This term was coined by Neal Stephenson and first appeared in his cyberpunk novel Snow Crash. Published three decades ago, the work is considered canonical. In this book, the metaverse is a 3D virtual reality space accessed through VR goggles and personal terminals. The goggles are not unlike headsets of the Oculus Quest type.
This 3D world appears like an urban environment lined by a hundred-meter-wide road, called the Street. Here’s an excerpt about it:
Like any place in Reality, the Street is subject to development. Developers can build their own small streets feeding off of the main one. They can build buildings, parks, signs, as well as things that do not exist in Reality, such as vast hovering overhead light shows, special neighbourhoods where the rules of three-dimensional spacetime are ignored, and free-combat zones where people can go to kill each other.
Massively multiplayer online games reflect many of this metaverse’s features. For example, users of Second Life (released in 2003) can meet with other players, customize realistic avatars, create virtual items, exchange services and goods, and own virtual property.
Second Life and other virtual experiences can be described as proto metaverses because they exist in isolation. Each one is a digital island, which is never left by its inhabitants and their virtual assets.
Does the metaverse already exist?
The metaverse needs to have certain properties that separate it from Second Life and other isolated virtual reality experiences if it is to embody the future of the internet. This is how venture capitalist Matthew Ball describes it:
The metaverse is a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.
Features of the metaverse
- Massively scaled
- Real-time rendered
- 3D virtual worlds
- Individual sense of presence
- Unlimited number of users
- Continuity of data
The metaverse in retail: an example
An example of the metaverse in practice would be if someone enters a giant virtual shopping mall which many people can experienced, buys a unique digital item, and then sells it in a different world a few weeks later, or on eBay, Twitter, or OpenSea.
The metaverse in film
Ernest Cline published a book in 2011, which was later made into the movie Ready Player One and directed by Steven Spielberg. It is a good visual example of what the metaverse could look like in theory.
However, the film has some major differences from the soon-to-come metaverse according to experts. For instance, the Oasis is the only major platform in the movie. It forms the metaverse created by Gregarious Games, a fictional game company.
Another crucial difference involves the main use of VR hardware to interact in the movie’s metaverse version. According to experts, AR hardware will be used more often than VR hardware, which the film failed to draw attention to.
Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse
Zuckerberg wants to create the next version of the internet, not simply a grand virtual experience. He wrote in a letter to his staff:
We’ve gone from desktop to web to mobile; from text to photos to video. But this isn’t the end of the line. The next platform will be even more immersive—an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it. We call this the metaverse, and it will touch every product we build.
The drivers of the metaverse
Hardware, apps, platforms, cloud infrastructure, user-generated content, and other software tools will drive the metaverse. In addition to these diverse forms of technology and technical requirements, the metaverse will feature education, gaming, social interaction, entertainment, commerce, research, and other user experiences.
The arrival of the metaverse
When will we make the switch from various proto metaverses to the grand one. Zuckerberg thinks that it will be by the end of the decade. Seeing as the foundations are already in place, it could happen much sooner.
Meta posted record losses of its development arm recently, causing its shares to plummet on the stock market. That didn’t phase Zuckerberg in the least. The CEO of the former Facebook announced they would soldier on.
What needs to happen?
The infrastructure supporting today’s internet makes it possible for a huge number of people to gather in virtual environments. For example, Travis Scott’s VR concert in Fortnite drew more than 12.3 million viewers.
While this current infrastructure is very impressive, it will have to grow and develop further to sustain the metaverse industry imagined by experts.
Corporations most active in the metaverse
The hardware to render realistic avatars and virtual environments in 3D exists too. Meta owns Oculus, the leading producer of VR headsets. Rumour has it that Apple will release its AR and VR headsets this year. With its HoloLens smart glasses, Microsoft has been backing diverse enterprise use cases since the product’s first release in 2016.
Manufacturers like Pico, HTC, and MagicLeap are rapidly advancing different hardware platforms. Cascade technology architectures are moving computational loads to edge devices across back-end server infrastructures.
An example of a company streaming fully interactive real-time 3D environments is Unity. Its Furioos product handles the heavy lift of rendering the environments through automatically scaling GPU server infrastructure.
Innovative tech will enable data continuity
Since Bitcoin was created in 2009, we’ve had some innovative tech at our disposal. The same disruptive technologies can be used to enable data continuity in the metaverse. We can use blockchain tech to verify digital asset ownership: NFTs are a prime example of that. 3D virtual reality platforms are already taking advantage of them.
According to EPIC Games Unreal Engine VP Marc Petit, the metaverse will require “shared virtual worlds that incorporate persistence.” A user will need to be able to move between universes with his digital assets in order to secure an ideal customer experience. For example, he can buy NFT shoes from Reebok and use them in Minecraft and his Meta avatar.
Metaverse tokens that currently exist include Enjin Coin, The Sandbox’s SAND, GALA, AXIE Infinity, and Decentraland’s MANA. These are fully decentralized worlds without central leadership. The world in Decentraland and many others runs on the Ethereum blockchain. A DAO (decentralized autonomous organization) controls it.
Players can change and control policies by means of this organization. Enjin, SAND, GALA, AXIE, and MANA can be exchanged on cryptocurrency exchanges for other cryptos or fiat.
The metaverse is best described as a universal computing experience where users enhance their experience via bleeding edge, immersive AR and VR wearables while leveraging phones, tablets, laptops, and other traditional devices.
Like no one owns the internet today, no one will own the metaverse. However, the space will feature many important players. Among them will be corporations like Meta, Unity, Microsoft, Roblox, Epic Games, and others.
They are all making huge investments to help the sci-fi dream come true. They are betting that it will be as big as the internet is now, if not bigger.