‘Metaverse’ has become a buzzword recently, even more so since Facebook’s parent company changed their name to Meta in reference to it. But what does the metaverse actually mean and how will it affect the future of how we communicate digitally?
The term ‘metaverse’ was coined in the 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash, but pinning down an exact definition for the metaverse is tricky because everyone has a different idea of what it will be.
Wired believes the term ‘metaverse’ is best thought of as synonymous with ‘cyberspace’ in most scenarios. Mark Zuckerberg paints it more as an internet we can live in, to socialise, work, shop, learn and play.
If this sounds vague, that’s because it is. The metaverse is currently more of an idealistic concept than a tangible future, but the common feature is that it will be a shared digital space made possible by various technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), the Internet of Things (IoT) and more.
The buzz around the metaverse got louder with Facebook’s rebranding in 2021. The parent company, which encompasses Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus, changed its name from Facebook to Meta. The reason for this, according to Mark Zuckerberg, was that the brand had become too tightly linked to one product (Facebook) and that it couldn’t represent everything they had become.
On the company’s own blog, they state that the rebranding signals their new direction: “Meta’s focus will be to bring the metaverse to life and help people connect, find communities and grow businesses.”
The metaverse is proposed as a platform where users can socialise, work, shop, learn and play across multiple apps, but all in a digital space that feels real. According to Zuckerberg, “the defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence – like you are right there with another person or in another place”.
There is no one set vision for the metaverse. Different people and companies seem to have different ideas of what it will involve. Some think the metaverse could involve an evolution of the Zoom calls we’ve become so accustomed to, but with everyone coming together in a VR-generated digital meeting room, represented by avatars like you would have in a video game.
Other more ambitious visions, such as Zuckerberg’s, have us experiencing “the next best thing to a working teleportation device”, where we can use the metaverse to project ourselves into the audience of live concerts with our friends.
Zuckerberg has also stated that the metaverse “will bring enormous opportunity to individual creators and artists; to individuals who want to work and own homes far from today’s urban centers; and to people who live in places where opportunities for education or recreation are more limited”.
We have a lot of the raw ingredients to create the metaverse already – VR and AR technology, social media, online shopping, business meetings over Zoom and more. The problem is that none of these is really ‘metaverse-ready’.
VR headsets are still clunky, there are still concerns about tech giants’ handling of data privacy and, if the idea is for the metaverse to connect even those who live in remote areas and have limited access to opportunities like Zuckerberg suggests, then infrastructure is needed to ensure these people have high-speed, reliable internet access.
There are elements of a ‘metaverse’ already present in multiplayer online roleplaying games where you can log in to a constantly changing virtual world that exists in parallel to our own, interact with other players, and buy and sell goods. However, even at their most immersive, these games provide an escapist second life, not an extension of our own, which is how proponents of the metaverse seem to envision it.
Another recent popular topic in the digital space has been cryptocurrency and NFTs, which could well become a key part of the metaverse. It would seem only logical that tokens of ownership of a digital product would become the currency of this new parallel digital world. If cryptocurrency does become the official currency of the metaverse, then its value will rise dramatically.
Despite the name change, the metaverse, should it materialise, won’t entirely be a Meta product. It will need to be a collaborative process, taking the developments of multiple companies and technologies, something Zuckerberg himself has acknowledged and embraced in his interview with The Verge, describing it as an embodied internet “operated by many different players in a decentralized way”.
Microsoft, Meta, Nvidia and Epic Games are just some of the big names already working on elements that could form the foundation of the metaverse, even if that isn’t currently the goal. However, as a clearer vision of the metaverse is beginning to form, there is no doubt that other big names in tech will be desperate to make their mark.
Many people, Zuckerberg included, are claiming that the metaverse would be a decentralized version of the online experience, (something like Web3). However, it also seems as though the main players at the moment are a handful of major tech companies, so would that actually be possible?
Even Jack Dorsey, who not that long ago stepped away from his role as CEO of Twitter, now seems to be heavily investing in crypto, meaning he and others like him could potentially hold a significant portion of the power in the metaverse.
As with previous idealisations of the online world, it will be surprising if the metaverse is realised exactly as it is imagined, particularly in the early stages when many of the issues surrounding trust in big tech companies, regulation of cryptocurrency, and equal access to the internet remain.
Related article: What is Web3 and Should We Believe the Hype?
While there is still plenty of debate over what the metaverse is and what it could be, many people seem to be conceptualising it as the next step in interconnectivity. Just as we had the internet, and now we are connected by video calls and the devices in our homes can talk to each other, Meta is banking on the metaverse becoming the new way we will interact with each other and the world.