What is the Metaverse and why is everyone talking about it?

What is the Metaverse and why is everyone talking about it?
18 Oct, 2021

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg may have popularized the term ‘metaverse’ but he wasn’t the first to think about it. Tech companies have been working towards this for years now and everything from smartphones to virtual reality was a step in that puzzle.

What is the metaverse?

In Zuckerberg’s definition, the metaverse is basically a virtual world where people can interact, hold meetings, buy property and do even more. This has been seen in science fiction movies like Ready Player One and in the 1964 animated series Jonny Quest. The metaverse allows people to perform iterations of day-to-day activities in the virtual space, creating a virtual economy that runs parallel to our real one.

“The Metaverse is an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations that support continuity of identity, objects, history, payments, and entitlements, and can be experienced synchronously by an effectively unlimited number of users, each with an individual sense of presence,” wrote venture capitalist Mathew Ball in June this year.

What comes before the metaverse?

The metaverse won’t become a reality for at least a decade and there’s much that tech companies need to perfect before getting there. The first piece of that puzzle is something called ambient computing, a future where computers exist all around us and screens can be fitted into almost everything. People will interact with these computers using gestures, and at times, even their thoughts.

For instance, in March, Facebook said it is working on wrist-based augmented reality (AR) controllers, which will read the signals the human brain sends through neurons to our hands. It will use this to sense and relay our gestures to machines.

Who, other than Facebook, is working on this?

Facebook may be the big name in this space, but smaller firms have been working towards this for a long time. For example, a blockchain-based game called Decentraland incentivizes users to operate in a shared virtual world. Decentraland users can buy digital real-estate in the form of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and use a cryptocurrency called MANA to buy that real-estate.

On the other hand, tech giant Microsoft is focused on the enterprise implications of the Metaverse. “Imagine taking any complex environment and applying the power of technology to create awe-inspiring experiences and reach new business heights that were previously unimaginable,” wrote Sam George, corporate vice president of AzureIoT at Microsoft in a blog post in May this year.

George wrote that companies like brewing giant Anheuser-Busch (AB) InBev, French university Paris Saclay and more are already implementing solutions that “bring these scenarios to life”. “This shift represents a convergence of the physical and digital worlds. As these spaces come together, they create a new world of opportunity and transformative solutions that will change everything. We think of these solutions as metaverse apps,” George added.

Companies aside, in September millions of gamers watched singer Ariana Grande perform virtually on gaming giant Epic Games’ battle royale game Fortnite. If you weren’t amongst the millions, here’s a video.

Is the metaverse truly new?

Strictly speaking, no. As mentioned before, while the term itself is somewhat new, the concept started as far back as the 1960s, and perhaps even before. What’s new today is the fact that fragments of this virtual world exist and what companies are working on now is actually connecting them. Epic Games’ Fortnite is often seen as one example, as is blockchain-based game Roblox, as is Second Life, which was launched 18 years ago.

What’s missing right now?

A key piece of the puzzle that’s still missing though is that we will need specific electronics equipment that will help everyone connect to this metaverse. At the moment, VR headsets or AR glasses like the Ray Ban Stories from Facebook, or Snapchat’s Snap spectacles, are experimental products at best.

In addition, Internet connections have to improve around the world. While 5G networks are set to roll out in many countries, it will be decades before seamless, low latency connectivity becomes ubiquitous across the world.