The ‘M Word’ – What Is The Metaverse, Exactly?
Following the renaming of his company as Meta in late 2021, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg used an episode of computer scientist Lex Fridman’s podcast to pronounce that metaverses are “about a time when immersive digital worlds become the primary way we live our lives”. Fast forward to 2023 and the ‘M word’ seems to be everywhere right now. But what even is a metaverse? And how will it affect our lives? The metaverse first appeared in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash, where he invented the word (a mash-up of ‘meta’ and ‘universe’) to describe a virtual world populated by virtual versions (or avatars) of real-life people. In the early 2000s, computer games Second Life and The Sims manifested basic versions of Stephenson’s metaverse vision. For the first time, players could create simulated online existences as their avatars enjoyed life benefits elusive in the physical realm: the perfect dwelling, for example; or the perfect social circle. It’s this social aspect that’s propelling metaverse conversations right now.
Digital platforms Decentraland (launched in 2020), Sandbox and Roblox (both originally computer games) are functioning examples of the metaverse already working as social media. Users set up accounts to access the metaverses via personal devices – sign in as a guest and you (as your avatar) can explore various environments, much like the platform video games that form the metaverse basis. Click another user’s avatar to see their bio and communicate via the chat function.
While the basic experience is free, users with a cryptocurrency wallet enjoy the full-fat experience. With their wallet connected, users log in from any device, wherever they are, and are granted access to music festivals, games and more, adding a VR headset or AI glasses for a deeper immersion. Via cryptocurrency, users can also buy wearables (virtual clothes, accessories, pets, even) and land for building their ideal online world.
Each metaverse has its own cryptocurrency, so users need to know how digital currency works, not least because it’s predicted that cryptocurrency will replace fiat money in the near future. (Fiat money is the traditional currency we use now.) Thomson Reuters technologist and futurist Joseph Raczynski predicts that digital currency will overtake fiat currency in some countries by 2025. It’s already a government-backed legal tender in El Salvador and the Central African Republic, and the UK government began investigating making cryptocurrency legal tender in 2022. Crypto is the currency of the metaverse, and some observers predict the metaverse could generate trillions of dollars per year, from billions of users, by 2030.
When asked to define the metaverse in an Infosys Knowledge Institute interview, international business academic Kevin Werbach replied: “The metaverse is the internet, only more so.” The implication being that whatever the internet can do now, the metaverse will improve on infinitely. Thus, the possibilities seem endless. Entrepreneur and metaverse expert Dr Jane Thomason agrees. Social media and gaming aside, over time there will be metaverses for healthcare, workforce training (in the military, for example), enhanced remote working, sports events and more. “Metaverse education can be more flexible than traditional university education,” says Dr Thomason. “Learners can access courses and materials anywhere and anytime. In terms of collaboration and science, collaborators’ avatars can work with digital whiteboards and workstations, and meet face-to-face without complex conferencing equipment.” And then there’s business. “Brands are already selling digital products that customers can use in their virtual worlds,” she says, “creating brand experiences, building customer loyalty and testing new products before they are released to the public.”
This all sounds like a giant leap forward, but when will it happen? In a recent World Economic Forum interview, Jeremy Bailenson, professor of communication at Stanford University, cautioned against getting caught up in (or worrying about) the metaverse hype. “The metaverse isn’t going to change your life tomorrow,” he says. “It will creep in when there’s something incredible to do there. Short of that, we should stay in the real world.”
Simon Coates is a London-based writer and artist whose work has appeared in publications including The New European and Scottish newspaper The National