What exactly is a Metaverse, and why is everyone talking about it?
Since Facebook announced its rebrand to Meta late last year, it’s opened room for plenty of questions about what that means. The definition of the term hasn’t gotten any clearer between Meta building a VR social platform and many companies offering little more than their version of a video game world with NFTs attached.
This lack of coherence can be explained by the fact that the metaverse is still in its infancy. The concept is too new to define what it means, much like in the 1970s when the internet was new. Not every iteration of what the internet meant at that time reflected what it would eventually become.
Conversely, there’s a lot of marketing and money wrapped up in the idea of selling “the metaverse.” For example, it’s questionable to separate Facebook’s vision of the future in which we all have a digital wardrobe to swipe through from the reality that Facebook wants to make money selling us virtual clothes. While Facebook is far from the only company that stands to benefit financially from metaverse hype, it begs the question of what exactly that means for the rest of us.
When companies refer to “the metaverse,” they broadly refer to technology that includes virtual reality — persistent virtual worlds that continue to exist whether or not you’re playing — and augmented reality that combines aspects of the physical and digital worlds. Notably, these spaces do not have to be accessed exclusively through VR or AR. For example, elements of the game Fortnite that users access through computers, consoles, and phones have started to refer to themselves as “the metaverse.”
Advocates for the metaverse broadly envision a new digital economy where users can create, buy, and sell goods. Idealistic visions depict the metaverse as interrelated, enabling you to take virtual items from one platform to another — something much easier said than done. Some advocates claim that new technologies like NFTs enable easily portable digital assets. Still, the fact remains that bringing digital assets from one video game or virtual world to the next is enormously complex and not a task to be solved by one company alone.
“Wait, doesn’t all this exist already?” you may ask. After all, games like World of Warcraft, persistent virtual worlds where players can trade goods, have existed for years. Fortnite offers virtual experiences like concerts and exhibits. You can put on a VR headset and whisk yourself away to a virtual location. Is that what the metaverse means? New kinds of video games?
Not exactly. Saying Fortnite or World of Warcraft is “the metaverse” is like saying Google or Facebook is “the internet.” One facet doesn’t encompass the entire scope of the whole.
Tech giants like Meta and Microsoft are developing tech related to interacting with virtual worlds, but they’re far from the only ones. Many companies, from Nvidia to Roblox and Snap, are building infrastructure around creating better virtual worlds that more closely mimic the physical world.
Epic, Fortnite‘s parent company, has acquired several companies to help create or distribute digital assets, partly to bolster its Unreal Engine 5 platform. Unreal Engine 5 — a video game platform at its core — is also seeing use in the film industry. The platform could make it easier for anyone to create virtual experiences, which is an exciting prospect.
Still, the idea of a single unified “metaverse” akin to Ready Player One is more or less impossible. Such a world requires cooperation from companies on a scale that frankly isn’t profitable — Fortnite has little to gain from encouraging players to jump on to World of Warcraft, even if it were easy to do. Additionally, the raw computing power needed for such concepts may be further away than we think.
As a result, many companies and advocates now refer to a game or platform as “a metaverse” instead of “the metaverse.” With this definition, anything from a virtual concert to a video game can count as “a metaverse.” Coca-Cola launched a “flavor born in the metaverse” with a Fortnite tie-in minigame — it’s the wild west, and there are no rules.
In the months following Facebook’s rebrand, the concept of “the metaverse” has been a powerful vehicle for rebranding old tech. It’s also been instrumental in overselling the benefits of new tech and capturing the imagination of potential investors. Many companies’ tech demos for their idea of “the metaverse” show very little of the “how,” and much is left to speculation.
While exciting advancements are happening in virtual worlds and the tech enabling them, the tech industry largely depends on futurism. It’s one thing to sell a phone, but selling the idea of the future through that phone is far more profitable. Ultimately, “the metaverse” may be little more than our collective ideas surrounding the future of the internet.