The Minimum Viable Metaverse

What gaming, social media, and productivity in the "new normal" tell us about the next wave of software

We all know the story: Within a matter of days, the restaurants emptied, the offices closed, the traffic left the streets and, whatever could, moved online. We locked down and logged on.

The world is reeling. Lives changed and lost. Political tensions high. Employment far from certain. Yet the internet persists and allows us to operate, some of us at full capacity if we’re lucky. The main engines are down but we’ve still got thrusters to help propel forward and navigate the new normal, albeit in (mostly) virtual space. Among the many implications of this pandemic, we are forced to confront long-standing theories about the logical progression of the internet and software. Where are we headed via the internet?

As of early March 2020, the developed world’s consideration of this question abruptly shifted from theory to praxis. Our children now attend classes on Zoom. We watch “sports” on Twitch instead of the typical TV and SVOD services. We buy and sell with Shopify-powered storefronts and we bank exclusively through apps. The doorbell rings, the daily Amazon delivery shows up, and we briefly remember that there’s a whole layer of the economy we don’t see too often anymore, a physical supply chain fulfilling the requests we make as clicks and taps and voice commands.

Few of these behaviors are completely new and some of them were already baked into our routines. I’m not arguing that months of quarantine will hurdle us into an all-new reality. Some, if not many, things will ease back to the way they were. But the impact of our collective withdrawal into WiFi-abundant homes — the new normal of a predominantly digital existence, which onset basically overnight — surely gives us a glimpse of changes ahead.

In a recent interview on the Invest Like the Best podcast, investor @GavinSBaker said, “Recessions are always an accelerant of change. They always change the vector of change. Both the speed and the direction.”

In this moment, that vector of change points toward the Metaverse, a concept borne from science fiction and embraced by Big Tech and indie techies alike, which envisions the next instance of the internet as one in which virtual spaces and worlds “converge with actual reality.” Baker thinks of the Metaverse as “a series of connected virtual worlds that a majority of people will spend a majority of their waking hours in within my lifetime.”

To date, it’s been easy to write this off. For most of us, the prevailing view of the Metaverse was the Hollywood articulation, where citizens jack-in and roam a parallel reality with video game topography. Visions of mainstream virtual worlds were not to be taken seriously. But now arrives the Metaverse of the mundane. The one we’ve been building the components of but couldn’t see for what it was until, one day in 2020, the floor became lava and those components were the only solid things to stand on. 

A sketch of some of the tech and trends shaping what we might think of as a minimum viable Metaverse:

Two months into the new normal, we’re starting to pick up strong signals about how entertainment, work, school, and common modes of social interaction will change. What can we expect in the near future?

I. Video games will guide the way

There is nothing surprising about the fact that video game usage is skyrocketing during a shelter-in-place situation. The largest captive audience of all time is stuck at home, wanting to move around, explore, and compete, all while connecting. Any game with a built-in social element can thrive in these conditions. More people playing reinforces the fun of the game and network effects kick in. Verizon’s CEO says gaming on their networks is up 100%.

Look beyond the consoles and the hardware, beyond the game titles themselves, and what’s striking is the rapid growth in adoption of software that makes up the broader gaming ecosystem. Platforms like Discord (community chat channels), Twitch (video live streaming), and Roblox (game creation) are finding product-market fit outside of gaming, providing tools for creation, distribution, and social connection that unlock a long tail of use cases in other contexts.

From a software perspective, video games and the products in their orbit are really special. Games uniquely integrate elements of storytelling, competition, community, and sensory payoff; games equip players with tools and data and situate them in a goal-oriented environment. Movies or TikTok can’t quite deliver all of that, and Zoom and Slack certainly don’t.

We can collaborate and accomplish things both in games and through the gaming stack. Consumers and entrepreneurs are quickly recognizing the potential utility of video games and adjacent software when abstracted from the game itself, in order to, for example:

But why now? Besides the obvious reasons brought on by COVID-19, why is there a surge in gamer behavior, adoption of software in the gaming ecosystem, and demand for virtual spaces? There are other macro factors at play:

  • Factor: A pandemic event like COVID-19 thoroughly disrupts daily life in our cities and neighborhoods, distorting our view of the ordinary and challenging assumptions of how our communities, our people, and our institutions should look and function. [“New Normal”]

    ↪️Outcome: This leads to an inversion, where the virtual world all of a sudden doesn’t seem so strange or foreign relative to the real world. IRL loses its monopoly on normalcy.

  • Factor: For the first time, many of us start to grasp the fragility of society on a global scale. To stabilize the situation, we need to shut it all down, then rethink many of the hard protocols of the real world: the distances we observe, the supply chains we rely on, the healthcare systems we trust, etc. Wicked problems abound. [“Fragility”]

    ↪️Outcome: The difficulty of enacting significant changes to systems and norms in such short order will become evident and, comparatively, digital infrastructure and virtual spaces will start to seem much more efficient and hospitable. If we can’t rely on the physical world to be a (usually) safe and coherent place, virtual space might be a pragmatic hedge.

  • Factor: More and more citizens are becoming disaffected as governments and other forms of bureaucracy let them down and mainstream politics trends toward populism. [“Liberties”]

    ↪️Outcome: People welcome any chance to play under new rules or within new systems that better represent them, or at least offer escape from legacy structures that are disappointments or outright failures in the current situation.

  • Factor: As we move into the third decade of social media and deeper into the second decade of mobile device ubiquity (iPhone launch: 2007), most existing apps and interfaces are starting to feel stale; relative to immersive games, the design tropes of our social and productivity apps will lose our attention. [“Interface”]

    ↪️Outcome: People start to crave new phenomenology in the digital experience; we know virtual worlds and exciting software exist, can be built, and will get better; the longer we spend online, during quarantine or otherwise, the more we will want to explore new terrain. It is in our nature.


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II. Spatial software is coming soon

So, do all of our apps become video games, or live within virtual worlds? No. But they will start to borrow design principles from the gaming ecosystem. Namely: space, presence, and physics.

Space & presence

The most obvious symptom of quarantine is a mounting desire for social interaction. But with each week and month spent inside, we’re also left craving more dimensionality in our day-to-day. Our apartments and houses start to feel flat. We wake up for work and see flat faces on screens. We review, compose, and send flat documents. Even with the latest hardware, we communicate and transact primarily through 2D interfaces that, while effective, leave a lot to be desired from an experience design perspective. 

We want to inhabit a world again. With limited options for outdoor living and few public spaces afforded to us, we’ve turned to virtual spaces for relief. People are talking about taking joy rides in video games. Buzz about “virtual walks” has grown more than 1,000% since March 1st.

Even when we do get back out there and commute and dine and mingle, we will increasingly see the value of embodiment in digital space, a residual effect of months in quarantine. All these years into the internet and most moments online still feel like working or computing or “using” an app — far from living. Each app-scape is basically a scroll of digital paper, draped over a database, with buttons, hyperlinks, and text fields sprinkled on top. It’s too reductive. We need some expanse. 

The near future will see huge growth in social media and productivity software that places the user in some version of space, in relation to objects or goals or other users. More software will orient us on a map of tasks or content. Avatars — whether basic shapes, likeness renderings, or kawaii characters — will promote a sense of presence. “Being there,” body language, and personal style (presence aesthetic) deserve digital equivalents that can help us overcome the limited visual frame and latency of video chats. There’s simply too much meaning and utility in embodiment to reserve it only for games.

Graph: Interest in “Kawaii.” Kawaii design elements can imply charm and vulnerability - useful qualities for developing a sense of presence and personhood in software.

A couple of random examples: What if, instead of scheduling a conventional remote meeting, you could “walk” up to your colleague or creative partner and invite them on a stroll through an outdoor gallery of logo designs you’ve been working on? What if teams could decouple their sense of productivity and time management from the calendar, instead “feeling” progress through a virtual journey from trailhead to summit, whereupon the new feature gets shipped? 

Now here are some actual apps and digital gardens which have launched recently:

Elliot’s Virtual Mall, a collaborative pop-up built in a shared Google Sheet

Online Town, introducing avatars to video chat to bring a new sense of presence to remote meetings. Thanks to @john_c_palmer for the tip on this one.

The internet presents us with billions of pieces of content, ideas, and items to shop, but a meager few modes of navigation or states of being while we’re working, surfing, shopping. This is an imbalance that’s due for a correction. Expect a new generation of software designed for space and presence. To increase the experiential surface area of the internet would be to increase the potential for spontaneity and serendipity, unleashing a new generation of creativity and productivity. This was our trajectory anyway; the pandemic and quarantine experience just accelerates it.

Physics

In addition to space and presence, video games and virtual worlds bring physics into software. Today, a virtual object can fall from a tree in a game and it will fall with the appropriate velocity as governed by the law of gravity. Tomorrow, perhaps there is a conceptual obstacle in your workstream, manifested as a “physical” object in the virtual world of your project management app, which your avatar can’t generate enough force to move on its own — and so the game forces you to recruit your teammates to creatively push the problem and clear the path ahead. 

Real world phenomena encoded in the digital experience serve a purpose beyond special effects. Perhaps virtual physics can make bookkeeping or graphic design or customer service feel a little bit more like embodied living. That would inject a new wave of productive energy into our projects which we undertake in non-physical space.

(I’m keeping this essay focused on software, but products like Peloton, for example — which converge software, content, and hardware — are following similar principles and leading the charge in blurring the lines between physical activity and virtual gaming and competition. Also important to mention, though not covered here, is the role that audio and haptics can play to enhance a user’s sense of presence.)

Some non-gamers might reject the thought of video game dynamics being the future of software because of the perception that video games are just figments of reality, juvenile, unserious. But “virtual” does not necessarily mean fantastical or extraterrestrial. The virtual worlds of video games are actually powered by, and interlinked with, the natural world:

III. The Metaverse will rise out of abstraction & intersectionality

v1 of the Metaverse is a makeshift structure. Not a conscious build by any central entity, it’s a collision of worlds — strung together by the internet — that starts to form organically. The whole concept seems a bit far off and far out, but it actually begins with media we’re already very familiar with.

When imagining the Metaverse, instead of trying to visualize complex virtual worlds, start simple. Think of clusters of people who share a media affinity, members of any particular cultural scene. Worlds form when audiences leverage technology to share, transact, and build out space for engagement. A music scenester used to go to clubs and make mixtapes; now she streams the festival, hosts a Kpop Discord server, and builds a following for the dark electropop dance videos she makes with her e-girl friends.

Music and movie fandoms can form worlds. Video games, of course, constitute worlds. Professional networks are worlds too. Inevitably, worlds start to bridge to one another as people at the edges of different audiences cross-pollinate. Audiences find themselves spending more and more time in each other's worlds, forming meta layers, abstracted from the originals, where interesting new things happen. 

This isn’t new to culture — this is culture. The difference is that software now mediates a significant share of our experience within and between worlds. And software that affords presence or spatial awareness — from a simple video chat app to a more immersive game-like product — can establish a type of proximity between individuals, or even between worlds at large. As such, worlds come to life more quickly, link up more easily, and provide high fidelity experiences without requiring physical space.

Again, COVID-19 is not responsible for this trend, but it’s accelerating it. When we can’t participate in our scenes the way we used to, communications and behaviors don’t die, they transplant to other contexts and find a new conduit for virality.

eSports is an obvious example. As the sporting world shut down in mid-March, Fox aired the inaugural race of the eNascar iRacing series — in which gamers compete in a virtual car race — and scored a huge audience of 900k viewers, an eSports broadcast record. A fast-growing entertainment trend multiplied by quarantine.

There are many other examples from the last several weeks which are less linear and arguably more interesting:

  • Music x Video Games. With concerts indefinitely postponed, Travis Scott is touring Fortnite. Virtual world becomes venue. But hosting an in-game concert is not just a backup plan, not a degraded experience. It becomes a new cool thing as fans discover and enjoy “live” music in a game landscape. “The existence of the concert has been rumored for some time…those rumors resurfaced as players spotted a stage being constructed on an island in the Sweaty Sands area of Fortnite.” [The Verge]. Epic Games reported that 12 million players joined the concert on April 23, an all-time record.

  • Entertainment x Fashion. In late March, Amazon premiered Making the Cut, a fashion design competition show on Prime Video. As @packym pointed out in his great Not Boring Newsletter on this topic, “Amazon is using Making the Cut to introduce contextualized content-to-commerce.” Enjoy a fashion show from your couch and then immediately shop the top look on Amazon. Why this is important: The rise of the Metaverse will correlate with mass-scale reduction in friction. When friction goes to 0, the law of least resistance kicks in, and it will suck more and more consumer activity into virtual space. What’s the point of a mall when you can “attend” a designer’s show and buy the collection as it drops? (Also: I felt it compulsory to slip an Amazon example in here because Bezos might be building the ultimate ‘verse. Prime Video. Whole Foods. Twitch. AWS.)

  • Sports x Finance. With all pro and college sports on hiatus, Dave Portnoy, founder of Barstool Sports, has turned to the stock market for entertainment and betting action. Live streaming as a new character, “Davey Day Trader,” he lets his audience follow along on Periscope and Twitter as he puts skin in the game and endures wild swings in stock prices. What’s happening here is that Portnoy is brilliantly abstracting the drama and adrenaline he loves from sports and keeping it alive in the world of Finance Twitter (#FinTwit). Sports are shuttered but, in a corner of the budding Metaverse, the identity of the hardcore sports fan survives.

And so we begin to encounter a multitude of worlds, many of which are connected in some way.

Which worlds do you want to spend your time in? Increasingly, it seems, this question is a matter of design taste: the experience delivery system of software is becoming just as important as the content it distributes. In a way, UI/UX preference acts as a filtering function for admission to a world or universe, a badge of citizenship. For many millennials who grew into adulthood with Facebook, the feed and its extended family of apps now feel like a cluttered junkyard (so the FB ecosystem needs a refresh). The frenzied logic of Snapchat keeps Gen Z engaged and the boomers at bay. Minecraft might appeal to one gamer-type while Fortnite attracts a different persona. The Metaverse can maintain many niches.

Nothing new here, really: The medium is the message. But there’s an explosion in optionality as media mutate into worlds and all of these worlds begin to converge. It’s getting hard to tell if new worlds are built to attract and house existing audiences, or if new worlds arise from a collective subconscious demand for new space where a nascent audience can break out. 

If, in reading about the Metaverse, you’re feeling overwhelmed by the acceleration of the internet or what feels like a peculiar future ahead — remember that we’ve been on this journey for a long time. Video games were around in the late 1970s. The World Wide Web ascended in the 1990’s. Then, for twenty years, social media evolved and cultivated a bunch of different worlds for the mainstream to inhabit. Now, we happen to be living through a black swan event that is ratcheting up the speed at which this is all happening.

To boil it all down: The relatively simple idea underpinning these trends is our gradual, but dramatic, move from a passive to active relationship with media and entertainment.

  • For most of media history, the masses consumed content

  • With the rise of the social web, we began to create and share content en masse

  • As video games and spatial software collide with social media, we now inhabit worlds

  • In the near future we will create worlds more freely and experience them more fully

Thank you so much for spending time in this essay, a miniverse in itself. If nothing else, I wanted to explore the idea of the internet as a fractal, a collection of worlds within worlds within our real world, all of which are looking and feeling very different in this moment. It was fun, but now I could use a change of scene — if you need me, I’ll be taking a meta nostalgia trip to this virtual DJ set happening in a level from Goldeneye 64.