Wed, 10 Aug 2022 16:03:45 GMT
The hype-machine around the metaverse is dying down. Now, as an industry, it’s time we turn our attention to the practicalities and standards that are essential to its success.
We don’t have a singular Metaverse yet. Instead, we have ‘metaverses’ - a set of individual walled garden platforms, which have wildly different experiences, technical requirements and design languages. This is a glaring hole in its architecture which will need to be addressed if it’s going to fulfil both it’s practical and commercial potential.
Imagine for a moment that the World Wide Web was being invented today. Would we have to choose between Google’s web and Apple’s web, without the ability to directly link between them? If so, would we enjoy the diversity of experience which digital currently enjoys? (After all, this has enabled countless innovative services and created entirely new categories of business.)
Interoperability has been central to the success of the web. The basic protocol of data interchange (the ‘http/https’ bit at the start of a web address) has gone largely unchanged since it was invented, and whilst minor disagreements continue about the standards the web is built on, there is broad consensus over core protocols and design principles that guarantee the ability to move smoothly from one organisation’s world to another.
Without the work of the central body overseeing these standards, the W3C, not to mention the generosity of the many organisations and individuals that contribute open-source technology, we would be in a mess of confusion. If we don’t rapidly establish pathways to open standards for the metaverse, then it will risk failing to reach the impact that its potential promises.
The overall goal of The Metaverse with a capital ‘M’ is a persistent, immersive online world that we can visit, occupy, transact and engage with. The path to this goal, however, needs to establish some core standards which can be broadly adopted across platform creators if it’s to stand a chance.
Here are three starter points:
Indexable resource locators (URLs in the web world) for metaverse spaces and experiences will be a vital component to navigating freely about a unified Metaverse, moving from platform to platform and experience to experience. Content discovery is going to be a major hurdle for brands using the metaverse until such spaces are indexable (a Google for the metaverse), and it’s worth noting that this issue was the primary cause of the death of voice assistance applications for brands, despite some innovative attempts. In web-based metaverses, URLs can be adopted to a certain extent, although content is not indexable in the same way that websites are. A ‘portal’ system which allows you to move freely between platforms will be a vital standard to adopt if the vendors are willing. There will be tension between centralised and decentralised operators which may make this tricky, but even mobile operating systems (traditionally the most walled of walled gardens) eventually had the capacity to deep link between third party applications.
The metaverse is often referred to as a ‘wild west’ akin to the early internet. This is not just true of its spicier elements, but also of its aesthetic which is rough and ready at best, and garish and amateurish at worst. It arguably took at least 10 years for the web’s design principles to settle down, and these have continued to evolve as its technical capabilities and audience expectations have changed. Some people are doing interesting UX and design work within immersive spaces and whilst some interaction standards are emerging, there is still often confusion about how one navigates and interacts within these spaces. VR is leading the field here (and it’s one area where Meta’s Horizon Worlds excels compared to the decentralised platforms) and the more that UX and XD professionals start getting interested in the space, the better these will become.
The usefulness of any given platform to brands creatively correlates neatly to their malleability. Platforms which are restrictive and opaque to creators will struggle to offer anything other than another media platform. Whilst this might be useful in the short term, brands with bigger ambitions will eventually turn back to other ways of reaching audiences. 3D creation tools have come a very long way fast, but they’re still complicated and expensive to use. The web benefitted from most of its core technology being accessible and extensible, and vendors and brands alike have contributed to standards, open-source tools and developer communities to keep evolving the medium. We have yet to see the metaverse equivalent of Google’s material design or AirBnB’s coding standards emerge.
Now it’s time to turn the most exciting of new digital horizons from just a promising curiosity to a fundamental component in our digital lives.