For over a century, humanity has pondered the prospect of virtual reality (VR) through science fiction literature, media, and genuine innovation.
As envisioned by science fiction writer Neal Stepherson, the metaverse is a metaphor of the real world, an embodiment of the internet, and an escape from reality.
In 2021, in the wake of exponential technological growth, cryptocurrencies breaking into the mainstream, and Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) redefining digital property and ownership, and Facebook’s announcement of massive investments into the metaverse, a virtual reality universe has become a truly viable frontier.
But, before we explore the ins and outs of what this new technological frontier can do, let’s establish what the word “metaverse” means.
Enter the Meta
The metaverse is considered as the next logical evolution of the digital landscape, it’s imagined to be an entirely virtual world complete with an entirely digital economy, but that doesn’t quite paint the whole picture.
When we refer to the internet as a whole, we call it “cyberspace”, now replace that term with “metaverse”; whilst these words don’t necessarily represent a significant shift in technology, they do indicate a broad shift in how we interact with technology.
To be incredibly brief, the metaverse is much like the woods as seen at the start of The Nightmare Before Christmas; from a single point anyone can walk right into any experience or activity they desire, in a persistent world that never sleeps, populated by everyone you know.
Ultimately, the metaverse is incredibly hard to define, especially at this point, but there are certain things we do and don’t know about it, so first, let’s take a look at what it is, and what it certainly isn’t.
The Metaverse Is…
Whilst the metaverse will feature experiences akin to popular interpretations of virtual worlds such as The Matrix, Ready Player One, or even Tron, it won’t simply be a virtual theme park full of adventure and experiences.
To understand it best, let’s examine the core attributes of the metaverse as outlined by numerous experts in the field.
Persistent – The metaverse will never “reset”, pause”, or “end”, it is an indefinite space.
Live & Synchronous – Whilst pre-scheduled and self-content events can occur, the metaverse will be a constant and living experience for everyone in real-time.
Presence – There will be no limit to concurrent users, and everyone can participate in whatever specific thing they wish to within the metaverse, together, at the same time, whilst maintaining individual control.
An Economy – Any user will be able to create, own, invest, monetize, and earn rewards within a whole new world of possibility; if an action can produce “value” in the metaverse, there will be “work” available.
Digital and Physical – Just as cyberspace has become part of real-life outside of the web, the metaverse too will span both physical and digital worlds with private/public networks and experiences, across open/closed platforms.
Interoperable Data – Digital items, data, assets and content within the metaverse will be able to interact with one another. As a small example, a skin for a weapon within World of Warcraft could be applied as decoration to one within Guild Wars; no longer will each and every piece of data or content be walled off in the only place it was created.
Content & Experiences – The metaverse will be comprised and populated with experiences and content created and operated by an unimaginable variety of contributors, this can range from individuals, commercial enterprises, and everything in between.
The Metaverse Isn’t…
As a small disclaimer, whilst the below list will more than likely feature within the metaverse, they have often, and incorrectly, been likened to it, but aren’t the actual metaverse.
Virtual Reality/World/Space – Broadly speaking, VR is a means of experiencing a virtual world occupied with people, AI-driven characters, or a bit of both. But simply being “there” and “present” within a populated digital world doesn’t qualify it as a “metaverse”.These are often synthetic, fictional experiences designed for a single purpose.
A Digital and Virtual Economy – Again, whilst these two are ways of describing a part of the metaverse, such things already exist within games such as EVE Online, where players buy, battle, trade, destroy, and even gain meaningful employment within the game. We are already transacting digital items for digital activities, and so this description doesn’t meet with the vision of the metaverse.
A Game – Many videogames already share metaverse components; they can simultaneously be closed experiences across multiple platforms, contain combinations of multiple brands/properties, be purely social, compensate players for creating content/participating, and so on. The metaverse may feature game-like objectives, goals, and reward systems, but it is not a game itself.
Who Is Building It?
As you may have noticed, Mark Zuckerberg has rebranded to Meta, and his metaverse announcement has confused many into thinking that Facebook is the sole owner of the metaverse, which is incorrect, thankfully.
The truth is, the metaverse will need an endless stream of contributors across all existing and soon-to-exist fields. It will need input from an untold amount of scientists, economists, companies, protocols, technologies, and new innovations to work.
Video game companies such as Unreal have already announced their vision to contribute, major fashion brands such as Nike and Adidas have thrown their hat in the ring too, and so it’s hard to completely imagine “what” it is each and every entity will bring to the metaverse, but rest assured it will be built collectively by the whole world.
Here’s a quick list of companies building the Metaverse, and what for:
EPIC Games – The brains behind Fortnite, amongst other amazing video games, have two key strategies in play at the moment.
First, they are working to improve user-experience foundations and technology so that people can meet, network, as well as game, shop, and much more. Secondly, it desires to help creators easily build professional 3D assets for the metaverse. Furthering that, they have just released “Digital Humans”, a metahuman avatar creator that allows people to create photorealistic humans and play games with them.
Microsoft – The tech behemoth is giving focus to the enterprise/networking side of things and is reportedly working on virtual offices and work environments. The project, titled “Mesh”, will support Microsoft Teams, Windows, as well as other services.
Apple – Reportedly Apple is developing advanced VR gear, hardware for users to wear, that could completely revolutionize the experience and give the metaverse some ‘tangibility’. Whilst information on this is sparse, Apple is certainly one metaverse contributor to watch.
Decentraland – This blockchain/cryptocurrency/NFT is an early pioneer of “metaverse technologies” as it created a virtual world built on NFT real-estate back in 2017, and has steadily risen in popularity ever since.
It’s important to note that the metaverse has no fixed form, it will continue to procedurally evolve and reform as it is created.
We may have the good fortune of having historical in-metaverse screenshots that give us an idea of its evolution, but it is believed that it will evolve so fast that you simply have to witness it for yourself.
Just as the internet and digital technologies propelled us into this somewhat unimaginable future (think 1980s visions of the 2000s), the metaverse will achieve the same. New industries, sectors, sciences, jobs, technologies, and other innovations that had never existed before will emerge.
The future isn’t set in stone, but it is set in the metaverse.