VR, the Metaverse and Web3

Oil IT Journal editor Neil McNaughton reviews over 20 years of attempts to find a useful application for virtual reality technologies. From the Cave, fancy headsets of the last millennium, through Second Life, Google Glass and into the metaverse. But what exactly is the metaverse? Is it Web3? Is it blockchain? Will it be a closed world managed by Meta/Facebook. Or, as many in the IT universe seem to be hoping, an ‘open’ environment where all the GAFAMs can cash-in?

Back in the day Oil IT Journal we reviewed the state of the art in virtual reality. When do you think this was? 2015, 2010, 2005? Wrong. We published our VR Hardware Primer back in 1998 covering a dozen or so solutions. The 3D meme was having a good time towards the end of the last millennium as companies deployed various combinations of cave-style systems, 3D glasses and so forth. It seemed to us that these were more designed to impress than for real work. Often the massive installations actually had rather low resolution. And folks reported queasiness after wearing the 3D glasses for a while. You still see magazine with pictures of geophysicists and engineers wearing the clunky headsets and pointing out some feature of interest inside a VR cave. I’m not sure that any real work is done in these environments. If I’m wrong I’d like to hear about it.

My next observation along the 3D/immersive time came with the remarkable madness of crowds that was Second Life. This shared immersive environment, the first ‘metaverse’, was heralded as a game-changer – but I’m not sure what the game was. Folks created their avatars, jumped in and did stuff. Companies set up shop inside the system (IBM was all-in for a while), some countries opened ‘embassies’. An SPE president suggested that SPE could set up an ‘island’ in Second Life where our avatars could meet. He was kidding I think. But IBM wasn’t.

In 2009 BP trialed a VR collaboration environment from HP that blended the physical world with models for remote troubleshooting activities. Users’ avatars could gather in ‘rooms’ with walls showing information from diverse sources. More on the BP/HP ACE here. VR Context’s WalkInside also deserves a mention, a 3D model with click-through to plant data (but no avatars). WalkInside is now owned (an still going) by Siemens. But the technology seems to have migrated from the Cave to the workstation and of course, the 3D facility model has been rebranded as a ‘Digital Twin’.

Not all that long ago all this looked as though it would be blown away with the advent of the Google Glass that, like the early VR wearables, blends reality with things digital. My own reaction to meeting someone wearing the Google Glass, filming my every move and recording my every word, was an inclination to punch them the nose. Of course I refrained, but I wonder how many people will share my pugilistic instinct when confronted with a wearer of Facebook’s new portal to the Metaverse.

At a reported 700 grams, Facebook’s new headset is way more intimidating that the old Google Glasses but shares the annoying ability to incorporate outsiders with its virtual world without a by-yourleave. Although Facebook’s Metaverse is the object of considerable speculation, some see it as the future of the World Wide Web. The Metaverse is thus (according to Deloitte) conflated with Web3, a ‘blockchain-based’ upgrade of the world wide web. We will pass quickly on where blockchain fits in to the communications stack (blockchain-based HTTP requests for anybody?).

I attended a session on the Metaverse at the Paris Big Data conference and heard speakers from SalesForce, Havas Play and WorldLine opine on where the technology is heading. Their metaverse is seen as opening a new marketing channel leveraging blockchain, non fungible tokens (NFTs) and loyalty programs. Where Web2 uses passwords and cookies, Web3 will use blockchain ‘signed transactions’ which are ‘much more secure’. Moreover these transactions will be outside of the apps, there will be ‘no more silos’. NFTs will guarantee anonymity ‘within reason’. One example of an NFT application was the purchase and sale of high-end bottles of wine (this is France!). Here a smart contract ‘guarantees’ ownership rights and allows the original brand to take a cut on each resale. This, like other blockchain use cases, fails the McNaughton test in that there is nothing that stops a seller refilling a bottle with an inferior wine and drinking the original contents … but I digress.

The speakers assume that the Metaverse will, like the world wide web, be open to all. We came across similar sentiments expressed by Microsoft where we read, ‘Because there will be no single metaverse platform or experience, interoperability is crucial’. So Meta/Facebook has bet the house on a metaverse that will just be one of many? That will interoperate nice with Microsoft and the other GAFAs? I don’t think so! Zuckerberg’s intent is to upgrade Facebook with another addictive, sticky environment. Others will be able to join for sure, on a plug and pay basis.

Finally I have been pestering the W3C for some time now asking what they think of the Metaverse. You might think that the W3C might have something to say about a movement calling itself ‘Web3’. You might event expect W3C, as high priests of web tech, to have something to say about a ‘blockchain-based web’. But so far, no reply*. I imagine that W3 is playing a waiting game, making sure that nothing it says now is going to upset its sponsors. Who are they? Who do you think … the GAFAMs!

* While the W3C still has not replied to our pestering, we did get a reply to our under-the-radar query posted to a W3 mailing list where we have it, informally, that the W3C is ‘not working on a blockchain-based Web3’, and that it has no ownership on a Web.x brand.

STOP PRESS … The W3C is at least discussing WEB3 and blockchain as evidenced in the minutes of a recent discussion on Where’s the Web in Web3?

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