What is the Metaverse and how will it benefit culture?

The term ‘metaverse’, whether you capitalise it or not, is a concept. It’s not tightly defined, perhaps best viewed as an umbrella term that covers many technologies, philosophies, and approaches to using the internet in novel, visual ways. We are on the threshold of a new transformation in computing.

My favoured approach is to think of the metaverse as a layer of augmented reality (AR) and how, with our phone cameras (or emerging AR headsets) we can overlay digital data over the real world. Right now, via Sketchfab, I can bring an artefact from a museum into my dining room, ‘place’ it on the table and walk around it, observing it from any angle.

A ceramic bust of John Wesley from Penlee House Gallery and Museum, Penzance, viewed in AR on our table at home. You can get closer to and see more detail than the original in the museum gallery. View this model on Sketchfab.

Some of these have been animated, and I can watch 3D fish swim, crabs raise their claws, and dinosaurs walk – all in incredible detail.

Since 2016, the game Pokémon Go has had people large and small heading out into the real world chasing Weedles, Squirtles, and Nidorinas overlaid onto a live view camera.

The real and the digital

This interaction between the real and the digital is what excites me. A set of technologies that enhance reality, and make life more interesting. Not ones that aim to keep me in a sensory-deprived state – that’s far too dystopian for my liking.

Some companies are emphasising other ideas of what the metaverse will be; immersive meetings, VR worlds, cryptocurrency, NFTs, and a list of other elements as long as the Star Wars opening story text. Certainly, ‘metaverse’ covers these too. A recent article in Fast Company interviews 28 experts from a wide variety of backgrounds and summarises what the metaverse means to them – it’s worth a read if you want to understand the diverse meanings and technologies in a quick read.

The metaverse is a rapidly evolving concept that may, one day, fade into the background as the useful technology becomes normalised in our daily lives.

Metaverse evolution

Like when the World Wide Web emerged; Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of this was a read/write web where everyone was empowered to share as well as consume information. After a short utopian few years, large companies emerged to make interacting with the web easier, and in turn, created ‘walled gardens’ with proprietary formats, intrusive advertising, and privacy nightmares.

But this isn’t the whole story – alongside those big companies there exists huge amounts of information published to the web in free, accessible ways. Open Source projects thrive on the web empowering the curious to achieve amazing things. The individual exists alongside the corporation.

The metaverse will be like this too.

From ‘lonely’ AR to shared experiences

Experiencing a single AR model on your phone is fun and can be an interesting experience, but it’s not something that you can easily share with another person. If the model was visible in exactly the same place at the same time on any number of people’s phones, then it gets interesting. Think of art trails and virtual tours, all without physical infrastructure: “Come over here and have a look at this”.

You could both see the same thing through your viewfinder. Real shared memories will be created.

Information layers

The metaverse isn’t ‘just’ spatial 3D. It can be other, more traditional layers of information. For example, if you’re out for a walk in the Cornish countryside and you see an old ruined engine house, you could point your phone camera at it. Via image and scene recognition (computer vision technologies are definitely part of the metaverse concept) an overlay could tell you the name of the mine, when it was operational, and what was mined there. It doesn’t all have to be about flashy 3D characters bouncing around your screen.

Using the same analogy, if you were wearing an AR headset sometime in the future, you could ask it to highlight things that you are interested in. Prehistoric sites, for example. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve seen something interesting when I’ve been out walking and had to take photos and a note of the location and then look it up later. I’d love to be able to see a label hover over a Bronze Age barrow (burial mound) telling me what is known about it, there and then. This is a concept that I’ve dreamed of since first working with positional systems in 2002, and it’s now within reach.

If I stumbled upon a prehistoric settlement (I’ve visited many) then through the ‘magic’ of the metaverse those low stone walls could rise up in front of me, regain their roofs, and I could be shown an interpretation of how it might have looked based on available evidence. I could view objects found there during excavations, now sitting in a remote museum store, but examine them via my phone or headset. Metaverse technologies will allow us to build these things.

Speed of change

Many of these concepts are becoming possible at a very fast pace. Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go, has just launched Niantic Lightship. It is a toolkit (ARDK – Augmented Reality Development Kit) which will allow persistent place-anchored AR experiences. Your AR device (initially your smartphone) will understand the ‘scene’ that it can see, identifying the sky, foliage, ground, and even the shape of buildings and all the distances in between.

Niantic are even building an app to help create a 3D model of the world – the Niantic Map – which will allow mass-scale AR experiences via ‘VPS’ – Visual Positioning System. Think back to that example of a Cornish engine house – this is the kind of technology that will make recognition possible. Niantic will be adding features to Lightship and are seeking input from AR developers. Doubtless other companies will create their own toolkits for others to use, and competition will drive innovation.

Even if you’re not technically minded, it’s worth watching Niantic’s Lightship introduction video to see some of the metaverse concepts demonstrated and to see how some cultural organisations are using AR to become part of the metaverse.

What now?

For now, many of these concepts will be beyond the reach of most smaller cultural organisations. But as metaverse technologies develop, the tools will become easier to use and organisations will be able to start to explore if and how they might benefit their stakeholders.

It will be a fun ride ahead. There will be bumps. There will be interoperability issues (can you move 3D assets from one platform to another?). The technology as always will at first be expensive and limited to a few. But I believe that the direction is the right one.

It’s time to scan the world and make knowledge and culture available in new and innovative ways and harness all the wonderful computing power that is becoming available to us. The building blocks will fall into place.

That’s the metaverse.