The brave new virtual world of the metaverse is coming soon and our human experience will forever be transformed. Are you ready?
No longer confined to science fiction or our own singular reality, we will soon be able to transcend multiple realities via unlimited interconnected virtual communities where people can meet, work, learn, play, and shop.
Not to mention the allure of escaping reality to assume a new identity, play games, fall in love, cheat, lie, and steal… all without conscious or consequence.
This immersive online experience encompasses virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) experiences along with other digital simulations, where your passport into this new world is through VR headsets, AR glasses, smartphone apps, or other devices.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s dive in and explore the metaverse…
What is the Metaverse?
Some have called the metaverse the next evolution of the internet, or web 3.0.
The problem is that there’s not a single correct definition to what a metaverse is – and isn’t – which has sparked a lot of confusion.
The name “metaverse” is actually attributed to Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction classic Snow Crash, but the idea is even older. Stephenson’s “vision of the metaverse owed a debt to Vernor Vinge’s 1981 True Names and to a series of William Gibson novels from the ’80s,” Amherst professor Ethan Zuckerman, who created his own kludgy metaverse in 1995, writes in The Atlantic. “Both of those authors owed a debt to Morton Heilig’s 1962 Sensorama machine, and on and on we go, back in time to Plato’s shadows on a cave wall.”
I personally think the best example is showcased in one of my favorite movies, Ready Player One – written by Ernest Cline and directed Steven Spielberg – that mostly takes place in the virtual reality world called “The OASIS” that connects all VR experiences into a single experience.
And that’s really the best definition of the metaverse, where it’s really the space in between the VR worlds where you can “live” and do things as you would in the real world – walk and talk, meet and interact with new people via avatars, and then hop into a movie theatre and watch a movie, or play a game at the arcade or buy something at the mall.
The biggest difference between our current internet experience and the metaverse, is that you will really feel like you’re there and part of the virtual world.
But the reality is that in today’s world, the metaverse doesn’t exist.
However, platforms such as Fortnite present an early glimpse of what a real metaverse could look like. Fortnite features a virtual online gaming experience where each player has an avatar. Various brands also join the fray advertising to Fortnite users as they socialize on the platform in a shared experience.
This is just the beginning, however. In a fully-fledged Metaverse, people from all walks around the world will be able to live in a virtual 3D environment where they can socialize and work; essentially building a community of like-minded individuals who share similar interests.
Mark Zuckerberg is so passionate about the metaverse that he changed the name of Facebook to Meta to embody this priority across their product portfolio. Mark describes the metaverse in his Founders Letter as “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.” He goes on to talk about how “in this future, you will be able to teleport instantly as a hologram to be at the office without a commute, at a concert with friends, or in your parents’ living room to catch up.” And then he rationalizes the metaverse existence through its benefits, including a reduced carbon footprint and less time stuck in traffic.
Matthew Ball’s essay on what a metaverse is from January 2020 is another good reference, where he provides a specific definition of the parameters for the metaverse:
The Metaverse, we think, will…
- Be persistent – which is to say, it never “resets” or “pauses” or “ends”, it just continues indefinitely
- Be synchronous and live – even though pre-scheduled and self-contained events will happen, just as they do in “real life”, the Metaverse will be a living experience that exists consistently for everyone and in real-time
- Be without any cap to concurrent users, while also providing each user with an individual sense of “presence” – everyone can be a part of the Metaverse and participate in a specific event/place/activity together, at the same time and with individual agency
- Be a fully functioning economy – individuals and businesses will be able to create, own, invest, sell, and be rewarded for an incredibly wide range of “work” that produces “value” that is recognized by others
- Be an experience that spans both the digital and physical worlds, private and public networks/experiences, and open and closed platforms
- Offer unprecedented interoperability of data, digital items/assets, content, and so on across each of these experiences – your Counter-Strike gun skin, for example, could also be used to decorate a gun in Fortnite, or be gifted to a friend on/through Facebook. Similarly, a car designed for Rocket League (or even for Porsche’s website) could be brought over to work in Roblox. Today, the digital world basically acts as though it were a mall where every store used its own currency, required proprietary ID cards, had proprietary units of measurement for things like shoes or calories, and different dress codes, etc.
- Be populated by “content” and “experiences” created and operated by an incredibly wide range of contributors, some of whom are independent individuals, while others might be informally organized groups or commercially-focused enterprises
The possibilities of the metaverse are only constrained by our own imaginations, where everything that you can dream of will be available at your virtual fingertips. Anything from playing games to owning property, buying and selling digital assets, trading cryptocurrencies or even breeding digital animals.
Business in the Metaverse
The primary reason you need to be knowledgeable of the metaverse is that many tech experts are envisioning a future where the vast majority of our work is actually conducted in the metaverse (through virtual reality headsets). You will be able to meet with clients, create a presentation, develop innovative products and services, or even host a conference inside a virtual online environment of your own design. This would allow you to do everything from developing and testing prototypes to all aspects of sales & marketing to negotiating deals. The capabilities are infinite.
Companies are also starting to realize the importance of building a virtual presence in the metaverse. In China, for instance, Alibaba has built a VR shopping mall that specializes in helping both vendors and buyers to essentially ‘shop’ inside an online virtual store.
Education in the Metaverse
Teachers will be able to hold online classes in a virtual classroom, where students can discuss with each other using their avatars. Students will also no longer need to leave the house to visit museums around the world; they could simply tour a museum in the metaverse instead.
Science in the Metaverse
Scientists will be able to explore and conduct revolutionary experiments in a virtual lab; which is something that has never been done before. Imagine what Einstein could have accomplished if he had access to the metaverse!
Politics and Diplomacy in the Metaverse
The metaverse also has the potential to change politics and global affairs for the better. The US Congress could actually be a truly representative – yet digital – form of government as our founders hoped. International diplomacy may just as easily be conducted in virtual embassies. And smaller, less powerful nations may find themselves on a more level playing field, better able to stay in the mix in global affairs or perhaps, to forge unlikely alliances.
Builders of the Metaverse
Many companies – and even countries – are already hard at work building the metaverse, including Facebook, Microsoft, NVIDIA, Epic Games, and many more.
Supporting the metaverse functionality is a constellation of technologies including hardware, computer networks and payment tools. Virtual reality headsets such as Oculus Rift have even been released to the public and it’s widely believed that with the growth of this technology, immersive online gaming will soon become a part of everyday life for people around the world.
While the metaverse is meant to be decentralized like the internet without a single owner, the U.S. and China are emerging as the leaders in the race to build, own, and operate the metaverse. While true “ownership” won’t be a possibility for any single country because they don’t control enough of the core technologies that make the metaverse possible, the country that maintains the most control over those technologies will have significant international leverage, just as countries that command things like transport routes or oil supplies do today.
And much like the internet today that is increasingly fragmented across countries due to sophisticated internet filtering systems that block out large swaths of content and services, there’s a distinct possibility that there could be multiple metaverses that reach all or some of the world population.
If the metaverse does become the successor to the internet, who builds it, and how, will be extremely important to the future of the economy and society as a whole.
Prison of Our Own Design
The metaverse has immense potential to revolutionize how we work and play, but it’s critical to be informed of the dangers that will emerge if it subsumes our daily lives.
As it is, we are already spending more time on our connected devices and social media than ever before, and that trend is only going to continue. Imagine if we spent almost our entire lives in this digital cocoon, where it could possibly create a generation of disillusioned and socially isolated humans who lack any form of interpersonal skills, leading many to attempt to replicate their sensational and lurid behavior in the real world to disastrous consequences.
Additionally, virtual environments will supercharge disinformation campaigns, espionage, and surveillance. Struggles for control of the metaverse’s physical infrastructure could very well aggravate global conflicts. And the supranational nature of the metaverse — where real world borders become far less relevant — could revolutionize the way that individuals perceive and interact with nation-states.
China could effectively control the metaverse’s backbone in many corners of the world, thanks to its Digital Silk Road initiative, which finances some countries’ telecommunications systems. Taiwan, which dominates the semiconductor industry that supports computing needs, will likely become even more of a linchpin on the global stage.
This kind of physical infrastructure will, in turn, be vulnerable to hacking and supply chain interruptions. If people own property, earn a living, and maintain communities in the metaverse, then hardware shortages or service outages could jeopardize livelihoods or undermine social stability.
The metaverse is coming. Whether you like it or not.
Twenty-five years ago, the internet was still a novelty accessed through a slow dial-up modem that tied up the landline phone you relied on for communication. Many experts argued back then about the benefits and dangers of such a powerful global communication network, and we’ve been fortunate to have mostly thrived by harnessing its power.
But the metaverse has the potential to be exponentially more powerful, and conversely, exponentially more harmful to human society if not properly implemented, utilized, and governed. Aldous Huxley famously warned us about how much control we as a society should give to technology in his book Brave New World, and with the potential for the metaverse to largely replace the reality of our daily lives, this warning should not taken lightly.
We must ask ourselves, who is controlling who? Are we giving up too much of our freedom for the sake of progress? And is the metaverse worth the risk?
The metaverse is still in its infancy, however, the development of new technologies will continue to evolve and materialize it at an immense rate. This will have various effects on society as people increasingly spend their time in this brave new world.
The OASIS in Ready Player One works because it feels like it has no owners and no agenda. It’s simply a utility, a toolkit available for artisans, corporations, and ordinary people alike. If we want to realize this potential ourselves – universal freedom and possibility – let’s start thinking about the metaverse the way Cline does: not as a first-to-market commodity, but as a world all its own.