Into the metaverse: What is it?

You may think that Mark Zuckerberg coined the word ‘metaverse’ as a whole new concept when he rebranded Facebook to Meta. But that isn’t quite true. Tech companies have been talking about it for a very long time after Neal Stephenson came up with the term ‘metaverse’ in his science fiction novel ‘Snow Crash’ which is required reading for Meta’s (Facebook’s) management.

Zuckerberg is so heavily invested in the metaverse that Facebook, ouch… Meta has even changed their stock trading symbol to MVRS.

So, is the metaverse going to look like something out of Ready Player One or is it going to just be a catch-all phrase for existing technologies?

Let’s try to figure out what this Metaverse of Madness is all about.

What exactly is the metaverse?

There are quite a few definitions thrown around regarding the metaverse. But they all have quite a few things in common — most definitions describe the metaverse to be a hyper-realistic virtual world in which people are represented by avatars and can interact with each other, hold meetings, buy digital property, work, play, and do much more. It’s a persistent world in which the avatars live and interact with each other. Users even have the ability to create their own virtual property.

According to Mark Zuckerberg, it would take around 5 to 10 years before the main features of the metaverse become mainstream, but if you go by most definitions, we’ve already had the metaverse for a while — Fortnite and Minecraft allow users to socialize, learn, play games, buy things, etc. in a persistent virtual world where they are represented by their avatars.

So, why does Mark have such a distant timeline on his mind? That’s probably because the metaverse that Zuckerberg envisioned involves photorealistic avatars and spaces, EMG input using gestures and wrist movements, and even holograms, and voice interactions that come together to generate immersive virtual versions of work, play, socializing, shopping, traveling, etc.

The metaverse is expected to be an evolution of the internet we currently use. In spite of Zuckerberg’s 5–10 year timeline for the arrival of the metaverse, there are aspects of the metaverse that already exist today. We already have virtual reality headsets and persistent, always-on virtual worlds that are up and running. We even have extremely fast internet connections, which are about to get even faster when we’re all on 5G connections.

But there still are a lot of technical aspects that are yet to come for the metaverse that Zuckerberg is talking about to become a reality.

“The next platform and medium will be even more immersive and embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it, and we call this the metaverse,”
- Meta CEO, Mark Zuckerberg

Is the metaverse AR or VR?

The metaverse isn’t just AR or VR, it’s both of them and more. It includes virtual reality, augmented reality, the internet and several other technologies. Microsoft is already using holograms and is working on developing mixed reality and extended reality (XR) on the Microsoft Mesh platform. It even intends to bring mixed reality in the form of holograms and virtual avatars to Microsoft Teams in 2022.

The biggest difference between AR & VR and the metaverse is that AR and VR have very clear definitions while the metaverse is a very vague concept that has not been clearly defined as yet.

VR and AR are certainly going to be big in the metaverse, Meta (Facebook back then) did after all spend $2 billion to acquire Oculus VR. There are certainly going to be parts of the metaverse that will be accessible via AR and VR, but it’s not going to be limited to those technologies. It is expected that the virtual spaces in the metaverse will be designed in such a way that they could be accessed from anywhere, with or without a headset.

What are the limitations of the metaverse?

The biggest limitations of the metaverse, right now, are that we’d need special equipment to access a lot of the metaverse. VR headsets and AR glasses like Google Glasses and Snap Spectacles are only experimental products at the very best right now.

Another issue is that VR headsets are not the most comfortable accessories to wear. They are rather clunky and a lot of people have had to deal with motion sickness as well as physical pain when they wear these headsets for extended periods of time. And with AR glasses… you really need to have a ridiculous level of confidence (or indifference) to deal with all the stares that you’d get for wearing those awkward-looking glasses in public.

Even the high-speed internet connections that the metaverse would require aren’t available in all parts of the world, which means that the metaverse would effectively be off-limits to a large chunk of the Earth’s population, especially the rural ones.

A lot of the tech demos show visions of the metaverse that just aren’t possible with the technology available today. So while some of it is possible with upgraded versions of currently available technology, a lot of it will require completely new technology to be developed.

What can you do in the metaverse?

In the metaverse, you will be represented by an avatar that has the ability to move, speak, and even perform animated actions. You’ll even be able to interact with the avatars of other metaverse users, work, play, buy digital property in the metaverse and build new parts of the metaverse and new things in it. A lot of these things are already possible in Fortnite, Minecraft, Roblox, and Second Life.

In the future, we’ll probably see a way for us to carry these avatars across different aspects of the metaverse at large, unlike the current situation where you’d have one avatar on one platform and need to make another if you want to use another platform.

Using the same avatars across the whole metaverse

‍We’ve already seen Nike file trademarks for two forms of their Swoosh logo, the Jordan “Jumpman” and “Air Jordan” wings logo as well as the brand names “Nike” and “Jordan”, along with the phrase “Just Do It” for downloadable goods in computer programs featuring footwear, clothing, headwear, eyewear, bags, sports bags, backpacks, sports equipment, art, toys and accessories for online use. This hints towards the theory that they’re gearing up to sell virtual clothes and accessories for avatars in the metaverse. They even got a patent in 2019 for “Cryptokicks” — collectible virtual shoes that are stored on a blockchain network.

Facebook — sorry Meta… it’s going to take some time to get used to this — even has Horizon Workrooms beta in which co-workers can attend meetings through their virtual avatars in a virtual meeting space by using an Oculus Quest 2 VR headset.

Thought that was cool? What about metaverse concerts? Marshmello, Travis Scott, and Ariana Grande all created musical spectacles on Fortnite drawing tens of millions of live viewers to experience these surreal events.

Ariana Grande’s metaverse concert on Fortnite

‍And that’s not all that artists can do in the metaverse. NFTs are opening up a whole new avenue for artists to earn a living, and they can potentially have contracts that give artists a cut on the resale profits when the buyers flip the NFTs on secondary markets like OpenSea. The creator of the NFT (the original artist) could define a percentage that they would receive from all future sales of the NFT. So if the artist defines the creator share to be 10% and the NFT is originally sold for 0.5 ETH and the buyer later sells it for 5 ETH, the original artist would get another 0.5 ETH for that sale as well.

Remember the part about users being able to build parts of the metaverse themselves? Colleges like Penn, MIT, and Brown were rebuilt on Minecraft by students so that they could wander through the campus in the game.

Universities rebuilt on Minecraft (Source: Forbes and Minecraft)

‍Disney even has plans to create a Disneyland theme park metaverse. Disney’s CTO asks us to “Imagine a day where guests can explore with pirates, train with heroes, dance with royalty, and visit a galaxy far, far away without ever leaving their home.”‍

So, who’s going to own the metaverse?

That depends on whether you’re talking about ‘A metaverse’ or ‘THE metaverse’. It’s a matter of who is going to control it.

Essentially, any company could develop their own small metaverse, similar to what Fortnite, Minecraft, and Roblox do. This company would then take care of the servers, create policies for user conduct, and even define the way in which that particular metaverse works.

This is a situation where you’d see a whole bunch of separate metaverses competing for users, without allowing for interactions across them.

But if you’re talking about THE metaverse, you’re referring to a single shared metaverse that would, in all likelihood, be an entirely open architecture that uses a shared set of standards that are broadly agreed upon, quite similar to the way we have the world wide web and email.

Right now, it does seem like some companies might be trying to plant their flag on THE metaverse, but the fact is that many companies and organizations are contributing towards building the metaverse at large.

This article is about “Into the metaverse: What is it?” was originally published in Engati blogs.

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