The “metaverse” has quickly found its way into mainstream vocabulary since last year, with an array of tech majors eager to stake their claim within it. But how should we really define the metaverse and how can we ensure it’s built in a way that works for everyone? Moreover, where do its boundaries with reality lie and what impact will it have upon our more tangible world?  

Harry Shum, founding chairman of the International Digital Economy Academy (IDEA) and a former executive vice president of Microsoft, explored these topics and shared his vision for the future of this field as part of a keynote speech delivered on Sept. 26 at the Beyond Expo 2022 tech conference, held online at BEYOND Metaverse. 

The following transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity:

People initially became excited about the metaverse because of the publicity from Facebook’s name change to Meta and the excitement around Roblox’s successful IPO. 

To understand the metaverse, I’d like to define metaverse technology in four layers: application, interaction, entity, and protocol. 

Harry Shum, founding chairman of IDEA and a former executive vice president of Microsoft.

Application is where human beings experience the metaverse and participate in activities to accomplish certain purposes. Interaction is the physical process where human beings connect with the metaverse, receive the metaverse, experience the metaverse, and have fun through interactions with others. 

What kind of entities will exist in the metaverse? How will entities in the physical world get reflected in the metaverse? What about AIS [Association for Information Systems] in the metaverse? How do we define and create entities in the metaverse and specify the rules for the activities that take place there?

And just like the physical universe where time and space are defined, the metaverse needs its own protocols to define how everything is connected and how information gets exchanged.

Many important problems need to be addressed. For instance, how do we define the ownership of any entity? A good way to understand these technological layers is to compare them with counterparts in the physical world and the internet.

In fact, many people view the metaverse as a significant extension of the internet as we further move into the virtual world. 

1. Application

In the physical world, for instance, a market is an application where people come to sell and buy goods on the internet. People can stay at home and buy goods with e-commerce applications. In the metaverse, people can try and experience goods in immersive ways before ordering them.  

2. Interaction

In the physical world, people use pen, paper, speech, and language to exchange information. With the internet, people use computers and smartphones, interacting via apps like WeChat on a 2D flat screen. With high-quality AR and VR equipment, people can immerse themselves in the metaverse and have much richer multimodal information exchanges. We have come a long way with AR and VR technology. Yet great challenges remain in building powerful and lightweight AR glasses. It’s great to see exciting brain-computer interface research lately, although it’s far away from being practical.

3. Entity

Entities in the physical world can be persons, companies, organizations, and all sorts of objects. Interestingly, entities are not clearly called out on the internet. Rather, entities are mechanically incorporated into independent web apps on the internet, which has led to them being defined by powerful apps. By introducing entities back into the metaverse, we make sure that entities are not defined by apps, but belong to the entire society or metaverse.

4. Protocols

The physical world can be accurately defined in space-time coordinates. For instance, distance and relationship. With protocols like HTTP and HTML, the internet has its own definition of relationship and distance. With the help of blockchain, we have records of activities and relationships between human beings, AI beings, and objects in the metaverse.  

We should have metaverse equivalence protocols like HDEP and HTML and definitely need to have a browser for the metaverse so that we can keep exploring the metaverse. Let me show you an example of AI beings in the metaverse.

This a newly-released app called Xiao Ice Island [Xiao Bing Dao, in Chinese] is where human beings, AI beings, and objects interact in a metaverse. When you start the app and get on your Xiao Ice Island, you get to meet 10 AIs with various capabilities like seeing and chatting. 

Xiao Ice Island is the first AI social network in the metaverse. Like it or not, we are entering the metaverse as we spend more and more time in the digital world.  

Here at the BEYOND Expo, many exciting metaverse technologies, applications, and systems are on display. I’m looking forward to sessions that cover a variety of topics in the metaverse from smart cities to branding, from entertainment to hardware.

We are at the beginning of a long journey into the metaverse. The best way to predict the future is by creating it. There is so much to be invented in the metaverse from technology to product to business models. Let’s do it together. Thank you very much.

Ward Zhou

Ward Zhou is a tech reporter based in Shanghai. He covers stories about industry of digital content, hardware, and anything geek. Reach him via ward.zhou[a]technode.com or Twitter @zhounanyu.