SXSW’s ‘What’s In a Metaverse?’: A Brief & Somewhat Biased Recap

These Are the Avatars In Your Neighborhood

“What’s in a metaverse?”

If I tried to answer the question posed by this SXSW panel’s title, my natural bias would be instantly obvious. Because I’d raise one meshy Lelutka eyebrow and say, “Um, just look at Second Life.”

Poster by Angie Pearse

Luckily, Wednesday morning’s “What’s In a Metaverse?” panel, part of the Interactive festival’s vast slate of discussions, featured Second Life’s recently returned founder, Philip Rosedale, among its onstage luminaries. And Rosedale answered that question, in pretty much that same way, for all of us.

In addition to the Second Life honcho, the panel (ably moderated by the affable Charlie Fink of Chapman University) included Rafaella Camera of Epic Games and Timmu Tõke of Ready Player Me. And, as that Fink questioned the panelists to explore exactly what’s meant by “metaverse” and how a metaverse might work and how do we reach the approximation of such a thing, it was clear that each of the panelists 1) knew what the hell they were talking about, 2) were, in fact, representative experts on the topic, and 3) were passionate about what they communicated.

A person representing Epic Games wouldn’t even have to rely solely on championing the wildly popular Fortnite game or its new creative offshoot (with that legendary nine-minute Travis Scott concert in 2020 that drew 12 million viewers and earned the rapper a cool 20 million USD); and Rafaella Camera did range further and more general, too, speaking of the increased possibilities for artistic creation and socializing within Fortnite and other virtual worlds. And, of course, Epic’s industry-galvanizing Unreal Engine and those Metahumans were brought up.

(Oh, everybody was talking about those Metahumans.)

And Timmu Tõke, whose Ready Player Me creates avatars that are already operable across, what did he say, over a thousand virtual reality platforms (and rising). He also spoke of the proliferation of AR and VR and how his company is helping to unite the various diverse systems through persistent 3-D embodiment, and of how such interoperability can drive a globally accessible metaverse that’s more than just a single company’s silo’d property.

But, okay, what is a metaverse, anyway?

Charlie Fink kept asking that question, and it kept being answered – most effectively, I thought – by Philip Rosedale.

“It’s a place, for one thing,” said that meatspace Linden. And he spoke of the emotional investment that people put into the spaces they inhabit, of the sort of opportunities that arise and the communities that are formed by proximity over time. And, listen: That experience of proximity, of citizenship, holds about as true in a virtual world as it does in a nonvirtual one.

(I reckon older Austinites who still mourn the passing of Les Amis and Liberty Lunch and Salvage Vanguard Theatre, and newer Austinites with their favorite gathering spots and co-working setups, I reckon they know exactly what that means.)

Some of the regular crowd at Warehouse 21: Katchoo, Min, Guinn, Memory, Terri. Never mind the bartender; he's just waiting for Savi.

I think of my own experiences in Second Life, of what it feels like to chat with someone in my carefully decorated skybox above the Wastelands; of how I met longtime friend Grady Echegaray in 2006, when I was wandering around, exploring my Ironjaw neighborhood and chanced upon her Studio/Schauplatz art gallery near the main road; of what it’s like to walk from my house to attend the weekly drum circle at Irk the Mutant’s outpost near the edge of the Great Fissure; of chilling on the downstairs couch at Lost Boys while Gomi Mfume streams some original glitched-up noise composition; of dancing with my girlfriend Guinn near the familiar bar in the Blue Orange club, or grooving to Motown classics with her and Katchoo and the rest of the animated crowd at one of Terri Wardell’s DJ sets at Warehouse 21. I think of my Wastelands bestie RM Beedit and the incredible, collaborative structures she builds.

“It’s a place,” Rosedale said, and that’s exactly right, that’s one of the defining points – if not the defining point – of a metaverse, or else it’s indistinguishable from all the rest of online life, n’est-ce pas?

(It matters less what color the sky might be, if there’s no port for it to be above.)

Rosedale also insisted that a way to ensure a metaverse will thrive is for it to have a local economy, and, to some extent, local governance as well. That allowing communities to grow organically and take care of their own affairs (within, we assume, a company’s TOS) is better than relentless autocratic control from the top. “Look at Second Life,” said Rosedale, as preface to many of his responses. Because what he and Linden Lab brought to this SXSW panel was, more than anything, the lived experience of running, participating in, and dealing with a viable and ongoing virtual world for almost 20 years.

[Note: Nobody had much to say about Mark Zuckerberg and his idea of the metaverse being … what, an exclusive property of The Company Formerly Known As Facebook?

Nobody had much to say except, maybe, obliquely.

“No advertising!” exclaimed Rosedale. Yes, that’s the proper dialogue tag: The man was emphatic on that point, like a sort of handsome, more stylish Bernie Sanders. “I cannot say that enough – no advertising!”]

So, what’s in a metaverse? Whatever Epic Games brings to it, of course. Whatever Ready Player Me brings to it. Whatever Second Life and all the thousands upon thousands of other companies eventually manifesting it – and whatever all the people living in it – bring to it. To its persistent, not-really-much-more-protean-than-Austin-or-NYC-or-wherever place.

And, ah, maybe I’ll see you there?

*curtsies*

Delighted, I’m sure.


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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

SXSW 2022, SXSW Interactive 2022, Metaverse

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