What is the Metaverse?
Imagine a virtual world in which people live, work, shop and interact with others –– all from the comfort of their couch in the physical world. This is known as the metaverse.
'Metaverse' didn't become a household term until Facebook changed its corporate name to Meta in October 2021. At that time, the company announced plans to spend $10 billion over the next year on technologies to build out its vision of the metaverse.
Think of the metaverse like the next evolution of the internet. As internet development has grown, it has been increasinlgy interconnected with our everyday lives, drawing us closer to it. The metaverse will take that trend one step further: essentially placing us "inside" the interenet. Instead of scrolling a website, you'll be walking through it.
The metaverse could take many forms, including gaming, online communities and business meetings where people collaborate via a digital avatar of themselves.
In the metaverse, people use avatars to represent themselves, communicate with each other and virtually build out the community. In the metaverse, digital currency is used to buy clothes –– or weapons and equipment in the case of video games –– and many other items. Users can also virtually travel through the metaverse for fun with no goal in mind using a virtual reality headset and controllers.
Snow Crash was more of a dystopian view of the future and didn't put the metaverse in a positive light. Author Neal Stephenson coined the term metaverse as a kind of next-generation virtual reality-based internet. One way to achieve status in Stephenson's metaverse was by technical skill, which was represented by the sophistication of a user's avatar. Another indication of status was the ability to access certain restricted environments –– a precursor to the paywalls and registration requirements some websites use today.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline was another novel that helped popularize the idea of the metaverse. It was later made into a movie directed by Steven Spielberg. The 2011 dystopian sci-fi novel is set in the year 2045, where people escape the problems plaguing Earth in a virtual world called The Oasis. Users access the world using a virtual reality visor and haptic gloves that let them grab and touch objects in the digital environment.
The internet is a network of billions of computers, millions of servers and other electronic devices. Once online, internet users can communicate with each other, view and interact with websites as well as exchange goods and services.
The metaverse doesn't compete with the internet –– it builds on it. In the metaverse, users traverse a virtual world that mimics aspects of the physical world using such technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), AI, social media and digital currency. The internet is something that people "browse". But, to a degree, people can "live" in the metaverse.
Even governments may extend their reach into the metaverse. For example, while most countries have a relatively static presence on the internet, Barbados plans to open a diplomatic embassy in the metaverse –– specifically, the online world Decentraland.
The growth of the internet has spawned many services that are leading the way to the creation of the metaverse.
'In gaming you see Roblox, Minecraft and other immersive video games –– and even Zoom –– foreshadow what the metaverse is designed to offer,' said Ben Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies. 'You even have a kind of digital presence on social media.'
Now he says it's a question of what form the metaverse ultimately takes. Will it be open like the internet? Or will it be more of a gated experience controlled by a few big companies?
'The big players all want to be early movers and have their own ecosystem win out,' Bajarin said.