When we talk about the metaverse, the word "interoperability" tends to come up a lot. The metaverse will be a collection of 3D worlds, and the ability to seamlessly transition from one world to another is what will make the metaverse a cohesive, complete experience. In the metaverse, each user will be represented by some sort of avatar, and ideally your avatar would look (more or less) the same between different platforms. That's the point of an identity, after all: you're still you, regardless of where you are.
But each world in the metaverse is created by a different company, developer, or user. If each company is developing their own virtual world separately from one another, how will they be interoperable and allow us to move seamlessly from one to another?
At first glance, it's hard to understand why companies would make their worlds interoperable with one another. One would assume it's in each company's interest to make their world as exclusive as possible, in order to elevate their world above their competitors. Competition, not collaboration, currently shapes the rules: most 3D worlds that exist today (Fortnite, Roblox, etc.) are " walled gardens," worlds which are self-contained and don't cross over with other worlds. The avatar skins I've purchased in Fortnite don't transfer over to Roblox. But that's likely to change in the metaverse. More than that, it's in each company's best interest to make sure it changes.
Visual Customization and You
In the metaverse, your avatar is your primary form of identification, it's your first impression on other users and how you distinguish yourself from the crowd. Most 3D worlds today have a default "starter" avatar, which you can then customize with free assets or purchases on that platform.
It is important to customize your avatar in these worlds, and will continue to be important in the metaverse. Speaking from experience, users with the default avatar are simply treated differently than those with a highly customized avatar. Video games like Fortnite and social apps like Rec Room both illustrate this point: users with only the default skin are considered inexperienced newcomers, whereas those with exclusive, valuable skins are afforded a level of prestige in that community. Limited-edition and event-based accessories are not only especially prized, but create unique connections between certain users, similar to two strangers bonding over a vintage band t-shirt in real life.
So people will likely be investing a good deal of time and resources into personalizing their avatars. People care about fashion and the social prestige that comes with it in real life, and that's not going to change in the metaverse. Avatar personalization will likely be achieved by purchasing various NFTs, whether that's articles of clothing, accessories, or functional digital assets. NFT fashion itself warrants a deep dive beyond the scope of this writeup, but if you’re interested in reading more about NFT fashion, you can read more here.
Collaboration over Competition
But as we mentioned, there aren't many virtual purchases that transfer between platforms today. Why would companies suddenly start allowing their virtual clothing to show up on their competitors' platforms?
For one, people aren't likely to make purchases in the first place if they know an item isn't transferrable. If you buy a shirt in one 3D world and are forced to buy the same shirt all over again in a different world, you're unlikely to buy the shirt at all. Especially if there's a shirt option that does transfer from world to world, the transferrable shirt is going to be more popular than the platform-exclusive ones. That demand makes the interoperable assets far more valuable than those which can't be featured across worlds. From both a user convenience and an asset value perspective, it's in each company's interest to make sure their visual assets are interoperable.
But beyond user preferences, the companies themselves actually benefit from allowing their assets on their competitors' platforms. If I'm wearing Platform A's unique skin on Platform B, then Platform A is basically getting free advertising in their competitor's world. And while they may not like it, Platform B wants to take advantage of that effect as well, so they're going to allow their skins to show up on Platform A too. Companies need to allow competitors on to their platform if they want to be featured on competitors' platforms in turn. That collaboration-through-competition dynamic is likely to inform each company's policy on visual interoperability.
Finally, visual interoperability becomes even more important as third party fashion designers like Gucci begin entering the world of digital fashion. If a user buys an expensive pair of virtual Gucci slides, they're only going to visit worlds where they can show them off. The high price of that purchase will seriously discourage them from visiting any worlds where they can't display their expensive virtual assets for other users to see. Therefore, any platform that doesn't allow for visual interoperability is shooting themselves in the foot (or rather, in the Gucci slide.)
The Road to Visual Interoperability
It's clear that customizing your avatar in the metaverse will be important, and the ability for that avatar to transfer between worlds will be even more important. So what needs to happen in order for us to get to a visually interoperable metaverse? Compared to the requirements for building the metaverse, the requirements for visual interoperability once the metaverse is built are actually pretty straightforward.
Simply put, companies need to reach agreements with one another over IP (intellectual property) and digital asset management. We've already explained why it's in each company's best interest to do so; the next step is for them to reach out and actually do it.
Setting agreements on visual IP is the simpler of the two. Companies can actually begin this process today, before the metaverse even exists in its fully-fledged form. If companies which manage 3D worlds today began establishing collaborative relationships with one another, they could set the table for when the technology behind the metaverse reaches its fruition. We’ve already seen very early-stage examples of this in media today, such as the movie Ready Player One which featured a laundry list of companies during the credits who all worked together on the movie. Each company agreed to allow their IP to feature in the movie, sharing various characters and world elements that otherwise wouldn’t coexist in a single project.
Agreements over digital asset management, on the other hand, are far trickier. Standardizing the meaning of digital assets is particularly difficult: a wizard hat which gives you magical powers in one world will probably be reduced to a mere cosmetic item in every other world. This is because companies have to establish rules and boundaries in their respective worlds, and balancing according to every other company’s assets along with their own is an impossible task. So the function of individual items will likely be tied to a specific platform.
But in my mind, visual interoperability is where the real value of interoperability between worlds lies. The ability to express yourself with virtual fashion, to identify with a community and build connections with other users via that shared interest, will be what makes the metaverse a truly social, interactive experience. That’s why visual interoperability is so important, and why it’s a good thing that companies today are already building bridges between one another in order to achieve a visually interoperable metaverse. Transforming their walled gardens into communal gardens today will make the eventual transition into the metaverse far easier, and user experiences in the metaverse far more enjoyable.
The Glimpse Group is a Virtual Reality & Augmented Reality Platform Company Comprised of Multiple Software & Services Subsidiaries Creating Innovative VR/AR Solutions (products, software, and consulting services)