What is the Metaverse?
Whether you’ve encountered Mark Zuckerberg’s eerie virtual replica when he founded Facebook (now known as Meta), live concerts in the Fortnite universe, or a digital art gallery in Decentraland – you can’t escape the internet’s most popular buzzword: the “Metaverse.”
However, what is the meaning of metaverse? Is it a cosmos of infinite possibilities into which we can escape? Is the internet’s grim future based on science fiction speculation? Or is it only a fancy way of classifying extended reality (XR), a catch-all name for augmented, virtual, and mixed reality technologies?
Discussing the metaverse is like talking about the internet in the 1970s and 1980s. As the foundation for the new communication form was laid, speculation spread around its appearance and usage. Few recognized what it truly meant or how it would function, despite its long discussion. In retrospect, things did not occur quite as some anticipated.
Nonetheless, the metaverse is projected to become an $800 billion industry by 2024. Major titans like Facebook, er, Meta, Microsoft, Apple, and Google are investing large sums of money to make it a reality. Therefore, it’s time to investigate the meaning of this obscure and convoluted phrase.
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What does “Metaverse” mean?
Here’s an experiment to illustrate how ambiguous and complex the word “the metaverse” might be: Replace the words “the metaverse” with “cyberspace” in your mind. 90% of the time, the meaning will not vary significantly. The phrase does not relate to a particular sort of technology but rather to a comprehensive (and frequently hypothetical) shift in how humans engage with technology. And it’s possible that the name someday will become obsolete as the technology it originally referred to.
What does “Metaverse” mean? Image: economictimes
Virtual reality, defined by persistent virtual environments even when you’re not playing, and augmented reality, which blends elements of the digital and physical worlds, are examples of the technologies that firms allude to when they speak of “the metaverse.” However, it is not required that these areas be accessed only through VR or AR. Virtual worlds, such as portions of Fortnite accessible via PCs, gaming consoles, and even mobile devices, refer to themselves as the metaverse.
Numerous organisations jumping on the metaverse bandwagon also anticipate a new digital economy where users produce, purchase, and sell items. In more utopian views, metaverse is interoperable, enabling you to transport virtual objects like clothing or vehicles from one platform to another, but this is more difficult. While some proponents assert that emerging technologies such as NFTs can enable the portability of digital goods, this is not true, and transferring objects from one video game or virtual world to another is a complex operation for any firm to handle.
When hearing the above descriptions, it’s natural to wonder “Doesn’t it already exist?” For example, Environment of Warcraft is a permanent virtual world where users purchase and trade items. Rick Sanchez learned about Martin Luther King Jr. through virtual concerts and an exhibit in Fortnite. You may strap an Oculus headset and enter your virtual residence. Is this what “the metaverse” actually means? Just a few novel video game types?
Well, it depends. Saying that Fortnite is “the metaverse” is like claiming that Google is “the internet.” Even if you spend a significant amount of time networking, shopping, studying, and playing games on Fortnite, it does not necessarily contain the entirety of what individuals and businesses understand by “the metaverse.” Google, which constructs portions of the internet, from physical data centres to security layers, is not the internet as a whole.
Microsoft and Meta aren’t the only tech titans developing technology for interfacing with virtual environments; other companies are. Many other giant firms, like Nvidia, Unity, Roblox, and even Snap, as well as several smaller corporations and startups, are constructing the infrastructure to create more lifelike virtual worlds.
Epic, for instance, has purchased some firms that assist in the creation or distribution of digital assets, in part to strengthen its Unreal Engine 5 platform. Unreal is a platform for video games, but it is also utilised in the film industry and might make it easy for anybody to create virtual experiences. There are real and exciting advancements in the field of digital world construction.
The concept of a Ready Player One-style suitable location termed “the metaverse” remains impractical. This is partially due to the fact that such a world would require companies to cooperate in a way that is neither profitable nor desirable. Fortnite, for example, has little incentive to give players a portal to World of Warcraft, even if it were easy to do so—and partially as the raw computing power required for such a concept can be much further away than we think.
This unfortunate reality has led to the development of a slightly distinct nomenclature. Currently, many businesses and proponents refer to a single game or platform as “the metaverse.” By this concept, a “metaverse” may include everything from a virtual reality concert app to a video game. Some go even farther, referring to the assortment of metaverses as the “multiverse of metaverses,” or perhaps we live in a “hybrid-verse.”
Or, these words can have any meaning whatsoever. Coca-Cola introduced a flavour born in the metaverse accompanying a Fortnite-themed minigame. There are no standards.
Most debates of what the metaverse contains begin to stagnate at this point. We have a hazy understanding of what things now exist that we could maybe refer to as the metaverse if we manipulated the definitions of words appropriately. We also know which corporations are investing in the idea, but after months there is still no consensus on what it is. Meta believes that it will have fictitious residences where players can invite their buddies to hang out. Microsoft appears to believe that virtual conference rooms can be used to train new staff or communicate with remote colleagues.
These visions of the future can range from hopeful to pure fan fiction in their pitches. During Meta’s first presentation on the metaverse, the business depicted a scenario where a young lady is sitting on her couch and reading through Instagram when she notices a friend’s video of a performance taking place halfway across the globe.
The film then transitions to the performance, when the lady emerges like a hologram in the style of the Avengers. She can make eye contact with her companion, who is physically present; they can both hear the concert and see text floating over the stage. This appears nice, but it is not actually advertising a genuine or even a possible future product. In reality, this leads us to the most significant issue with “the metaverse.”
Why are holograms involved in the metaverse?
When the internet was born, it was accompanied by many technological advancements, such as the capacity for computers to communicate over long distances and the ability to link from one web page to another. These technical qualities served as the foundation for creating the internet’s abstract structures, such as websites, applications, social networks, and anything else dependent on these fundamental aspects. Not to mention the convergence of interface advancements such as displays, keyboards, mouse, and touchscreens are not strictly part of the internet but are nonetheless required for it to function.
With the metaverse, there are new building blocks in place, such as hundreds of people on a single server instance (idealistic metaverse predictions assume this will grow to thousands or even millions of people simultaneously, but this seems overly optimistic). Motion-tracking tools can also determine where a person is looking or where they are moving their hands. These new technologies can be pretty fascinating and futuristic-sounding.
However, there are insurmountable constraints. When software corporations such as Microsoft or Meta exhibit fictitious movies of their future visions, they usually cover up how humans will interact with the metaverse. Most of those wearing VR headsets for too long suffer from motion sickness or physical discomfort. Similarly, figuring out how individuals use augmented reality glasses in public without seeming like complete dorks is a crucial difficulty for augmented reality glasses. And then many businesses are ignoring the VR accessibility issues for the time being.
So, how do tech companies demonstrate the concept of their technology without displaying the actual headsets and glasses? Their principal response thus far appears to be to create technologies from scratch. The holographic woman from Meta’s presentation? It’s just not conceivable with even the most advanced forms of modern technology.
Virtual reality headsets are increasing in popularity. Image: Shutterstock
Unlike motion-tracked digital avatars, which are currently janky but could be improved in the future, there is no janky version of making a three-dimensional image appear in midair without tightly controlled circumstances. Regardless of what Iron Man says. Perhaps these are intended to be interpreted as images projected through glasses—after all, both women in the demo video are wearing similar glasses—but even that assumes a lot about the physical capabilities of compact glasses, which Snap can tell you isn’t an easy problem to solve.
This kind of glossing over reality is common in video demos of how the metaverse could work. Another of Meta’s demos showed characters floating in space—is this person strapped to an immersive aerial rig or simply sitting at a desk? Is the person represented by a hologram wearing a headset, and if so, how is their face being scanned? This demo raises far more questions than it answers.
To some extent, this is fine. Microsoft, Meta, and every other company that shows wild demos like this are attempting to create an artistic impression of what the future could be, rather than necessarily answering every technical question. While it may seem like something out of a science fiction film, it’s a time-honoured tradition that dates back to AT&T’s demo of a voice-controlled foldable phone that could erase people from images and generate 3D models.
However, in recent months, metaverse pitches from both tech giants and startups have relied heavily on grandiose ideals that deviate from reality. Chipotle’s “metaverse” was an advertisement disguised as a Roblox video game. Stories about scarce “real estate” in “the metaverse” is nothing more than a glitchy video game with virtual land tokens (which also glosses over the very real security and privacy issues with most popular NFTs right now).
The confusion and disappointment surrounding most “metaverse” projects is so pervasive that when a 2017 video of a Walmart VR shopping demo began trending again in January 2022, people assumed it was yet another metaverse demo. It also demonstrated how much of the current metaverse debate is based solely on hype. Walmart’s virtual reality shopping demo was obviously a flop (and for good reason). So why should anyone think it’s the future when Chipotle does it?
This kind of wishful-thinking-as-tech-demo leaves us in a position where it’s difficult to predict which aspects of the various metaverse visions (if any) will become reality one day. If VR and AR headsets become comfortable and affordable enough for people to wear on a daily basis—a big “if”—then a virtual poker game with your friends as robots and holograms floating in space might be possible. If not, you can always play Tabletop Simulator via a Discord video call.
The glitz and glam of VR and AR also obscures the more mundane ways in which our existing, interconnected digital world could be improved right now. It would be trivial for tech companies to create, say, an open digital avatar standard, a type of file that includes characteristics you might enter into a character creator—like eye colour, hairstyle, or clothing options—and allow you to take that data anywhere, to be interpreted however a game engine sees fit. There is no need to create a more comfortable VR headset for that.
But that’s not as fun to imagine.
What’s the metaverse like right now?
The paradox of defining the metaverse is that in order for it to be the future, you must first define the present. We already have MMOs, which are essentially entire virtual worlds, digital concerts, video calls with people from all around the world, online avatars, and commerce platforms. If you want to sell these things as a new vision of the world, there must be something different about them.
Spend enough time discussing the metaverse, and someone will eventually (and exhaustingly) bring up fictional stories like Snow Crash, the 1992 novel that popularised the term “metaverse,” or Ready Player One, which describes a virtual reality world where everyone works, plays, and shops. When combined with the general pop culture idea of holograms and heads-up displays (basically anything Iron Man has used in his last ten movies), these stories provide an imaginative reference point for what the metaverse could look like—a metaverse that tech companies might actually market as something new.
That kind of hype is arguably more important to the metaverse concept than any specific technology. It’s no surprise, then, that those promoting NFTs—cryptographic tokens that can serve as certificates of ownership of a digital item, sort of—are also embracing the concept of the metaverse. Sure, NFTs are bad for the environment, and the public blockchains on which most are built have massive privacy and security issues, but if a tech company can argue that they’ll be the digital key to your Roblox virtual mansion, then boom. You’ve just turned your hobby of buying memes into a critical piece of internet infrastructure (and possibly increased the value of all that cryptocurrency you’re holding).
As tempting as it may be to compare today’s proto-metaverse concepts to the early internet and assume everything will improve and progress in a linear fashion, that’s not a given. There’s no guarantee people will even want to hang out sans legs in a virtual office or play poker with Dreamworks Mark Zuckerberg, much less that VR and AR tech will ever become seamless enough to be as common as smartphones and computers are today.
Since Facebook changed its name, the concept of “the metaverse” has served as a powerful vehicle for repackaging old tech, overselling the benefits of new tech, and capturing the attention of speculative investors. However, money pouring into a space does not always imply a massive paradigm shift is on the horizon, as evidenced by everything from 3D TVs to Amazon’s delivery drones and Google Glass. The history of tech has seen too many failed investments.
That doesn’t mean nothing exciting is on the horizon. VR headsets like the Quest 2 are now more affordable than ever, allowing users to transition away from expensive desktop or console rigs. Building and designing video games and other virtual worlds is becoming easier. And, in my opinion, advances in photogrammetry—the process of creating digital 3D objects from photos or video—are a fantastic tool for digital artists.
But to a certain extent, the tech industry is dependent on futurism. Selling a phone is fine, but selling the future is more lucrative. It’s possible that the “metaverse” we’re talking about isn’t much more than a bunch of virtual reality games and Zoom calls with digital avatars.
Zoom calls with digital avatars. Image: lifewire
Is it safe to be in the metaverse?
A major item in the conversation on the metaverse is whether it can create a safe and responsible immersive environment. Earlier this year, Facebook came under fire after a woman claimed being sexually harassed and “virtually gang-raped” in the metaverse. Experts in digital privacy continue to argue that the metaverse would be the ultimate surveillance tool.
“Not only would the metaverse collect data on your eye-tracking movement, hand movements, the shape of your room and more. We also have to figure out a legal [framework] of what happens if you get harassed in a virtual platform, given that it has real implications since you’re so immersed in the technology,” said Baggili.
He went on to say that the metaverse presupposes an implicit trust in technology, similar to how we rely on Google Maps for directions even though we’re never sure if it’ll take us to the right place. “There’s all this legal stuff we have to think about and actively [pursue] if we want to responsibly develop these technologies.”
Will I be living in the metaverse some years from now?
According to some experts, “a large proportion of people will be in the metaverse in some way” by 2030. However, despite the current craze for it, the concept still requires a great deal of improvement. The accessibility of the hardware it requires will be the first hurdle to overcome. TThen there’s the issue of interoperability, which means being able to transfer virtual items like clothes or cars from one platform to another. Many experts believe this is vital for the metaverse to work. Aside from determining who will act as the police out here, there will be legal and commercial challenges. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that people will want to spend time in the metaverse.
Perhaps we’ll only visit the metaverse on occasion, just as we enjoy donning VR goggles but don’t stay in them for long. Perhaps, a decade from now, we’ll laugh at this VICE article, thinking how naive people were to question the rise of the metaverse.