What do we lose if the metaverse fails?

An interview with Chip Morningstar who built a metaverse in the 1980s.
Ameya Paleja
Metaverse city concept.Kinwun/ iStock

Last year when Mark Zuckerberg announced that his social media company, Facebook, was rebranding itself as Meta to reflect its new focus, the world took notice. Suddenly, the term metaverse became something that everybody was talking about, and companies across the board wanted to invest in it. 

From fashion labels to tech giants, companies and brands initially jumped to give us a glimpse of what they would be doing in the brand new world that Meta hopes to bring to fruition. The interest in the metaverse has dimmed over the months, but many questions remain about what the metaverse will look and behave like, apart from who will really build it. 

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Interesting Engineering spoke to Chip Morningstar, a man who thought a lot about the metaverse and the things we could do there way back in the mid-1980s. Morningstar was the project lead for Habitat, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) considered a forerunner of modern MMORPGs and the first graphical virtual world. Habitat could support more than 15,000 people at a time, allowing them to run businesses, play games, experiment with self-government, wage wars, fall in love, and do much more in space. 

What do we lose if the metaverse fails?
Chip Morningstar

Created by Lucasfilm Games, Habitat was launched in 1986, eight years before Facebook even existed. In 2008. Morningstar also wrote a paper about the lessons he learned while building Habitat and how they might help companies in the future. 

In an email interview, Morningstar shared his vision of the metaverse, how it will be built, the challenges of scaling it, and what if it fails? 

Interesting Engineering: Why are Tech giants so keen on building the metaverse?

Chip Morningstar: Aside from Meta, which has made a very public declaration that they’re betting their future on it, it’s not entirely clear that most of them actually are that keen. Much of the current attention on “the metaverse” was prompted specifically by Zuckerberg's initiative, which caused a lot of the media ecosystem to take notice and ask, “Is there something important going on here?” 

A lot of very successful businesses have been built on the ruins of failed predecessors.

But I think a reasonable answer might be “no”. Big companies with lots of resources can afford to hedge their bets, and so they will, often very aggressively. If some emerging area of business or technology might turn out to be important, they’ll throw money at projects in that area just in case. They’ll do this even if they don’t actually have a lot of institutional belief in the long-term prospects for whatever it is. That way, they’ll still be in the game if whatever it actually does turns out to be important. It’s much cheaper to have a bunch of R&D that gets written off than to be caught flat-footed if the world doesn’t turn out the way they expect. But a bunch of big tech companies hedging does not imply a trend.

IE: What will a typical metaverse built by a tech company look like? Built only on revenue models?

So much of the metaverse conversation has a weird, cart-before-the-horse flavor to it, where people assume that UX technology that nobody has yet demonstrated exists and works. People assume, with a complete lack of evidence, that there is some unmet need that this somehow addresses.

Whether it’s built by a tech company, a non-profit, a government, or a community barn raising, anything viable, pretty much by definition, has to have a working revenue model. So far, nobody has articulated one for the metaverse that’s different from more of the same that we’ve been living with for the past couple of decades. In that case, “the metaverse” would have to deliver some new capability that current media can’t match, and I’ve yet to see evidence of anything like that.

IE: What do we lose if a corporate-built metaverse fails?

I’m not sure we lose anything. To the extent that value gets generated, either in terms of technology development or just learning more about what works and what doesn’t, as a society, we might well come out ahead. A lot of very successful businesses have been built on the ruins of failed predecessors.

The metaverse adds little to escape the ethical sewer that social media has become.

Obviously, there is opportunity cost, since the resources being put into metaverse efforts might be spent on something more worthwhile, but you have that risk with every new speculative technology, and often you only find out after the fact what the right thing to have done was.

IE: What would an open metaverse look like? Why is it important? Who will build it? Who will pay for it?

To the extent that anything metaverse-like will ever turn out to work, openness seems to be a critical piece of the story. Nobody has a good model of what to do, so you need a playing field that’s open to experimentation. As with the original web, it’s impossible to predict where the critical breakthroughs, insights, and innovations will come from - assuming they come at all.

The metaverse would have to deliver some new capability that current media can’t match, and I’ve yet to see evidence of anything like that.

I’m less concerned about the specifics about who will build it or pay for it, as we have no shortage of visionary technologists eager to try cool new stuff and no shortage of investors eager to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing. As it has always been in Silicon Valley and places like it, most of those ventures will be failures, but the few successes will make up for the many failures if there’s actually anything there to be found.

My personal best guess is that the likely successes will be more in the AR space than the 3D goggles stuff that Meta is pushing. Think more 'Rainbows End' and less 'Snow Crash' or 'Ready Player One', where you’re integrating the virtual world with the real world rather than trying to make the virtual world even more immersive.

IE: Web2.0 brought with it the good and bad bits of the internet. What is an ethical metaverse? Why do we need it? What will attract people to it?

I don’t really buy into the premise of the question. Web 2.0 was certainly an advance in UX, but I’m not convinced it changed anything fundamental. There are definitely profound ethical dimensions to metaverse efforts (see, in particular, Raph Koster’s astonishing tale of his job interview with Mark Zuckerberg) but it’s not the metaverse per se that introduces the ethical questions. It’s the players in the space and what they are attempting to do that matters.

It’s much cheaper to have a bunch of R&D that gets written off than to be caught flat-footed if the world doesn’t turn out the way they expect.

Anyone paying attention to social media should by now be familiar with the enormous volume of critical commentary regarding the pernicious effects of the engagement-driven advertising model. The metaverse adds little to that discussion, aside from a vague hope that this is an opportunity to escape to a different revenue model, and thus, to escape the ethical sewer that social media has become. However absent, some concrete proposal as to what a viable alternative revenue model might be, I think that hope is unlikely to be realized.

IE: How can an ethical metaverse be scaled? What are the challenges when scaling a metaverse?

The scaling challenges are significant but I don’t think they’re any different from the scaling challenges we’ve been dealing with for decades. We need to solve the problems of content management and community moderation at scale, but I don’t think the metaverse idea per se introduces anything new towards either fixing the problems or making them worse.

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