What exactly is a metaverse?
Excellent question. “Metaverse” is a popular phrase in the IT, business, and finance realms right now, and like all buzzwords, its definition is hazy, debated, and formed by the goals of those who use it.
One thing is certain: in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson coined the word to describe a virtual environment 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 features — a virtual reality interface, digital ownership, and avatars — are still prominent in modern metaverse concepts. However, none of these are necessary to the concept. In its broadest sense, the metaverse is a graphically rich virtual arena with a degree of realism in which people can work, play, shop, socialize — in other words, do the things that people prefer to do together in real life (or, perhaps more to the point, on the internet). Proponents of the metaverse frequently emphasize the concept of “presence” as a defining feature: feeling as if you’re truly there, and that other people are, too.
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 our familiar virtual worlds. Although this explanation does not accurately define the metaverse, it does explain why everyone believes it is so vital. This term isn’t about a futuristic vision or cutting-edge technology. Instead, it looks to the past and the now-ubiquitous technologies like the internet and cellphones, assuming that the metaverse will be required to replace them.
IS THE METAVERSE NEW?
In a nutshell, no. We’ve previously proved that the term has existed for more than 30 years, and not just in fiction. For a long time, it has been an element of business future aspirations. During the first VR boom in the 1990s, Sainsbury’s, a British supermarket company, created a VR shopping demo that looks suspiciously like a Walmart video from 2017.
Metaverse-like virtual worlds have existed for almost as long as their literary equivalents, beyond marketing puff pieces and proof-of-concept demos. Anyone who has followed online gaming for the past few decades will recognize hype articles about people getting married in the metaverse.
Of course, the reality is probably more like Second Life, which is messy and often filthy. If humans are given the freedom to create a world without constraints, they will either create a branding opportunity or a fetish dungeon. That should either act as a warning or an opportunity for future metaverse developers.
WHY IS EVERYONE SUDDENLY TALKING ABOUT THE METAVERSE?
In recent years, a number of causes have propelled it to the forefront of the tech industry’s thinking. One is that a couple of technologies strongly linked to metaverse visions have matured. Virtual reality, which was still in its infancy when Stephenson penned Snow Crash in the 1990s, is already a reality. There are decent commercially available headsets, including standalone wireless devices like the Quest. The purchase of Oculus by Facebook in 2014 was an early indicator of where Zuckerberg saw his company going.
It should be noted that in many games and virtual worlds, including Second Life, it is possible to “possess” and even sell virtual things without using the blockchain – but such ownership is weak and usually subject to a license agreement. Different (but equally flimsy) methods of demonstrating ownership are offered by NFTs. Regardless, metaverse proponents are enthralled by NFTs’ novelty and alleged portability.
The coronavirus epidemic, which has profoundly transformed lifestyles around the world, is also a crucial contributor to the metaverse movement. With individuals spending so much time in Zoom meetings for work, and with people seeking to enter more colorful and interesting places without leaving their homes, it’s logical for software companies to explore methods to benefit from the situation by linking these two requirements.
AREN’T VIDEO GAMES ALL THERE IS IN THE METAVERSE?
Maybe! Who do you know who believes this? Microsoft. “When we think about our vision for what a metaverse can be, we believe there won’t be a single, centralized metaverse and there shouldn’t be,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said after buying Activision Blizzard for over 70 billion dollars. Many metaverse platforms must be supported… We see the metaverse in gaming as a collection of communities and distinct identities grounded in strong content franchises that are accessible across all platforms.”
It’s possible that Nadella was simply using the term of the day to entice shareholders to support such a massive transaction. Nonetheless, he was laying out a vision that was vastly different from Ball and Zuckerberg’s all-encompassing VR internet. Metaverses are plural in his interpretation, and they’re already all around us. They’re long-term communities built around virtual worlds where people wish to be, such as World of Warcraft or Call of Duty: Warzone.
Microsoft’s philosophy is consistent in this regard. Microsoft bought Mojang and its hugely famous game Minecraft in 2014, at the same time Facebook bought Oculus. Minecraft is frequently touted as a metaverse-adjacent game because of its social, creative, and extensively customizable gameplay, and it’s worth noting that Microsoft hasn’t tried to force it into an exclusivity on its platforms; it sees Minecraft as a useful platform in its own right.
DO I HAVE TO CONSIDER LIVING IN THE METAVERSE?
Not right now. Despite the idea’s maturity and the present infatuation with it in boardrooms, the technology still needs a lot of development — especially if Ball and Zuckerberg’s vision of “the new internet” is realized. Despite the pandemic that has imprisoned so many of us to our homes, there has yet to be proof of a substantial consumer desire for a metaverse experience that isn’t just a video game.
Interoperability is the largest roadblock to Ball and Zuckerberg’s metaverse becoming a reality. You could call it standardization; it’s the concept of being able to carry your avatar and digital belongings from one app, game, or virtual environment to the next. (For example, Ball imagines integrating a custom Counter-Strike gun skin into Fortnite.) Interoperability is critical for the metaverse to evolve into the next stage of the internet’s evolution, yet the obstacles appear insurmountable. There are technical difficulties, such as transferring an asset from one graphics engine to another and rendering it accurately over a wide range of hardware combinations. There are also legal and business challenges, such as intellectual property infringement.
People must also be convinced that this is something they want. The technology that allows us to access these worlds must be at least as comfortable and portable as a smartphone, 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 clear at first glance, you have to wonder how genuine the desire to spend time there is. Metaverses are frequently depicted as a willing or unwilling escape from dystopian worlds in fiction, ranging from Snow Crash to The Matrix and Ready Player One. I’m hoping we aren’t quite there yet.