Interest in persistent, shared virtual worlds has grown in recent years. A key player is Facebook, whose founder Mark Zuckerberg has said building a “metaverse” will be the realization of an idea he was interested in before he even dreamed of social networking. At the same time, Microsoft has announced that it is working on building the “enterprise metaverse.” But what does it really mean?
Metaverses as a concept have existed for a long time – digital shared universes where we can take on whatever personality we want, or work together on collaborative projects. They haven’t always been depicted as good things. In Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, where the term first appears to have been used, it was a place people went to escape the dreary totalitarian reality of the real world they live in. In The Matrix movies, it is somewhere machines put us after we’ve become their slaves, so they can use us to generate electricity. Perhaps not the first ideas you would want Silicon Valley to take inspiration when it comes to their own visions for our future.
However, it’s clearly a concept that we’ve been building towards since the emergence of the internet, social media, virtual reality, and early attempts at creating shared digital environments such as Second Life.
Zuckerberg has described his conception of the metaverse as an "internet that you're inside of, rather than just looking at," which gives us some clues about how he is approaching it. The reason we’re having a serious conversation about metaverses now is that several key technology trends have reached a level of maturity where they will be up to the task. One of these is certainly virtual reality.
Facebook has invested heavily in VR since acquiring headset manufacturer Oculus in 2014. It has made no secret of the fact that it doesn’t see the future of VR as being confined to the “walled garden” gaming and educational environments where it’s most commonly found today.
Instead, the eventual goal is fusing VR’s ability to create virtual environments with the power of social media to create shared online spaces.
This has been tried before – there are plenty of VR apps that allow socializing with friends, for example. But within a metaverse, the difference is that users won’t necessarily be limited to a narrow range of functionality that the app has been created for – chatting, or playing a game together, for example. Instead, players should be capable of virtually doing anything they might want to do. The key here is building simulated worlds that model as much of our environment and reality as possible. A bit like the world created in the science fiction adventure film Ready Player One.
For example, walking onto a VR tennis court and picking up tennis rackets, it’s already perfectly possible for two people to play a game of VR tennis – as seen in a number of VR video games today. What if they don’t want to play tennis, though? They might decide they could have more fun chasing each other around the court trying to bash each other’s avatars with their rackets. Or digging up the tennis court and building a basketball court instead. Or just leaving the court and going to watch a concert, or do some work in your virtual office. A key feature of a metaverse is that it should cater for emergent user behavior, rather than being constructed for one specific application, like a VR tennis sim, or a collaborative working environment like Slack or Teams.
Metaverses don’t need to be limited to one platform, as long as there is a shared, continuous experience. Your metaverse life might take you from immersive, VR environments, to 3D environments rendered on a conventional flat screen, to 2D applications on your mobile phone, depending on what you want to do. The important factor is that there is continuity between the activities and environments, in terms of the user experience and avatar you control.
Everyone seems to agree that avatars will be a core part of the metaverse experience. To fit with Zuckerberg’s vision of “being in” the environment, there has to be some form of digital avatar of you for others to interact with. On Facebook or other social media platforms, your profile picture acts as your avatar. In a metaverse, it might be a 3D representation of you. In a gaming or fantasy metaverse environment, it might be anything you can imagine. But an important principle is that this avatar – or some element of it – will be able to move across and between different areas of the metaverse, and be recognizable as “you”, no matter what you’re doing or what platform you’re using.
The metaverse and society
It isn’t just improvements to technology that mean the idea of the metaverse is moving closer to reality. Since the start of the pandemic, many people have increasingly found themselves living their lives online. We have become increasingly used to working, shopping, and socializing digitally, so the idea of bringing all of these activities together in one seamless digital environment is not as much of a leap as it would have seemed just a few years ago.
But these changes bring societal challenges, too. The shift to online living has undeniably enabled a lot of activity that can be damaging or unhealthy, from identity theft and fraud to trolling and abuse.
There’s also a danger that real-life inequalities such as the wealth divide will be replicated inside the metaverse. Immersive 3D environments require a lot of computer power to generate, meaning that those with less budget to spend on headsets and computer equipment might have a better experience. This could end up having a negative impact on society if, for example, companies made hiring decisions based on a person’s presence in the metaverse, or it becomes a channel for the delivery of education, training, or even dating opportunities.
How far are we from the metaverse?
The companies speaking seriously about creating metaverses are all positioning it as an aspiration for the future. For now, it mainly serves as a concept model for ways that existing online environments – such as social media, or work-based environments such as Nvidia’s Omniverse can become more immersive and more deeply integrated into our everyday lives.
Merging virtual reality with social networking is likely to be the first step. Facebook has recently spoken extensively about its plans to do this, and says that it expects it to become a reality within five years.
However, it’s clear that there are still a lot of problems that need to be worked through before we’re ready to move our lives entirely online. While we may currently be used to carrying out many activities – shopping, entertainment, socializing, and working – in digital environments, we aren't quite at the stage – technologically speaking or as a society – where we’re ready to do the same with the bits that join them all together!
For now, there are opportunities to get a bite-sized taste of what a metaverse experience might feel like. Epic Games has experimented with expanding the borders of its Fortnite gaming universe to include social events and concerts, most recently featuring Ariana Grande.
Some people simply consider the metaverse to be the “next generation” of the internet – what “online” will look like when 2D screens eventually become redundant, superseded by headsets, or even lenses that project images directly onto our retinas.
The truth is it’s still very much up in the air – no one knows for sure what the architecture and rules will be when connected, immersive environments become our online home. But with the biggest names in the world of tech racing to sell us on their version, we can expect growing excitement around the concept.
If you would like to learn more about the rise of virtual and augmented reality, you might like to check out my latest book, Extended Reality in Practice: 100+ Amazing Ways Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality Are Changing Business and Society.