What is the metaverse?

The metaverse: Companies like Facebook, Microsoft, and Google see it as the future of the Internet. What was born as an idea from science fiction has long since become reality. The metaverse is more than just virtual reality, augmented reality, extended reality, or cyberspace - it’s all of those things at once.

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What is the metaverse? Meaning of the word

At the moment, there’s not one unambiguous definition of the word. Rather, there are discussions about what the metaverse could be, what it’s not, what it should be, what it has to be, and what comes along with it. If you ask Matthew Ball, whose essays about the metaverse made big waves in 2020, the metaverse is a “massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments”. (Source: https://www.matthewball.vc/all/forwardtothemetaverseprimer)

Even though big tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Satya Nadella (Microsoft), and Jen-Hsun Huang (Nvidia) are investing billions into it, the metaverse is still just a thought experiment. Nevertheless, it has a couple of distinguishing features that set it apart from the Internet and technologies like augmented reality, extended reality, and virtual reality. Matthew Ball emphasizes that it’s not just an extension of the Internet but a completely new form of computing. In the metaverse, digital spaces don’t exist parallel to “reality” - instead, they are a fusion of cyberspace, virtual reality, and the physical world. Mark Zuckerberg calls it the “embodied internet”, which users don’t just look at on a screen but actually inhabit. (Source: https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-57942909)

Characteristics of the metaverse

All that being said, we can already say that the metaverse has the following characteristics:

  • Persistent, limitless 3D spaces that are rendered in real time, where users can move freely as
  • avatars
  • Collective 3D spaces in which users explore, create, play, work, make connections, and do
  • business, without being in the same physical space with each other
  • Companies don’t “own” the metaverse, since it’s collectively shared technical infrastructure
  • Users can create virtual rooms that are freely accessible to other users across devices and
  • systems
  • Extended and mixed reality
  • technologies are used and enable interactions between digital and real spaces, e.g. VR goggles, virtual assistants, smart/voice user interfaces (VUI), neural chips, machine learning, artificial intelligence and artificial neural networks
  • Compatible virtual and real currencies come together to form a unified economy for digital
  • and physical spaces
  • A totality of virtual and physical spaces requires compatible technical standards, protocols,
  • interoperability, digital property, blockchain technologies, and uniform laws

The metaverse: Where does the idea come from?

For science fiction fans, technological innovations like smartphones, smart glasses, and iPods didn’t come as a surprise. Ray Bradbury already described wireless earpods and portable media players in “Fahrenheit 451” (1953). Virtual assistants like Alexa and artificial intelligence already appeared in science fiction novels like “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). Tablets, smartphones, video calls, robots - the world of the 21st century is filled with technologies that used to be nothing more than fantasies and fiction.

The same is true of the metaverse. The term first appeared in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel “Snow Crash”, but the idea itself is much older. The merging and interaction of reality with virtual 3D spaces comes up in the cyberpunk genre from the 1980s and in modern films like “The Matrix” (1999) and “Ready Player One” (2018). But now the metaverse isn’t just fiction - there are already concrete examples of it.

Example 1: Second Life

The 3D online platform Second Life has been around since 2003. In it, users can move around in self-made virtual rooms, create contacts, do business, communicate, and play games. Second Life was developed by Linden Lab as an open source platform and had around a million users in 2013. SL isn’t an online game in the true sense of the word, since there isn’t any “goal” or any way of “winning” or “losing”. Moreover, numerous companies such as Microsoft, Intel, IBM, and Adidas run “in-world” shops, which demonstrates the possibilities for virtual marketing. Now more than 18 years old, Second Life is one of the earliest versions of a rudimentary, practically implemented metaverse.

Example 2: MMO - Massively multiplayer online

Massively multiplayer online games like Fortnite, World of Warcraft (WoW), Minecraft, Roblox, and Final Fantasy XIV are wildly popular. MMOs consist of virtual, persistent worlds that thousands of users use at once. The various MMOs differ from each other in terms of concept and genre - there are online role play games, strategy games, and virtual battlefields. Users of games like WoW or Final Fantasy XIV move in skins or avatars through thematically limited online worlds, play in real time with other users from around the world, buy virtual objects with real money, and follow pre-defined game campaigns or campaigns of their own.

In sandbox MMOs like Minecraft, Roblox, and Animal Crossing, players can create virtual spaces with relative freedom and interact with other users. Since MMOs are thematically limited and generally don’t overlap with physical spaces, they still haven’t crossed over into the realm of the metaverse. This could change if MMOs become connected and users can move between different MMO rooms with their avatars.

What the metaverse means for e-commerce

The metaverse isn’t just a promising new space for users. It also opens up new possibilities for e-commerce. The corona crisis has shown how flexibly a connected world can react to restrictions on contact. The live analysis of user data, online shopping, and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin come with the promise of new marketing strategies, including the chance to expand customer groups, create brand visibility, and interact directly with customers worldwide.

When social digital spaces are no longer limited to apps, web addresses and interfaces such as smartphones and laptops, advertising and marketing campaigns will move far beyond targeted ads, keyword analysis, brand building, and social media marketing. One example is concerts and events, which are now happening in virtual spaces due to pandemic restrictions. Other examples include digital equivalents of real locations and products, which enable online open houses, virtual dressing rooms, and digital inspections (e.g. of used cars).

The Facebook metaverse: The metaverse as a vision of the future

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is one of the biggest advocates of and investors in the metaverse. In 2021, he announced plans to transform Facebook into a metaverse company. Facebook recently provided 50 million dollars in funding to the XR Program and Research Fund in order to advance research and development programs on the metaverse in the next two years. This includes studies on the potential of augmented reality wearables like Facebook Reality Labs’ smart glasses. According to Facebook, the metaverse is the new “computing platform”. This is why the tech giant invests an estimated 5 billion dollars annually in the development of foundational technologies.

Facebook’s biggest metaverse project is called Horizon Workrooms and focusses on the “Metaverse for Work”. Currently available in a beta version of the Oculus app, it supports new forms of the hybrid work model. Horizon users can work together as avatars with coworkers from other places in a virtual conference room. This offers possibilities for remote training programs and customer service. With an estimated 3 billion active users per month, Facebook is the biggest social media company in the world. The “Metaverse for Work” is thus the first step toward a world in which users interact, create, play, and shop in the metaverse, without having to share physical space.

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