While his fellow moguls were cramming into metal vessels to launch themselves into space, Mark Zuckerberg was working on something quite different. No space exploration for the Facebook founder, instead he announced that he plans to transform his firm from a social networking platform to a “metaverse company.” All of that in five years.
Among Zuckerberg’s thoughts for a metaversified Facebook: An “infinite office” where people can create the perfect workplace, replete with holograms on couches. There will be whiteboards and unlimited screens and documents that can be shared in a virtual environment. People will be able to talk as though they are separated by distance, a concept known as “spatial audio.”
The metaverse, Zuckerberg says, will be an “embodied internet.” It will become a place we are in, instead of a stream of photos, words and videos—content—that we simply watch. For Zuckerberg, the metaverse means jumping into that rushing multimedia stream, and staying there.
In an interview with The Verge, Zuckerberg namechecks cryptocurrency protocols as an example of a technology that’s vastly interoperable and decentralised. “Is it interoperable because it’s decentralized, in the way that a bunch of the crypto work is being designed now, so there’s kind of no central dependency?” Zuckerberg says, as he riffs on how a Facebook metaverse would achieve interoperabiiity.
Interoperability is important because it’s a foundational concept of the metaverse. It’s one of the eight tenets outlined by the analyst Matthew Ball, who has an enthusiastic following among tech and media types, in a metaverse framework he published in June. Like Zuckerberg, Ball also talks about cryptocurrencies as a key related technology. Interoperability might be the overlap in the Venn diagram between crypto and the metaverse—and maybe it’s how both crypto and the metaverse go mainstream.
Let’s take a closer look at Matthew Ball’s metaverse framework for starters. It’ll help us understand where crypto fits into the idea, and what role, if any, it’ll play in Zuckerberg’s plans. Here’s Ball’s framework, simplified and annotated for our purposes:
- Hardware: VR headsets and the like. Facebook of course owns Oculus, the world’s biggest VR headset maker.
- Networking: High-speed and always-on internet access.
- Compute: Processing power.
- Virtual platforms: Places where people can build businesses and engage in social activities. Sounds a lot like Facebook.
- Interchange tools and standards: Common standards that aid interoperability. This is what blockchains excel at.
- Payments: Digital-first payments. Again, another area where crypto and blockchain is a star.
- Metaverse content, services, assets: The ability to create and store digital assets, crucially, independent of the virtual platforms mentioned above. This is crypto and NFT territory.
- User behaviors: Trends that look like fads at first. Crypto and NFTs again.
Ball’s belief is that crypto and the metaverse are intertwined. He doesn’t put crypto into any one of his foundational ideas for a metaverse because he thinks it’s spread across several categories.
When it comes to standards, for example, he points out a conundrum for parties trying to coordinate around a set of shared standards. “If you “declared” your intent to start a Metaverse, these parties [owners of intellectual property] would never embrace interoperability or entrust their IP,” he writes. He’s referring to Fortnite’s ability to attract both Marvel and DC into allowing their characters to mingle on the same platform—a function of its organic evolution into a venue that can’t be ignored.
Blockchains solve this, to an extent. A blockchain is itself an open-source standard for writing software and applications. As blockchains proliferate, people are creating “bridges” and other mechanisms to move assets across them, resulting in a “multi-chain” world. So a metaverse built on a blockchain, Ball says, makes sense for swapping virtual assets. “It is hard to imagine a better on-ramp to openness,” he writes.
More broadly, blockchains could help the owners of our favorite characters resolve their inability to trust one another. Right now, they all develop their own technologies and publish games that work on those machines and standards. Someone like Blizzard isn’t going to write software for a competitor’s platform, for instance. But an open-source blockchain side-steps that risk, and aligns all publishers and content owners with an interoperable metaverse. “Blockchain standards also look like the best way to engage today’s major games, gaming platforms, and brands into the budding metaverse,” Ball writes.
Other metaverse believers, like Epic Games’ TIm Sweeney, whose Fortnite platform is arguably the closest to being a key part of a future metaverse, share Ball’s views. Sweeney says blockchains are “an indisputably neutral, distributed way of expressing individual ownership” and the “the most plausible path towards an ultimate long-term open framework where everyone’s in control of their own presence, free of gatekeeping.”
Crypto today has lots of ingredients for a metaverse. There are large virtual platforms, like Decentraland and Cryptovoxels; plenty of fervor for interoperability and shared standards; and an increasing amount of high-quality content. Payment, networking and compute are not real problems for crypto land.
One category, however, remains difficult for crypto to solve: hardware. Some observers, like the investor and DAO dabbler Daniel Bar, think we’ll see “permissioned” metaverses arise first because all the hardware people need to enter the metaverse—Oculus or Magic Leap headsets—is closed. Ball also acknowledges this, noting that almost all blockchain-based virtual worlds and NFT platforms are browser based.
It’s this category that Zuckerberg and Facebook might be uniquely placed to fill. As the owner of a social network with billions of users, and a unit mass-producing virtual reality headsets, Zuckerberg’s metaverse ambitions may not look so far fetched. Add to that a multi-year effort to create a cryptocurrency—the ill-fated Libra project—and the pieces start falling into place for a Facebook in the metaverse.
Ball agrees: “Facebook’s metaverse advantages are immense,” he writes. But the key stumbling block for Zuckerberg is openness and interoperability. Zuckerberg believes he can navigate that obstacle since there are many routes to interoperability, and not all of them require the hard decentralization of cryptocurrencies. In his interview with The Verge, Zuckerberg seems to place interoperability between two poles: decentralized, like cryptocurrency systems; and interoperable through agreements set by industry bodies. He doesn’t say which route he prefers, but he seems to be suggesting that the decentralized crypto route isn’t the only way to get to interoperability.
As Ball points out, the Libra project offers a glimpse into a consortium run by Facebook. And it’s pretty grim. While Libra gathered high-profile members initially, they began to back out one by one as the project rolled on.
Zuckerberg’s metaverse ambitions harken back to three year ago, when he announced that his new year’s resolution was to study cryptocurrencies. A year later, Libra was announced. But his declaration left many befuddled: what could Zuckerberg want with decentralized cryptocurrencies? Libra’s stalled launch is perhaps emblematic of that confused goal. In many ways, it feels like Zuckerberg wants to go “full crypto”—but the only thing preventing him from getting there is letting go of the centralization and control he’s built Facebook on for so long.