Skip to main content

What is the Metaverse?

Guests Matthew Ball, metaverse investor and author of The Metaverse Primer, and Samantha G. Wolfe, founder at PitchFWD and adjunct professor at NYU Steinhardt, join hosts Patrick Cozzi (Cesium) and Marc Petit (Epic Games), to share their take on what the metaverse is, how to explain it, and their vision of a more immersive, intuitive, and collaborative future.

Guests

Samantha G. Wolfe
Founder at PitchFWD and Adjunct Professor, NYU Steinhardt
Samantha G. Wolfe
Founder, PitchFWD, and Professor, NYU
Matthew Ball. Guest, episode 1: What is the metaverse? Building the Open Metaverse podcast
Matthew Ball
Managing Partner, EpyllionCo

Listen

Building the Open Metaverse Podcast cover image
0:00 / ?

Subscribe

Watch

Read

Announcer: Today on Building the Open Metaverse.

Matt Ball: We didn't evolve to communicate through a Zoom client. We didn't evolve to interact with information or objects through a 2D grid of apps. And so I think the optimistic perspective is not just that the metaverse is a more intuitive way to interconnect with the internet or computing, but it's also a much better forum for connection for socializing.

Announcer: Welcome to Building the Open Metaverse, where technology experts discuss how the community is building the open metaverse together. Hosted by Patrick Cozzi from Cesium and Marc Petit from Epic Games.

Patrick Cozzi: Welcome, everyone. Today's topic is the not so simple question of what is, or perhaps what could become the metaverse. We are here with two guests, Matthew Ball, author of the Influential Metaverse Primer and prominent investor in this space. And Samantha G. Wolfe, founder of Pitch Forward, and an NYU adjunct professor teaching business and marketing in this space. This is our launch episode of the Building the Open Metaverse podcast, where technologists come and share their insights on how the community is building the metaverse together. I'm Patrick Cozzi, and I'm here with co-host Marc Petit from Epic Games.

Marc Petit: Hey everybody. Very nice to be here with Patrick. The idea behind this podcast came when Patrick and I, a few months ago, did a presentation at SIGGRAPH Birds of a Feather presentation on the open metaverse. And as we explored putting a panel together, we ended up having more than 12 speakers and a huge appetite for this conversation. And we ended a up doing a two hour long session, and everybody got a few minutes to talk. And the feedback we got after this presentation was definitely, we touched on so many topics. Right, Patrick, remember, and people wanted more. It was a bit of frustration was like, but you only spend 10 minutes on each one of the section.

And so what we're going to be trying to to do with with this podcast is kind of revisit some of those topics and get more in depth and create an opportunity for people and the experts. Not so much for us, we are the host here, but for the experts to express, what the metaverse could be. Patrick and I believe it's going to be a big part of our lives moving forward. So this is an important topic, right?

Patrick Cozzi: Yes, absolutely. There's a lot of buzz about the metaverse. I believe it will change the face of computing and of interaction and the field is moving fast and we want to bring together folks to talk about it and to educate the community and frankly, to educate myself as well.

Marc Petit: Absolutely. And so our first episode is an ambitious one. It's because we've never done that before. And the other part is, we're going to try to put some definitions around the endeavor. So I'm looking forward to that conversation actually.

Patrick Cozzi: As am I. To kick things off. We'd love to hear a bit about each of you. Sam?

Samantha Wolfe: Sure. I'll go first. Hi, I am Sam. So I tend to, as you said, Patrick, focus on marketing and branding strategies when it comes to emerging technologies. I'm really about sort of accelerating the adoption and sort of increasing the chance of sales for these emerging tech companies. Often it means that these companies, it's hard to explain what they do or how they do it, how it's valuable. And I spend a lot of time with CEOs going over that and making sure that their value is easily translatable and that they understand their customers well.

Patrick Cozzi: Awesome. Really happy to have you on the podcast, looking forward to your perspective. Matthew, you want to introduce yourself?

Matt Ball: Sure. My name is Matthew Ball. I do a number of things that I would describe as kind of relentlessly curious or obsessed with the metaverse, I've produced some games that intend to use what's unique to cloud-based rendering to bring millions of different people together in a new entertainment experience. In other instances, I'm an investor advisor, part-time employee at companies in this space, and I'm increasingly focused on building new ones. And then to a lesser extent, helping some of the biggest companies on earth as they pursue exactly the topic we're discussing today, which is not just a new computing platform, not just a new state of the internet, but a new and more open way to collaborate in virtual worlds.

Marc Petit: Yeah. So Patrick, let's get going. Recently in the French newspaper Liberation, there was a two page spread on the metaverse and really speaking to broad interest all the way to the mainstream. And my mother actually asked me, read it and says, "Is that what you're doing?" And she was not sure what the metaverse is. So I think that's probably the right way to start this is how would you explain that concept or the metaverse in plain words to my mother or to your own parents and grandparents?

Samantha Wolfe: I think that when I've tried to explain it, I say sort of, remember how the internet changed interactions? You remember how mobile phones changed the way that people operate? Well, this sort of next generation of computing your computers will start to be able to see the world, and you'll start to be able to experience the world differently. And now we're getting into where you can. I mean, some people have said click on the world and get the information that you would from the internet. And then, and the other way that if you wanted to sort of escape to another virtual world, that you can do that. And the idea that sort of open metaverse is that it's all going to be sort of interconnected and simple and easy to use.

And the thing for me, and I think we'll get this into later is probably your mother would go, "So what?" And I think that we're sort of at that this is great. It's great that you can do this, but who's it for? How's it going to be useful? What is it going to do for me? And so it might be that you would use examples of how you Marc and Patrick would be able to get together more easily, interact more easily, see each other more easily, that kind of thing. And then she could go, "Hmm, Hmm. This metaverse thing. There's something to it."

Marc Petit: A big social component.

Samantha Wolfe: That's exactly how I explain it. Yeah, I think so. At least for now, I think for sort of general market purpose, it's hard to really understand what is possible.

I mean, it's hard to explain to somebody what AR glasses are and why you'd need them, let alone sort of this huge interconnected world of computing. You have to have sort of specific use cases that are based on value to that particular person, at least at first, until more of these technologies, more of these spatial technologies get into the home. Now that's different if it's a B2B kind of sales, but since we're talking about your mom, that's sort of the way that I would go.

Marc Petit: Thank you, Sam. Matthew?

Matt Ball: It's a great question. And I think the more, the term metaverse mainstreams, the more I find myself trying to be reductive or think a little bit more simply. The way that I typically describe it now is to refer to the major computing waves or internet waves. And to describe what's changing. The mainframe era, for example, we're talking about extraordinarily large computers available only to extraordinarily large enterprises.

They're connected only in the sense that they share an electrical grid, no information. We move to the personal computing era. All of a sudden many small businesses now have a computer. Some homes have a computer, and the internet on top of that gave more of us a reason to have a computer. And yet we only had occasional access to that computing resource. It was in our living room, in our office, and we only had occasional access to the internet.

The smartphone and mobile internet comes out. It gives more of us a reason to have a smartphone, a computer. In fact, five and a half billion people globally. It means that we don't have occasional access to the internet. We have constant access to the internet. The difference moving to the metaverse is an area in which computing surrounds us. It's ambient. We have perpetual access and interaction with computing resources. And unlike mobile, when we have potential access to the internet connected device in our pocket, we are now constantly on the internet.

There is one last way that I distinguish between the mobile internet and the PC era but the metaverse, which is to take a look at the relevance of 3D rendered, realtime simulations. Those have existed for multiple different generations of compute in the PC era, in the mobile internet era. And yet they were fringe behaviors on a societal perspective.

You had tens and eventually hundreds of millions of people who would participate in those real time rendered 3D environments, but not the majority of people. And certainly not the majority of internet users. The metaverse not only transforms how we access compute, how frequently we access internet, but it brings all of a us into those environments. Samantha asked this question of, so what's the point or supposing what her grandmother might say. And I think one of them is to understand that every time we have increased those two levers or democratized access to compute or internet, we've had a massive transformation in multiple different levels devices, company, technologies, economy.

But as it relates to the metaverse the touchable world, it's important to recognize that humans never evolved for 2D interaction. We didn't evolve to communicate through a Zoom client. We didn't evolve to interact with information or objects through a 2D grid of apps. And so I think the optimistic perspective is not just that the metaverse is a more intuitive way to interconnect with the internet or computing, but it's also a much better forum for connection for socializing.

Patrick Cozzi: Yeah. So I agree with you both that 3D is so much more immersive and intuitive than 2D, and it's allowing us to take this, connected experience to the next level here. When I hear you both talking about the metaverse, it kind of sounds like it's here today. So I would like to ask you. Is the metaverse here today? And if it isn't, how will we know when it is? Would it ever be done?

Samantha Wolfe: I mean, I think, no. That's my perspective. I do think that Mark Zuckerberg using the term kicked off a discussion among mainstream media, that in that respect it's here because the financial markets are now going, "Ooh, what's this thing that we should maybe be concerned with that has all this opportunity going forward." Now that doesn't mean that the general market has any idea what's going on, nor do they use it. Yes, maybe the innovators and early adopters technology are starting to think about the possibilities, but now we're sort of integrated financial markets. And so I don't think it's here partially, because we're arguing about it as opposed to it actually existing. But I do think that we're starting to understand what it means.

Marc Petit: You think if we were to ask our kids if the metaverse is here today, we'd get a different answer?

Yes. 100%. They feel that they are there. That's where I think with the Roblox that this idea of avatars being so different and not sort of embodying who you are. I think that this generation that is living on Roblox, basically, the avatar is an extension of self. And I also think that the people that are buying the digital goods and buying clothing for their digital selves, it is a reflection of who you are.

You wouldn't necessarily invest money into something that is the sort of jacket that you would wear in the virtual world, if you didn't think that's me, that somehow this other aspect of who I am. Once you're ready to put money down, it's not just sort of something that just exists and, oh, it's fun. This is now, I'm literally investing in that avatar version of myself.

Patrick Cozzi: And Matthew, where do you think we are in the evolution or the creation of the metaverse?

Matt Ball: I think there are three ways to think about it. One is to understand that it's always a gradual process. I like to ask people, when did the mobile internet era begin? You could start with the advent of two G wireless networks, the first digital networks. You could say it's WAP browsers which allowed you to access mobile versions of webpages. You can start with the Blackberry, the first mainstream device for the mobile internet. You can go to the first iPhone, the mainstream consumer device, or perhaps you wait until the second iPhone, the first to use 3G, which made the mobile internet usable and the first to have an app store. There's no right or wrong question. It's a progression, which gets to the second question, which is where are we now? It is difficult to say we are not meaningfully starting that process. You go back to 2015.

There were tens of millions of people at most, in real time rendered virtual social environments. And they were capped to 10, 12, sometimes 16 different multiplayer personnel in the experience. Now you look at 2021, there's hundreds of millions of people every day in high CCU, virtual worlds and environments. You go back to 2015, there was only a few billion dollars per year being spent on purely virtual items and goods. We now have an excess of 55 billion spent last year on those. You take a look at the cultural role of these real time rendered virtual engines or technologies or worlds, they're in automotive, they're in architecture, they're in film, they're in theme parks, much pioneered by unreal, but more importantly, not just from one company. And so you look at this, and it feels very different in a way that you cannot say it hasn't started yet.

And the third is to talk about the term consequence. I think it's actually very important that we acknowledge the metaverse as something beginning, even if it's not fully realized, because many of us look back over the last 15 years of web two or the mobile internet, we're increasingly dissatisfied with user rights, with monetization models, with platform power, with misinformation, with data security, with radicalization, with the inability of regulators to understand right approach to the trade off between a healthy market rewarding platforms and preserving consumer choice.

And so I think the degree to which we recognize a change is coming, which frankly Mark Zuckerberg has helped to catalyze allows us to irrespective of whether or not the metaverse is 2028, 2035 or 2022, pause and say, what do we want the future to look like, and have a slightly more active role than we've had over the past 15.

Samantha Wolfe: I think one of the other things that's going to change or at least lead to better understanding of the metaverse is when people start assuming that the items in their house have a certain amount of interactivity. The internet of things becomes a little bit more real. And I feel like that's almost like when people started assuming that most screens are interactive, that you can move them. And so when people start thinking, oh, wait a second, I can interact in a sort of digital way and sort of where we are in terms of the development and release of some of the like kitchen appliances, but sort of like what's coming up next in the next couple of years, they go, "Oh, well, I am supposed to click on this, and I am supposed to click on that. And that is connected to this." That then sort of introducing even more interactivity and introducing sort of inter connectiveness will become easier to digest and understand.

Marc Petit: Yeah, I agree. And we can foresee a fusion as well of the virtual world, the real world. I mean, transference screens. If you assume you live in a world where every window can becomes screen and digital information can be shared and we have agency over that information and that environment, I think it will make things, and I actually don't know what they're going to be, but much more tangible in our lives because we're going to get all those device, all those screens. It's not going to be like a out of this world experience. It's going to be a new world experience. I believe so, yes. I want to share you a little bit. And the metaverse, you could argue that it's been enabled by the convertation, real time 3D and all of this graphics real time rendering and compute, just like the mobile era enabled by the convertation of digital videos.

So we have this core, new medium, real time 3D that, we're still at the beginning. And we talk about the social dimension about the metaverse is going to be a place where we want to get together with the people we want to be with. But I think I'm interested in it feels to me like the entertainment space should be completely changed by the new technology. So are we here today? It seems to me that the usage that we do of that real time, three D technology is a little bit behind and is an opinion that maybe I should not express an opinion as a host here, but it's a bit behind with the technical capabilities.

So I'm curious from your perspectives, why are we not seeing more of those high quality environments? And why do we don't build world first and then tell stories in this world versus being very, very story driven? We do a movie. We build those things for the movie, and then we throw everything, and we move onto the next. So it feels to me that this metaverse is also a new era of entertainment. So I wonder maybe Matthew, you want to start, because I know you've been studying that space. Interesting to have your opinion on this.

Matt Ball: This is really what excites me about the metaverse in particular, someone who comes more from Hollywood and entertainment storytelling in IP, there's a really great way to pull this together, which speaks on something you mentioned, which is what would kids say about whether the metaverse is here and what Samantha said about a touchable world. Which is, I like to think about you go back to 2011. There were myriad news articles of an infant to one, two, three, four year old holding an iPad. And then after they'll go to a magazine and they can't understand a magazine. They try to pinch to zoom. They try to swipe, and we laughed at it. It was on CBS. It was on ABC. It was in Time magazine. It was parodical because we could understand what was going wrong, but they could not. And of course, 10 years has passed since that. A one year old is now 11, a four year old is 14.

They understand what was wrong. But what we can't appreciate is how different their frame of reference is. When you take a look at Roblox, I don't think it's a coincidence that that platform began to take off in 2017, right When that generation of iPad native kids started becoming six, seven, eight, nine. You take a look at the primary demographic of Roblox. It is those kids. They reject not just linear television, but also YouTube. It's not for them. They were not designed for it.

And so I think part of this is reflecting the generational shift, which is that technology has to be available before the generation that is designed for it puts it to best use. Facebook was possible long before Mark Zuckerberg created it. We know that. It was not the most complicated product, but it took a 21 or 22 year old in college to know how to bring it together, then rapidly iterate upon it.

That gives me enormous faith in what entertainment's going to look like in a decade, even if I recognize we will barely be able to recognize it. And then the second is to understand that that's underpinned by two profoundly important things. One is the enormity of human imagination. And then the other is our absolute unending desire for immersive fantasy worlds. In truth, the medieval and pre-medieval gardens that emerged throughout the last millennia were adorned with gargoyles, with giant tigers, with dragons specifically because of that. It was a place we could go.

And yet for all of human history, creating virtual worlds has been incredibly difficult. It has been incredibly costly, and they're so difficult to share. All of us are situated in a different part of the world right now. I can do my best to build a fort in the yard, I can draw, but I can't truly translate my imagination. And I truly can't immerse you in that imagination. When you bring all of these together, new frames of reference, abundant human imagination, and an unprecedented ability to tap into that desire through new, easy to use tools, I think it's just a matter of time.

Patrick Cozzi: For sure. So Sam, Matthew thank you for sharing your insights and your inspiration. We like to end each episode with some rapid fire questions. The first one I have is, on this episode, we're trying to help folks understand what is, or what could become the metaverse. And to do that, is there anything that we didn't ask that we should have?

Samantha Wolfe: Yeah, I mean, for me, it always circles around to being like, who is this for? And how does it help them in some way? And helping could be just it's really entertaining in some way, but we haven't quite figured out necessarily what's in it for the people that will ultimately be using it in sort of more mainstream market. Because I think that we're going to find out more and more about AR glasses and the kinds of interactions. I mean, mostly it's been sold by, you're going to walk by a restaurant and know that you could get money off of the pizza. And it's not enough. That's not sort of enough. And I've sort of thought of what would get somebody really to buy something? And I did actually, Marc, ask my mother because I was like, there's no way she's going to wear AR glasses.

And I was like, What, we'll do it." And I started talking her through it, and she's like, "I'm not going to spend $3,000." I'm like, "Okay, let's say it's 200 to 300." And I was like, "What if you could feel like somebody was in the room with you when you had a conversation and see them?" And it was she's like not for her family. But for her grandchildren, she would pay to see the grandchildren that she couldn't see. And that was enough. That was enough to have my mother who doesn't understand AR versus AI, buy a pair of AR glasses to wear. So we have to understand, who is the target. And that's a question I ask basically everybody that I work with. It's like, who's this for?

And you have to sort of make educated guesses about what will help them or what will drive them, or even just go and talk to them and have that sort of long conversation. And I think that the more that the tech community, the people who are building the metaverse, understand who it's for and how to help them and add value in their lives, the better these experiences will be.

Marc Petit: Well, thank you very much, everybody. That was a very, very interesting and deep conversation. I hope you enjoyed it as much as Patrick and I did. Right, Patrick?

Patrick Cozzi: Absolutely. Yeah. Thank you everyone for listening and thank you for contributing to the metaverse.

Marc Petit: And we'll be ready and on the lookout for our next installment of that podcast. And we'll come back to you soon with more details. So thank you very much for being with us and for listening.