (Baerga also created the avatars used in [email protected], and played a small role in the play herself). The organization is dedicated to the “immersive web.”
While some people hold that “metaverse,” “immersive web,” and “Web3” are interchangeable, a lot of apps and experiences that many people think of as being metaverse experiences are actually applications. These are more difficult to “link.” Immers Space holds that the immersive web should be the whole metaverse but some immersive experiences are deliberately unlinked.
“Mega-corporations want to lock [the metaverse] down and wall it up to make another addictive, toxic ad-selling platform,” reads the home page. “We’re taking it in a different direction because we dream of a democratized new era of the Web where creators own their content, users own their data, and no single entity exhibits undue influence on the community as a whole.”
The night that [email protected] debuted at AWE, the Auggie Awards were presented on the same stage. That included the winner of the Startup Pitch competition, Croquet.
“This is the first metaverse operating system, and it will blow your minds,” CTO and founder, David Smith, said in accepting the award.
Croquet seems less interested in creating links between existing virtual spaces. Rather, the platform provides tools for developers to create “microverses” – virtual worlds that are deliberately interoperable with one another. These worlds can be published to independent domains but maintain a door to other microverses.
The idea of today’s virtual worlds being a “multiverse” as opposed to a grand unified “metaverse” yet to materialize isn’t necessarily new – it’s been a standard talking point of “digital lord” Tom Ffiske. Other thought leaders will use “big-M” and “little-m” “Metaverse” to mark the difference. Whatever language one uses, few have proposed how these things might congeal.
Is Blockchain the Answer?
Blockchain has a lot of solutions for making decentralized organizations and trust for asset transfers. The way that it categorizes information might make that information more portable. Is this the solution?
Univers is going after interoperability in a different way – through exploring interoperability through blockchain. The “Decentralized autonomous organization” has a token system that incentivizes users to make decisions about how the organization “democratizes the metaverse.”
“Univers will champion interoperability with the long-term goal of having technical solutions to connect all metaverse experience via a metaverse network,” reads the Univers whitepaper. “Univers aims to connect all metaverse-related projects sharing the common goal of building a decentralized network that empowers every user.”
To learn more, I talked with founder Yann Toullec. Toullec answered questions via email following a partnership between Univers and VR Connection, a VR content production and management service.
“Our partnership with VR Connection is very exciting because they have the capacity to provide VR solutions to projects of any theme and clients of all sizes,” said Toullec.
The general trend seems to be that blockchain proponents are bigger fans of XR than XR fans are of blockchain, but there are use cases for blockchain technology (non-fungible tokens in particular) granting interoperability to XR projects. Toullec hopes to tap into this, while acknowledging that there is still some ground to cover.
“Properly realized blockchain implements interoperability as one of its techniques for quick, secure, and seamless transfer of data and digital assets,” said Toullec. “Although blockchain has its own interoperability issues, recent trends suggest a move towards increased interoperability and a recognition of its importance for the successful development of the space.”
If you’re a regular reader of ARPost, NFTs in virtual worlds shouldn’t be too fresh an idea to you. Earlier this year, I talked with OVER (then, “OVR”) COO and co-founder Diego Di Tommaso about their blockchain-based “world-scale metaverse.” The name change isn’t all that’s new. I reconnected with Di Tommaso to talk about their recent partnership with Sandbox.
You might not have heard about Sandbox. It’s a blockchain-built virtual world not (currently) playable in AR. Like OVER, it’s built around virtual property ownership and other virtual assets. So, in a way, the partnership makes a lot of sense.
“The Sandbox assets integration is part of the broader vision of integrating assets from multiple metaverses on OVER,” said Di Tomasso. “We’ve been working on making the OVER platform welcoming to all NFTs since its inception. Static NFTs are available to be seen and published on OVER for 6 months, and our latest effort allowed for control of rigged assets.”
What makes the partnership more interesting is that it didn’t start as a partnership. It started as a software integration by OVER that the Sandbox chose to embrace.
“We did not have to ask permission from the Sandbox to integrate their assets since everything is open, just like in open source software,” said Di Tomasso. “When we showed what we created to [Sandbox COO Sebastien Borget], he was enthusiastic and launched a competition awarding 100 SAND to the best shot of a Sandbox asset in AR on OVER.”
A Universal Standard?
This article hasn’t talked about standards at all. Normally, standards organizations making the metaverse more interoperable could have been its own article at least this long. However, as this article was coming together, something incredible happened. Most of the standards organizations teamed up to create the Metaverse Standards Forum.
Khronos Group, W3C, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open AR Cloud Association, they’re all here. And, they have friends. Over 50 companies have already signed on – including some that have their own walled garden immersive experiences including Microsoft (owner of AltspaceVR), and even Meta.
This conglomeration just went public, so we don’t have a lot of solid news on what they’re doing for interoperability yet, but we’re dizzy with anticipation.
A Work in Progress
A lot of immersive experiences aren’t open source – and never will be. There are companies that profit from maintaining walled gardens, which means that we may never see a metaverse where all immersive experiences are connected. But, between clever individuals and cooperative companies, we’re getting closer every day.