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The Best Fictional Worlds That Inspire Metaverse Pioneers (that Aren't Ready Player One)

When it comes to the metaverse, we all seem to make the same references.


Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. Ready Player One's OASIS. Minority Report's visually striking (but physically exhausting) gesture-based user interface.


The Matrix, Sword Art Online, Altered Carbon, Star Trek's Holodeck, Star War's holograms, etc, etc, etc.


But there are a lot of other stories from all around the world that illustrate the potential of the metaverse, but don't get the hype they deserve.


Whether you're looking for some tech inspiration or merely another series to watch, here are some of our favorite fictional worlds with insightful and inspiring portrayals of the metaverse (in no particular order).


Summer Wars (2009)


Summer Wars (サマーウォーズ) is a 2009 Japanese animated science fiction comedy-drama film that takes place in a near-future Japan, and is one of the best examples depicting the strong connection between the metaverse and the real world, and the real-life consequences that will occur if that system becomes destabilized.


The film stars Kenji Koiso, a math prodigy and a part-time moderator in the massive computer-simulated virtual reality world OZ. People use OZ for entertainment, but all the real-life bureaucracy also takes place in the online world. So when an artificial intelligence program called Love Machine hacks into OZ’s system, chaos ensues all across Japan: Traffic lights stay red for hours while some junctions have lights from all directions lit in green; online chatting becomes impossible; electrical devices become unusable; and in the end, Love Machine even plans to launch submarine missiles on Japan.


While the film focuses on the battle of wits between Kenji and Love Machine, the way that the society functions within the film provides the best depiction of how a metaverse-run world would look like by showing what havoc will take place if the system is attacked.


Memories of the Alhambra (2018)


Memories of the Alhambra (알함브라 궁전의 추억) is a 2018 South Korean television series. Primarily set in Spain (and in South Korea in later episodes), the series centers on an investment firm CEO searching for the cryptic creator of an innovative augmented reality game. He meets a woman who runs a hostel in Spain, and the two get entangled in a series of mysterious incidents inspired by the stories of the Alhambra Palace.


Unlike traditional Korean dramas where its characters travel through time and space, Memories of the Alhambra featured a thrilling story of the Middle Ages added to ordinary modern life through the use of cutting-edge technology.


The ambitious series was originally inspired by Pokemon Go and shows off the potential of a city-scale AR game. By limiting the CGI to basic gaming concepts like doing missions, level-ups, and alliances, the series creator Song Jae-jung wanted to introduce the medium of immersive AR in a way that even a beginner audience would understand. In the future, however, she wants to create a project with more advanced gaming rules.


Den-noh Coil (2007)


Den-noh Coil (電脳コイル) is a Japanese science fiction anime television series that takes place in 2026, where semi-immersive augmented reality (AR) technology has just begun to enter the mainstream. The series takes place in the fictional city of Daikoku, a hotbed of AR development with an emerging citywide virtual infrastructure. It follows a group of children as they use AR glasses to unravel the mysteries of the half-real, half-Internet city, using a variety of illegal software tools, techniques, and virtual pets to manipulate the digital landscape.


The show really takes its time to develop the scope of the world's technology, both in its rules and how they anticipate Daikoku citizens will interact with it.


The children access the virtual world through Internet-connected visors, which they refer to as "megane." The visors allow them to see virtual reality superimposed on their physical reality. To visually confirm something as virtual, the children often lift their visors from their eyes, which work in conjunction with spatial audio.


The show even pulls from the concept of mirror world and digital twins: in order to spatially synchronize virtual space and real space, users must constantly upload the status of physical space to the virtual infrastructure.


Every aspect of the technology, from the bigger concepts to the tiny details, blends together to make the world seem incredibly believable, if not possible, in just a few years' time. It's just futuristic enough to seem amazing, yet grounded enough in reality to reflect where the industry is heading in real life.


Free Guy (2021)


A more recent example, Free Guy is a 2021 American science fiction action comedy film starring Ryan Reynolds as a bank teller, later known as "Blue Shirt Guy," who discovers that he is actually a non-player character in an open-world video game, Free City (think Grand Theft Auto and Cyberpunk 20177 meet Fortnite).


After a real-life player tries to rob the bank, Ryan Reynolds as an NPC takes his pair of sunglasses, allowing him to finally see Free City from the player's perspective through a head-up display.


The glasses provide in-game augmented reality specs, showing missions, scores, power-ups, loot, and more. While the game isn't accessible by VR, for the main character, the game does operate as a metaverse.


We think this movie has the potential to join the ranks in being heavily referenced by mainstream pop culture for its depiction of these smart glasses for years to come.


.hack//Sign (2002)

Images from .hack//Sign and .hack//Liminality.


The superior predecessor to Sword Art Online, .hack//Sign is a Japanese anime television series that aired in 2002. The series takes place in fictional 2009, after a computer virus called Pluto's Kiss caused a massive Internet shutdown. Two years later after the networks recovers, the first online game is released, a virtual reality massively multiplayer online role-playing game called The World.


The series focuses on a player who wakes up to find himself in a dungeon, but he suffers from short-term memory loss as he wonders where he is and how he got there. The situation gets worse when he discovers he is trapped in the game and cannot log out. From then on, along with other players, he embarks on a quest to find the truth behind his abnormal situation.


What's most significant about .hack//Sign is that it's not standalone. The Project .Hack franchise combines novels, manga, TV anime, and OVA's to form one grand narrative with characters and events happening not only chronologically, but simultaneously as well. The truly allows for the exploration of how every type of person in society was affected by the event, both inside and outside the VR headset.


Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)


Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Valérian et la Cité des mille planètes) is a 2017 English-language French 3D space opera film based on the French science fiction comics series Valérian and Laureline.


While the movie was considered a box office flop, the film still showcases an incredible portrayal of how we may shop in the metaverse.


When they buy something, they place the object into a “transmatter,” and the object travels to them through space. While shopping, the merchant sees them as holograms and the two can interact.


While the logistics of walking miles through a desert to access millions of virtual stores is not the most grounded in reality, the larger-than-life CGI creates a captivating visualization of what our virtual shopping may look like one day.


Assassin's Creed: The Animus (2007-2021)


Assassin's Creed is an open-world action-adventure stealth video game franchise known for its parkour and climbing skills, hack and slash combat, side quests, and stealth mechanics. The game depicts a millennia-old struggle between the Assassins, who fight for peace with free will, and the Templars, who desire peace through order and control.


Perhaps the most overlooked part of the game is what explains the main character's ability play through the memories of his ancestors: the animus. A virtual reality machine developed, and eventually commercialized, by Abstergo Industries, the animus allows the user to read a subject's genetic memory and project the output onto an external screen in three dimensions.


Within the game, the Animus was even made available as a game console, offering a heads-up display of how people or locations appeared in the past, enabling a person to identify someone they had not seen in years. This overlay allows the Animus user to monitor pertinent information without diverting attention away from the simulation.


Adventure Time: "Imaginary Resources" (2017)


"Imaginary Resources" is the fourth part of the Adventure Time miniseries Islands and the twenty-third episode in the eighth season of Adventure Time.


In the episode, adventurers Finn the Human and Jake the Dog encounter an island, completely made out of electric, metal, and other artificial resources, and encounter groups of people plugged into virtual reality pods. They're playing Better Reality, an abstract and geometric metaverse where reality has been redesigned and improved.


Better Reality provides players with avatar customization, cryptocoins, the ability to summon items, and endless worlds to explore, including a virtual nightclub.


The episode also provides some solid commentary on people who choose to spend their entire lives in the metaverse and why. Especially considering this is a children's show, their Better Reality episodes provide more context into what the metaverse may look like for both the virtual and physical world when they coexist.


Bratz Fashion Pixiez (2007)


Okay, hear me out.


Released in 2007, Bratz: Fashion Pixiez is an American computer-animated film based on the Bratz fashion doll line. Donning pink and purple stylish butterfly glasses, the girls are able to see the incredible world of Pixiez existing alongside regular, normal humans.


Ignoring the fact that it's magic-based, that's basically using AR glasses to access the metaverse, layered on top of our existing reality.


Just look at the aesthetic bubbles. Just think about AR Pixie wings! Why are we designing minimalist, soulless hardware devoid of color and personality, when we could be creating glossy bubblegum Y2K hyper-girly tech?


Ray-Ban Stories could NEVER be this iconic. I rest my case.