Demystifying the Metaverse

Not sure what exactly the metaverse is? Three of the field’s leading minds hash out what the concept means to them, and how they see it unfolding over the next 50 years.


How do you know you’re working in a cutting-edge space? When neither you nor your colleagues are 100 percent certain how to define it—and many in the field don’t even realize they’re in it.

Such is the scene these days in the geospatial metaverse, where professionals working in the areas of 3D, virtual reality (VR), artificial reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) are advancing and defining the field in the same moment. It also was the subject of a GEOINT 2021 panel discussion, “Bringing the Geospatial Metaverse from Idea to Reality,” where moderator Nadine Alameh, CEO at Open Geospatial Consortium, kicked off the discussion by querying each panelist on—what else—their personal definition of the metaverse.

After thanking the audience for their part in creating the metaverse (“You probably don’t know it yet, but you are creating the metaverse”), Patrick Cozzi, CEO of Cesium, compared the current iteration of the metaverse to the earliest days of the internet, in that it will likely take decades to fully define itself. “How would I explain it to my Grandma?” Cozzi asked. “Just like mobile phones brought the mobile internet, the metaverse now is the next generation of the internet. It is fundamentally 3D immersive; it’s photogrammetric; it’s persistent; and it creates a social connection.”

Kyle McCullough, director of modeling and simulation at University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, defers to his favorite book, “Snow Crash,” the 1992 science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson, as one of the earliest and best conceptualizers of the metaverse. In the book, human-avatars interact with software agents and each other in a three-dimensional virtual space that exists as a metaphor for the real world. “The metaverse is a consequence of all the hardware and software that has been built to this day,” McCullough said. “We’re going to reach a point where there’s no other option but that which is offered by the metaverse.”

Adobe senior digital media architect Wendy Dinova-Wimmer observed the nebulousness of the metaverse as she and her colleagues were constantly asked, “Is it real?”—and were constantly responding in different ways. “Twelve different reports would go out with 12 different versions,” she said.

Dinova-Wimmer’s first reaction was one of anxiety, but that quickly shifted to excitement as she realized this was a prime opportunity for creative, think-tank-level discussion. “I started a working group, and we started sharing the different tools we used; how this guy was figuring it out this way and this guy was figuring it out this way—and sometimes realizing I’d rather be doing it their way,” Dinova-Wimmer said. “I’m hoping to do more of this sharing and to bring more experts into it.”

McCullough’s team applies the metaverse in their daily work with the DoD. “We build and replicate Army synthetic training environments that mirror the real word and can be acted and trained upon,” he said.

But many in the tradecraft point to mainstream metaverse examples Roblox and Fortnite, which Cozzi has worked with, as the most tangible examples of the metaverse. Soon, however, the metaverse will exist in applications far beyond gaming. Playing a huge part in that leap are non-fungible tokens (NFTs), non-physical digital assets (think avatars or “skins”), which have been accepted by users as unique, valuable entities—and will therefore, we can assume, eventually be used in the business world to earn profit.

Of course, commercializing the metaverse is a tremendous challenge when so many struggle to grasp it. Layered on to the general confusion are other hurdles, including restrictions on data sharing. McCullough hopes to see that change soon, thanks in part to enhanced open standards. “You’ve got the path to commercialization by having a valid piece of technology and people who are willing to pay for it,” McCullough said. “But you also have a path to commercialization by getting enough [data sets].”

Cozzi used McCullough’s point as a call to action to the audience, encouraging them to examine current standards for key pieces that are missing. “Right now you’ve got a lot of different groups who are building what they think is the best metaverse,” Cozzi said. “But in reality, we are going to build a lot of different metaverses, and they’re all going to talk to each other.”

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