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Marketing Business Leadership AI & Web3 Deep Dive

The dream of interoperability: is a cross-platform metaverse possible?

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By Sam Anderson | Network Editor

March 30, 2023 | 9 min read

Most agree that the metaverse doesn’t yet exist – but is the dream we have of it even possible? For The Drum’s Tech Takeover deep dive, we asked experts from The Drum Network about the challenge of ‘interoperability’.

A sail boat at sea, among reflected stars

Is an 'interoperable' metaverse an achievable dream? / Johannes Plenio via Unsplash

It can sometimes feel that, if the metaverse exists to any extent right now, it’s as an ideological bucket into which commentators will drop a loose collection of hopes and dreams (or fears and criticisms, depending on their inclinations).

This amorphousness makes it hard for advertisers to decide whether this is a serious space worth investing in, or a pipedream worth only a skeptical side-eye. Volatility in the metaverse market tells a similar story: early losses for Meta’s big play, followed by a seeming pivot toward AI and an already closing metaverse division at Disney.

“The biggest challenge right now is the definition of the problem,” says Zone’s client technology director (and virtual reality coder since the 90s) Mika Tasich. “This is nearly a solved problem from a technological point of view… but the challenge is, at the moment, what are we going to do with it?” In other words, we’ll soon have devices able to build genuinely immersive experiences (though who can afford them is another matter). What we don’t have is agreement on what it’s all for.

The creature with three Is

There’s no common list of the metaverse’s desired features, but three I-words pop up in most conversations about it: immersion, interactivity, and interoperability.

On immersion and interactivity, we’re getting close, says MG Empower’s proposition development manager Andrea Cortes. Hardware is improving – VR headsets; processing power on devices; bandwidth – and software is too, thanks to games developers and AR advances from the likes of Snap. If it was only about immersion and interactivity says Cortes, we’d be “perhaps 10 years away from where the metaverse as a vision should be”.

But it’s harder to chart a course to the third I: interoperability. When people picture a metaverse, they don’t picture a bunch of disparate immersive experiences. They dream of a unified reality, where digital and physical selves are merged, with a continuity of identity and experience across platforms – as in the science fictional metaverses of Neal Stephenson, William Gibson and more recently Ready Player One.

Although decentralization is a much-vaunted hope for web3 and the metaverse, step one toward interoperability would be a common framework. The web as we know it retains its foundations of common protocols and technologies not owned or gatekept by anyone, setting universal standards. But “unlike the internet, which is easily accessible through standards like the HTTP protocol and HTML, the metaverse lacks such a standard, and there is no evidence of a standard being developed,” says Rawnet’s chief technology officer James Crooke.

Meta’s metaverse

It could be argued that Meta’s big metaverse play aims for a kind of interoperability – not through common, public protocols, but through market dominance.

The Ready Player One vision is relevant here: its fictional Oasis is a walled garden, controlled by a monopolistic corporation. But the interoperability concern isn’t speculative fiction; earlier this year, the World Economic Forum released a paper encouraging work toward metaversal interoperability focusing on “frictionless experiences, development and economies”.

“Given that Facebook is gambling on the next generation of the Internet and aims to shape it from their vision,” says Crooke, “the potential for monopolies and a lack of competition is concerning”.

“They’ve got no intention to decentralize any of it,” Crooke concludes. Tasich, for his part, says we shouldn’t be too worried about a Meta monopoly, simply because their plans “are just not going to work”. Regardless we should continue to work to “shape it in a human shape rather than a corporation shape”.

Zuckerberg’s Meta took a bit of a kicking from our panel, then – but Niantic’s senior director Caitlin Lacey (a veteran of Meta’s metaverse practice as their former head of augmented and mixed reality) urges a more balanced view. “Just as folks were skeptical about social media in its earliest days, we need to respect someone putting a stake in the ground so others can follow,” she says.

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For the people

Interoperability is not an abstract concern; it matters because adoption is the ultimate key to the arrival of a recognizable metaverse. A metaverse complete with immersive worlds but no people is not a metaverse at all.

Despite the hype train, there remains some distance to go to get the masses on the metaverse. As iCrossing’s head of audience intelligence Maria Bain puts it, all the hype sees marketers “stuck in our echo chambers”; understanding where audiences are with emerging tech can mean “confronting our marketing privilege”. “Consumer-wise, we’re not there yet” with the metaverse says Bain. “31% of UK consumers have never even heard of it”.

How, then, to drive that adoption? Not through the technology, but through communities, says our panel. “As long as technology is the driver, we won’t get adoption – because we’re driving ahead for technology’s sake,” says Fox Agency’s head of digital, Michael Dean. Virtual worlds, he points out, have been around for decades; many, like Second Life, achieve longevity not because the tech is impressive (or even particularly immersive), but “because they built something for their people” – “on the metaverse, the reason matters. Meta’s metaverse is not going to work, in my opinion, because they're focused on revenue, not on people.”

Oliver’s global head of production Peter Van Jaarsveld agrees. “It’s all about the people. People find the use cases. Passion drives informal adoption; informal adoption drives formal adoption. You see that with social platforms… that cycle to gain momentum is like a flywheel.”

There’s plenty of passion for proto-metaversal gaming platforms like Fortnite or Roblox, but setting that broader adoption flywheel going will mean finding applications beyond the world of entertainment – as Cortes puts it, “gaming is a seed” for wider metaverse adoption. Tasich agrees, arguing that the metaverse will have its “singularity moment” when it “finds its utility” beyond entertainment when the tech “allows you to do things that you absolutely wouldn’t be able to do without it”.

As Van Jaarsveld concludes, “We probably won’t call it the metaverse in 20 years… But the fundamental change in how we’re communicating across the world is happening”.

For more hot takes and cold hard looks at the emerging tech landscape, check out The Drum’s deep dive on AI to web3.
Marketing Business Leadership AI & Web3 Deep Dive

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