You’ve probably heard your mate’s boyfriend crying about his crypto losses, that Facebook recently changed its name to Meta, or that cartoon apes are now selling online for literally millions of pounds. But if there’s anything more confusing than understanding the NFT art market, it’s the metaverse.
Despite most of us only hearing the term in the last couple of years, the word “metaverse” was actually coined in 1992 by Neal Stephenson, who wrote a sci-fi book called Snow Crash about what a successor to the internet might look like, and essentially predicted that a digital world would exist adjacent to the “real” world.
Every generation reminisces about the glory days of early technology – for my dad, this was when he first searched for something on the internet in 1998 and immediately took his Encyclopedia Britannica book set to the Oxfam down the road. For me, it was the heady highs of spotting a crush on Bebo or discovering a new band on on Myspace.
Is the metaverse another life-changing internet development, or is it just, as WIRED put it, a “deeply uncomfortable, worse version of Zoom”? I decided to find out using the metric I use to make all my major life decisions: asking myself “Is it any fun?” That’s right – decided to find out if it’s possible to have a sick night out in the metaverse.
At this stage, it’s worth pointing out that there actually isn’t just one metaverse. The key players at the moment are Apple, Microsoft and Google, but the Artist Formerly Known as Facebook is the only major company to stake out their position by changing their actual name to Meta. According to a blogpost entitled Our Vision For The Metaverse: “The metaverse will eventually encompass work, entertainment, and everything in between.” Nice and specific, then.
Aside from the billionaire-backed big boys, you’ve also got The Sandbox and Decentraland – two rival desktop metaverses, with their own cryptocurrencies on the Ethereum blockchain. The websites, along with other parts of the blockchain, are part of Web3, which means they are part of the third – a new and decentralised – iteration of the internet.
In these metaverses, users are rewarded through concepts like play-to-earn games, where you earn unique skins, NFTs and cryptocurrency in exchange for completing challenges and spending more time playing the game. The founder of Reddit has speculated that these types of games will comprise 90 percent of the entire gaming industry in just five years’ time.
Users with a stake in a lot of these platforms will also have a say in the future of their worlds, with voting systems set up on platforms like Discord to advise developers on what to do next – but they’ll also have to put up with companies like Meta mining their behaviour for monetisable data.
“There are a lot of options at the moment,” says Luke Franks, a TV presenter who hosts the Welcome To The Metaverse podcast, musing on the sheer number of metaverses popping up. “I like to think that, soon, it will be kind of like different countries, you know, you'll go to different virtual worlds for different experiences, and some will be like, fully gamified and some might be educational.”
With that in mind, and before I get completely overwhelmed, I start my night out in a way that very few good nights have ever started before: by opening my laptop.
Visit an art gallery
Okay, so I’ve got options, which is always a nice thing to have at the beginning of a night. I know it’s not the craziest place to have pre-drinks, but art and NFTs are one of the main concepts of the metaverse, after all.
Decentraland has piqued my interest, so I decide to start there. It’s a desktop digital world where you can use their currency, MANA, to buy and sell digital real estate. One MANA is worth roughly £2 in the real world, with most plots of land going for more than 5000 MANA, or £10,000. Yikes. The game is easily accessible on your laptop, but does require you to log in with your crypto wallet if you want full access to its features. It’s not currently playable on any VR headset.
I google “Decentraland”, sign in with MetaMask and create a pretty basic avatar. I’m immediately thrust into an open space that has the look and feel of Blade Runner. Dozens of digital humanoids wander around me, their avatars sporting unique wings, sunglasses and hats that have all been purchased or swapped in the Decentraland marketplace.
Most of the wearable items cost more than my monthly salary, so I feel a little underdressed in my black roll neck and jeans. A lot of the users will have got to the platform early and purchased these outfits for a fraction of what they are worth now, and will be able to flip them to new users like me who might want to gain clout in the metaverse. Unfortunately, I only have £60 worth of MANA, so I continue as I am.
The avatars are conversing over microphones and in the chat box. Some of them are strangers, others are friends, but from what I can hear, it’s a lot of middle-aged men saying “hello?” slightly too loudly at each other. The experience has a very “Ed Balls tweeting his own name” feel about it so I decide to check out what this particular Metaverse is really all about: the NFTs.
I walk into an NFT art gallery and I’m impressed by the ease of it all. You can go up to any piece, click on it and purchase it with Ethereum on OpenSea in a matter of seconds.
The one thing that really bugs me in this gallery is that 99 percent of it is essentially variations of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, one of the first NFTs to really sell for big money. Just like surrealism, romanticism and the Renaissance before us, historians really will be calling this our Ape Era. Damn.
However, my interest is quickly sapped when my avatar glitches and gets stuck in a staircase. I close my laptop after cashing out my £60 of MANA.
Play some table tennis
My next goal was to grab a VR headset (an Meta Quest 2, which retails for £300), which Meta kindly lent me for the week. I’ll be honest: I’ve tried various virtual experiences at museum exhibitions and stuff, but nothing has ever truly wowed me like this.
The device is a clean, white headset with two separate ergonomic hand controllers. The set-up’s easy to navigate and the operating system is as intuitive as you’d expect from a company with one of the biggest data banks of human behaviour in the world. The only downside is that the headset is a bit heavy and gave me savage red marks on my face when I played it for too long.
I dick about with different settings, create another avatar and call up my friend Victor, who is the only other person in the world I know with an Meta Quest 2. We open a table tennis app that we’ve both purchased for £14.99. Setting up the game is a bit clunky, but once we’re in, we have a catch-up and play a game or two. The game is intuitive, fun and very realistic – like FaceTime but more fun. You can even put backspin on the ball if you want to be a real bastard.
Meet some strangers
After this, we part ways and I decide to check out what I’m really here for: Horizon Worlds, Meta’s own take on the metaverse. We all know a night out doesn’t really start until you cross paths with random people who become your best friends for three hours and then never see or think about them ever again, so I’m off to make some new BFFs.
The platform is broken down into three different apps; Horizon Workrooms, Horizon Venues and Horizon Worlds. The first is a digital meeting space (your equivalent of Zoom), and the second is a platform hosting VR gigs and events like comedy, music and sports. The third is Horizon Worlds, Meta’s social media platform, which UK users can’t access yet.
All these platforms are free to enter, which means that, aside from the cost of your headset, you can pretty much do shit in the metaverse for free. I decide to check out Venues, imagining that I’d be thrust into space or something equally ridiculous, but the reality was much more placid than that.
I entered a rather innocuous lobby with a few other users knocking about. These are real life people from all over the world, also wearing VR headsets, that you can walk right up to and engage with. The experience reminds me of a slightly less seedy version of Chatroulette, and my first interaction with a stranger only reinforces that observation.
I meet a British guy who I’m assuming is in his mid-twenties. He’s very silly and is definitely a seasoned pro in using his headset, whereas I can barely make a fist. He shows me a few tricks like how to jump and take a photo; then he goes up to another dude he’d just been chatting with. They take turns kissing and pretending to shag each other.
Bear in mind, this is all happening in what looks like the digital version of a museum lobby. It’s true what they say: “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, but give a man a VR headset and he will show you how to fuck a stranger in a digital foyer.”
It’s worth noting, too, that I’ve chosen a male avatar in Horizon Worlds. Women who’ve chosen female avatars have reported being sexually harassed, groped and even gang raped in the metaverse, sometimes occurring within seconds of logging on.
My next interaction is on the complete other end of the spectrum. I speak to a girl from northwest London about the future of music in the digital world. We take photos together, watch a show about the International Space Station and even accept each other’s friend requests to potentially hang out again. As someone who struggles with social anxiety, the way the platform allows you to meet people without all the triggering stimuli of the real world is pretty astounding.
Unfortunately, you can’t screen record in Horizon so I only managed to get one selfie of me and my new pal, which I then uploaded to Instagram from within the headset. You’ll have to imagine the rest!
Go to a gig
Next, I go into a Venue where Young Thug is playing. You can go into this Venue for free at literally any time and it’s a Young Thug gig. I’m hoping it’s a pre-record and they haven’t just trapped Young Thug in the metaverse.
I’m not going to lie, this is the one part where I’m let down. There’s a few fans on the viewing platform, enjoying the show and singing along, but I feel only a distinct sense of detachment from the gig. When you’re a digital avatar, seeing a real human in front of you only serves to remind you of what you’re technically escaping: reality. Also, my wifi was dipping a little bit by this point and Young Thug was glitching out quite hard.
Saying this, when I take the headset off and use screen devices like my phone or my laptop, they all just feel a bit…flat? Just more two-dimensional and clunkier than before? Even my living room now feels less slick and vibrant. Now I know why – other than predicting a metaverse – sci-fi writers have been calling the real world “meatspace” for the last 30 years.
So what does the future of the metaverse look like? “I think people will try and mimic the physical world and then realise, ‘actually, why are we doing this?’ when we can actually build something with none of the rules of the physical world, which is way more exciting,” Franks enthuses, pointing to the early history of television for proof.
“The first thing that people tend to do is mimic the physical world, because that's what we know,” he explains. “When TV first arrived, the first programs on TV were just radio shows with pictures, because people just didn't know how to use the technology, right?”
So is it possible to have a sick night out in the metaverse? Define “sick”. The good bits, like the fact that it’s pretty cheap to access once you’ve got the hardware, plus the ease of meeting new people, are very exciting. The bad bits, however, like getting trapped in a staircase or having savage red marks on your face remind me that it’s very early days.
Would I rather be in the pub? I think so.