This story is part ofCNET’s exploration of the next stage in the evolution of the Internet.
To get a sense of the Metaverse’s promise, take a look at 3D Charades.
The video game has a simple premise. Players gather in a café-like room and split into teams. One player sketches a picture while team members guess what the drawing represents.
Games similar to Pictionary already exist in the real world. However, in a virtual world, gameplay is just the beginning. Shortly after developer Rec RoomFans started turning their drawings into works of art and the cafes into galleries.
“We just saw people taking full advantage of the power of this tool,” says Rec Room CEO Nick Fajt told me during an interview in his digital world, referring to the Maker Pen used to create the virtual drawings. He demonstrates by spitting out colors, shapes and a bouncing ball.
3D Charades may sound like a standard online multiplayer game, but it hints at what could become of the metaverse. The much-vaunted Metaverse refers to a shared, permanent digital space for meetings, games, and socializing. People are represented there as avatars, mostly cartoon-like 3D figures, and roam virtual spaces. At landmark conferences like the one held recently, the concept has been on the agendain Austin and the Game Developers Conference taking place this week in San Francisco.
The idea of the Metaverse began in fiction written decades ago by Orson Scott Card and Neal Stephenson, both of whom dreamed of itin which their characters spent most of their days. games like , and represented a first wave in metaverse development shortly thereafter. In some of these games, players use virtual materials to build items that their avatars use, expanding the metaverse metaphor for real life.
Epic Games sees its hit Fortnite as more than just a Hunger Games-style shoot-’em-up. It’s a place to play, hang out with friends or. The popular game has hosted concerts by musicians, including . in the People compete in games where they to the rhythm of popular music by Lady Gaga and Billie Eilish. in the players compete in a game that mixes ultimate frisbee and capture-the-flag in space.
Facebook and Microsoft see the Metaverse as a place to move. Some people are even creating digital offices to connect colleagues on the other side of the world.
Continue reading: The Metaverse is not a destination. It is a metaphor
The activity remains largely experimental, and no one knows what it will look like in a few years. Still, business leaders from Walt Disney to supercar maker Ferrari are talking about how you’ll find their products in the Metaverse. Or in several metaverses.
Fajt invited me to his version of the Metaverse on a dreary Friday last month. I sat across from him in a room that was a cross between a college recreation center, a children’s playroom, and a ski lodge. It’s colorful, complete with chairs and a coffee table. Spring trees blow in the wind outside. In the real world, we are thousands of miles apart. He’s in Seattle wearing an Oculus Quest headset and I’m in Washington, DC staring at my computer screen.
In the Rec Room, people play games like virtual paintball, dodgeball, and frisbee disc golf alongside others who enter the worlds with either a virtual reality headset, a phone, a controller attached to a video game console, or a keyboard and mouse on a computer log in .
CNET Editor Dan Ackerman tried out some of Rec Room’s games shortly after launching in 2016. At the time he said the social experience, including voice chat while gaming,. “I’ve tested dozens of VR apps and games,” he wrote at the time. “There’s literally nothing more fun in virtual reality right now.”
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Back when the metaverse was a philosophical toy in fiction, the virtual world was often used as a dystopian warning of the future. Card’s 1985 novel Ender’s Game used computer-generated worlds to fight war. Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash described people living their lives in the digital realm. They were nicknamed “Gargoyles” because the technology on their bodies made them look monstrous. In the 1999 film The Matrix, the computer simulation Dream World is a tool used to enslave humanity.
Today, the Metaverse game worlds function as social experiences. For some, this is a story-driven adventure game like Activision Blizzard’s World of Warcraft or the battle royale hit Fortnite. For others, it’s world-building games like Minecraft. The idea of social games is baked into the metaverse, but predates it.
“It’s less ‘I want to do something’ and more ‘I want to be there,'” he said Paul Bettner, whose Scrabble-like Words With Friends mobile game became a hit in 2009 because it was designed to be easily played with other people over the Internet. “People don’t love Words With Friends, people love each other,” he once told a room full of fellow developers. “Our game is just the latest best excuse to hang out with our friends.”
As these board games grow in popularity, newcomers are using them in unexpected ways. US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York already is. Families have used them to keep virtual during the pandemic.
“When these new waves of technology wash over us, we don’t necessarily need to create a brand new type of game,” said Bettner, now head of Playful Studios, whose adventure game Lucky’s Tale was a hit with early VR enthusiasts in 2016. “It’s like we’re going to be able to reach new audiences and in a new way.”
shape the future
There’s a lot in the tech world that could improve the Metaverse.
Developers say today’s Internet often feels lonely. A Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok feed doesn’t feel like hanging out with your friends, even when you look at what they’ve posted. “Almost no one is 100 percent with you,” he said. Despite these shortcomings, he watched social networks grow much faster than Second Life, the virtual world his team released in 2003.
Most Metaverse projects are small compared to Facebook, which has nearly 2 billion daily users. What sets them apart is their potential to act as a canvas for players to create their own worlds.
“We’re thinking, ‘How do you make it immersive?’ and ‘What are the tools that people can use to create these 3D environments?'” he said Manuel Bronstein, a graduate of Microsoft’s Xbox team, as well as social giant Zynga, who is now chief product officer for Roblox. The online game is more than a decade old and gives players tools to create their own digital worlds, starting with the digital pet simulator Adopt Me! to the puzzle game Tower of Hell.
Developers like Roblox, Rec Room and Minecraft from Microsoft primarily build tools to make their game worlds more attractive. Bronstein’s team is introducing a feature known as spatial voice, which uses computer smarts to raise and lower other speakers’ voices based on how far or close they are. “We want you to feel surrounded,” Bronstein said.
Many developers agree that the Metaverse is still in its infancy. It’s unsettling for people who aren’t gaming or tech savvy to delve into these digital worlds for anything more than a brief experience. The technology of the metaverse is not mature enough to enable non-verbal communication through social cues like frowns, which is essential in the real world.
“When I have a conversation with my mother or a serious meeting, I really want to see her so I can understand her and her feelings,” he said Denny UngerHead of VR developer Cloudhead Games, whose Rhythm music game became a hit on social media.
Back at the virtual recreation center with Fajt, I wondered if the room could ever be spruced up enough to host a serious event, like signing a contract or closing a deal.
Maybe I’ll find out soon. According to Fajt, around half a million people create and refine experiences in the Rec Room. That’s about four times the number of people editing Wikipedia, the most popular online encyclopedia.
“This is truly a world built by millions of different hands,” Fajt said. “We let the developers in the community tell us what they need and in what order.”