The metaverse, according to tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg and Satya Nadella, is the internet’s future. It might also be a video game. Maybe it’s a more obnoxious, unsettling version of Zoom? It’s difficult to say.
To some extent, debating the meaning of “the metaverse” is similar to debating the meaning of “the internet” in the 1970s. The foundations of a new mode of communication were being put in place, but no one knew what the final product would look like. While it was true at the time that “the internet” was on the way, not every vision of what it would include was accurate.
On the other hand, the concept of the metaverse is surrounded by a lot of marketing hype. Facebook, in particular, is in a vulnerable position as a result of Apple’s decision to limit ad tracking, which has hurt the company’s financial line. It’s impossible to separate Facebook’s vision of a future in which everyone has a digital wardrobe to browse from the fact that the company intends to profit from selling virtual garments.
So, keeping all of this in mind…
Seriously, What Does ‘Metaverse’ Mean?
Here’s an experiment to help you understand how nebulous and convoluted the term “metaverse” maybe: In a statement, mentally replace the words “the metaverse” with “cyberspace.” Ninety percent of the time, the meaning will not vary significantly. This is because the phrase refers to a broad shift in how we engage with technology rather than a single form of technology. Even when the specific technology it originally described becomes mainstream, it’s very feasible that the name may become obsolete as well.
Virtual reality, which is characterized by persistent virtual environments that exist even when you’re not playing, and augmented reality, which blends features of the digital and physical worlds, are two technologies that make up the metaverse. It does not, however, necessitate that those areas be only accessible through VR or AR. A virtual environment that can be accessed through PCs, game consoles, and even phones, such as Fortnite, might be metaverse.
It also refers to a digital economy in which users can design, buy, and sell products. It’s also interoperable, letting you move virtual objects like clothes or cars from one platform to another, under the more idealized conceptions of the metaverse. In the real world, you can go to the mall and buy a shirt, then wear it to the movies. Most platforms already feature virtual identities, avatars, and inventories that are bound to a single platform, but a metaverse might allow you to establish a persona that you can take with you wherever you go as easily as copying your profile image from one social network to another.
It’s tough to decipher what all of this means because, when you hear descriptions like the ones above, you might think, “Wait, doesn’t that already exist?” For example, Environment of Warcraft is a permanent virtual world where users can purchase and sell items. Rick Sanchez may learn about MLK Jr. through virtual experiences such as concerts and an exhibit in Fortnite. You may put on an Oculus headset and enter your own virtual world. Is that the definition of “metaverse”? Is it only a few new types of video games?
In a nutshell, yes and no. To call Fortnite “the metaverse” is like to refer to Google as “the internet.” Even if you could hypothetically spend a lot of time in Fortnite socializing, shopping, studying, and playing games, it doesn’t guarantee it covers everything there is to know about the metaverse.
On the other hand, just as it’s true that Google creates pieces of the internet—from physical data centers to security layers—also it’s true that Epic Games, the creator of Fortnite, is building sections of the metaverse. It isn’t the only company that does so. Some of that work will be done by tech behemoths like Microsoft and Facebook, the latter of which recently rebranded to Meta to reflect this work, though we’re still getting used to it. Many more firms are working on the infrastructure that might become the metaverse, including Nvidia, Unity, Roblox, and even Snap.
Most debates of what the metaverse entails come to a halt at this point. We have a hazy picture of what exists presently in what we might term the metaverse, and we know which corporations are investing in the concept, but we have no idea what it is. Sorry, Meta, but Facebook thinks it’ll contain fictional houses where you can invite all your buddies to hang around. Microsoft appears to believe that virtual conference rooms may be used to teach new hires or converse with faraway coworkers.
The suggestions for these futuristic visions range from hopeful to pure fan fiction. During… Meta’s… metaverse presentation, the business showed a scenario in which a young woman is sitting on her couch looking through Instagram when she sees a video a friend posted of a concert taking place halfway around the world.
The video then jumps to the show, where the woman emerges like a hologram in the style of the Avengers. She can make eye contact with her physically present companion, and they can both hear the performance and see floating text hovering above the stage. This is cool, but it isn’t actually promoting a real product or even a potential future one. In reality, it brings up the most serious issue with “the metaverse.”
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Why Does the Metaverse Involve Holograms?
When the internet originally came out, it was accompanied by a slew of technological breakthroughs, such as the ability to connect computers across long distances or the ability to link one web page to another. These technical qualities served as the foundation for the abstract structures we now associate with the internet: websites, apps, social networks, and everything else that relies on them. That’s not even taking into account the convergence of non-internet interface advancements like displays, keyboards, mice, and touchscreens, which are still required to make the internetwork.
There are some new building blocks in place with the metaverse, such as the ability to host hundreds of people in a single instance of a server (future versions of a metaverse should be able to handle thousands, if not millions) and motion-tracking tools that can distinguish where a person is looking or where their hands are. These emerging technologies have the potential to be highly fascinating and futuristic.
However, there are several limits that may be insurmountable. When firms like Microsoft and Fa—Meta exhibit fictitious videos of their future ideas, they usually skim over how people will interact with the metaverse. VR headsets are still clumsy, and most individuals get motion sickness or physical pain from wearing them for lengthy periods of time. In addition to the not-insignificant challenge of finding out how to wear augmented reality glasses in public without appearing like enormous dorks, augmented reality glasses face a similar problem.
So, how do tech businesses demonstrate their technology’s concept without displaying the reality of huge headgear and odd glasses? So far, it appears that their primary option is to create technologies from scratch. Is that the holographic woman from Meta’s talk? I hate to break the news, but even with the most advanced versions of existing technology, it’s simply not doable.
There is no janky form of creating a three-dimensional picture to appear in midair without precisely controlled circumstances, unlike motion-tracked digital avatars, which are a little janky right now but could be better tomorrow. Regardless of what Iron Man says. Perhaps these are meant to be understood as images projected through glasses—after all, both women in the demo video are wearing similar spectacles—but that presupposes a lot about the physical capabilities of small glasses, which Snap can tell you isn’t an easy problem to solve.
This kind of obfuscation of reality is common in film demonstrations of how the metaverse might work. Is this person strapped to an immersive aerial gear or just sitting at a desk? Another of Meta’s demos showed figures hovering in space—is this person strapped to an immersive aerial rig or just sitting at a desk? Does the person who is depicted by a hologram wear a headset, and if so, how is their face scanned? At times, a person would seize virtual objects but then hold them in what appear to be their physical hands.
This demonstration generates a lot more questions than it answers.
This is OK on certain levels. Microsoft, Meta, and every other business that gives outlandish demos like these are attempting to create an artistic sense of what the future might be like, rather than necessarily answering every technological concern. It’s a long-standing tradition that dates back to AT&T’s demonstration of a voice-controlled folding phone that could magically delete individuals from photographs and build 3D models, all of which appeared implausible at the time.
However, this type of wishful-thinking-as-tech demo places us in a position where it’s difficult to predict which components of various metaverse visions will become reality one day. If virtual reality and augmented reality headsets become comfortable and affordable enough for people to wear on a daily basis—a big “if”—then the idea of a virtual poker game where your pals are robots and holograms floating in space might become a reality. If not, you could always use a Discord video conference to play Tabletop Simulator.
The glitz and glamour of VR and AR also obscure the more ordinary features of the metaverse that are more likely to materialize. It would be trivially simple for software companies to create, for instance, an open digital avatar standard, a type of file that incorporates features you might enter into a character creator—like eye color, haircut, or clothing options—and allow you to carry it around with you everywhere you go. For that, there’s no need to create more comfortable VR headgear.
But that’s not as entertaining to consider.
What’s the Metaverse Like Right Now?
The paradox of defining the metaverse is that you have to define away the present in order for it to be the future. MMOs, which are essentially entire virtual worlds, digital concerts, video conversations with people all over the world, online avatars, and commerce platforms are already available. So, in order to market these things as a new way of looking at the world, there has to be something new about them.
Spend enough time talking about the metaverse, and someone will undoubtedly bring up fictional works like Snow Crash, which created the phrase “metaverse,” or Ready Player One, which describes a virtual reality world where everyone works, plays, and shops. These stories, when combined with the general pop-culture idea of holograms and heads-up displays (basically anything Iron Man has used in his last ten movies), serve as a creative reference point for what the metaverse—a metaverse that tech companies could actually sell as something new—might look like.
That kind of hysteria is as much a part of the metaverse’s concept as any other. It’s no surprise, however, that proponents of NFTs—cryptographic tokens that can act as certificates of ownership for digital items, sort of—are also embracing the metaverse concept. Sure, NFTs are awful for the environment, but if these tokens can be argued to be the digital key to your Roblox virtual mansion, then boom. You’ve just turned your hobby of collecting memes into a critical piece of internet infrastructure (and perhaps increased the worth of all that cryptocurrency you own.)
It’s crucial to keep all of this in mind because, while it’s tempting to compare today’s proto-metaverse concepts to the early internet and believe that everything will improve and grow in a linear fashion, this isn’t a given. There’s no guarantee that consumers will want to sit in a virtual office without their legs or play poker with Dreamworks CEO Mark Zuckerberg, let alone that VR and AR technology will ever become as ubiquitous as smartphones and computers are now.
It’s possible that any true “metaverse” would consist primarily of fascinating VR games and digital avatars in Zoom calls, but predominantly of what we now refer to as the internet.