What is the Metaverse and why does it matter?

virtual worldAll the big tech companies are currently raving about it. From Nvidia and Intel to Microsoft and Meta, formerly known as Facebook: everyone is talking about ‘The Metaverse”. Though what exactly is behind this new word and what does it mean for the future of the internet?

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Definition

Finding a definition for the term “metaverse” is difficult because at this point in time, it does not quite exist just yet. The metaverse can be seen as another reality that users can escape to and engage with. Its developers are promising that the interactions will be more meaningful and responsible than what the world wide web currently offers.

Within the metaverse (a simulated digital environment), users will find a collection of technologies including AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) along with holographic 3D avatars, blockchain, and more traditional features of social media. The idea is to construct a space that can simulate the real world, one in which people can create a digital second life, where there are endless opportunities for interactions and where everyone can co-exist in a digital universe of their own creation.

Metaverse Origins

Metaverse combines meta and a shortened form of universe. Looking at etymology, the word “meta” comes from Greek, meaning “after” or “beyond”. It is often found in combination with other English words and as such, tends to signify change as in “metamorph”. Universe derives from Latin and is defined as a particular sphere of activity or experience. Combining both, “metaverse” can be understood as a space that goes beyond.

While the latest hype around the metaverse is only a few months old, the actual term has been around for three decades. It was first introduced by American science fiction author Neal Stephenson who used the term metaverse in his 1992 novel, Snow Crash. The futuristic story mentions the metaverse as a virtual reality environment to which the book characters escape from their dystopian world full of suffering and injustice.

Milestones

A lot has happened since 1992, and what was once a futuristic idea is slowly becoming reality. Online communities started gaining popularity in the mid-1980s, while the 90s saw the beginning of chat rooms, instant messaging (AOL) and social media sites.

The term metaverse came back into fashion in October 2021 with Facebook rebranding itself “Meta” and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announcing his vision of a highly immersive virtual world, one in which people come together to socialise, play and work.

Today, games such as Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox are already like ever-growing online universes that incorporate many of the functions the metaverse will offer. Furthermore, we are diving into alternative worlds with VR headsets and connecting with people around the globe through mixed reality video gaming applications.

Opportunities

In a way, the metaverse will be an evolution of the internet as we know it and fans see huge potential in its creation. A new wave of support for new technologies has started with the Coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the planet during the last couple of years, banning millions of people into their homes and limiting social face-to-face interactions.

With the development of new aspects of the metaverse, online users will be increasingly able to stay connected with friends through all stages and events of life including going on virtual trips together or attending conferences, weddings and concerts.

Business growth

Tech companies and traditional businesses alike are also looking at how they can utilise the metaverse for revenue and growth. In addition to creating thousands of new jobs for developers, designers and technology geeks, the potential to earn and make money is immense.

In 2021, video game company Roblox and skateboarding shoe company Vans teamed up to provide supporters with a virtual skateboarding experience in which players could skate through their favourite parks, dressing up their avatars in the latest Vans fashion.

Roblox has also partnered with fashion label Gucci, opening up a Gucci garden within their very own metaverse and allowing avatars to wear the latest Italian designer clothes. In both cases, users are encouraged to spend real money on collectible items and accessories.

Beginning of the year, Microsoft acquired game developer Activision Blizzard for US$68.7 billion, stating that this would provide the software giant with the necessary building blocks to create their own metaverse.

Implications

One of the biggest concerns around the metaverse is the privacy of users, their data and their general rights while roaming in the metaverse. Much like the issues we encounter in the online world today, hacking, spamming, catfishing and misinformation would remain and be possibly taken to new levels.

Additionally, the metaverse would also be subjected to current global issues including hate speech, harassment, radicalization and bullying. Experts also worry about the time spent in the virtual world rather than with real people. Many children already spent more time on screens and devices rather than climbing trees, going fishing or exploring nature in general.

It is unclear how the makers of the metaverse plan to tackle any of these problems.

Outlook

One of the driving forces behind the metaverse is Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg. According to his timeline, it will be another 5 to 10 years before his idea of the metaverse will become reality and available to users all around the world.

Until then, talking about the metaverse is a little like talking about the internet in the 1970s. Everyone had heard about it, nobody really knew what it was or what it would look like. Some predictions came true, others turned out to be nothing but fiction.

While certain characteristics of the metaverse already exist, developers have their work cut out to come up with new technologies, designs and the appropriate software to make it happen. It is hard to say which way the metaverse will take us, as much depends on its architects.

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