Documenting the metaverse’s evolution from concept to almost-reality, from novelty to humanity’s public square, and from atomized communities to borderless canvases
By John Payne from Computecoin
Innovation abounds in the decentralized metaverse, where non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and cryptocurrencies are freely exchanged between participants, and users are given free reign over the building blocks to a frontier owned by no one and everyone all at once. Indeed, the decentralized metaverse gives individuals more ownership of these parallel spaces. But the metaverse is not an entirely new idea. While the term first appeared in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash, a book that would later influence the likes of Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg in their quest to build linkages between the virtual and physical worlds, the roots of the metaverse extend even farther back into the 20th century. Devices and concepts premised on virtual reality and a hazy vision of the future internet laid the groundwork for a World Wide Web that today plays host to parallel worlds where millions of people around the world socialize; create, buy and sell assets; work; and learn together. The metaverse has traditionally been the domain of private enterprises, like game developers and Internet companies, which built a patchwork of virtual worlds, like Fortnite, There and Facebook Horizon, that, while rich, lacked interconnectivity. Today, though, a new type of metaverse has begun to take shape to take on these corporate players.
The concept of the metaverse, as well as its forebears — ideas like the Internet and automated file storing — emerged in the 20th century amid a torrent of scientific breakthroughs. Neal Stephenson’s use of the term “metaverse” in his 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash was unprecedented. In the years and decade that followed, Snow Crash would serve as a touchstone for some of Silicon Valley’s most illustrious founders, who looked to the novel’s prescient vision of a virtual universe merged with the physical one as a roadmap for the future. Now, the metaverse is quickly gaining traction in the mainstream as the concept — which formerly was the stuff of science fiction — seems more and more possible, and more likely to transform the way we shop, socialize, learn, work and play.
1932 The term “virtual reality” appears for the first time in French dramatist Antonin Artaud’s essay “The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto).”
1945 American engineer Vannevar Bush proposes in his “As We May Think” a concept for a primitive computing device called “Memex.” Bush described Memex as a system, contained on a single, physical desktop, which would aid users in managing all manner of documents and media, including books and correspondence, by compressing and storing them. The idea was that Memex would allow users to easily and quickly access documents in a kind of mechanized filing cabinet (Montfort, Nick (2003) The New Media Reader, MIT Press, p. 135; Bush 1945, Section 6; Wardrip-Fruin & Montfort 2003, p. 35.). Bush’s concept inspired the development of Brown University’s Hypertext Editing System (HES), a project which began in 1967. Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the Internet, credited Memex and HES as contributing to the emergence of the World Wide Web (Cronin, Blaise, ed. (2006) Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 2007. Information Today Inc. p. 68.).
1981 Vernor Vinge’s novella True Names portrays a prescient illustration of cyberspace — a year before the term was coined by author William Gibson.
1992 Neal Stephenson becomes the first person to use the term “metaverse” in his science fiction novel, Snow Crash, a seminal book whose vision of the metaverse continues to shape the thinking of Silicon Valley pioneers (Grimshaw, Mark (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Virtuality. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 702.).
1992 Jason Lanier, CEO of virtual reality headset maker introduces virtual reality music instruments (VRMI) for the first time in his performance “Sound of One Hand” in Chicago.
2000 IT research firm Gartner coins the term “supranet” to refer to the convergence of the virtual and physical worlds in the age of the Internet (Simon Hayward, Ken Dulaney, Bob Egan, Daryl C. Plummer, Nigel Deighton, Martin Reynolds, “Beyond the Internet: The ‘Supranet’”, Gartner research report, September 2000).
2011 Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One is published. The book takes place in a dystopian future where humanity escapes from earthly chaos through OASIS, a virtual reality game that doubles as a parallel society.
2018 and 2020 A film adaptation [of Ready Player One] screenwritten by Cline and Zak Penn and directed by Steven Spielberg, was released on March 29, 2018 (Couch, Aaron (July 8, 2020). “‘Ready Player One’ Book Sequel Sets November Publishing Date”. The Hollywood Reporter.).
2021 In March, Google Trends index on the term “the metaverse” reaches 100 for the first time. “The metaverse” was used extremely rarely in the preceding fifteen years, with use never surpassing “seven” between January 2005 and December 2020.
Games that allowed their players to interact with each other in a virtual world appeared around the start of the new millennium along with the advent of the Internet. These metaversal games were exceedingly popular. Pioneers in the genre included There, RuneScape and Second Life. A wave of games followed, with some earning massive numbers of users. Indeed, the popularity of Roblox, Minecraft, Fortnite and Animal Crossing: New Horizons is staggering. But while these games boast global fanbases; allow players to create, buy and sell items in a virtual world and share experiences synchronously with thousands of people, they remain inherently centralized. That is, users cannot seamlessly transit from one game to another — from Fortnite to Animal Crossing and then to Zwift, say — and creators on these platforms have to play by the game developer’s rules. Nonetheless, the enormous success of these games suggests that the metaverse has already begun to take shape, albeit in fragments, in virtual boomtowns across cyberspace.
1998 There, a virtual world-based game, is created. Users can socialize with each other as avatars, and even pay for items and services with therebucks, the game’s currency.
2001 RuneScape, the massively popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), is released.
2003 Linden Lab launches “Second Life” with the objective of “creat[ing] a user-defined world like the Metaverse in which people can interact, play, do business and otherwise communicate” (Maney, Kevin. 2007.).
2006 Roblox, an online platform that allows users to create and play games live with other participants, launches.
2011 There comes back online to users 18 and over by invitation only after closing in March 2010.
2012 RuneScape reaches 200 million users.
2013 Virtual reality headset maker Oculus debuts its first prototype to Kickstarter backers.
2014 Immersive cycling game Zwift is released
2017 Epic Games releases its free-to-play online multiplayer game Fortnite Battle Royale.
2018 and 2019 Fortnite earns over $9 billion in revenue.
2019 Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney estimates that there are 250 million active users on Fortnite.
2019 The engineers behind sandbox game Dual Universe fit 30,000 users “on a continuous single shard,” allowing them to interact with each other live and synchronously.
2019 Users on Roblox’s platform who create items for purchase by other users earn $110 million. Over half of Roblox users purchase customized avatars each month, meaning that money earned on the platform often stays within the Roblox universe economy.
2020 Nintendo launches Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Players interact with flora, fauna and villagers in an idyllic virtual world.
2020 Fortnite hosts a virtual concert by rapper Travis Scott which garners over 12 million views.
2020 Second Life has nearly one million monthly active users.
2020 Epic Games announces that it has obtained a further $1.78 billion in funding, with which it is expected to develop the company’s goal of building a metaverse experience.
2021 In March, Animal Crossing: New Horizons reaches 32.63 million sales since the game’s release the year before.
2021 There are 140 million monthly active players on Minecraft in March.
2021 More than 42.1 million users log in to Roblox each day in the first quarter of 2021. Users on the platform spent a combined $652 million on Robux — Roblox’s currency — with which players can buy accessories like virtual clothing and weapons.
2021 Fortnite has 350 million registered users.
2021 The Republic of Korea announces its “national metaverse alliance” to build a “national VR and AR platform” (Sharwood, Simon. May 18, 2021. The Register).
Snow Crash did not just introduce the world to the concept of the metaverse, but also left an indelible impact on some of Silicon Valley’s best-known pioneers, including Google cofounder Sergey Brin, Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg, at whose company project managers were once required to read the novel. That Snow Crash apparently influenced these Internet founders has gained new significance as tech giants race to build out metaverse platforms. Moreover, the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 made virtual work the norm for vast numbers of professionals around the world. Consequently, Google Teams, Zoom and other platforms designed to facilitate virtual collaboration witnessed explosive growth in usership. These metaversal apps and platforms, though, are still centralized, with users pigeonholed by proprietary software. While Microsoft’s Mesh project, which has yet to be released, will allow users to collaborate virtually across devices, that platform is still owned, designed and run by Microsoft. But a decentralized metaverse is not unattainable. A new crop of innovative tools and platforms have sprung up to offer users the freedom to own, create and exchange goods in an open metaverse built on the blockchain.
2000 Google cofounder Sergey Brin cites Snow Crash as a key source of inspiration in an interview with the Academy of Achievement: “[Snow Crash] was really ten years ahead of its time. It kind of anticipated what’s going to happen, and I find that really interesting.”
2000 Amazon founder Jeff Bezos recruits Snow Crash author Neal Stephenson to Blue Origin, Bezos’ spaceflight enterprise. Stephenson stays at Blue Origin until 2006.
2001 Microsoft debuts a life-logging project based on Memex (Cronin, Blaise, ed.).
2014 On his personal blog, Facebook data scientist Dean Eckles refers to Snow Crash as “required reading” for project managers at the social media giant.
2014 Facebook acquires Oculus for $2.3 billion.
2020 Google reports that its videoconferencing service Teams had 100 million daily active participants that year amid the world-changing coronavirus pandemic.
2021 Microsoft announces that 145 million people use its Teams platform daily, representing a 26 percent increase since October 2020, when Microsoft posted 115 million daily Teams users.
2021 Microsoft unveils Mesh, a platform designed to sync virtual collaboration tasks across devices.
2021 Mark Zuckerberg tells CNET that one of Facebook’s objectives for Horizon, which is currently in a beta phase and accessible by invite only, is “to get as many people as possible to be able to experience virtual reality and be able to jump into the metaverse and to have these social experiences within that.”
Early experiments in the decentralized metaverse appeared in the 2000s and 2010s. Colored Coins seems to be the first metaversal project that took advantage of the blockchain — the coins were conceived as being a way for individuals to create, buy, sell and own unique assets. Thus, Colored Coins were akin to non-fungible tokens (NFTs), albeit with less cachet than later projects. Cryptopunks and CryptoKitties, among other NFT games, fueled the rise of an NFT art craze that saw one CryptoKitty sell for over $170,000 in 2018. Today, the provably scarce assets crop up in metaversal platforms like Decentraland, a decentralized virtual real estate game, where British auction house Sotheby’s recently opened (and closed) a replica of their London galleries. The convergence of blockchain technology and the metaverse opens a new chapter in the history of the online universe, one in which people, not companies, are serving as the architects of open, interconnected worlds parallel to our physical one.
2005 RuneScape introduces private servers (RSPS), which are “managed by individuals, friends or small online teams,” unlike the “original game, which is managed by Jagex.”
2012 Colored Coins, the conceptual precursor to non-fungible tokens (NFTs), are first mentioned by Yoni Assia in a 2012 blog post titled “bitcoin 2.X (aka Colored Bitcoin) — initial specs.” The tokens are envisioned as a novel way to create, buy, sell and own unique assets via the blockchain.
2014 Counterparty, a distributed internet protocol and decentralized financial platform built onto the Bitcoin blockchain, launches, allowing users to mint “tradeable currencies or assets,” including memes.
2017 John Watkinson and Matt Hall create 10,000 NFT characters, which they called Cryptopunks, on the Ethereum blockchain. Each Cryptopunk is unique. The characters were quickly purchased by early adopters of the burgeoning NFT art phenomenon.
2017 NFT game CryptoKitties is launched, offering users the chance to own, breed and collect unique kittens minted on the blockchain. In 2018, a CryptoKitty called Dragon sold for $172,000 (600 ETH).
2017 Decentraland, a decentralized platform built on the Ethereum blockchain that allows users to buy and develop virtual real estate, holds its initial coin offering, raising $26 million in roughly thirty seconds.
2021 Sotheby’s holds an NFT art show at a virtual replica of its iconic London galleries in the Decentraland metaverse.
2021 Rock band Kings of Leon becomes the first to release an album, When You See Yourself, as an NFT.
The origins of the concept of the metaverse can be traced back to the early 20th century, but the 1992 release of Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, which takes place inside a dystopian virtual reality was the first work to cement the idea of the metaverse in the public conscience, and was influential to the founders of Internet companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook. Games were launched around the turn of the century that allowed players to immerse themselves inside virtual worlds, where they could spend and earn metaversal currencies and socialize with others. More advanced platforms appeared soon afterward that gave users an even richer experience, allowing them to interact with massive amounts of other players in exciting battle royale contexts like in Fortnite and sandbox platforms like Minecraft and Roblox, which gave players more autonomy to create their own structures, items and games in the metaverse. Internet giants also began to explore the potential of virtual worlds. In particular, Facebook and Microsoft have announced metaverse platforms, and apps like Zoom and Google Teams have redefined remote working and virtual collaboration. The advent of blockchain technology, however, has propelled the metaverse into the decentralized era. NFT projects and games like Cryptopunks and CryptoKitties have minted fortunes for some and introduced the world to provably scarce, unique digital goods bought, sold and owned on the blockchain. And decentralized worlds like Decentraland have attracted individuals and institutions alike to a metaverse built on the principles of limitless creation, open transactions and free interactions, online, between people around the world.