Whether you’ve come across Mark Zuckerberg’s eerie virtual replica as he unveiled Facebook-rebranded-as-Meta (we’re not getting used to this name any time soon though), live concerts in the immersive Fortnite universe, or a digital art gallery in Decentraland – there’s no escaping the internet’s favourite buzzword: the “Metaverse.”
But what even is this metaverse? Is it a virtual universe with endless possibilities we can escape into? Is it the dystopian future of the internet built on speculative sci-fi? Or is it just a fancy way of categorising extended reality (XR) – an umbrella term encompassing augmented, virtual, and mixed reality technologies?
Talking about the metaverse feels a lot like talking about the internet back in the 70s and the 80s. As the building blocks of the new form of communication were being laid down, it sparked speculation around what it would look like and how people would use it. Everyone was talking about it but few knew what it really meant or how it would work. Looking back, it didn’t turn out exactly as some people imagined.
However, with the metaverse pegged to become an $800 billion market by 2024, and with tech giants like Facebook, er, Meta, Microsoft, Apple and Google investing big money in making it a reality, it’s time to find out what this vague and complex term means.
So, we got a bunch of experts to break it down for those who still don’t get what the metaverse is all about, AKA most of us.
So, what exactly is the metaverse?
While the term has been floating around for the last few years, the word “metaverse” was actually coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash. In his book, Stephenson referred to the metaverse as an all-encompassing digital world that exists parallel to the real world. But in 2022, experts still aren’t sure whether the metaverse IRL could evolve into something similar.
“The metaverse is a 3D version of the Internet and computing at large,” Mathew Ball, a venture capitalist and angel investor who’s written a series of essays about the potential and structures of the metaverse, told VICE.
According to Ball, there are two ways to place this in the current context.
“When these two technologies (internet and computing) first emerged, all interactions were primarily text-based (emails, messages, usernames, email addresses). Then they slowly became more media-based (photos, videos, livestreams). The next elevation of user interface and user experience is into 3D. Secondly, if we think of [a] mobile [phone] as placing a computer in our pocket and the internet being available at all times, think of the metaverse as always being within a computer and inside the internet.”
Many experts look at the metaverse as a 3D model of the internet. Basically, a place parallel to the physical world, where you spend your digital life. A place where you and other people have an avatar, and you interact with them through their avatars. Some also argue that the metaverse in the truest sense of the term doesn’t actually exist yet.
“It’s not real at this stage, and won’t become real until people have a single location they can go to to get into in a virtual world they could live in,” Ibrahim Baggili, a cybersecurity expert and the founding director of the Connecticut Institute of Technology at the University of New Haven, told VICE.
Essentially, the metaverse is supposed to be a 3D version of the internet that is seen as the logical next stage of development, and would ideally be accessed through a single gateway.
“The internet was described as an ’information superhighway’ in the 90s, but it was more of just a term to refer to a potential future with networked computers rather than an actual highway,” said Timoni West, a vice president who oversees the AR and VR departments at Unity Software, a company that builds graphics engines for game development. “As it develops, the metaverse will also have equivalence to the real world and be much more distributed, democratic, fluid and varied,” she told VICE.
While the discourse on defining the metaverse differs from case to case, it is, in the simplest terms, a shared virtual space that is interactive, immersive and hyper-realistic. It would also include your own customized avatar and digital assets, which will likely be recorded on a blockchain.
So, it’s not just a video game?
While the metaverse is far more expansive than a video game, the gaming world seems to have already adopted its most rudimentary form. Take for instance an online shooter game like Fortnite, where users have a personal avatar to engage and interact with other players' avatars, while also earning virtual currency to unlock outfits for their avatar.
Perhaps the closest existing iteration to the envisioned metaverse is the game Second Life, a simulation game that lets users experience virtual reality in which their avatar could shop, eat, shower, and do everything they would in real life.
According to technologists, the metaverse 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 through digital avatars.
So, how do I access the metaverse for now?
While there is no single gateway to access the metaverse at this point, experts suggest acquiring some hardware to truly immerse yourself in the experience. This can range from the affordable $10 Google Cardboard to the mid-range $300 Oculus Quest 2 headset, or even the high-quality $999 Valve Index VR, depending on your budget.
According to cybersecurity expert Baggili, the structure of the metaverse is currently akin 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, which are like the different apps you could download from the App Store. But there isn’t a single portal that people can use to access it, kind of like how Yahoo created a portal to use the internet in its early days.”
In turn, this has led to multiple tech heavyweights offering a variety of experiences, from gaming and virtual workspaces to live entertainment and real estate. This includes platforms like Decentraland, Axie Infinity, Horizon, Sandbox, Fortnite and Roblox.
However, many experts also argue that you don’t necessarily need a VR headset to get into the metaverse.
“We are on the Internet all the time via smartphones in our pocket, Alexas in our living room, and cameras in the world around us,” Ball pointed out. “Normally, we’ll access the metaverse via a smartphone, but we will often be passively in it. There are hundreds of millions [of people] accessing real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds each day via tablets and smartphones. In a decade, it’s likely these devices will remain the primary way we access the metaverse.”
Though accessing the metaverse from your smartphone, tablet or computer would mean taking away from the immersive aspect, it’s a good way to test the waters and see what the hype is all about.
So, what is the use of the metaverse, really?
Given its high-value projection, the metaverse is touted as a major player in growing the digital economy.
“The metaverse will grow the digital economy, which is the primary growth driver of the world economy,” said Ball.
But while the metaverse is already being seen as the future of entertainment, fashion, gaming and even partying, experts argue that its best-case use will likely be for education.
“Just like how you'd understand dissection much better by actually performing it rather than just reading about it, 3D-based education is likely to be much better than, say, schooling over Zoom,” Ball said.
Baggili agrees. “Buying virtual countries that don’t exist in the real world could be an investment opportunity for making a quick buck, but the real value of the metaverse is when it’ll be used in ways that bring value to people’s lives [beyond money].”
As an experiment, Baggili taught his students a class on forensics using VR headsets. “It was effective in terms of documenting a crime scene and creating a consistent environment you can save for later. But eventually, even my students’ eyes got tired and it became difficult to work on the computer,” he said. “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 help someone remotely fix an elevator they are stuck in – it still needs some work.”
But is it safe to be in the metaverse?
There’s probably a reason why fictional touchstones for a metaverse, including Ready Player One and Snow Crash, are set in grim dystopias.
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 reported she had been sexually harassed and “virtually gang-raped” in the metaverse. Digital privacy experts also continue to point out 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.
The metaverse, he added, presupposes an implicit trust in technology, the way we rely on Google Maps for directions even if we’re never really sure whether it will lead us to the right destination. “There’s all this legal stuff we have to think about and actively [pursue] if we want to responsibly develop these technologies.”
So, will I be living in the metaverse some years from now?
Some experts believe “a large proportion of people will be in the metaverse in some way” by 2030. But despite the current obsession with it, the idea still needs a lot of work. The first challenge will be the accessibility of the hardware it requires. Then there’s the need for interoperability – allowing you to take virtual items like clothes or cars from one platform to another. Many experts believe this is vital for the metaverse to work. There will be legal and commercial challenges too, apart from figuring who will act as the police out here. Also, there’s no guarantee that people will want to hang out in the metaverse.
Perhaps we’ll live in the metaverse intermittently – we enjoy putting on VR goggles but don’t keep them on for very long. Or, maybe, we’ll laugh at this VICE article a decade from now, thinking how naive people were to have questioned the rise of the metaverse.