Interdimensionality and Interoperability in the Metaverse

When Tony Parisi stated that the first rule of the Metaverse is: "There is only one Metaverse", he meant that the Metaverse is "The sum total of all publicly accessible virtual worlds".

This makes sense — As global processing power, storage and bandwidth increases, there are fewer limits at how many Metaverse platforms can exist at the same time. Similar to: Many video streaming platforms.

Not only that, but there are also fewer limits on how many dimensions can exist in parallel on one single platform. This means that there will be not only one Metaverse world or view on one platform, but many parallel ones. Similar to: Many channels on one video streaming platform.

These “Metaverse channels” might be based on topics, for example educational channels, some might be inspirational, or for entertainment, others would be for work and so on.

They might also be based on modality. Some channels might be around augmentation (AR / MR), acting as digital overlays interact with the real world. — providing specific capabilities and adding (additional) context to the physical world.

Spaces can transform based on context

Other channels might be entirely virtual, offering a completely immersive experience in Virtual Reality (VR).

VR offers completely immersed channels

This is the interdimensionality of the Metaverse: Many context-based channels within several Social Virtual Worlds, co-existing, embedded into the larger concept of the Metaverse. Users select the platform and channel based on their current context, their intent, and goals, interfacing either through augmented physical environments, through purely virtual experiences or anything in between.

And it seems natural that these digital dimensions will be usable and shareable as multi-user systems. If we consider the perceived reality changing for every individual, we arrive at a spectrum between “Shared versions of reality” (multi-user, public) and “Personal versions of reality” (single user, private).

What about interoperability?

Many think that openness and interoperability are a must-have for this interdimensional Metaverse. Tony Parisi assumes that open, interoperable technology provides the most assured way for the Metaverse to scale. Matthew Ball states that without technical solutions, protocols, formats, and services which enable interoperability there will be no Metaverse.

In other words: They think that people, identities, assets and information can flow freely between platforms (platform to platform) and channels (within platforms).

Proponents of NFTs for example talk a lot about how in the Metaverse, people will be able to bring their things into different games.

While I agree that there will be some unification around UI (common interface paradigms), controls (common ways to move & interact) as well as cross-platform and cross-modality (cross-device and device class access), I don’t think there will be large-scale interchangeability of information between individual Metaverse platforms and even channels.

Besides (huge) technical, conceptual, and legal challenges, there is a much simpler reason: I don’t think it’s desirable.

In social virtual world design, there is a concept called The Magic Circle. Described in a 2008 paper by Linser, Lindstad and Vold, the Magic Circle is a social construct that encompasses a specific experience within a game world. Sometimes the Magic Circle defines boundaries outlining the “correct” way to act within the space, for example defining that the space is cooperative, competitive, or both. Other times the Magic Circle exists only to provide a boundary between the real and imagined worlds. But the principle should be familiar to everybody in social sciences.

Think of it like this: Everything inside the circle is allowed within the specific context and everything outside is either socially frowned upon or outright punishable.

The thing is: Every Metaverse channel will have a different Magic Circle.

Channels are context based and thus have different ideas about what is acceptable and what isn’t. It’s fine to shoot your friend in the face in Valorant and laugh about it. In your digital family meeting space? Not so much. In your digital work channel? Likely punishable.

Reality already has ultimate interoperability, but you don’t see people running around in full fantasy military uniforms and gear at work “because they own it”. Or in a shopping mall. Or on kid playgrounds. But that’s the equivalent of what the above tweet is asking for. You technically already can, but you really shouldn’t, because in the best case it’s inappropriate and worst case it’s dangerous.

Society has many Magic Circles, defining what is acceptable in specific contexts.

Look at yourself. You don’t want to transfer your personality between contexts, for example bringing your Instagram personality to your work portal. You have an understanding that “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”. You are usually mindful which “friend circles” you bring together. And you leave your sexual kinks at home when you are going to your grandma’s birthday party.

It’s socially expected behavior to display (and omit) certain aspects of your identity based on different contexts. That makes the question “What even is identity” rather messy when you expect to act within a multitude of contexts that can be switched in an instant. And especially hard when you talk about transferring such identities and their representations between contexts.

Brands also have Magic Circles, defined by their brand values.

For decades brands have been very deliberate how their products are depicted in video games or pop culture in general — for a good reason. Brands have a duty to make sure their brand and products are represented accurately and favorably. It isn’t desirable for Chanel that their dress exists in a misogynistic, violent, and explicit fantasy world like Conan Exiles, even if you own it physically or in another virtual world. There is a Venn Diagram for each brand where their Magic Circle intersects with specific contexts and thus virtual worlds. Everything outside is not desirable and damaging to the brand.

For the Metaverse all this means that: It’s not broadly desirable to transfer things or even identities between platform and channel boundaries. Not for individuals, not for groups and not for brands.

And at that point, why even bother with the enormous technical, conceptual, and legal challenges? It doesn’t fail at “could we?”, but rather at “should we?”.

There might still be some crossovers

All that said, crossovers between brands make sense. This is usually the case when the Magic Circles and audience interests overlap enough to be beneficial for both parties. In this case the crossover is part of the design, sometimes even central to the experience. Here is a good example — 50 minutes of crossover goodness:

The question is: Is that demand enough to tackle technical, conceptual, and legal challenges in a generic way, negotiating and creating new general purpose exchange protocols, data structures, conceptual rules, legal frameworks and so on, including the tooling to make them actionable between brands, industries, cultures, and societies?

The answer is no.

There is no way a generic approach creates any sensible form of return because once solved there won’t be enough demand (see above). It’s much, much, MUCH more efficient to just solve them in a specific way per use case. It might still be a lot of work, but at least you are not pushing a boulder up a hill.

Crossover to bring GoW characters (right) into Fortnite (left), both owned and done by the same company

Besides brands creating official crossovers, there will also be unofficial ones. Specifically, user generated piracy. We already see people running around in Minecraft as characters from other worlds and contexts. Or build replicas of other worlds. This is technically illegal, but it happens anyway and will be somewhat tolerated as part of internet remix culture. As some platforms will allow user generated content, this “manual interoperability” will happen via brute force.

Users will also create some novel approaches and tools to migrate and transfer things between platforms and channels. Homebrew tools will be followed by expert industry tools as well as data platforms & cloud providers. Machine Learning-type tools will also play into this. It won’t be true interoperability but at least automate the manual transfer to a degree.

However, I also think those expert tools and especially data platforms will include a meta-layer of rules and governance. For legal and IP reasons but more likely for brand and personal safety reasons. It’s not about interoperability, but regulation.

Think of it like a fancy form of embedding with additional bells & whistles.

Because interoperability is only funny until you see this guy crossing over into your virtual social shopping experience, standing next to you. I don’t need to see what people might become when no circles exist.

No, thank you.

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Dirk Songuer

Living in Berlin / Germany, working at Microsoft, loving technology, society, good food, well designed games and this world in general. Views are mine, k?