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25 Pioneers of the Metaverse

To mark the launch of BeyondGames.biz, we’ve compiled a list of the individuals who are leading the way towards the future of interactivity. 

These are the people we believe are building the shared, persistent, real-time, virtual worlds and economies that we will call metaverses. Some of these are billionaire veterans with grand visions for humanity, some are industry newcomers building single, but essential, components.

This is not a countdown, nor a mathematically-calculated rich list. The line-up on this page is presented alphabetically and is based on the opinions of our editorial team and our panel of advisers – it’s subjective, and we’ve no doubt that there are people we’ve missed. Indeed, we expect this list to grow with time. (If there’s someone crucial you feel we’ve overlooked, we’d love to hear about them! Email the editor at [email protected]). 

Before we get started, here’s a further qualification. We’re aware that our understanding of the metaverse is shaped by novelists, screenwriters, philosophers and futurists. But we’ll create separate celebrations of their work. Watch this space for an analysis of the top 10 metaverses in popular culture, for instance. The purpose of today’s list is to explore the tech industry as it stands, to examine the engineers and entrepreneurs who serve as the architects of metaverses you can experience today.

Tim Berners-Lee

Professorial Fellow of Computer Science – University of Oxford

Professor – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Brace yourselves, this is info dense! Sir Timothy Berners-Lee OM KBE FRS FREng FRSA FBCS, is an English computer scientist best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee is the director of the World Wide Web Consortium and the founder of the World Wide Web Foundation. He is also a senior researcher and holder of the 3Com founder’s chair at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; a director of the Web Science Research Initiative and a member of the advisory board of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. He is a founder and president of the Open Data Institute and is currently an advisor at social network MeWe. 

While Sir Tim  may not be working directly upon the creation of the Metaverse, his work on policy, legislation, data, privacy and open access will underpin and inform every aspect of it.

Halli Thor Bjornsson

Founder & CEO – Lockwood Publishing

Last year, Chinese giant Tencent led a $25 million investment swoop on Nottingham-based Lockwood. The prize? 3D virtual world Avakin Life, a universe shared by over 200 million users. Avakin Life is a free-to-play online hub where you’re encouraged to customise your avatar with the latest trends from official partners like Nike, decorate an apartment, and hang out with other users. This be-anything social space was launched in 2009 and its boss is Halli Thor Bjornsson, who started his games industry career as an artist for firms like Electronic Arts. Avakin Life is popular with both teens and adults, and what makes it notable is its mobile accessibility. Never bet against a social platform you can access from the palm of your hand. 

Sebastien Borget

COO – The Sandbox

Three major releases and 40 million downloads but The Sandbox is only getting started. Originally a 2D user-generated mobile game, the latest version of The Sandbox is a fully-fledged metaverse, with permanent land plots and in-game items secured on the Ethereum blockchain. Borget has led the charge into this brave new world, signing dozens of IP partnerships ranging from Atari and the Smurfs to Binance and metal band Avenged Sevenfold. He’s also taken on a wider role as the president of Blockchain Game Alliance, an industry body promoting the use of blockchain in the game sector. 

Vitalik Buterin

Co-creator – Ethereum

Back in 2013, Russian-Canadian brainiac Vitalik Buterin was just one of several co-founders of Ethereum, the first smart contract blockchain. But since its launch in 2015, the now 27-year-old billionaire has blossomed, becoming a powerful mixture of advocate, conscience and futurist for what is the preeminent technology for developers and users interested in running code on a blockchain. This has been particularly seen in his husbandry of the current phased deployment of Ethereum 2.0 will allow for a 1,000-fold expansion of capacity, unlocking much deeper, immersive and scalable experiences for metaverses and beyond. 

John Carmack

Consulting CTO – Oculus VR

Carmack is a video game developer and software engineer. He co-founded the video game company id Software and was the lead programmer of the pioneering 3D first-person games Doom and Quake (and sequels). In 2013 Carmack joined Oculus VR, where he served as CTO and later Consulting CTO for the Virtual Reality company. In 2014 Oculus was acquired by Facebook and became part of the social media giant’s ambitious Reality Labs, positioning the company as an even greater influence on the evolution of the metaverse. Carmack’s influence on the world of gaming and his work with virtual reality and general AI  give him a unique perspective and position within the rapidly evolving metaverse.

Tim Cook

CEO – Apple

Cook is the CEO of Apple, the world’s most valuable technology company by revenue ($274.5 billion in 2020). Cook joined Apple in 1998 as Senior Vice President for worldwide operations, assuming the CEO role in 2011, prior to the death of Steve Jobs. The soothing yin, to Jobs driven Yang, Cook has nevertheless helped Apple double its revenue, profit and market value. 

Apple’s position and power in the technology world make it a major player in the evolution of the metaverse. Apple’s ecosystem has pioneered the way in which people engage with digital content of all kinds, through the App Store and subscription services such as Apple TV. The company has created augmented reality tools for developers and has long been rumoured to be working on the creation of augmented reality glasses. However the metaverse evolves, expect Apple to be a serious player from the outset.

Susan Cummings

Founder & Executive Producer – Tiny Rebel Games

Cummings is an experienced videogame producer, with over two decades of experience in development, production and publishing. She is also the founder of real-time storytelling platform Fictioneers, and a visiting fellow at the University of South Wales. Via Tiny Rebel Games and Fictioneers, Cummings is one of the pioneers leading the new multi-million pound UK Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund Audience of the Future Moving Image R&D project. The project’s first Augmented Reality game The Big Fix Up, which features Aardman’s award-winning characters Wallace & Gromit, has just been released for iOS and Android.

Marguerite deCourcelle

CEO – Blockade Games

Bursting onto the blockchain sector as a fine artist who created intricate puzzles that once solved unlocked Bitcoin (hence her Twitter handle @coin_artist), deCourcelle has since become something of a tour de force in the blockchain and NFT space. Partly this is due to her work at Blockade Game, which has caught the attention with its stylistic RPG Neon District. But more generally, her enthusiasm and ability to build community has proven an infectious starting point for various art-based NFT projects, including most recently an NFT art project to be sold at Christie’s auction house. 

John Hanke

CEO – Niantic Inc

From his first job working on MMORPG Meridian 59, John Hanke has been fascinated by the interaction between the real and digital world, something underlined by his first startup Keyhole. Acquired by Google in 2001, its technology was the basis for Google Earth and Google Maps, expertise Hanke then leveraged in successful AR location-based mobile Ingress. In turn, the Google-funded company was spun out – gaining additional investment from Nintendo and The Pokemon Company – becoming Niantic. Even given that level of backing, the multi-billion success of Pokemon Go was something of a surprise. But with a strong commitment to keeping people active, Hanke and Niantic are just getting started, as the teasing of new AR glasses hardware demonstrates. 

Jensen Huang

CEO – Nvidia

Taiwanese-American Jen-Hsun “Jensen” Huang is the co-founder and CEO of Nvidia Corporation (and the 61st highest paid CEO in the USA).

In addition to being one of the world’s largest producers of graphics processing units (GPUs) Nvidia recently announced the launch of the Omniverse – a collaborative platform which has been described as “Google Docs for worlds”. The technology which enables teams of creators to work together, using different tools in order to build photorealistic environments. As the metaverse brings together creators from areas  such as games, architecture, car manufacturing, fashion, etc. Nvidia’s Omniverse could be one of the key enabling technologies.

Peggy Johnson

CEO – Magic Leap

Johnson is a former executive vice president of business development for Microsoft, who has frequently appeared in lists of the most powerful female engineers and tech leaders in the world. She was appointed as CEO of Magic Leap in 2020, after the pioneering augmented reality company pivoted to focus on enterprise AR. Johnson likens the company’s new focus to the early days of the mobile industry: “Those first adopters of mobile phones were enterprise customers as well. The product was big, a bit expensive, and a little heavy, but it filled a need for enterprise.” That’s why, for Magic Leap and AR, Johnson says, “I think the first adopters are the ones that we’re working with right now.”

Kathleen Kennedy

President – Lucasfilm Ltd

For world-beating examples of transmedia storytelling, look no further than the Star Wars universe. Hundreds of characters, in interlocking tales across films, TV shows, animated series, comics, novels, toys, video games, theme park experiences… Along with stable-mate Marvel (both are owned by Disney, itself a decades-old expert in cross-format storytelling), Star Wars is spoiling us with narratives you can watch via its own streaming service or play with friends in The Old Republic online universe. One of the founders of Amblin Entertainment, Kennedy was a producer on some of the biggest entertainment properties, including Jurassic Park and ET, before becoming George Lucas’s right hand at Lucasfilm. With a ton of awards to her name – not to mention an OBE – she took over as president when Lucas sold to Disney in 2012. You have almost certainly seen a film, heard a tune or played a game that she’s been ultimately in charge of.

John Linden

CEO – Mythical Games

Many companies are planning to make a splash by building out the middleware that will enable every game developer to launch on the blockchain, but few mention the blockchain less than Mythical CEO John Linden. Instead, by talking up “player-led economics” this veteran of Activision (Call of Duty, Skylanders) and Seismic Games (Marvel Strike Force) has shifted attention to the Seattle-based company’s debut game Blanko Block Party, which combines user-generated content with a player-led NFT marketplace. Currently in open beta, it provides a concrete example of why (whisper it) blockchain makes sense for all game developers to consider. 

Herman Narula

CEO – Improbable Worlds Ltd.

Narula is the co-founder and CEO of Improbable Worlds, the British distributed simulation software company, which has picked up serious interest in its world-building technology and the funding to bring it to life. Improbable is the creator of SpatialOS, a technology designed to let anyone build massive, immersive, persistent virtual worlds, running in the cloud, with thousands of participants. To date the company has raised over $540 million to help bring its vision to life, as well as a partnership with Epic Games, another company pioneering the development of the Metaverse. Despite recent setbacks and game cancellations, Improbable remains a company with much to offer the emerging multiverse.

Satoshi Nakamoto

Author – Bitcoin whitepaper

Who or what is Satoshi Nakamoto? Probably – hopefully – we’ll never know the real identity of the pseudonymous author of the 2008 white paper Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. The mystery is now part of the founding myth. What does matter, however, was the white paper and subsequent launch of the Bitcoin blockchain opened the door to the ownership of digital items in a fully decentralized manner; that is based purely on the authority of computers running the underlying Bitcoin code. In turn, this has kickstarted an explosion in different computer networks, each with its own particular flavour and implementation of this seminal work.

Jacob Navok

CEO – Genvid Technologies

Having played a key part in Square Enix’s attempt to build a game streaming platform – called Shinra Technologies – Navok has since built on the experience, launching US outfit Genvid Technologies. It’s focused on building out novel interactive streaming experiences; something it labels MILEs or Massively Interactive Live Events. The first of these was Facebook’s Rival Peak project, which combined a Survivor-style knock-out show – voted on by players, controlled by AI and operated 24/7 – with a weekly TV catch-up show. But this is only one implementation of what Navok argues will be completely new ways to deliver and interact with content. 

Gabe Newell

CEO – Valve Corporation

Some of us are old enough to remember when Half Life was first demoed in the late 1990s. This genre-defining title was the first offering from Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington, one-time Microsoft employees. But it was the transition from game developer to tool maker and online store that shot Valve into the stratosphere. Its Steam platform is the largest distribution and community platform for PC games, despite robust challenges from the likes of Epic. Meanwhile, Valve has embraced AR, VR and gaming hardware – the SteamVR platform emerged in 2015 followed by a dedicated headset, Index, in 2019, which includes sophisticated motion controllers. For his efforts, Newell has been inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame, and BAFTA, not to mention ranking among the 100 richest people in the USA.

Alison Norrington

Founder & Director – Story Central

Storycentral is an entertainment studio that incubates and develops ground-breaking IP with global partners in film, television, animation, publishing, advertising, branding, theme parks, Virtual Reality and gaming. Norrington specializes in storytelling that amplifies fan incubation and engagement, experience design, extending IP & franchises, community build through story and storyworld strategy, incubation & development – all centered around a strong robust core of story architecture, theme, awareness of audience and experience design. Norrington is a best-selling novelist, playwright, journalist & story/script consultant, a PhD researcher and MA in Creative Writing & New Media. Over her 25+year career she has worked with and consulted for many of the world’s largest media and entertainment companies.

Hilmar Veigar Pétursson

CEO – CCP Online

EVE Online isn’t a blockchain game nor a metaverse, but for almost 20 years, CCP’s epic space combat simulation has blazed a trail for such concepts. CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson has been in the vanguard of the commensurate failures and successes that come from running an emergent gaming universe that has seen its fair share of geopolitical and economic surprises. Indeed, his expertise is also reflected in investments which include Lockwood Publishing, best-known for its Avakin Life virtual world, and various cryptocurrencies. 

Joanna Popper

Global Head of Virtual Reality for Location Based Entertainment – HP

Popper is an award-winning Hollywood and Silicon Valley media executive. At HP she leads leads HP’s initiatives for Go-To-Market and Location Based Entertainment for Virtual Reality. 

Popper was recently the executive producer on Double Eye Studios’ Finding Pandora X, the winner of Best VR Experience at the Venice Film Festival and the Audience Award for Virtual Cinema Spotlight at SXSW.

Popper has been selected in lists including: “50 Women Can Change the World in Media and Entertainment,” “Top Women in Media: Game Changers,” “Top Women in Media: Industry Leaders,” “Digital It List,” “101 Women Leading the VR Industry” and is on the Coalition for the Women in XR Fund.

Philip Rosedale

Co-founder – High Fidelity

As the CEO of Second Life developer Linden Labs, Philip Rosedale was the poster child for the explosion in virtual worlds in the early 2000s. Launched in 2003, Second Life gained widespread attention from gamers to corporations and even governments. It also found itself in the forefront of many of the issues that have since bedevilled such user-generated worlds, especially in regards to national laws around content, IP and the ability to sell and cash-out in-game items. After leaving Linden Labs, Rosedale founded High Fidelity. Originally focused on blockchain and VR technologies, it’s since pivoted into providing a 3D spatial audio middleware. 

Tim Sweeney

CEO – Epic

Why does Tim Sweeney have a net worth of some $7.4 billion? When people talk about the metaverse, about concerts taking place inside games, about Hollywood crossovers, and youngsters learning dances together online, they’re almost certainly talking about Fortnite, the creation of Sweeney’s company. It’s the gold standard for multiplayer meet-ups, a Battle Royale shoot-’em-up turned ubiquitous social platform. But more than that, the graphics toolset which powers Fortnite – the Unreal engine – has astonishing influence over the whole entertainment industry. Back in 1995, Sweeney wrote the first Unreal graphics engine himself, and it now powers about 13% of all games – but it’s so powerful it’s used in the production of TV shows like The Mandalorian, and is forming part of the pre-viz pipeline for the biggest VFX houses, as well as roles in industries like healthcare and automotive.

Morgan Tucker

Head of Product, Social – Roblox

Tucker is an inventor and designer with his name on multiple design patents. Morgan heads up design at Roblox, as well as the company’s avatar experience and social products, where he’s building a vision for the future of collaborative, expressive, spatial experiences. He has championed, created and realized Roblox’s design system and led an extensive product branding strategy.

As Roblox continues to provide an ever more diverse range of experiences within its platform, Morgan’s work will help to shape the ways in which users can interact and engage with each other in meaningful ways.

Timoni West

Vice President of Augmented & Virtual Reality – Unity Technologies

West leads a team of cross-disciplinary artists and engineers within Unity exploring new interfaces for human-computer interaction in a world where digital objects and the real world live side-by-side.

One of her team’s first tools, EditorXR, for editing Unity projects directly in virtual reality, won San Francisco Design Week’s first-ever Virtual Tech award in 2018.

Prior to Unity, Timoni has worked as a product designer at Flickr and Foursquare. She is on record saying: “My goal is to make computers better tools for a wider swath of humanity; not just available or useable, but really useful. This means they need to be more flexible, responsive, interactive and thoughtful than today’s computing paradigms allow.”

Mark Zuckerberg

Founder, Chairman & CEO  – Facebook

One of the most famous and, of course, richest men in the world, and immortalised on film by Jesse Eisenberg in a 2010 biopic, Zuckerberg is familiar to newshounds from his Senate testimony on privacy, misinformation and media business models. Putting aside for a moment the two billion people on Facebook (it has more “citizens” than any one nation on Earth), Zuckerberg believes the future is both social and virtual In March 2014 his firm bought VR start-up Oculus, which is at the forefront of popular adoption of VR with its Rift and Quest kit. Last year, the team at Facebook working on virtual and augmented reality tech was rebranded Facebook Reality Labs. If anybody is going to create a shared online world and fill it with millions of regular people wearing headsets, it’ll be Zuckerberg and his colleagues.

Written By

Brian has been working in the games industry since the mid-1990s, when he joined the legendary studio DMA Design, as a writer on the original Grand Theft Auto. Since then he's worked with major publishers, founded his own digital agency, and the Scottish Games Network. At various times he's worked as a journalist, editor, narrative designer, lecturer, executive producer, and director.

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