The metaverse is a vision of what many in the computer industry believe is the next iteration of the internet: a single, shared, immersive, persistent, 3D virtual space where humans experience life in ways they could not in the physical world. Some of the technologies that provide access to this virtual world, such as virtual reality (VR) headsets and augmented reality (AR) glasses, are evolving quickly; other critical components of the metaverse, such as adequate bandwidth or interoperability standards, are probably years off or might never materialize.
The concept is not new: The term metaverse was coined in 1992 by author Neal Stephenson in his sci-fi novel Snow Crash, and work on the technologies that underpin a virtual reality-based internet date back decades. In this world, the computer screens we use today to connect to a worldwide web of information have become portals to a 3D virtual realm that’s palpable — like real life, only bigger and better. Digital facsimiles of ourselves, or avatars, move freely from one experience to another, taking our identities and our money with us. This is known as the metaverse and, hype notwithstanding, it does not exist today.
“Metaverse” became a household word when Facebook rebranded its corporate identity to Meta in October 2021 and announced plans to invest at least $10 billion in the concept that year. In addition to Meta, tech giants including Google, Microsoft, Nvidia and Qualcomm are also investing billions of dollars in the concept. Management consultancy McKinsey & Company has bullishly predicted that the metaverse economy could reach $5 trillion by 2030. E-commerce is expected to be the dominant engine, with gaming, entertainment, education and marketing in the metaverse also becoming important sectors.
Today, companies use the term to refer to many different types of enhanced online environments. These range from online video games like Fortnite to fledgling virtual workplaces like Microsoft’s Mesh or Meta’s Horizon Workrooms to virtual dressing rooms and virtual operating rooms. Rather than a single shared virtual space, the current version of the metaverse is shaping up as a multiverse: a multitude of metaverses with limited interoperability as companies jockey for position. The combination of uncritical enthusiasm for the metaverse and deep uncertainty about how it will pan out has sparked some backlash. Industry watchers have questioned if the metaverse will ultimately be much different from the digital experiences we have today or, if it is, whether the masses will be willing to spend hours a day in a headset navigating digital space.
Other futurists, however, argue that while it is early days for the metaverse and fundamental technical barriers still exist, the metaverse will happen. And, it will arrive with a big bang. Because the metaverse is largely unbuilt, there is little agreement on how it will work. Broadly speaking, however, the metaverse is a digital ecosystem built on various kinds of 3D technology, real-time collaboration software and blockchain-based decentralized finance tools. Factors such as the degree of interoperability among virtual worlds, data portability, governance and user interfaces will depend on how the metaverse pans out.
Two technologies considered important to the development and growth of the metaverse are virtual reality and augmented reality:
- Virtual reality is a simulated 3D environment that enables users to interact with virtual surroundings in a way that approximates reality as perceived through our senses. This approximation of reality is now typically accessed through a VR headset that takes over a user’s field of vision. Haptics, including gloves, vests and even full-body tracking suits, enable more lifelike interaction with the virtual environment.
- Augmented reality is less immersive than VR. It adds digital overlays on top of the real world via a lens of some type. Users can still interact with their real-world environment. The game Pokémon Go is an early example of AR. Google Glass and heads-up displays in car windshields are well-known consumer AR products.
At present, many of the metaverse-like experiences offered by gaming platforms such as Roblox, Decentraland and Minecraft can be accessed through browsers or mobile devices and a fast internet connection. VR is often associated with the metaverse, but the terms aren’t synonymous. Particular VR technologies, as noted, provide the means for interacting with the more expansive multiverse platforms. Within that access role, VR can support a variety of metaverse use cases. For example, VR can combine with the allied field of digital twin technology, which lets organizations create virtual representations of physical devices, machines or processes.
The online gaming industry has decades-long experience in creating immersive worlds through such technologies as VR gaming. And to the extent, a proto-metaverse has a mainstream use, the massive audiences that flock — albeit not synchronously — to the likes of Roblox, Epic Games and Decentraland suggest that playing games, building virtual worlds and investing in real estate might be it.
It must be underscored that the metaverse is still a set of possibilities, not a reality. There are many unknowns. How exactly the metaverse will become manifest — who will control it, what it will encompass and how much of an impact it will have on our lives — is still up for debate. At one end of the spectrum are those who believe the metaverse will enhance our lives, enabling experiences we could not have in the physical world. Metaverse sceptics view it as merely an extension of the digital experiences we have today but not transformative — and potentially something worse: a magnifier of the current social media ills, including disinformation campaigns, addictive behaviour and tendencies toward violence.
In the ever-expanding Metaverse, let’s embrace the digital revolution while treasuring real-world connections. As we navigate this new frontier, balance is key. Enjoy the virtual wonders, but don’t lose sight of the beauty in face-to-face moments. Use the Metaverse to enhance, not replace, our lives. In this dance between the virtual and the actual, let mindfulness be your guide. As we shape the future, may our humanity shine through, creating a harmonious blend of the digital and the tangible that enriches the human experience.