If you’ve been following any tech news recently, chances are you’ve heard the term “metaverse” tossed around a fair bit; but what is the metaverse? Is it something real or simply a buzzword? In this article we’ll explain the history of the term, what it is today, and what its future might be.
- Despite a lot of recent media attention, the concept of the metaverse is still in the early stages of its infancy.
- The metaverse refers to a virtual world that can be used for every kind of activity imaginable, whereas today’s virtual reality is largely restricted to video games.
- After its rebrand to Meta, Facebook is leading the charge with the metaverse, but Microsoft has also made moves in the same direction.
The term “metaverse” entered the public consciousness in a big way in late 2021 when Facebook rebranded itself as Meta. Since then, Microsoft announced its purchase of Activision Blizzard, which the tech company describes as a move aimed at “gaining a foothold” in the metaverse. Read on to find out what all the fuss is about.
Updated the article to include information about JPMorgan joining the metaverse.
What Is the Metaverse?
A metaverse is simply a 3D virtual space that users can interact with for a wide variety of use cases. The easiest way to conceptualize the metaverse is to think of the current internet, but contained within a virtual three-dimensional space or layered on top of the real world in the form of augmented reality.
As it’s currently imagined, the virtual reality side of the metaverse would mimic the real world with users represented by virtual avatars. VR is only one side of the coin though, as there’s also augmented or mixed reality to consider.
Rather than putting the user in an entirely digital world, augmented reality simply overlays interactive digital elements on top of the real world, usually with the help of some sort of headset.
What Is a Virtual World?
A virtual world is exactly what it sounds like. If you’ve used VR headsets like the Oculus Quest to play video games or even watched The Matrix, you’ll be familiar with the idea of fully digital spaces that you can enter and interact with. The only real difference between the virtual world of the metaverse and the virtual worlds we see in games today is one of scope.
Where Did the Idea Come From?
The term “metaverse” has been bouncing around for decades now. It was first coined back in 1992 by author Neal Stephenson in his science-fiction novel Snow Crash. In the novel, it describes a virtual reality system that encompasses an entire planet and allows for its users to exist entirely within the manufactured world through the use of personal terminals.
Since then, the term has become something of a buzzword to describe futuristic virtual reality systems that encompass every facet of human life.
For decades after first being coined, the term and the idea it represents lay squarely within the realm of science fiction. However, the gaming-driven advancements in virtual reality hardware and software over the past decade have made several big companies look toward making it a reality.
Isn’t This Just Virtual Reality?
Essentially, yes. The only real difference is that the term virtual reality or VR has so far been heavily tied to gaming, whereas the metaverse is supposed to cover a broader range of use cases for virtual reality in people’s everyday lives.
Will the Metaverse Replace the Internet?
Predicting the future of technology is notoriously difficult, but Mark Zuckerberg certainly seems to think that it will. In his open letter during the rebranding of Facebook to Meta, he described the metaverse as an “embodied internet,” which — unlike the current internet — can give users a “feeling of presence.”
Although new technologies might change everything, it’s hard to imagine the metaverse replacing the regular internet anytime soon. Big tech companies, including Meta and Microsoft, have only just started focusing on it. Issues such as the cost of virtual reality headsets and augmented reality glasses will remain serious hurdles for the technology to reach the same widespread adoption as the regular internet has.
Why Are Companies Interested in Virtual Worlds?
If you’re reading this article, chances are you heard about the metaverse from various interviews with tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg. So far the two biggest corporations to show interest in the metaverse are Meta (formerly known as Facebook) and Microsoft, but expect to see other big players make similar moves in the future.
What each company sees in the metaverse differs. For Meta, it’s an obvious continuation of its existing social media platform, as it would open new avenues for online interaction between people.
Microsoft, on the other hand, has long been interested in augmented reality, having released the HoloLens for developer use all the way back in 2016. Given its wide range of products, there’s an effectively unlimited number of possible applications of mixed reality and virtual experiences within Microsoft’s services.
Other companies are beginning to see the potential of the metaverse. For example, in February 2022, JPMorgan became the first bank to join the metaverse. The virtual bank — located in the environment called “Decentraland” — includes a roaming tiger and a photo of CEO Jamie Dimon.
Find which other companies invested on the concept in our top Metaverse statistics.
What’s the Connection With NFTs?
Although not intrinsically linked with the concept of the Metaverse, NFTs (or non-fungible tokens) have been identified as a useful tool for controlling various aspects of the virtual worlds. Learn more about NFTs in our what are NFTs guide.
For example, the smart contract functionality inside NFTs means that it can be used to purchase and sell virtual property within the metaverse. If your access to the metaverse is tied to your real identity, then NFTs can also be used as a way to authenticate users without compromising their privacy or anonymity within the virtual world.
So What Does This All Mean?
At the moment it doesn’t mean much of anything. Although there’s been a lot of high-profile announcements from companies like Facebook (now Meta) and Microsoft, the phrase “metaverse” is still little more than a buzzword.
That said, the fact that several big tech companies are dedicating a lot of resources to the concept is definitely interesting, and might be what finally moves the idea from empty hype to something tangible and useful.
Despite being coined three decades ago in Snow Crash, the idea of the metaverse is still barely in its infancy. That said, even though the metaverse today is little more than a concept, emerging technologies and heavy investment by tech giants can easily change that in the future.
What did you think of our guide to the metaverse? Do you feel like you have a clearer idea of what it is and how it might be used? Or are you just as confused by the vagueness of the term as you were before? Let us know in the comments below. Thank you for reading.