The Metaverse… or should I say, The Immersive Web?

I know, I said the “M” word. But you’ll have to forgive me - because it’s become such a buzz word, everyone knows immediately what I mean when it’s said.

It’s a VR world, right? Or a 3D game where you can chat and socialize with others, while wearing different outfits that you can buy or sell with others? Or wait, how about the Oasis from Ready Player One..? Yeah that’s it! Right?

VR is commonly associated with The Metaverse, but it isn’t a requirement.

If you’ve read anything about this topic recently, you’ve probably heard differing definitions like spewed out like this, but the truth is nobody can seem to collectively agree on what the “The Metaverse” actually is. Quick shoutout — if you haven’t read Matthew Ball’s excellent metaverse magnum opus, please go do yourself a favor and leave this article and go give it a read. It, along with Snow Crash, is pretty much required reading at this point for anyone that has an interest in this space. The latter in particular, which dates to the 90’s and quite literally invented the term “metaverse” as we know it today, is apparently the official training manual for new recruits over at Facebook’s VR/AR division.

The truth is, the definition of the metaverse has much in common with the internet. Decentralized, not owned by any one company, and ubiquitous. Does that sound familiar? It should, because it defines one of the most used platforms in the world. Some of the most profitable companies in the world were born from the internet as we know it, and the spread of the World Wide Web in particular adjacent to it. Just as these corporations have successfully leveraged this change in how we interact, communicate, relax, and even shop online, they don’t own the internet, rather they are internet companies. It’s an important distinction to make.

I predict right now that by 2030, there will be successful metaverse companies, one of which might very well be Facebook. Another is Epic Games. Amazon and Microsoft are others who have the technical might to capitalize on this paradigm shift in how we work, play, and socialize.

So, back to the beginning when we were attempting to define the metaverse! To be successful, it needs to run anywhere (just like the web) it should be distributed (just like the web) and it should be interoperable. Wait a minute…. doesn’t that make the web the metaverse?

My answer to that is yes.

My hypothesis is that we currently live in the 2D or 2.5 web, or the dynamic web. During the advent of browsers back in the 90’s, you could do little more than basic text, and some pictures. This was a period known as the static web. As time went on, improvements in browser engines and networking speeds soon introduced the concept of video, the company which capitalized on this that we all know and love being YouTube.

Around the same time, basic 2D animations and games were fast becoming a thing on the web. Thanks to Adobe Flash, love it or hate it, a generation was given the ability to be entertained within the web browser, and the web morphed yet again. Runescape and Club Penguin were two high points that pushed the browser to a newfound limit. Hundreds of millions of users accessed these 3D social places through the web, and were undoubtedly helped by the virality of being able to be immersed after a single click. No local installs, and accessible. Yet, this wasn’t a metaverse but it was a glimpse of things to come.

Fast forward to 2021, and we’re now about to enter a whole now era that will usher in rich, 3D capabilities that will enable high fidelity virtual worlds that will render across any device with a browser, from PC/Mac, to mobile, and even VR headsets like the Oculus Quest and Quest 2. The advent of this innovation is going to usher in a paradigm shift for the web, one that I’ve heard coined “The Immersive Web.” You can think of it as a synonym for The Metaverse.

But wait, aren’t Flash games dead? And how could you run games inside the browser now? And how does that constitute the metaverse? The truth is that this is much more than just games, although it does include them. I predict that every single webpage is going to need to evolve into being 3D and VR capable. Instead of reading this article on your flat screen or phone, you could be viewing it using an avatar inside of an immersive environment. The article itself could still be flat and 2D, just existing in 3D/VR in the browser. Mark Zuckerberg recently mentioned this in an interview with The Verge, that he views social media as needing to evolve into a 3D first architecture that can be embedded across all of our devices. The browser is today the only cross-platform way to achieve this, the only alternative on mobile for example being an app store.

The metaverse can be agreed upon as having these key attributes:

  1. Social, with a true sense of identity and spatial presence
  2. Always on and persistent, it doesn’t pause if you leave
  3. Interoperable and platform-agnostic

It can be argued that simple 2D games did not give users a true sense of togetherness, although the other two points are satisfied. Photoreal 3D and VR avatars existing in an interactive webpage is much closer to this definition, and is why the metaverse could only be possible from this decade onward. We simply haven’t been able to do this from a technical standpoint until now. Our phones and computers are powerful enough to host these experiences ourselves, while allowing others to visit our own website or space in the metaverse in a P2P manner. 5G, QUIC, edge computing too will likely play a large role in the user experience of The Immersive Web.

The truth is that all of the tech giants and game companies are missing right now is that the foundation to build the metaverse is in front of their very eyes- the web. Clearly the internet, which is a series of pipes that powers the web, will play a central role as it always has for a means for publishing and accessing content. The web as delivery, discovery, and decentralized target for these rich, immersive experiences has unfortunately flown under the radar as a viable option. Why ship a native program or app, when you have to relinquish 30% to Steam or the App Stores? If the metaverse was architected out in this manner, in much the same way that games and apps are in 2021, that would mean that Facebook would have to pay Apple and Google nearly a third of what they make. That makes no sense, when there’s a more universal platform sitting right in front of their very eyes, that allows them to reach even more users than just two mobile platforms.

Instead of the .obj file format, we use .glb. Instead of a platform specific language, we use WebAssembly, a universal bytecode. Instead of OpenGL, we use WebGL and the upcoming WebGPU to render rich 3D graphics. WebXR enables full blown virtual reality websites. Instead of an closed system and platform-specific operating system, we use the web as the universal entry point.

This is why pushback on Apple in particular is needed, because they unnecessarily wield their power as OS maker to cripple The Immersive Web, by dragging their heels on shipping features that would give Safari the ability to host the metaverse. If the metaverse shipped today in WebGL and WebXR, it would be hamstringed by Safari. There are signs that they intend to support WebGL2, but seeing as this is something that Google shipped over 5 years ago on Chrome, it’s not encouraging to say the least. The next leap forward in 3D graphics in the browser is WebGPU, which is a Vulkan-like graphics API that will allow for a higher fidelity experience on par with consoles or PC, granted your underlying hardware you run it on is powerful enough. This is why it’s such a shame that Apple is preventing this, as they design some of the most powerful processors out there. It remains to be seen whether their upcoming VR headset in 2022 at launch will support WebXR, the standard for enabling rich VR experiences in the browser.

Would you believe this is a website? A VR one, that is.

The reason this hasn’t been done before, is because the technology and societal conditions weren’t quite right. Creators in 2021 don’t want to go through walled gardens and are interested in cultivating a direct relationship with their community online. This will hold true for 3D content, and is only now possible.

Back to game specific content — it’s clear that the metaverse will involve games engines in some way, by way of being a 3D medium. So how do we make it so these software tools can export to HTML5? The truth is that every game engine out there can in theory support the web, even the heaviest and most feature rich ones such as Unreal Engine 4. UE4 and Unity have both had lackluster support for this platform for years, with Unreal officially deprecating support back in the 4.23 release of the engine. Hope is on the horizon though, as my team over at Wonder Interactive (shameless plug) is developing a new pipeline to enable UE4 developers to ship their projects in an ultra-compressed format, with smart asset fetching to make these 3D experiences load almost as fast as a regular web page. The plan is to extend this support via our SDK and middleware, and accompany platform to offer a “Shopify for 3D developers” platform. Our mission is to create an end to end ecosystem for creating, packaging, publishing, and monetizing 3D worlds on the web. This includes middleware, an SDK, and platform to assist developers in breaking free of the walled gardens and to contribute to the metaverse via the web.

But what about for non-developers who are still interested in building? Not all creators are programmers, but to get to scale in the The Immersive Web will require user-generated content at a very large scale. Again, let’s look to other platforms for inspiration, namely Shopify. Shopify has made it seamless and turnkey for anyone to create an online storefront to sell their products. Arguably, this has opened up a whole world of possibility to those who were previously shut out because of lack of technical skills. It’s blindingly obvious a similar platform that empowers non-technical creators will need to emerge to create the right conditions for the metaverse. A 3D Shopify would not be games focused, but it could be. What if anyone was able to create an immersive website with drag or drop tools? This to me is an inevitability.

For too long, the web hasn’t been taken seriously as a platform, and there have been many attempts to thwart it’s rise to the top. One of the web’s greatest strengths is that it has evolved as our input devices that we use to access it have. At the beginning of the mobile era, we tried bringing regular desktop sized webpages to these small screens and quickly realized that this wouldn’t work, and that to succeed we need to think about how to leverage the strengths of the new devices we’re working with. With billions of web-capable devices out there that are 3D capable, we have the opportunity to build out a metaverse that works everywhere, including VR headsets which will only become more widespread throughout this decade.

Epic Games recent acquisition of Sketchfab may signal that they plan on revisiting web support, even if they are just buying the top marketplace for 3D models that just happens to also be web-based. But they still would need to deal with issue of web exports being too heavy, something I mentioned earlier is one of the key features my startup is working on. But what about web-based game engines? Surely something built from the ground up for the browser would provide a superior experience to just porting a native game engine over? It’s unfortunate because Tim Sweeney at one point in time seemed to realize the strength of the web as a distribution platform for his engine. See the attached video below of him on stage proudly showing off Unreal Engine 3 which had been ported to Flash at the time, which allowed Unreal Tournament 3 to run in browsers. Keep in mind this was 10 years ago, and it was already somewhat viable. Tim if you’re reading this, it’s possible to export native quality games that run everywhere via the web. It’s the solution to your battle with Apple, and their walled gardens which forces developers to either play their way or take the highway. This is the answer to your problem.

Epic needs to revisit support for HTML5 exporting, because it’s the path to UE developers to helping build their portion of the metaverse. Unity has had WebGL support for years but is infamous for not properly support mobile web, and for having long loading times on desktop web. There are already engines that are more lightweight and were built from the ground up, like Playcanvas which is a subsidiary of Snapchat. Watch this space.

Facebook also has a history with 3D on the web via their Flash and HTML5 games. Remember Farmville? This combination of web based delivery, combined with the social graph of Facebook was a powerful thing. If their strategy to build the metaverse includes HTML5 and WebGL, they will be a force to be reckoned with. They are particularly well positioned to back WebXR in a big way, due to being one of the few hardware VR players out there at the moment. WebXR distribution represents a threat to their Oculus ecosystem, where they also take a 30% cut. If they were smart, they’d be looking at deploying a universal solution for developers, creators, and users that works everywhere via facebook.com both in 3D and VR. Embedding these experiences within the native apps means giving up a tithe to Apple, which I’m sure Facebook loathes. The browser is the only way to bypass Apple and reach the billions of connected devices, which will include Apple’s VR headset at release.

The good ol’ days of Farmville and Angry Birds, on the Facebook platform via the web.

But there are other, newer platforms built from the ground up with a web-first mentality such as Decentraland, CryptoVoxels, and most recently, VRland (which is like a web-based VRChat). You can try it out via a link below:

This is a fantastic example of what’s possible in the browser using threejs, a Javascript framework and API for rendering 3D graphics. VRland.io is a social 3D/VR overlay for creating and sharing rooms that users as avatars can be invited to hang out, build, and chat in. Right now the primary use case is displaying virtual art or creating whatever you can imagine in real time, with support for uploading photos, videos, gifs, and even 3D models. It will work across every device using the browser, including VR using WebXR. It’s a MVP for what the metaverse should look like — linkable, fast loading, and social first. It enables a sense of presence that Mark Zuckerberg has brought up time and time again.

Ready Player Me is currently the only web-based avatar system that outputs .glb which has been described as the “JPEG of 3D”. Developed by Wolf3D, Ready Player Me powers the default avatar system on VRland.

Myself as an avatar in the metaverse, powered by Ready Player Me.

The holy grail will be when you can be in a virtual world on the web, and by walking up to a portal and either selecting it (on mobile or computer) or walking through it in VR, you are instantly transported to the next destination that is also a website. This interoperability powered by the web we all know and love is what will usher in what most think of as us the metaverse, a true network of networks. Trying doing that as a single native application on an app store!

Regardless, I hope I’ve made my point about the web being the best positioned to become the access point to the metaverse. If any companies, developers, or investors are interested in working with us or learning more about our mission to build The Immersive Web, please feel free to join our community Discord below.

See you in the metaverse!

Discord link: https://discord.gg/cFJV6Yu

Founder of DigiPlay