The metaverse is proving difficult to define. Should we perceive it as an opportunity or a threat? What does it entail? And why is it so attractive to potential users?
Recently, mentions of the metaverse have been seemingly everywhere. Not to be confused with the multiverse (which is an actual concept in theoretical physics, by the way, not just something Marvel dreamed up), an exact definition of the metaverse can seem hard to pin down. This is probably because it does not exist, and no one is entirely sure what it would entail if it were to exist. Nonetheless, it is probably coming, so it is best to get ready for it.
Everyone is talking about it
The term “metaverse” was coined in the 1992 Neal Stephenson novel, Snow Crash. In the book, metaverse referred to a 3D virtual world inhabited by avatars of real people. Snow Crash, along with Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One, is used as a sort of model for what the metaverse might look like.
In January 2020, venture capitalist Matthew Ball published an essay in which he attempted to set out the key characteristics of a metaverse. He described it as “an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations that support continuity of identity, objects, history, payments, and entitlements, and can be experienced synchronously by an effectively unlimited number of users, each with an individual sense of presence.”
According to Ball, the metaverse would encompass both physical and virtual worlds, contain a fully-fledged economy, and offer users the ability to transfer their avatars and goods.
A few months later, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced an initiative to realise this vision by creating an “embodied internet”. He described the metaverse more simply than Ball, as “a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you.”
Zuckerberg’s intention is to build a version of Facebook that spans social presence, entertainment, work and leisure. The potential of transitioning to a metaverse company may also allow Facebook to maintain its control without maintaining all of its business assets.
So, what is it?
We are no closer to knowing exactly what the metaverse would actually consist of. For now, the metaverse is an aspirational term for a future digital world where almost everything is interconnected — a bit like living in Second Life.
The metaverse could consist of a single platform, or multiple platforms, that combine web services overlapping with real-world activities; it could include computer graphics, AR, VR and personal avatars; it could be a place for users to connect with each other and with the outside world in myriad ways; it could also link to outside economic systems to allow people to profit from virtual goods.
Based on this definition, it seems like aspects of the multiverse are already with us. Fortnite’s user experience, which combines gaming and non-gaming elements in a 3D virtual space, has been described as a metaverse, as have Roblox and other virtual spaces. The development of digital currencies and NFTs is another move towards metaverse-style services. And this trend is growing. The company Polygonal Mind, for example, is building a system called CryptoAvatars that lets people buy 3D avatars as NFTs and then use them across multiple virtual worlds.
But these elements lack what is touted as the key feature of the metaverse: presence. In other words, the metaverse must evoke a sense of physically engaging with places and people, instead of watching them on a screen. For example, rather than holding a Zoom meeting, the metaverse might combine VR and AR to allow you to sit around a conference table in a virtual room with your colleagues, talking and sharing documents that would appear in front of you in 3D, and which you could manipulate. For that to occur, there will need to be some serious hardware to augment the software.
The future of metaverse
Unless we can be convinced to walk around perpetually wearing VR goggles and haptic gloves, the metaverse is likely to look more like a sort of supplement to the internet, in which we engage primarily using screens, but use a variety of AR and VR apps to augment the experience.
And that may not be a bad thing. Any “verse” that requires high-end computers and consoles, super-fast internet connections and expensive VR headsets, is going to entrench inequality even further. Much like the Internet before it, the metaverse is also likely to revolve around advertising and “big tech”. The metaverse has been referred to by marketers as “an expansive, digitised communal space where users can mingle freely with brands,” and, “a realm of culture and digital identity for brands to further discover their fullest potential.”
We might also do well to remember that both Snow Crash and Ready Player One describe dystopian worlds in which the metaverse is used by brands and franchises to control the entire world. Perhaps before the metaverse gets here, we should spend some more time thinking about what we actually want it to be.
Written By: Lisa Magloff
27th October 2021