Two years after Mark Zuckerberg launched it into orbit, the metaverse is crashing back to Earth. As the hype sparked by Facebook’s rebrand fades amid jaw-dropping losses, risible selfies, and the generative AI boom, reality is setting in — which is when things start getting interesting.
Metaverse stalwarts are now fighting for competing visions.
On one side are the centralised platforms owned by the likes of Meta and Roblox. Under the control of all-powerful tech giants, these virtual worlds exist in siloes.
On the other side stand advocates for open, interconnected, and decentralised metaverses. In these utopian realms, users can freely traverse spaces and take ownership of their experiences.
Improbable has firmly planted its flag in the latter camp. The company spent a decade building immersive virtual worlds, from military simulations to K-pop parties, before pivoting to building metaverse infrastructure. While the unicorn’s focus (and fortunes) have fluctuated, Improbable’s faith in open spaces has persisted.
“We have seen how walled gardens and closed networks exploit the people that spend time on the services for the benefit of few,” Herman Narula, the company’s co-founder and CEO, said last year.
More recently, Narula has been pitching an alternative.
“We want to contribute to ensuring the metaverse holds its promise of being a network of meaning that unlocks creativity, social interaction, and economic opportunities, free from gatekeepers,” he said last month.
To bring this vision to (virtual) life, Improbable has launched a new venture: MSquared, a network of metaverses.
The lay of the land
Today’s virtual worlds are ringfenced. In Roblox, for instance, you can use build games, buy weapons, and spend the Robux currency. But you can’t take any of that into Fortnite.
MSquared hopes to dismantle these barriers. Using a suite of technologies, services, and standards — as well as $150m (€138m) in funding — the project promises to power a nexus of interlinked worlds.
If all goes to plan, the virtual experiences will extend across multiple platforms and an interoperable economy.
“I’m going to get shouted at for calling it this, but one way to describe it is a ‘meta-metaverse’,” Rob Whitehead, Improbable’s co-founder and chief product officer, told TNW.
Whitehead compares the concept to international travel. In this analogy, virtual worlds are akin to individual nations with open borders. If you want to visit a new country, you just bring your wallet and possessions with you.
Upon arrival, your digital assets could be accessed through blockchain-enabled decentralised identities and cryptocurrencies, or traditional Web2 log-ins and digital goods, like Fortnite outfits and tools.
“We’re the layer that connects those different worlds together,” said Whitehead. “And it’s agnostic as to whether that metaverse is using crypto or non-crypto stuff.”
Improbable divides MSquared participants into four groups: metaverse owners running the virtual spaces, creators producing the experiences, service providers powering the network, and users consuming the content.
Naturally, they won’t be doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. Metaverse owners can charge fees to access their spaces, but they also have to pay service providers for supplying the infrastructure. Creators, meanwhile, can monetise their content.
Users could, for instance, buy tickets to concerts, digital clothes to wear, furniture for virtual houses, or upgrades to make their avatars fly. It may sound ridiculous for those of us struggling to make ends meet IRL, but people already spend billions in basic virtual worlds. As the experiences improve, the digital economy could rapidly expand.
In time, Improbable wants to add over 10,000 people to the MSquared network. But before they come, someone has to build it.
Weaving a metaverse fabric
Users have not yet been invited to the MSquared virtual party. Improbable has built the ecosystem’s foundations, but it wants to expand the network before the public release.
The current centrepiece of MSquared is Improbable’s Morpheus platform, which is comprised of tools and services for creating, operating, and monetising metaverse experiences.
The system has already powered mass-scale experiences. In demos shared online, Morpheus has powered virtual spaces for 10,000 real users, all interacting in the same place at the same time.
According to Improbable, Morpheus can now enable immersive, shared, and high-concurrency experiences for over 20,000 people across all devices.
Another key component is the Metaverse Markup Language (MML), which allows developers to build virtual objects that can live in any world on the network. Also on offer is the M² Cross Construct, a sandbox environment, and the M² Cross Metaversal Services, which enable interoperability.
A circle of partners have added further capabilities. NVIDIA is providing the backbone for high-fidelity graphics, Google Cloud is supplying cloud infrastructure, Dolby is delivering video content, and Ubitus is supporting worldwide streaming.
The virtual future
Improbable hopes the initial crop of metaverse launches will arrive soon. The next step will be creating and incentivising a cross-metaverse economy through shared commercial structures and free movement.
Ultimately, Narula envisions the system becoming far bigger than any one company or individual metaverse.
“MSquared initiates a radically different and novel business model, where ownership and interoperability work together, and creates an environment where creativity flourishes alongside the growth of economically viable businesses within a shared space,” he said.
It’s a grand ambition that still needs to be turned into reality. But MSquared at least offers hope of an escape from platform monopolies and walled gardens. Our tech overlords will be closely following the progress. Hi, Mark!
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