What Is the Metaverse? A Complete Explanation
The metaverse is the idea of a shared digital universe in the cloud created by merging virtual spaces that are physically persistent together with augmented reality (AR) layered over the real world. The metaverse is singular because the concept includes the sum of all virtual and online worlds along with all AR layers enhancing the physical world.
Just like the definition of the real-life universe refers to the collection of all the worlds connected by physical space, you can think of the metaverse as a collection of all the virtual worlds and AR layers connected online. It will eventually be completely immersive as well as collaborative and interactive.
The term “metaverse” was first used in science fiction novels. It combines the word “universe” with the prefix “meta,” which comes from a Greek word meaning “beyond.”
In 2021, we still only have primitive forerunners of a true metaverse. Roblox, Minecraft and other virtual user-created worlds are early, narrow examples of this idea. Fortnite, which is currently evolving from a battle royale video game into a massive online social world, is another idea of what some parts of the metaverse might come to look like. Video-conferencing apps are another aspect that the metaverse will include. The difference between these and the real thing is that the true metaverse won’t be limited to any single game, virtual world, app or company. It will include and connect all of them.
Besides games and hangouts, it will include social media platforms, workplace tools, investing resources, online shops and much more. You’ll be able to immerse yourself completely in this spatial internet using virtual reality (VR) technology or just interact with bits of it that are layered over your physical space via AR. Instead of a profile picture, you’ll be represented by a complete digital avatar or persona. You’ll be able to meet up with your friends’ digital personas and wander around visiting virtual places and attending virtual events.
In many of these shared virtual worlds, you’ll be able to buy virtual land and build virtual buildings using virtual money based on crypto technology. You’ll also be able to offer virtual services, trade stocks and buy crypto assets and goods both real and digital. You’ll be able to move these assets between virtual worlds and even into the real world in many cases.
One key aspect of the metaverse is that it will be persistent. It will still be there even when you’re not. The actions you take and the changes you make will stick around. Your identity in it will also be persistent no matter which specific virtual world you’re hanging out in at the time.
The metaverse as a persistent, shared digital universe doesn’t exist yet, but there are more and more companies and entrepreneurs creating and investing in it every day.
The Metaverse: An Exact Definition
The metaverse is a currently conceptual future version of the internet containing many virtual worlds in 3D, 2D and AR linked together into a persistent, concurrent shared virtual universe.
How Does the Metaverse Work?
Think of the metaverse as a visually rendered internet that you go into instead of just looking at. Rather than being behind your screen, inside your device, your devices will project the metaverse around you.
Hypothetically, you’d connect to the metaverse in much the same way as you log on to the internet today. However, instead of turning on the Wi-Fi or 4G in your laptop or phone, you’d view content using a head-mounted display like a pair of smart glasses or a VR headset.
You’d manipulate virtual objects using a motion tracking device like Facebook’s neural wristband. Your avatar or metaverse persona will be able to walk around, interact with things in the world and meet up with other people’s avatars no matter where in the physical world they actually are.
Companies will most likely try to monopolize their parts of the metaverse, like a few international companies dominate their respective corners of today’s internet. However, just like no one owns the internet today, no single corporation or entity will own the metaverse.
Without a single metaverse regulatory body or government to oversee things, all metaverse identities and transactions will be organized via public blockchain technology to ensure safety and avoid fraud. Money inside the metaverse will probably be a mashup of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum and the V-Bucks you can buy in Fortnite.
Perhaps each virtual world will have its own tokens based on its own blockchain system that you’ll exchange for other worlds’ tokens when necessary. You’ll also be able to own unique and bespoke digital assets in the form of NFTs that will act like art, jewelry or other valuables in the physical world.
The different companies and entrepreneurs today who are thinking seriously about building and investing in the metaverse still position it as a futuristic aspiration. Right now, it’s just a conceptual model beginning to form in our collective consciousness as a way to think about how to make online environments more immersive and integrate them more deeply into our lives.
How Do You Create the Metaverse?
The metaverse is a concept that it seems like we’ve been working toward for a while, whether consciously or unconsciously. Its early building blocks, the internet, social media and VR, have been coming together for decades. The remaining pieces continue to evolve slowly over time as software gobbles the world and more and more services, capabilities and products integrate and merge.
Organic evolution is important to a successful metaverse. Most technologists believe no single operator, such as a corporation or government, can build a true metaverse by itself. They think a metaverse, by definition, needs to be built mainly on a decentralized infrastructure using open source platforms and community-based protocols.
There are three major steps to creating the metaverse:
- Build the infrastructure
- Define its standards and protocols
- Fill it with content
Just like in the physical universe, to create the metaverse, you need to start with building the underlying framework. This needs to be some kind of concurrency-optimized infrastructure run on parallel processors that can allow lots of people to do lots of digital things all at once with updates in real time. The technology for real-time synchronization of persistent communication en masse doesn’t exist yet. Building the infrastructure may be one of the biggest computational challenges metaverse creators face.
Once we figure out the infrastructure, we need to create its standards and protocols. These act like the laws of physics in the real universe. They’ll need to be even broader and more resilient and complex than the ones we use in today’s internet because they’ll need to be interoperable. For instance, today, Google, Facebook and Amazon may use similar protocols, but they don’t fit together very well. The metaverse will need a consensus among all its participants around issues like transactions, security and persistence.
Once we’ve nailed down the framework and its rules, we’ll need to populate it with content, assets and activities. Just like the physical universe becomes more interesting when populated with life forms, the metaverse will only thrive when filled with worthwhile content that can evolve and respond to selection pressures.
We don’t know exactly what the metaverse’s infrastructure, protocols, content and experiences will end up looking like. As more and more tech giants and geniuses focus their attention on it, excitement around the world continues to grow. Even though it’s not yet in the cloud, the metaverse is still very much up in the air.
Where Did the Metaverse Originate From?
Science fiction novelist Neal Stephenson first came up with the word “metaverse” in his novel “Snow Crash,” published in 1992. It had a similar meaning inside the novel as it does today: an internet successor in the form of a 3D VR-based world populated by online personas of real people.
Stephenson’s metaverse was created and run by a single corporation. It took the form of a virtual city lining a solitary road that ran along the equator of an otherwise empty, featureless virtual sphere. The road was 100 meters wide, more than 65,000 kilometers long and filled with ads and fun things to do. Well-off users had their own personal VR displays to access the metaverse, while underprivileged users gained access via public terminals in grainy black and white.
There are plenty of other examples from science fiction of metaverse-like concepts, some even predating this one. Stephenson’s concept, though, remains a reference point that most modern metaverse enthusiasts recognize, and we still use the word he coined.
What Are the Applications of the Metaverse?
In 2021, metaverse applications mostly still revolve around open-world games or experiences. Tech authorities who are thinking about the metaverse in future terms often talk about the following additional applications:
- Activities and features that overlap with the real world
- Non-competitive social interactions instead of goal-oriented games
- Support for virtual environments and items created by users
- A virtual economy linked to the real world that lets people capitalize on virtual goods, stocks, NFTs, etc.
- Features mainly suited to VR and AR headsets, although other hardware may also be supported
Companies Currently Working on Metaverse Applications
Microsoft’s vision for the metaverse is geared toward business enterprises and developers. Microsoft is working on shared platforms that can build digital models of physical items or logical concepts useful to businesses. These may be anything from complex environments to simple products. In theory, Microsoft’s metaverse world will be able to map and track anything from stores, warehouses, and factories to ideas, stocks, and apps.
Nvidia is creating a similar metaverse application they call Omniverse. It will let participants create digital twins of any physical product so that engineers around the world can collaborate in creation.
Facebook’s principal metaverse application revolves around virtual meetings. They want to create virtual rooms that let you hang out and have experiences with other people no matter where you or they are in physical space.
Examples of the Metaverse in Fiction
Beyond Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash,” which we talked about above, here are a few more useful examples from fiction that can help us imagine what the metaverse might be like.
Ready Player One
Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One stands out among the other fictional examples as a salient and recent concept similar to what many modern metaverse builders envision. In it, users from around the physical world can jump into and between an infinite number of immersive, persistent virtual worlds connected in virtual space.
Cline’s metaverse showcases users with persistent digital avatars engaging in countless virtual activities, including play, work and even education. Many users end up developing a hybrid life where they split their time between the physical world and the metaverse, earning money and living life in both.
The Watchowskis’ “Matrix” franchise contributed heavily to popularizing the idea of simulated worlds. The films introduced into public awareness ideas like digital constructs and downloadable consciousness. They also explore deeply the moral challenges of building utopian environments.
The Three-Body Problem
Among its many other ideas, this novel by Cixin Liu brings up the concept of haptic suits that allow full-body immersion into virtual environments. Liu does an insightful job of exploring possible hardware that might eventually support a truly engulfing metaverse.
Many technologists today cite William Gibson’s 1984 novel “Neuromancer” as the inspiration behind their ideas for a virtual metaverse. Gibson described his metaverse as a “consensual hallucination” involving Cartesian dualism. It allowed users to be inside a virtual world while maintaining awareness of the physical world around them, much like our modern idea of AR layers.