Back in June, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would transition from being a social media company to being a metaverse company. Other companies (including Disney and Epic Games) also revealed they are investing in similar efforts. Since then, a lot of people have been discussing what this metaverse would look like.
Zuckerberg is certainly betting that this “Ready Player One” experience of sorts will be the future of the internet. But, will it? The idea of bringing together the virtual and physical worlds is hardly new and the term “metaverse” has been around for nearly 30 years. Is this some sort of long sci-fi obsession finally coming to fruition? Or will it actually be the idea that redefines what the internet is and can be?
What Is the Metaverse?
The idea of the metaverse is hardly new. In fact, the term “metaverse” first appeared in a sci-fi novel called “Snow Crash”, penned by Neal Stephenson and released in 1992. Stephenson used it to name the convergence of virtual spaces and physical reality. And that’s precisely the way in which Zuckerberg and other industry leaders see it.
In a lengthy interview with “The Verge”, the Facebook CEO explains what the metaverse is for him, saying that it’s “an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content—you are in it.” It’s hard not to think of virtual reality headsets and digital worlds for users to interact in a myriad of ways, an Aerosmith’s “Amazing” video clip meets Second Life sort of thing.
But Zuckerberg says that the metaverse is so much more than that. For him, VR is a huge part of the metaverse but it’s far from being the only one. Augmented reality, mobile systems, gaming consoles, and even desktop computers are all part of the mix.
All of it will result in what Zuckerberg sees as “a persistent, synchronous environment where we can be together, [resembling] some kind of a hybrid between the social platforms that we see today, but an environment where you’re embodied in it.”
That might clarify things a little bit but we’re still somewhat far from a clear understanding of the metaverse. Maybe using the key characteristics of a metaverse as defined by venture capitalist Matthew Ball can help. According to Bell, a metaverse should:
- Span the physical and virtual worlds
- Contain a fully-fledged economy
- Offer unprecedented interoperability
Aside from that, the multiverse Zuckerberg and other tech leaders imagine is decentralized. In other words, no one company will run the metaverse. Each company can have a presence in it and run their own “spaces” as they see fit, but no one will be able to impose rules on the entire metaverse.
Following all these considerations, the metaverse would be a huge digital community that brings VR and AR together to provide a lifelike experience where users (as avatars) can engage in diverse activities, including talking to one another, attending concerts, seminars, and other events, shopping for both physical and digital goods, reading books, and engaging in wildly imaginative experiences.
Why the Growing Interest in the Metaverse?
If the metaverse is a decades-old idea, then why are so many big companies pushing for it right now? What’s the main motivation behind this seemingly sudden interest?
You could argue that the dream of building a metaverse was always there and just now we have the technology and digital communal sense brought by social media to start building it. There’s some truth to that line of thinking. Without the sophisticated technologies of today and the ubiquitous presence of social media, the concept of metaverse would stay at its theoretical level.
But there has to be something more than this—and there just might be. Certain experts see this growing fascination with the metaverse as a way to meet the new demands and interests of younger generations. Those experts support that perspective by pointing at the market of virtual items in video games or the explosion of non-fungible tokens (NFTs).
The reasoning is pretty straightforward: Younger generations are more willing than ever to pay real money for virtual assets. That logic has proven widely successful in video games, where in-game spending reached $54 billion U.S. dollars in 2020. If you consider that projections estimate the market value of in-game purchases to surpass $74.4 billion U.S. dollars in 2025, you’ll understand why companies might want to extend that logic to anything and everything.
So, in a highly utilitarian vision, the metaverse would serve as a way to build new revenue streams for all kinds of organizations. The profits wouldn’t just come from selling digital items and features. All the equipment needed to connect to the metaverse (from wearables to accessories) would also increase the profits for many of the companies pushing for this concept.
There’s another aspect to consider. After the pandemic hit, people started adopting different habits, including “living” the life that stay-at-home orders denied them through digital environments. Thus, museums and popular landmarks offered virtual tours, wineries mounted online tastings, remote nightclub experiences became a thing—even music artists did concerts in Fortnite! All of this would go to show that people crave this kind of experience, another indicator of the metaverse’s viability in today’s world.
Finally, there’s the communal component. Facebook has always said that its mission is to connect people online, and the metaverse would actually be an evolution of today’s digital connections. And while we could be cynical about their ulterior motives, neither you nor I can deny that jumping into a virtual world like the one in “Ready Player One” would be amazingly fun. What’s more, the possibilities for such an environment are countless, which makes it all the more appealing.
Is the Metaverse the Future of the Internet?
Even for all its futuristic ring, all the above makes it sound like the metaverse might actually become a reality sooner rather than later. So, can I say that it’s the future of the internet? Not necessarily. While it’s true that the power of companies like Facebook, Microsoft, and Google can make this all happen, it remains to be seen how they all plan to overcome the many obstacles that come with the notion of the metaverse.
Some of the most notable challenges for the metaverse include bringing VR headsets out of their gaming niche, fixing VR’s downsides (especially the infamous motion sickness), establishing processes and ground rules for building the digital environment, developing ways to control online trolls and other disruptions, and getting governmental buy-in that provides the necessary regulation and support for economic, political, and social aspects within the metaverse. And all those challenges are just the ones I can name off the top of my head!
Dealing with those obstacles won’t be easy, not even for the big tech companies betting it all in the metaverse. Facebook, probably the most vocal company about this endeavor, is riddled with privacy issues that have taken the social media giant to court on numerous occasions. How can we expect that such a company will build an egalitarian digital world without trying to exercise a firm grip over it?
Don’t get me wrong, the metaverse feels like an amazing dream. If you told 10-year-old me, who was fascinated with “Star Trek,” that something akin to the Holodeck was going to be real, I’d have gone insane with joy. But as a level-headed adult, I can’t get past the many hurdles the metaverse has to overcome to become a reality. This means that, while the metaverse is a possible future for the internet, it certainly doesn’t feel like a close future.
We are still in the very early stages of the metaverse with plenty to define and a lot of work to do. Like Zuckerberg says, “There is this long-term question, where, as a society, we should want a very large amount of capital and our most talented technical people working on these futuristic problems to lead and innovate in these spaces.” The discussion is on the table. Are we willing to play our part to make the metaverse a reality