Whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg’s eerie virtual replica as he unveiled Facebook-rebranded-as-Meta (we’re not getting used to this name anytime soon), live concerts in the immersive Fortnite universe, or a digital art gallery in Decentraland – there’s no escaping the internet’s favorite buzzword: “Metaverse.”
But what exactly is the metaverse? Is it a virtual universe with limitless possibilities into which we can escape? Is it the internet’s dystopian future based on speculative sci-fi? Is it just a fancy term for extended reality (XR) – an umbrella term that includes augmented, virtual, and mixed reality technologies?
Talking about the metaverse reminds me of talking about the internet in the 1970s and 1980s. As the foundations of the new mode of communication were laid, speculation about what it would look like and how people would use it arose. Everyone was talking about it, but few understood what it meant or how it would work. In retrospect, it did not turn out exactly as some people had hoped.
However, with the metaverse expected to be a $800 billion market by 2024, and tech behemoths like Facebook, er, Meta, Microsoft, Apple, and Google investing heavily in making it a reality, it’s time to figure out what this hazy and complicated term means.
So we enlisted the help of a team of experts to break it down for those who, like the majority of us, still don’t understand what the metaverse is all about.
What is the metaverse?
While the term “metaverse” has been bandied about in recent years, it was coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash. Stephenson described the metaverse in his book as an all-encompassing digital world that exists alongside the real world. However, experts are unsure whether the metaverse IRL could evolve into something similar in 2022.
“The metaverse is a 3D version of the Internet and computing in general,” Mathew Ball, a venture capitalist and angel investor who’s written a series of essays about the metaverse’s potential and structures, told VICE.
There are two ways to interpret this in the current context, according to Ball.
“When these two technologies (internet and computing) first became available, all interactions were primarily text-based” (emails, messages, usernames, email addresses). They gradually became more media-oriented after that (photos, videos, live streams). The next step in the evolution of user interface and user experience is 3D. Second, if we consider [a] mobile [phone] to be a computer in our pocket with access to the internet at all times, consider the metaverse to be always within a computer and inside the internet.”
Many experts regard the metaverse as a three-dimensional model of the internet. Essentially, it is a parallel world in which you spend your digital life. A location where you and other people each have an avatar and interact with each other through their avatars. Some argue that the metaverse, in its most literal sense, does not yet exist.
“It’s not real at this point, and it won’t become real until people have a single location they can go to to get into a virtual world they can live in,” Ibrahim Baggili, a cybersecurity expert and founding director of the Connecticut Institute of Technology at the University of New Haven, told VICE.
The metaverse is essentially a 3D version of the internet that is seen as the logical next stage of development and would ideally be accessible through a single gateway.
“In the 1990s, the internet was referred to as a ‘information superhighway,’ but it was more of a term to refer to a potential future with networked computers than an actual highway,” said Timoni West, a vice president who oversees the AR and VR departments at Unity Software, a company that creates graphics engines for game development. “As it evolves, the metaverse will be much more distributed, democratic, fluid, and varied,” she told VICE.
While the definition of the metaverse varies from case to case, it is, in essence, a shared virtual space that is interactive, immersive, and hyper-realistic. It would also include your personal avatar and digital assets, which would most likely be stored on a blockchain.
Is it more than just a video game?
While the metaverse is far more expansive than a video game, it appears that the gaming world has already adopted its most basic form. Consider the online shooter game Fortnite, in which users have a personal avatar with which they engage and interact with the avatars of other players while also earning virtual currency to unlock outfits for their avatar.
Second Life, a simulation game that allows users to experience virtual reality in which their avatar can shop, eat, shower, and do everything they would do in real life, is perhaps the closest existing iteration to the envisioned metaverse.
The metaverse, according to technologists, will take the virtual reality experience to the next level, allowing users to float into the virtual world to do everything from buy land and host parties to even get married using digital avatars.
How do I gain access to the metaverse?
While there is no single portal to the metaverse at this time, experts recommend investing in some hardware to fully immerse yourself in the experience. Depending on your budget, this can range from the $10 Google Cardboard to the $300 Oculus Quest 2 headset or even the high-quality $999 Valve Index VR.
According to cybersecurity expert Baggili, the metaverse’s structure is currently similar to that of the Apple App Store. “At this point, you have multiple platforms that offer experiences in virtual reality, augmented reality, and extended reality, similar to the various apps available on the App Store.” However, there is no single portal through which people can access it, similar to how Yahoo created a portal to use the internet in its early days.”
As a result, multiple tech titans are offering a wide range of experiences, from gaming and virtual workspaces to live entertainment and real estate. Platforms such as Decentraland, Axie Infinity, Horizon, Sandbox, Fortnite, and Roblox are examples of this.
Many experts, however, argue that you don’t necessarily need a VR headset to enter the metaverse.
“We are constantly connected to the Internet through smartphones in our pockets, Alexas in our living rooms, and cameras in the world around us,” Ball explained. “Normally, we’ll access the metaverse via a smartphone, but we’ll be in it passively most of the time.” Every day, hundreds of millions of people use tablets and smartphones to access real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds. In a decade, these devices are likely to remain the primary means by which we access the metaverse.”
Though accessing the metaverse via smartphone, tablet, or computer reduces the immersive aspect, it’s a good way to test the waters and see what all the fuss is about.
What good is the metaverse?
The metaverse is being hailed as a major player in the growth of the digital economy, owing to its high-value projection.
“The metaverse will grow the digital economy, which is the primary growth driver of the global economy,” Ball predicted.
However, while the metaverse is already being hailed as the future of entertainment, fashion, gaming, and even partying, experts argue that its best-case application will most likely be for education.
“3D-based education is likely to be much better than, say, schooling over Zoom,” Ball said. “Just like you’d understand dissection much better by actually performing it rather than just reading about it.”
Baggili concurs. “Buying virtual countries that don’t exist in the real world could be a good way to make a quick buck, but the real value of the metaverse is when it’s used in ways that add value to people’s lives [other than money].”
Baggili used VR headsets to teach his students a forensics class as an experiment. “It was useful for documenting a crime scene and creating a consistent environment that you can save for later.” “However, my students’ eyes eventually tired and it became difficult to work on the computer,” he explained. “So, while there are scenarios where the technology and implementation can be useful – such as an augmented reality setup to train car mechanics or to remotely help someone fix an elevator they are stuck in – it still requires some work.”
Is it safe to travel through the metaverse?
There’s probably a reason why fictional metaverse touchstones like Ready Player One and Snow Crash are set in grim dystopias.
The ability of the metaverse to create a safe and responsible immersive environment is a major topic of discussion. Facebook was chastised earlier this year after a woman claimed she had been 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 movements, hand movements, the shape of your room, and other variables. “We also need to figure out a legal [framework] for what happens if you get harassed on a virtual platform because it has real consequences because you’re so immersed in technology,” Baggili said.
He went on to say that the metaverse assumes 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 develop these technologies responsibly.”
Will I be living in the metaverse in a few years?
According to some experts, “a large proportion of people will be in the metaverse in some way” by 2030. Nonetheless, despite the current craze for it, the concept still requires a lot of work. The first challenge will be obtaining the necessary hardware. Then 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 that this is essential for the metaverse to function. 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.