The term metaverse can be traced back to Neal Stephenson and his cyberpunk and dystopian novel Snow Crash. The novel was published in 1992, and is considered a staple of the genre. It describes a virtual reality data space called the Matrix.
The metaverse of Snow Crash is a 3D virtual reality space accessible via personal terminals and virtual reality goggles that have much in common with the Oculus Quest and other VR headsets. This 3D space appears to its users as an urban environment created along a single hundred-metre-wide road, called “the street”.
Like any place in reality, the street is subject to development. Developers can build their own small streets feeding off the main one. They can construct buildings, parks, signs, as well as things that don’t exist in Reality, such as vast hovering light shows, special neighbourhoods where the rules of three-dimensional space-time are ignored, and free-for-all zones where people can go and kill each other.
If Stephenson’s vision of the metaverse seems familiar, it is because massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs, or more commonly, MMOs) share many of its properties. In Second Life (released in 2003), for example, users can customise realistic avatars, meet other players, create virtual objects, own virtual property and trade goods and services.
Virtual experiences like Second Life can be described as proto-metaversets. Why the prefix? Because they exist separately, each being a digital island whose inhabitants and their virtual assets never leave it. The metaverse that Mark Zuckerberg wants to create is not one big virtual experience, it’s the next version of the Internet.
“We’ve moved from desktop to web, then to mobile; from text to photos and video. But this is not the end of the line,” Zuckerberg wrote in a recent letter to his employees. “The next platform will be even more immersive – an embodied internet where you are in the experience, not just looking at it. We call this the metaverse, and it will touch every product we build.
Metaverse: An example of futuristic retailing
In practice, the metaverse will exist when a user can enter a large virtual shopping mall that can be experienced by as many people as the virtual space can accommodate, buy a single digital item, and sell the same digital item a few weeks later in a completely different virtual world, or perhaps on Twitter, eBay or OpenSea.
Some people will say, wait a minute, I saw that movie.
The film Ready Player One, which was originally a book written by Ernest Cline and published by Random House in 2011, was directed by Steven Spielberg and may be the best visual example we currently have of what the metaverse could conceptually look like.
The film, however, has some fundamental differences from expert views of the soon-to-be metaverse, including that there is only one major platform in the film, the Oasis, which makes up the metaverse created by the fictional game company Gregarious Games. Another major difference is the primary use of VR hardware to interact in the film version of the metaverse, as some experts believe VR will have less overall use compared to AR hardware (not highlighted in the film).
What power will the metaverse have?
The metaverse will be driven by various forms of technology such as cloud infrastructure, software tools, platforms, applications, user-generated content and hardware. In addition to the technical requirements, the metaverse will encompass a variety of user experiences including, but not limited to, entertainment, gaming, commerce, social interaction, education and research.
When will the Metaverse arrive?
The question then is, how long will it take before we move from various proto-metaverses to the big metaverse? Mark Zuckerberg thinks it will be by the end of the decade, but it could also be much sooner because the fundamental elements are already in place.
The infrastructure behind today’s internet allows massive amounts of people to come together in virtual environments, like when over 12.3 million players logged in for a VR concert in Fortnite with Travis Scott. This current infrastructure is very impressive, but it will probably need to evolve further to support the metaverse industry experts.
We also have the hardware to render realistic virtual environments and 3D avatars. Meta owns the leading producer of virtual reality headsets, Oculus.
Microsoft has supported various enterprise use cases with its HoloLens mixed reality smart glasses since its first release in 2016. The metaverse will be a ubiquitous computing experience where users can leverage traditional devices like computers and mobile devices while enhancing the experience with new immersive AR and VR wearable devices.
Finally, the same innovative technologies that have disrupted the financial services industry since the Bitcoin network came into existence in January 2009 can be used to enable data continuity in the metaverse. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are an excellent example of how blockchain technology can be used to verify ownership of digital assets, and there are already 3D virtual reality platforms that take advantage of this.