What is the metaverse?
Last Updated on June 9, 2022 by Arsalan Dezham
Plus, when it will be here—and why you should care
- What “metaverse” means
- The metaverse past
- The metaverse present
- The metaverse future
- What can you do in the metaverse?
- Will you be ready for the metaverse?
- What would you consider using the metaverse for? [Poll]
In the simplest of terms, the metaverse is a virtual simulation of real life—but you didn’t come for that answer. You probably want to know why Mark Zuckerberg changed the name of Facebook to Meta, what crypto has to do with anything, and how a JPEG can suddenly cost $200K because you call it an NFT.
All we can say is buckle up. Based on all the clues, the metaverse seems to be a likely next step in the digital age—and it’s looking like one exciting and revolutionary ride.
What “metaverse” means
Metaverse is an abstract term that means meta universe, or a world that takes a more highly organized form of—and may comment on—an existing version of itself.
First used in science fiction, the word “metaverse” is now taking on a more specific meaning as a future version of the internet in which we can expect to have full-body interactions with content, rather than mediating our virtual experiences through keyboards, mice, and pointer fingers.
Nailing down a precise timeline for the coming metaverse is tricky—partly because that would be fortune-telling, and partly because no one individual, tech company, or social movement has owned the progression toward a metaverse.
But is the metaverse possible? Absolutely. In many ways, it’s already here.
The metaverse past
Sci-fi author Neal Stephenson used the word “metaverse” to describe the virtual world his characters and their avatars inhabited in Snow Crash (1992). He may have been the first to use that word, but a plethora of other artists have envisioned humans living, working, and gaming in immersive virtual spaces.
William Gibson wrote about humans interacting in a cyberspace called the “matrix” in Neuromancer (1984). The Wachowski sisters built on that exact term for their dystopian film The Matrix in 1999. Another decade later, Ernest Cline sent his characters hunting for an Easter egg in Ready Player One’s virtual world, called Oasis (2011).
We may not be fully immersed in the metaverse yet—but the ability to experience the internet in real, physical space, and as part of a larger virtual society, isn’t all fiction. It has existed in reality already:
- Virtual reality (VR) technology, which is likely to play a huge role in our experience of the coming metaverse, has existed since even before the internet. In the 1950s, cinematographer Morton Heilig created a booth with 3D films and sensory experiences; in the 1960s, Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull created a VR headset; and in 1989, Atari released the first 3D video game.
- Augmented reality (AR) technology, which has roots in the same history as VR, overlays digital data on top of the real world. For example, in 2012 Google released Google Glass, a pair of internet-connected glasses that displayed digital visuals on the inner lens. And in 2016, the briefly sensational game Pokémon Go let players use their smartphones to capture the famous cartoon characters at predetermined geotags.
- Multiplayer networked gaming has existed since 1974, when students at the University of New Hampshire linked hundreds of computers to play a game called CAVE—against each other, not the computer.
- Online gaming with social networking features, also known as MMOGs or massively multiplayer online games, incorporated the use of avatars, virtual marketplaces, and socializing features. In the early 2000s, it was Second Life and World of Warcraft. Today, it’s Roblox, Fortnite, and Minecraft.
The metaverse present
So if elements of the metaverse already exist today, why is everybody suddenly talking about it?
A year or more of social distancing may have driven up demand for richer, more social experiences in virtual spaces, which were already on the rise. Some users have already held weddings in the metaverse; big-name artists such as Travis Scott, Ariana Grande, and Janelle Monáe have performed virtual concerts in Fortnite and VRChat; and “world”-based online gaming is on a steady upward trajectory:
- Fortnite had 80.4M monthly users in 2020
- Minecraft had 126M monthly users in 2021
- Animal Crossing had 11M daily (or ~330M monthly) users in 2022
- Roblox had 49.5M daily (or ~1.5B monthly) users in 2021
- The Sandbox had 30K monthly active users in 2021
- Decentraland had 800K registered profiles in 2021, up 3,300% from 2020
But perhaps the biggest reason for the recent metaverse buzz: tech giants such as Meta and Microsoft see metaverse technologies close to a tipping point and want to stake their claim in its creation.
Combined, the following technologies lay a perfect foundation for a lifelike digital space and complex virtual society:
- VR and AR technology, which already exist, are becoming more visually realistic and user-friendly over time.
- Superfast internet (5G cellular and fiber internet services) are relatively “future proof” and will likely accommodate the increased upload and download speeds needed for VR and AR apps.
- Blockchain, a coding protocol, helps classify, store, move, and encrypt data more easily than any prior method, leading to new ways of tracking, buying, and owning content online.
- Cryptocurrencies already have value in the real and virtual worlds. They also surpass geographical borders without the need for currency exchange and may easily be accepted across platforms within the metaverse.
- NFTs, meaning non-fungible tokens or simply digital property, have exploded in popularity. Everything from virtual-only art to clothing to real estate is for sale already—and with some investors already spending $4.3M on virtual land, we hope for their sake that metaverse real estate isn’t a fad.
The metaverse future
When is the metaverse coming? Our best guess: the metaverse will “arrive” when (1) 3D-immersive technologies reach a critical mass of consumer adoption, (2) the visuals become hyperrealistic, and (3) you can cross apps and platforms without leaving the immersive digital space.
1. Widespread use of 3-D immersive technologies
In 2021, Mark Zuckerberg said he anticipated widespread use of the metaverse within 10 years. But even if Meta and the other infrastructure builders are ready by then, customers have to have the means and motivation to invest in VR and AR equipment. Otherwise, the metaverse could stay more of a niche interest than a mainstream component of society.
Because HD visuals are common and expected in today’s 2D virtual applications (e.g., streaming and gaming), customer expectations for metaverse visuals will probably start out very high. We’re guessing that the longer it takes metaverse creators to scale from rudimentary, pixelated visuals to high-def ones, the longer it will take for people to be willing to live in the metaverse.
3. Cross-platform “travel”
Just as a browser takes you to a nearly infinite number of web addresses without leaving the interface, a fully fledged metaverse should allow users to cross apps and platforms without signing off—whatever that looks like.
What can you do in the metaverse?
All the ways people currently use the internet will have a place in the metaverse—and the metaverse will likely generate even more uses we couldn’t imagine while using a 2D internet.
- Banking and investing. Do you know anyone who doesn’t bank online these days? Simple banking applications will likely cross over to the metaverse, and the new economies in the metaverse will introduce even more ways to make and manage wealth.
- Education. With metaverse schooling through VR and AR, you may be able to get more hands-on learning and personal communication with instructors and fellow students, all without a commute.
- Entertainment. Movies, concerts, museums, sporting events, you name it. If humans do it for fun now, we’ll probably find a way to make it happen in the metaverse.
- Exercise. With VR or AR, you may be able to get vitals on yourself while working out, attend classes without leaving home, etc. This is one metaverse application that benefits your body in the real world.
- Gaming. Gaming engineers have always been on the leading edge of virtual world-building, and metaverse gaming will likely remain a key reason that people log on.
- Healthcare. At the very least, the metaverse will probably provide 3D telehealth appointments so we don’t have to hold up our phones for an hour. But as medical technology continues to evolve, the metaverse could also make way for breakthroughs in diagnostics or treatment.
- Shopping. Shopping in the metaverse will be huge. For starters, you may be able to shop for real-world goods more conveniently, for example, by “trying on” an article of clothing before making an online purchase. We’re guessing metaverse shopping will probably skew toward digital-only purchases, though. If you “live” in a metaverse home, you’ll need digital purchases to make it comfortable. You’ll also need clothes, if you don’t want to wear a free white tee and jeans, and tools for your online work and hobbies. Shopping in the metaverse could even become more affordable than decorating your real home or dressing your physical body.
- Socializing and dating. Almost every metaverse application will likely include a degree of social networking—a whole digital universe would get pretty lonely without friends and strangers sharing the space. But with ultrarealistic, customizable full-body avatars, metaverse social networking will be a lot more fun than sitting awkwardly in front of a video screen.
- Travel. Metaverse travel may be one of the furthest-off offerings in the metaverse, because ultrarealism will be required to make it an attractive option. But afterward, or maybe even before then, the metaverse could create an entirely new tourism sector: fantasy or time-travel tourism. Imagine visiting the kingdom of Wakanda, or the Palace of Versailles while it was being built.
- Work. Work in the metaverse could be as simple as attending meetings in full-body avatar instead of 2D videoconferencing—or it could mean a new career path that doesn’t exist yet. The possibilities are endless.
Will you be ready for the metaverse?
We still can’t know if the metaverse will be a fad, pushed by tech companies but never reaching widespread adoption (e.g., Google Glass in 2012), or a technology so disruptive that it becomes weirder to opt out than join in (e.g., the internet in the 1990s, social media in the 2000s, or the smart phone in the 2010s).
That said, it seems inevitable to us. And we have a few predictions for who will be most ready to live in the metaverse:
- Young people. Gen Z and Gen Alpha grew up with the internet, social media, cryptocurrencies, and online gaming. As a result, they may welcome a more advanced version of the virtual spaces they’re used to and happily shell out for virtual-only goods—e.g., Gucci pants for their avatar. Gen X and Millennials, on the other hand, had rich childhoods in the real world, which may give them a more acute sense of the difference between virtual and physical experiences—and a tendency to scoff at paying for designer clothes they can’t physically wear.
- Gamers. Having already navigated visually rich cyberspaces, exchanged currency for digital belongings, and shared virtual experiences with friends and strangers, gamers may more easily transition into a virtual society.
- Disabled folks. Disabled communities pushed for virtual work, medical care, and entertainment options long before they became commonplace. It stands to reason that the metaverse will only expand their range of options and offer a richer experience in the process.
How to prepare for the metaverse
What gear will I need for the metaverse?
Early adopters of the metaverse will probably need a VR headset with hand controls, like Meta’s current model called the Oculus. By the time the immersive metaverse arrives, however, more advanced VR and AR options will probably be available.
For example, Meta’s facial recognition and torso-tracking technologies would mirror your facial expressions and body language on your avatar. Full-body recognition, in the way of accessories or a camera reader like the old Xbox Kinect system had, are also likely additions in the future.
What else do I need for the metaverse?
In addition to your VR or AR equipment, you’ll need a few more things to prepare for life in the metaverse:
- High-speed internet. It will take really fast internet service to render the hyperrealistic visuals that make the metaverse what it is (or will be). Exact speed requirements depend on how the technology develops, but fiber internet is the most likely technology to offer the bandwidth—and lucky for you, the rollout nationwide is well underway.
- Money. Just like you need real, live money to buy cryptocurrencies and game-specific currency (e.g., Robux, Minecoins, and V-Bucks), you’ll need real money to participate in the metaverse. Otherwise, you might have a pretty low-res experience.
- A sense of adventure. Everything we know about the coming metaverse is educated conjecture at this point—even Meta employees can’t predict its total future. For the best experience of the metaverse, we suggest learning all you can, keeping an open mind, and not spending all your Bitcoin or Ethereum in one place.
Happy web surfing—or whatever it is we’ll call traveling the metaverse.
What would you consider using the metaverse for? [Poll]
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