What Is the Metaverse, and How Does It Work?
You likely haven’t escaped from one of the most talked-about internet topics: the metaverse. While creating a website or posting a TikTok video may have once been an unparalleled technological accomplishment, the metaverse has changed the internet.
Many are forecasting what the metaverse means for the future, despite not everybody being quite on board yet. In fact, in 2022 Facebook renamed itself “Meta” and CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes that a billion people will one day be in the metaverse spending lots of money. But what is the metaverse and how does it work? We’re here to answer some of your questions.
What is the metaverse?
To most, the metaverse is a network of interoperable 3D virtual worlds. These worlds manifest as an immersive internet, which people experience using virtual reality (VR) headsets or augmented reality (AR) technology.
Pockets of these virtual worlds exist today, many of which people call “metaverses.” However, they still function in a silo, so they are not true metaverses. Optimists predict that metaverse technology inches towards this inoperability, as more platforms and consumers adopt and grow blockchain technology, and the internet more solidly enters its web3 era.
History of the metaverse
“Metaverse” is a term created by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash. It combines the words “meta” and “universe.” He envisioned it as an immersive virtual world that runs parallel to the real world.
Because the metaverse doesn’t exist yet, the metaverse concept continues to shift.
“The definition of the metaverse continues to shift for a few reasons. One, it does not yet exist so people can bring their own definitions to it,” says Benjamin Bertram Goldman, executive producer at Ethic and metaverse advisor to several organizations. He also suspects that as people grasp the concept, they will try to capitalize on the opportunity by inserting their own project, business or product under the “metaverse” umbrella.
That’s why so many people in the tech world are trying to capitalize on “metaverse” as a buzzword. Goldman describes it as “not so different from any other gold rush.”
Video games provide a good look into how the metaverse’s evolution. Video games started out as games played on a screen with a goal of beating the final boss or saving the princess. Today, the most popular games function as social platforms where millions of people gather to play, interact with friends and express themselves.
“Now imagine this trend continuing for another 20, 30, 50 years—what will games look like? Given enough time, these evolved ‘games’ will encompass more use cases that are today served by the ‘internet,’” says Goldman. “As the use cases expand, so too will the number of players. And as the population of players grows, so too will the opportunities for people to earn a living wage from services they provide or things they sell in-game, thus growing the virtual economy. If this flywheel turns enough times, it will lead to the metaverse.”
Facebook and the metaverse
Facebook first laid groundwork for the metaverse in 2019 when it launched a social VR world named Facebook Horizon. It then merged its various apps and technologies and rebranded itself to Meta Platforms (or “Meta”) with CEO Mark Zuckerberg announcing they would devote the company to developing a metaverse.
Zuckerberg wrote in a 2021 “Founder’s Letter” his vision for the future: “In the metaverse, you’ll be able to do almost anything you can imagine—get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create—as well as completely new experiences that don’t really fit how we think about computers or phones today.”
Meanwhile, critics point out that while the company is putting resources on building these virtual worlds, they could address real-world problems and safety concerns on its current social networks.
Zuckerberg told shareholders in May that the company’s metaverse ambitions will cost them “significant” money over the next three to five years. Some products wouldn’t be ready for 15 years. The CEO envisions that metaverse and eCommerce opportunities will generate revenue from selling virtual services and products.
Who else is using the metaverse?
Beyond Meta, several companies are developing the metaverse with its own forms of platforms and virtual experience innovations. Here are just a few:
Parent company to ultra-successful Fortnite, Epic Games owns many other virtual experience games. It will continue its metaverse development thanks to a $2 billion investment from Sony and KIRKBI announced earlier this year.
Microsoft’s major entryway into the metaverse industry is through its Teams platform, which provides a solid foundation “to bridge the digital and the physical worlds.”
Apple could influence the metaverse because of its market device penetration. Although the tech giant hasn’t announced a formal entrance yet, people are keeping an eye out for a potential Apple VR/AR headset.
Current metaverse platforms
There are many metaverse platforms, and each one has its own signature immersive experiences and services offered. Some focus on gaming, while others prioritize exchanging cryptocurrency. Below are some of the big ones.
Fortnite is a survival game that drops 100 players onto an island to fight each other until one remains. Epic Games released the game in 2017 and it has since become the most popular battle royale game. It boasts 80.4 million+ monthly active users in 2022 and up to 4 million concurrent players each day.
People log on to the massive metaverse platform to do much more than just play the game: They socialize, spend money buying unique characters and dances, and experience entertainment, including an Ariana Grande concert during summer 2021.
Roblox is a metaverse platform where users log on to play user-generated games. Popular games include pet simulation game Adopt Me! and town and country role-playing game Brookhaven. According to Roblox, over half of US kids and teens under the age of 16 play the game in 2020.
Users can host their own Roblox events at “Party Place”. The fashion-house Gucci also has an official space called Gucci Town, where users can visit an arena of brand-inspired competitions and even buy virtual items.
Other major metaverse platforms include blockchain-based game SANDBOX, soccer hub Sorare, space exploration virtual world HyperVerse, and more.
AR and VR and the metaverse
AR and VR are pivotal to the metaverse’s expansion and will allow people to access a platform’s immersive experiences.
VR technology, for example, allows for sensory experiences while navigating through a metaverse world, such as hearing a brand’s memorable jingle or feeling haptics when touching a virtual item. Meanwhile, AR will take elements from the metaverse’s virtual world and map it onto the real world.
“I see companies like Snap and Niantic doing fascinating things with AR, and Meta is very interesting in terms of the VR hardware it's creating,” Goldman says. “Though VR and AR are not the ‘metaverse,’ they will both likely play a prominent role in accessing the metaverse.”
Crypto and the metaverse
With the metaverse’s virtual network, it would make sense that cryptocurrency plays a role. Crypto and NFTs might provide the economic foundation to make a connected metaverse function.
“In order to have persistent cross-platform ownership of virtual property, goods, and identities we need a new economic and technological infrastructure which crypto could one day provide,” Goldman says. “The most interesting use cases involve in-development products that would make NFT ownership meaningful inside a game experience. So you can imagine a game that allows you to connect your wallet, and once that happens you unlock in-game items or custom experiences.”
The metaverse advisor adds that brands could make an NFT like the Proof of Attendance Protocol (POAP) and distribute it as currency. For example, if you attended the Ariana Grande concert in Fortnite, your POAP may help you unlock future rewards.
“More practically, if people one day have jobs in the Metaverse, POAP might prove that the player showed up for work,” he says.
Where we are with the metaverse right now
While people can already attend virtual concerts and customize their avatar’s appearance, or learn how to make a website that features these items—we are still in the metaverse’s early days.
Recently, smaller advances have brought the metaverse closer to consumer adoption. For example, affordable VR headsets have hit the market, an important step in making the metaverse more accessible to consumers. Also, creator-friendly virtual reality software development tools have made it easier to build these worlds.
“It’s very important we adopt the right timeline when thinking about the metaverse. It is a civilization-altering technology, much like the internet, and we won’t see its true form or understand its implications until decades or even centuries from now,” says Goldman. “That shouldn’t stop us starting conversations now about what it all means, however.”
Future of the metaverse
The future of the metaverse has many unknown aspects, from how quickly technologies will develop to which platforms become most prominent. However, according to Goldman, that blank canvas is an opportunity to create a world that is fairer and more enriching than our current one.
“In the metaverse, we will experiment with entirely new economic and social models that would be nearly impossible to implement in the real world,” he says. “But realizing this vision will require lots of hard work and activism, because there are certain to be highly-capitalized interests that seek to exploit the metaverse for power and profit, without regard to the potential for social good.”
Controversies and concerns about the metaverse
The metaverse brings with it a variety of controversies and concerns.
A major one is user safety. While the internet and social media have been incredible tools to connect people and create accessibility to information, many studies have also shown that there is potential for various forms of addiction. Safety concerns regarding abuse and harassment need to be considered. On top of these dangers, the metaverse’s immersive nature adds special concerns.
“Events that happen in a virtual world are much more visceral and feel as though they are really happening to the player themself. This has been documented through the long history of academic research into virtual worlds,” Goldman says. “And while the immersiveness makes socializing in a virtual world so much more enriching than messaging someone online, it also is what makes the effects of abuse, harassment, and intimidation so much more pronounced. People feel as though it’s really happening to them.”
Another concern is people’s privacy. Because of the wearable nature of virtual and augmented reality devices, hardware companies will probably collect biometric data. With how targeted advertising already works to track visited websites and online behavior, it’s possible they will use biometric data in similar ways.
Dr. David Reid, Professor of AI and Spatial Computing at Liverpool Hope University, said in an interview, “If you think about the amount of data a company could collect on the WWW right now, compared to what it could collect with the metaverse, there is just no comparison.”
By Jenna Romano
UX & Web Design Expert, Writer