Much like the Internet's early days, the discussion of the metaverse still centers on the building blocks of what "it" is, leaving many with a vague idea of what this technology disruption might look like when put into practice. In drawing a parallel to the dot com era, many initial discussions of what the Internet would look like were far from what we see today. Therefore, when we define the metaverse, consider that the definition will be broad to account for the ongoing development process.
How to define the metaverse?
Since the metaverse doesn’t exist yet, the definition can only be applied to a concept. The term, which was first coined in Snow Crash, a 1992 novel, created a vision of the metaverse that included avatars represented by real humans that could interact in a 3D world. The concept took a modern spin in Ready, Player, One, a story set in 2045. Here, in a world plagued by climate change, people escape to a world known as the OASIS. By putting on a VR headset and a set of wired gloves, users were transported to a digital world complete with games, quests, and social interactions. The simplest way to explain the Metaverse comes from New York Times writer Brian Chen:
“The metaverse is the convergence of two ideas that have been around for many years: virtual reality and a digital second life”.
Both the concept of virtual reality and digital second life has been around for some time. Both of these ideas have been around in practice in some form. Virtual reality headsets such as Oculus have allowed people to play games and enjoy virtual worlds with their family and friends since 2016. Similarly, a game known as Second Life (produced by Linden Lab) has been around since back in 2003. Thus, it is not as though the elements that will make up the Metaverse are utterly foreign to us. It is just that they have never been reconfigured together as they are likely to be in the Metaverse.
We can draw many parallels from both of these fictional metaverse representations, including the use of avatars, multiplayer online games, and virtual reality. However, in a modern-day application, the metaverse definition is extended to look at a digital world that may either be a parallel to the real world or an entirely fictional creation, such as is true in Animal Crossing. Regardless of what it looks like, the metaverse at a high level can be defined as a network of virtual worlds (which maybe 3D) that center on social connection and exist as the Internet successor Web 3.0. The universe would then become a place to work, live and play, ushering in an era of being “always online.” Other features that we might come to expect in the metaverse will include a(n):
- Virtual economy where value can be transferred and carried from the digital to the real world.
- Immersive experience that will achieve a realistic sensory experience.
- Strong social links, with events and activities that can be participated in together.
- Support for entrepreneurship and the creation of user-developed environments and items.
- 3D graphics and the ability to personalize avatars or digital representations of oneself.
- Ability to conduct traditional services and activities from Web 2.0 (our present-day Internet).
We’ll admit even with definition; this concept is still broad. So, don’t worry if you are still having difficulty putting a picture to the word.
Is it Zuckerberg who owns it all?
Facebook changing its name to Meta sparked an entirely new set of questions around who will own the metaverse. Will it be Mark Zuckerberg? Or someone else? The answer, in part, is a trick question. A lot of attention began to be directed after the company formerly named Facebook changed its official name to "Meta" on October 28, 2021. Some claim that this was nothing more than a company doing a little bit of rebranding after several less than flattering headlines about the company in recent years, including stories about:
- A whistleblower claims that the company is aware of the negative impacts on the mental health of teenagers and does nothing about it.
- Troubling stories about a lack of oversight over fake news stories during the 2016 election and beyond.
- Large settlements paid out to victims of gaping holes in privacy settings on Facebook that led to the exposure of personal data.
It is fair to say that these stories and many others like them that the company has had to deal with are not ideal for its image. However, Facebook (now Meta) has managed to continue growing despite these pressures. Many believe it is because of their focus on the future and on building the kind of Internet society that may paint much of the landscape of how the economy and many other aspects of daily life operate. Right now, Facebook appears to bet a lot of its future on this thing called the Metaverse.
Although Zuckerberg has been positioning Meta’s efforts for near-total domination, and many have their bets placed on who will be successful, many argue that in a decentralized fashion, there shouldn’t be one “owner.” Major concerns come down to giving a private company access to that much power, which in the wrong hands may result in a dystopian future much like the ones we watch on television today. With more data being exchanged in a metaverse than on the present-day Internet, many argue they should own their personal information, a possibility only through the use of a decentralized landscape.
Therefore, although many companies are running the race to create the metaverse, it is more likely that multiple digital worlds will coexist, being run by the users, with interoperable assets that can be transferred seamlessly between them.
Is this where my NFTs come in?
Any talk of the metaverse has likely brought up surrounding questions about blockchain and NFTs. In many definitions, metaverse platforms are said to look to the blockchain as their foundation, enabling people to build, own and exchange assets (non-fungible tokens) that hold value in the real world.
If an NFT is still a foreign concept to you, consider it as a one-of-a-kind digital assets like a trading card or custom painting that exists on the blockchain. Although these items aren’t tangible or something that can physically be owned, they hold value since their uniqueness is verified on the decentralized ledger. At present, the concept might seem far-fetched. After all, why would you want to pay thousands, even millions of dollars, for something that doesn’t exist in the physical world?
Consider that in a metaverse, perhaps a parallel world to where we live, you might own property and home, which may be decorated with digital assets such as an NFT painting. Alternatively, your avatar might purchase a pair of digital Nikes to wear as they walk the streets of the metaverse. It all depends on what the world at large deems as valuable.
On a small scale, this phenomenon is already occurring in digital games today, where players may use fiat money to purchase in-game assets to improve their status of the game. Furthermore, metaverse tokens like Decentraland have brought blockchain-based virtual reality platforms to life, already enabling users to take ownership of plots of digital land.
When will the metaverse arrive?
The Metaverse is anticipated to arrive in large part in the year 2022, at least in its earliest forms. Companies such as Meta (Facebook), Apple, Google, and Microsoft are all planning product launches that tie into the Metaverse in 2022. We don't yet know with 100% certainty what will be released by these companies, but we have some early hints about what they might do. For example, we expect the following to come out this year:
- Meta (Facebook): The company is already creating virtual reality (VR) software and hardware, and they currently make up 75% of that market. They appear poised to continue adding functionality to their VR gear and the apps that help power that equipment.
- Apple: Apple is famously secretive about its plans and the actions it is taking to put those plans in motion, but most believe that they are working on a virtual reality headset of their own.
- Google: The search engine giant has had some false starts in the world of virtual reality with the flop that was Google Glass. However, they have learned many lessons since they launched that product in 2013, and they appear ready to fight it out with the others for their place in the Metaverse.
- Microsoft: Bill Gates' company has always had a more corporate feel than some others on this list. That is why it is unsurprising that they are pitching their products to companies that want to see if they can use virtual reality to help make their workers more productive. Microsoft's headset, the HoloLens 2, costs $3500. Thus, only companies with rather large pockets can even afford what Microsoft is putting out at this time.
How to enter the metaverse?
Knowing what the metaverse is, you might be ready to explore it for yourself. To start this journey, you will need the proper hardware. In many cases, a gaming console, PC, or smartphone will be enough to enter the metaverse, with supporting features being released in offerings like the Sensorium Galaxy’s mobile application. Other metaverse beginnings can be accessed from a user’s existing devices.
That said, more futuristic concepts rely heavily on the immersive aspect of the digital world. In these cases, purchasing a VR headset or pair of AR smart glasses may be necessary, with pricing varying according to the kind of experience a user is looking for when entering the metaverse. For example, a more expensive offering may engage all the senses, adding to the level of immersiveness experienced.
Why should I bother?
Equipped with a basic understanding of the metaverse, one question is left unanswered, is this concept worth getting excited about? Although this is a personal question, consider that virtuality opens the door to opportunity. What is impossible in the real world is likely possible in the digital world.
Many companies and industry people are incredibly excited about what they see as the next stage in the evolution of technology for the world. The Metaverse optimists see it as a way for people to not just be in an online world in the theoretical sense but to be in the online world in a literal sense. In other words, they see people quickly embracing this technology and jumping in with both feet to accept their new digital life.
This begs the following questions:
- Should we all be terrified that we will soon only enjoy experiences in the virtual world and our real lives will be devoid of meaning?
- Are we going to have to learn how to eat virtual food, shop for virtual clothing, and have virtual friendships?
- Will human connection itself be a thing of the past?!?
It is understandable that people are concerned, but the reality is such that the Metaverse is still just getting off the ground. We don't yet know what the future holds in store, but it is likely not the case that we will have to give up the things in life that bring us joy. The Metaverse optimists will tell you that the Metaverse will get even more fun to our lives by adding countless new experiences that we can partake in along with our family, friends, and even people we have not yet met. Imagine a world where you are not confined to time and space and other constructs of reality. Participants can attend two different events without traveling and structures can be created at a fraction of the cost of a physical structure. Of course, that is just scraping the surface.
Сo-written with To The Moon editor