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What is the Metaverse?

Every now and then, a new technology will be touted as the future – the very thing that will change lives, alter how we interact with each other and the world, and bring about a new way of receiving information, or being entertained.

Sometimes, that proves to be right. The ‘world wide web’ was once some mysterious jargon buzz-term. Sometimes it doesn’t quite land – 3D movies is a great example, or curved TV screens. Here for a little while, generate a bit of attention, then fade into obscurity.

So, what about this metaverse thing that seems to be one of the biggest things in tech? What is it, what does it mean, and is it going to go the same way as Myspace and Betamax or is this really the next steps for the online world?

The Metaverse explained

There’s no single definition of what the metaverse actually is, and there is no single metaverse at the minute. The best description of the metaverse is an online location where users can interact with each other, be social, interact with features and more, all from the comfort of their home.

If it sounds a little bit Ready Player One then that’s because the comparison isn’t too far wide of the mark, albeit without the countless pop culture references. It’s believed that the true metaverse will incorporate either VR, AR or a combination of the two and allow people to carry out all kinds of activities in a social, online space.

Does the Metaverse already exist?

Yes and no. There’s no single definitive metaverse and the potential options means that any single world at the minute is nowhere near what the metaverse of the future could look like. It may be that a single platform is developed that everyone logs into, or it could be that there are multiple metaverses, in the same way there are different social media platforms now.

There are some platforms that are similar to a metaverse now. One of the most straightforward is Fortnite. While Fortnite is a game that’s all about being the last person standing, it’s added a lot of varied content over the years, including hosting a virtual Ariana Grande concert where players could log in and enjoy the music together.

However the grand vision for the metaverse is still some way from being developed, and should be a lot more sophisticated. Expect to be able to hang out, shop, attend events and more all without leaving your home, and in a way that is so much more interactive than using your phone or laptop.

Who invented the Metaverse?

The term ‘metaverse’ was first used by science fiction author Neal Stephenson to describe a virtual 3D space. But there’s no single inventor of the actual concept.

CNBC put together a timeline that shows the history of the metaverse and how it has developed so far.

  • 1989 – The World Wide Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee
  • 1992 – Neal Stephenson coined the phrase ‘metaverse’
  • 2003 – The online virtual world Second Life was launched, seen as one of the first real attempts at some form of metaverse (or at least one of the first to gain traction)
  • 2006 – Roblox launches. This online platform allows users to create and play games together, beyond simply following an established game’s format
  • 2009 – Bitcoin is launched, the world’s first cryptocurrency and blockchain that was successful. It’s expected that crypto will play a large part in the metaverse.
  • 2011 – Ernest Cline releases his novel Ready Player One, which is based on a massive virtual reality metaverse
  • 2014 – Facebook acquires VR platform Oculus
  • 2015 – The first iteration of Decentraland is launched, where people can eventually buy virtual plots of land using Ethereum.
  • 2016 – Pokemon Go launches, showing the world how augmented reality can really take off
  • 2017 – Fortnite launches. While a shooting/survival game, it also introduces the concepts of virtual concerts and tours
  • 2018 – Vritual reality game Axie Infinity launches, based on the use of NFTs and Ethereum-based currencies
  • 2021 – Microsoft reveals Mesh, its platform designed to allow companies and creators to collaborate across multiple devices, seen as a key tool ahead of the future metaverse development
  • 2021 – Facebook’s parent company rebrands as Meta, with their plans for the metaverse unveiled at the same time.

Who’s involved in building the Metaverse?

Almost every major technology company has in some way announced plans to either help develop or be involved in the metaverse. Facebook is at the forefront, having rebranded just to take advantage of the name. It has promised that it is not striving to create a restricted platform but will collaborate with other companies too.

Microsoft has begun to shift the focus of some of its products to better allow businesses to collaborate in an online virtual world.

Google has begun looking at how its services could transition into a metaverse and has also begun working on a much-improved version of its Google Glass technology to allow users to access the metaverse.

And of course, Epic Games have said that they want Fortnite to continue leading the way. Tim Sweeney tweeted in December 2019 to say “Fortnite is a game. But ask that question again in 12 months.” And since then the title has kept innovating with online interactions.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Here are some of the other companies from outside the tech world that are getting involved:

Disney has appointed a new executive specifically to explore opportunities for the company within the metaverse. CEO Bob Chapek commented that Disney views the metaverse as “the perfect place to pursue our strategic pillars of storytelling excellence, innovation, and audience focus.”

Mcdonalds has recently filed a number of trademarks, some of which are seen as being tied to the metaverse, including the idea of creating a virtual restaurant that people could visit to place orders for home delivery.

Walmart hasn’t specifically commented on the metaverse but it is investigating related technologies including potentially creating its own cryptocurrency along with NFTs.

And sports teams are getting involved too. British soccer giants Manchester City have started work on building a virtual recreation of their stadium that fans from across the globe could attend to watch matches live, instead of watching them on a TV.

One major company to distance itself from the metaverse so far is Nintendo. They’ve stated that, while the metaverse clearly has great potential, as a company they don’t know how to best use that to provide the “fresh surprises and fun” for which the company is known. However they haven’t ruled out getting involved in future.

What will the metaverse actually look like?

Again, with the metaverse still in its early days, it’s impossible to know exactly how it will look, but a big part of the development will be in social interaction. It’s likely that a combination of virtual reality and augmented reality will be employed.

You’ll also likely have a digital avatar that represents you in the world. That way you’ll not feel like the only person at an event, there’ll be others you can see there.

But as for how the world will look – we just need to wait and see. A lot of it could be AR, so just overlaid graphics on top of the real world.

What tech will I need at home?

You’ll likely need a VR headset, although some elements of the metaverse may only make use of augmented reality, which could be achieved with your smartphone or with wearable tech.

While current VR gaming needs a pretty hefty PC with a high-level graphics card, it’s unlikely the metaverse will be a success if it’s only available to those with top-end tech. So once it does become mainstream, expect it to be something that works with the average tech people have at home, if not initially then eventually.

Facebook, as they are leading the way, will no doubt want you to buy an Oculus headset, but hopefully, they stick to their word and don’t limit some of the newest versions to their own propriety tech, and as long as you have some form of VR or AR device you’ll be able to enjoy the metaverse.

Metaverse concerns

There are a number of concerns about the metaverse, including:

  • Privacy – Facebook/Meta have already been scrutinized heavily for the amount of data they collect, and tracking someone’s virtual life could increase these concerns
  • Safety – there’ll be a lot of work to do to make sure people are respected online. Already there have been issues with people being virtually groped.
  • Addiction – will people be able to enjoy healthy and active normal lives if they start to develop an addiction to their virtual life?

No doubt there will be more concerns as the technology grows, so it’ll be interesting to see how developers react to these and offer assurances to users.

In summary

The metaverse is on the way, and while we don’t know exactly what it will look like, we do at least know that most of the biggest companies in the world are getting involved. This could absolutely be the platform that virtual reality was built for, opening up some exciting opportunities within the world of entertainment, socializing and more.

But companies need to demonstrate how they will look after users and ensure a safe, responsible online world that users needn’t fear using. The next few years will be very interesting, but it’s a great time to make sure you’ve got the VR tech you need so that you can be front of the line when the metaverse launches.

FAQs

Is the metaverse the same as virtual reality?

The metaverse isn’t the same thing as virtual reality, but it will likely use virtual reality technology. Virtual reality can sometimes be limited to one particular form of entertainment – VR games, or VR learning environments. The metaverse will incorporate this but lots more too. You’ll use a VR headset to access a huge range of different services and events within one massive virtual universe.

What is metaverse crypto?

There isn’t really a thing called ‘metaverse crypto’ but it’s envisaged that the metaverse will make use of cryptocurrencies. Most of the more popular online universes at the minute use Ethereum-blockchain currencies but now that the bigger tech companies are getting involved this could all change.

Can I invest in the metaverse?

It’s possible to invest in companies involved in the building of the metaverse, but it’s hard to make recommendations on who you should be backing. As ever, investing in a new technology is high-risk since there’s no guarantee it will launch soon, or smoothly.

Can I work in the metaverse?

At the minute, the best way to get involved with building the metaverse is if you’re already in a tech career and can get hired at one of the major companies leading the way in developing it. In the long term, you could in theory work in the metaverse from a range of industries – a lot of automation will be used but some careers could be carried out completely virtually.

Will the metaverse replace the internet?

The metaverse won’t replace the internet. It relies on the internet to work, since the internet is the connection needed for people to interact with the metaverse. It also isn’t likely to replace the world wide web, which is the current main way people interact online. While a lot of people will use the metaverse, there will still be times when it’s just easier to browse a web page.

Will the metaverse be free to use?

It’s unknown, but it would be surprising if the metaverse wasn’t free to use. The metaverse is expected to be a huge industry, potentially bigger than video games and movies, but that’ll be through charges within the metaverse. Getting logged on and interacting with many features will likely stay free.

Can the metaverse fail?

Of course it could – any technology could fail given the wrong sort of circumstances. While many people see the metaverse as the next big thing, it’ll depend on how it evolves and whether customers take to it. It seems pretty nailed on to be a success but that’s no guarantee.

When will the metaverse launch?

We don’t know. And nor do Facebook, Microsoft, Google and so on. It won’t be one sudden launch but it’ll be iterative, with small advances as the metaverse builds up gradually. It could be just a couple of years before the next big jump, or maybe 5 years. We’re not sure yet but we know it’s an exciting time.

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