What is the Metaverse?

Ravi Kurani
7 min readOct 22, 2021

With the latest Mark Zuckerberg announcement of Facebook focusing on the metaverse (and potentially even changing their name to reflect as such), I’ve been seeing more folks shining a spotlight on the “metaverse”.

So, what is the metaverse?

Sapiens (we humans) are story telling creatures, and outside of all the fancy tech — if we can understand the story of how we’ll experience the metaverse, I feel that’ll bring us one step closer to living it. This post brings together a handful of resources and captivating narratives that define the ‘user-story’ on how we can live the metaverse. In the hopes that it’ll give us a better picture of what it actually is.

I’ve brought together a few places of where I’ve “raised an eyebrow” as to how this could honestly be a world that bridges the digital and the physical world.

My first foray into the metaverse.

I was first introduced to the metaverse back in 2020 when Packy McCormick in his Substack spoke about Tencent and their investment thesis. Tencent is one of the largest Chinese conglomerates that has invested billions of Dollars across multiple industries across the world. Packy unpacks this thesis in an awesome 2-part series on Tencent you can find here.

A great snippet of how Packy defines one “experiencing” the metaverse:

“A participant might walk through a virtual mall and buy a digital Mickey Mouse costume in the Disney store for his avatar to wear, then pop over to the food court to pick something to eat to be delivered to his physical house via Uber Eats, and then pop into a live Beatles concert in the Spotify Performing Arts Center. He can keep the concert going in his AirPods on Spotify when he wants to go for a run in the physical world, racing against his friends in an AR Peloton-like experience. The whole thing feels seamless — his data and purchases carry across and among physical and digital worlds.”

He writes about the metaverse as the combination of 4 spheres of converging work:

  • Virtual worlds and spatial software going mainstream
  • Democratization of eCommerce
  • Premium social media
  • Adoption of decentralized, distributed, and remote productivity tech
This Venn Diagram above is taken from Packy’s Substack and is not credited to me at all.

Some pieces of Packy’s narrative that stand out:

  • A bridging of the physical and digital worlds (hardware and software, Peleton)
  • Including seamless transition between the worlds (infrastructure to take you from one to the next)
  • Currency and transaction to purchase things in said world(s) (bitcoin and crypto?)
  • Goods and services in the digital world that translate into the physical (NFT of a Disney cap)

Packy’s narrative is interesting, however; I feel that sci-fi author Ted Chiang really hits it out of the park in his 2010 novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects.

(…which was also repurposed in his 2019 collection of short stories, Exhalation)

Ted Chiang and The Lifecycle of Software Objects

In Ted Chiang’s collection of short-stories, Exhalation. He has a stand-out novella that is the definition of the metaverse: The Lifecycle of Software Objects. The novella is about a digital world (a “Second Life”) in which participants and players raise digients.

In super short summary, the story follows protagonist Ana Alvarado that raises digital pets that live in a digital world (digients). There is a ‘world’ called Data Earth in which the digients are initially built for, which merges with a new platform called Real World (think version change… iPhone 3G to iPhone 12). Because the digients code base is only built for a prior generation of the world, they don’t work in the new one.

Embedded in this story is the metaverse in which Ana enters and plays with her digient, Jax. There is hardware, in which she can port a ‘digital version’ of her pet and put it in a physical body. Elements of the metaverse from Packy’s description all come to life in Chiang’s novella. There is a point in the novella in which Jax (in his physical body) tries to play in Data Earth through the physical keyboard that us (humans) play in.

The line below is an excerpt of this event:

For him, the keyboard and screen are a miserable substitute for being there, as unsatisfying as a jungle video game would be to a chimpanzee taken from the Congo.

This is so telling, because the digients have an environment and a ‘rules of conduct’ that work within it’s world. Having it play it’s own world through the lens of ours is a very interesting stage to imagine.

This is an interesting point to also understand of the metaverse. It may not be a 1 to 1 translation of our physical world to the digital. There will be different rules, a different ‘code base’, and a different code of conduct.

Lastly, the novella ends on a few interesting questions on if these digients have the same rights as ‘real animals’ living in the physical world.

This Tweet was telling maybe Mark should ask Ted Chiang for a note or two on designing the metaverse.

OK, so how does all of this get implemented?

Ben Evans has a bit to say on the parts and pieces that could stitch the metaverse.

Benedict Evans and the metaverse.

Ben Evans, the former Andreessen Horowitz VC had a great episode on his podcast, Another Podcast, on the metaverse. He says that the metaverse is just a bunch of buzzword bingo right now, and that the true stitching together of a bunch of things is what will really bring it to life.

(I hope I didn’t butcher that too much, Ben)

Putting “metaverse” on a white board and telling someone to build it is just like asking someone to build the internet back in 1980. We know the internet needs to be built to give smart phones life (looking back with 20:/20 vision), but TCP/IP and broadband are all elements to the success of a working internet. Those were up on the board, but it was the infrastructure that built the internet, which gave rise to smartphones. There was no investing in just the internet.

The metaverse is sort of the same. You can’t just invest in the metaverse.

Ben has a great analog to this in his essay titled What comes after Smartphones.

A quote that really sticks out:

There’s an old saying that the first fifty years of the car industry were about creating car companies and working out what cars should look like, and the second fifty years were about what happened once everyone had a car — they were about McDonalds and Walmart, suburbs and the remaking of the world around the car, for good and of course bad. The innovation in cars became everything around the car. One could suggest the same today about smartphones — now the innovation comes from everything else that happens around them.

Just like cars, and the internet, and smart phones — we don’t know what the metaverse is yet. I agree with Ben that there is a bunch of successful work being done; however, we don’t know what will win — and we’re still in the early stages of knowing what it actually is.

Another amazing sci-fi author Liu Cixin does an amazing job of explaining the metaverse in his trilogy, The Three Body Problem.

The Three Body Problem, Liu Cixin and the metaverse

On top of Ted Chiang, Liu Cixin has a vivid description of the metavere. A stand out piece in the future where clothes reflect the emotions they feel and thoughts we have. Screens layer the landscape of the city and project targeted ads that utilize “deep fakes” to sell you and tell you about things that are pertinent to your mood and thoughts.

On top of all of this, the Trisolarians (an alien civilization) infiltrate humans into a game like metaverse of their own land to see and help them solve issues that they face in their society. The characters in the book log on via computer and very similar to an RPG game such as PUBG, Halo, or World of Warcraft — they help solve this alien civilizations many issues.

Again, pull-out elements of what we have today, are:

  • Hardware and smart fashion linked to data
  • Digital screens that permeate around us connected to the data
  • Games for humans to interact in a digital world

So, the conclusion?

Wow, I didn’t think I could stitch together Mark Zuckerberg, Packy McCormick, Ted Chiang, Benedict Evans, and Liu Cixin — but the metaverse brings all of this together.

My conclusion is that the metaverse is a super promising space to be looking at. COVID has already brought people out of the office, and we need to think about a larger context of what social and work collaboration and ‘hanging out’ looks like.

I’ve been playing PUBG lately with our team in Kosovo and across the world, and as much as I don’t appreciate the violence in the game — it’s a great way to get together with your friends and spend some time in another world. As hardware becomes more seamless to access through voice and other tactile inputs — we’ll eventually build the stitchings of the metaverse.

Music I was listening to while I wrote this

Muñeca Eddie Palmieri Ismael Quintana

Muñeca Eddie Palmieri Ismael Quintana

I watched a riveting documentary on Eddie Palmieri on the Air Canada flight from SFO > Toronto from Red Bull.

This is day 25 of my #90DayOfProse challenge.