The metaverse, explained
While boardrooms seek a VR internet that no one requested, video game metaverses are all around us.
What exactly is the metaverse?
That’s a good question. “Metaverse” is now a big term in the realms of technology, business, and finance, and its meaning, like all buzzwords, is hazy, debated, and moulded by the objectives of those who use it.
One thing is certain: Neal Stephenson created the phrase in his 1992 novel Snow Crash to describe a virtual world in widespread usage in his envisioned future, a 21st-century dystopia. The metaverse is a virtual-reality universe presented in Snow Crash as a planet-encircling market where virtual real estate can be purchased and sold, and where VR goggle-wearing users inhabit 3D avatars of their own design.
These three aspects — a VR interface, digital ownership, and avatars — are still significant in modern metaverse concepts. However, none of these are necessary to the concept. In basic terms, the metaverse is defined as an aesthetically rich virtual arena with some degree of realism in which people may work, play, shop, socialize — in short, perform the things that humans prefer to do together in real life (or, perhaps more to the point, on the internet). Proponents of the metaverse frequently emphasize the notion of “presence” as a distinguishing factor: feeling like you’re really there, and that other people are also truly there with you.
In the guise of video games, this version of the metaverse may already exist. However, there is another meaning of the metaverse that goes beyond the virtual worlds we are familiar with. This description does not define the metaverse in any way, but it does explain why everyone believes it is so vital. This term isn’t about a future vision or a new technology. Rather, it looks to the past and to now-commonplace technology like the internet and cellphones, and argues that in order to replace them, the metaverse must be invented.
The metaverse is described as “a type of successor state to the mobile internet” by famous venture capitalist Matthew Ball, who has written extensively about it. (Mark Zuckerberg, who named his business Facebook Meta and stated that the metaverse will be its emphasis last year, used an almost identical term; clearly, Ball’s articles have had a tremendous influence on Silicon Valley thinking.) Remember how cellphones transformed technology, the economy, and society? The metaverse is predicted to be a similar watershed, and many firms are racing to be ahead of it.
The most challenging aspect of Ball’s vision is his claim that the metaverse would be a single network as open, linked, and interoperable as the internet is now. That’s a lot to ask. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
IS THE METAVERSE NEW?
In a nutshell, no. We’ve previously shown that the phrase has been used for at least 30 years, and not only in fiction. For a long time, it has been a component of corporate fantasies of the future. During the initial VR craze of the 1990s, the U.K. supermarket retailer Sainsbury’s created a VR shopping demo that looks suspiciously similar to a film done by Walmart in 2017.
Beyond marketing gimmicks and proof-of-concept demos, metaverse-like virtual worlds have been around almost as long as their fictional counterparts. Anyone who has followed online gaming over the past few decades will recognize hype stories about individuals getting married in the metaverse. Second Life, a “online multimedia platform” that debuted in 2003, is one of the most well-known virtual worlds and maybe the closest to the metaverse ideal.
Second Life is largely like an early-2000s massively multiplayer online role-playing game like World of Warcraft, but without the fighting, missions, narrative, and awards. It has fulfilled many of the responsibilities envisioned for the future metaverse from its inception. Users are represented by avatars and interact with one another in virtual worlds. From business meetings to nightclubs, they love virtual representations of real-world activities. Users can generate and exchange their own content and services with one another. A virtual economy exists with its own money that may be exchanged for real-world currencies. To the degree that such a thing exists, Second Life is practically a textbook metaverse.
PlayStation Home was another significant but often-overlooked example of an early metaverse. Sony’s ill-fated virtual social center for the PlayStation 3 debuted in 2008 and shut down in 2015, much to the chagrin of its small audience. It didn’t go anywhere and appeared somewhat worthless to a casual user, but it’s an intriguing illustration of what a highly corporatized metaverse — as opposed to the anarchic, community-driven Second Life — would look like. It had a lot of advertising and one-way purchase options, and not much else to do; it suffered from being in your PS3 interface right next to far richer and more fascinating virtual worlds, the games themselves.The clean, blandly styled, utopian futurism of its visual style, on the other hand, plainly foreshadows Zuckerberg’s recent metaverse demo. This is how businesses imagine our fantasies.
Of course, reality is probably more like the untidy, occasionally filthy Second Life. Give humans the freedom to create a world without constraints, and they’ll either create a branding opportunity or a fetish dungeon. That should act as either a warning or an opportunity for future metaverse developers.
WHY IS EVERYONE SUDDENLY TALKING ABOUT THE METAVERSE?
A few causes have propelled it to the forefront of the IT industry’s thinking in recent years. One is that a few of technologies strongly related with metaverse visions have evolved. Virtual reality, which was still in its early stages when Stephenson penned Snow Crash in the 1990s, is now, well, a reality. Commercially available high-quality headphones, including independent wireless devices like the Quest, are available. The acquisition of Oculus by Facebook in 2014 was an early indicator of Zuckerberg’s vision for his company.
Another is blockchain, the incomprehensible and energy-intensive technology that has enabled cryptocurrencies and NFTs. Over the last year or two, NFTs have become an obsession for crypto enthusiasts, snake-oil marketers, suggestible CEOs, and (surprisingly) some elements of the art world. They might permit ownership of virtual things and real estate within the metaverse.
It should be emphasized that it is possible to “possess” and even sell virtual things in a variety of games and virtual places, including Second Life, without the use of the blockchain – but such ownership is weak and typically subject to a licensing agreement. NFTs provide various (but similarly flimsy) methods of demonstrating ownership. Regardless, metaverse proponents are thrilled about NFTs’ novelty and alleged mobility.
The coronavirus epidemic, which has profoundly transformed lifestyles throughout the world, is also a crucial contributor in the metaverse movement. With individuals spending so much time in Zoom meetings for business and people want to join more colorful and interesting surroundings without leaving the security and safety of their homes, it’s natural for digital firms to explore for methods to benefit on the situation by connecting these two requirements.
Late in 2021, Facebook’s redesign and mission statement focusing on the metaverse clinched the deal. Since then, the word has become increasingly common – at least in the corporate sphere. Government and politics may take a time to catch up as they focus on how to control Big Tech’s dominance in the here and now, as well as how to offset the negative impacts of social media on actual society — which is still a thing. Boring!
ISN’T THE METAVERSE JUST… VIDEO GAMES?
Maybe! You know who believes this? Microsoft. When Microsoft paid almost $70 billion for Activision Blizzard, CEO Satya Nadella stated, “When we think about our vision for what a metaverse may be, we believe there won’t be a single, centralized metaverse, and there shouldn’t be.” We need to support a wide range of metaverse systems… We envision the metaverse in gaming as a collection of communities and distinct identities grounded in great content franchises that are available on any platform.”
It’s conceivable that Nadella was simply using the term of the day to rally shareholders behind such a massive transaction. Nonetheless, he was sketching a picture that was markedly distinct from Ball and Zuckerberg’s all-encompassing VR internet. In his view, metaverses are multiple and exist all around us. They are long-lasting communities built around virtual worlds where people wish to be, such as World of Warcraft or Call of Duty: Warzone.
Microsoft’s viewpoint is consistent here. Around the same time that Facebook acquired Oculus, Microsoft purchased Mojang and its massively popular game Minecraft. Minecraft, with its communal, creative, and fully customizable gameplay, is frequently touted as a metaverse-adjacent game, and it’s worth noting that Microsoft has not attempted to coerce it into exclusivity on its own platforms; instead, it sees Minecraft as a viable platform in its own right.
MMOs like World of Warcraft have a clear affinity in form, if not function, with metaverses. However, there are closer analogs in two post-Minecraft games that are quite popular with children. In both Roblox and Fortnite, your avatar, presence, customization options, and social connections are nearly as essential as the game itself — or, in Roblox’s case, the games, plural.
Roblox is an exceedingly free-form environment, comparable to Second Life, where players compose their own games and pursue status and fantasies of real-world success — and where companies construct advergames to attract the coveted tween audience. Meanwhile, Fortnite has hosted massive in-game cultural events, such as the 2020 Travis Scott concert, which drew over 27 million people. Many observers, including Ball, believe that these experiences are the closest thing to a real metaverse experience.
SHOULD I RESIGN MYSELF TO LIVING IN THE METAVERSE?
Not quite yet. Despite the idea’s maturity and the present infatuation with it in boardrooms, the technology still needs a lot of development — especially if it is to become “the new internet” as Ball and Zuckerberg anticipate. And, despite the epidemic that has imprisoned so many of us to our homes, there is still a huge consumer desire for a metaverse experience that isn’t simply a video game.
Interoperability is the most significant barrier to Ball and Zuckerberg’s metaverse becoming a reality. You might call it standardization; the idea is that you will be able to transfer your avatar and digital belongings from one app, game, or virtual environment to the next. (Ball imagines, for example, integrating a distinctive Counter-Strike rifle skin into Fortnite.) Interoperability is critical for the metaverse to become the next stage of internet growth, but the obstacles appear insurmountable.There are technical obstacles, such as transferring an asset from one graphics engine to another and rendering it accurately across a dizzying array of hardware combinations. There are also legal and financial difficulties to overcome, such as evading intellectual property rights and convincing innumerable companies not to wall up their gardens. It’s a lot more difficult than, say, settling on a standard for hypertext links.
People must also be persuaded that this is something they desire. The technology we use to access these worlds must be at least as easy and convenient to use as a smartphone, as well as as portable, or it will appear to be a step backward from the mobile internet it is designed to replace. While the science-fiction attractiveness of such a virtual environment may appear evident on the surface, you have to wonder how deep the urge to spend time there truly is. From Snow Crash to The Matrix and Ready Player One, metaverses are typically envisioned as a willing or unwilling escape from dystopian realities that are too horrible to bear. I’m hoping we’re not quite there yet.