Unless you have been living under a rock, you must have heard about the latest buzzword – the Metaverse. Everybody seems to be talking about it, and each person or company has their own understanding of what it is. Mostly, people are claiming it to be the next big thing and something that will revolutionise our online lives and internet experience.
Before we go ahead and discuss what the metaverse is all about and things it can allow you to do, let us get a brief background of its origin.
The term ‘Metaverse’ got coined by Neal Stephenson in his novel Snow Crash. It referred to an imaginary place available to the public that could get projected onto VR goggles. As per Stephenson’s imagination, the Metaverse could allow you to do things or develop stuff that did not exist in reality. And this cyberpunk novel with the term and description of Metaverse got written way back in 1992.
Fast forward to 2021, and you can hear about the Metaverse everywhere. Numerous online games and gathering places have also tried to create the metaverse and capture its concept without even using the term.
Even Facebook’s (now Meta) CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke about it at length at the recent Facebook Connect keynote presentation. But just in case you are wondering whether Mark’s ‘metaverse’ is directly inspired by Stephenson’s 1992 novel, then the answer is no. The latter has made it clear that there has been no communication or business relationship between the two. That means Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘Metaverse’ may very well have a different meaning than that penned by Neal Stephenson. That brings us to the most asked question – What exactly is the metaverse, and is it the next big step that will transform the way we all connect online? Or is it just a repackaging of current technology and a mere marketing gimmick?
The answer depends on what you mean by the term ‘metaverse’ and how you define it.
Defining the metaverse
Mark Zuckerberg has said that one of the best way to really understand the metaverse is to experience it yourself. But you may not be able to do that at the moment because it does not fully exist yet. He also stated that it was not practical for people to try and understand something not yet fully existent. But his vision of Metaverse described it as a “more embodied and immersive internet” where you can do everything imaginable like get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create and much more.
So if you consider Meta’s vision and the innumerable possibilities that it brings to mind, the following are the elements that, taken together, would help define a metaverse.
A shared social space and avatars for every user
When Zuckerberg said he was looking for a more embodied internet, he was most likely talking about the basic building block of the metaverse concept. For example, on a website, a person is identified by a username or a thumbnail picture. Whereas, in the metaverse, a customisable avatar will be available for every person that can do almost any animated action like move, speak etc. Even though this may remind you of several online games and platforms through the years, the avatar’s abilities will differ depending on the kind of service. Technology advances recently have even allowed users to see their avatars through virtual eyes and use hand-tracking controllers to interact with virtual things.
A world for the avatars to inhabit
In some cases, the metaverse means a virtual world that mimics the land scarcity of the real world. In other cases, like recent multimedia concerts held in Fortnite, it refers to users sharing a specially created space for a game or a time-sensitive event.
The ability to own virtual property
Another definition of the Metaverse would mean owning virtual properties that remain with you even after the session expires. That can include anything from a Neopets JPG, a collection of different gear in the World of Warcraft or other virtual properties. Non-fungible tokens have also gotten used as a decentralised way to track and establish ownership of virtual goods.
The ability to create virtual property
Users can even make their own metaverse content, and this would be beneficial for the metaverse makers as well, as they would not need to spend a lot of effort creating virtual objects from scratch. Take the example of games like Minecraft and Roblox. They have shown how metaverses with easy-to-use building blocks can allow users to show their creativity and produce different metaverse creations. Of course, some challenges come with that, like copyright infringement, control, moderation etc. If the metaverse gets controlled by a company that intends to monetise all the user-generated creations, the challenges would only multiply.
A shared universe of IP from a crossover of companies
In the 2011 novel Ready Player One, an element of the Metaverse idea got popularised. It could allow a virtual world with combined aspects of various media properties. An example would be something inconceivable like Gandalf fighting off Bugs Bunny. And not just characters from a single corporate, this definition of Metaverse would allow character crossovers to interact in the virtual world, such as Nintendo, Microsoft, Sega and more coming together in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
3D telepresence with VR or AR glasses
It is considered by many as the final step in achieving a ‘complete metaverse’. Augmented and virtual reality has allowed us to advance past flat screens to a world where we could feel the presence of occupying the same location as other 3D avatars. It includes sharing the same room, making eye contact, or having a shared space and more rather than just looking at a flat screen.
Whose metaverse is it?
It is most important to differentiate between “a metaverse” and “The Metaverse” at first. The difference is related to control. Broadly speaking, “ a metaverse” can be created by a group of programmers or any corporate entity, similar to how a social network gets created. On the other end, “the metaverse” is a fully open avenue where different entities and servers connect to a single one. The success of the World Wide Web and email have shown its possibility in the wider online world, but there have been several failed attempts to establish Metaverse standards. The main goal for most companies out there remains to take control of ‘The Metaverse’ – a single place where everyone shares their online lives. But it seems unlikely that any single corporate-created Metaverse will reach that popularity to singularly take the mind-share of users and establish dominance in the market. There are more chances of several metaverses coming up with not as much interaction between each of them.
What problem does the Metaverse solve?
Various existing online structures could get termed as metaverse depending on the above descriptions. Most of them have grown out of the gaming world with the idea of sharing a virtual space with other characters represented by avatars. Clive Thompson stated that Minecraft already is a metaverse. Similarly, Second Life, VR Chat and EVE Online can all get considered as metaverse in themselves. In a sense, even an online game like Grand Theft Auto Online is a metaverse.
So, a metaverse is getting built by various companies today. It is no more just an abstract idea or a futuristic thought that is difficult to experience or understand.
But Meta’s definition of Metaverse is not just a place for people to hang out as avatars. It is more of a full-blown online revolution that can offer a space for people to spend their online time and do various activities. According to Meta, the Metaverse is super compelling and will get used for everything – corporate meetings, shopping or even massive social gatherings.
But for any other real-world function and utility of a metaverse, the question remains – what problems will that solve? Yes, you may not need to travel kilometres for a real-world corporate meeting or experience the awkwardness of those Zoom calls. But if you are one of those employees who relish the ability to tab away to other tasks during a video meeting, the VR gatherings might feel overwhelming to you.
As of now, making the metaverse experience into a reality is a race between companies looking to take that first-move advantage and finding the opportunity to stake a claim to a new virtual world. In simple words, it is just a case of FOMO, and nobody wants to get left behind. Now, only time will tell whether we will necessarily be living in a VR metaverse anytime soon.