In this article, we intend to help you understand how ambiguous and complex the term “the metaverse” can be: In a sentence, mentally replace the phrase “the metaverse” with “cyberspace.” Ninety percent of the time, the meaning will not change significantly. This is due to the fact that the term does not refer to a specific type of technology, but rather to a broad shift in how we interact with technology. And it’s entirely possible that the term itself will be obsolete as the technology it once described becomes more commonplace.
Virtual reality is characterized by persistent virtual worlds that continue to exist even when you’re not playing. Augmented reality combines aspects of the digital and physical worlds. These are the two technologies that make up the metaverse. It does not, however, require that those spaces be accessed solely through VR or AR. A metaverse virtual world, similar to aspects of Fortnite that can be accessed via PCs, game consoles, and even phones, could exist.
It also refers to a digital economy in which users can create, purchase, and sell goods. And, in more idealistic metaverse visions, it’s interoperable, allowing you to transport virtual items like clothes or cars from one platform to another. In the real world, you can go to the mall and buy a shirt to wear to the movies. Most platforms currently have virtual identities, avatars, and inventories that are tied to only one platform, but a metaverse may allow you to create a persona that you can take everywhere as easily as copying your profile picture from one social network to another.
It’s difficult to understand what all of this means because, when you hear descriptions like those above, it’s natural to wonder, “Wait, doesn’t that already exist?” For example, World of Warcraft is a persistent virtual world where players can buy and sell goods. Fortnite offers virtual experiences such as concerts and an exhibit where Rick Sanchez can learn about Martin Luther King Jr. You can put on an Oculus headset and enter your own virtual home. Is that what “the metaverse” really means? In a nutshell, yes and no. To say Fortnite is “the metaverse” is comparable to saying Google is “the internet.” Even if you could theoretically spend a significant amount of time in Fortnite socializing, purchasing items, learning, and playing games, this does not necessarily imply that it encompasses the entirety of the metaverse.
On the other hand, just as it is correct to say that Google builds parts of the internet—from physical data centers to security layers—it is also correct to say that Epic Games, the creators of Fortnite, are building parts of the metaverse. It’s not the only company doing so. Some of that work will be done by tech behemoths such as Microsoft and Facebook, the latter of which recently rebranded to Meta to reflect this work, though we’re still not used to the name. Many other companies, including Nvidia, Unity, Roblox, and even Snap, are developing the infrastructure that could become the metaverse.
Most discussions of what the metaverse entails begin to stall at this point. We have a hazy idea of what things exist in what we might call the metaverse, and we know which companies are investing in the concept, but we still don’t know what it is. Facebook, still don’t get it—believes it will include fake houses to which you can invite all of your friends to hang out. Microsoft appears to believe that virtual meeting rooms could be used to train new hires or chat with remote coworkers.
The pitches for these future visions range from optimistic to outright fan fiction. During the presentation on the metaverse, the company depicted a scenario in which a young woman is sitting on her couch scrolling through Instagram when she comes across a video posted by a friend of a concert taking place halfway around the world.
The video then cuts to the concert, where the woman appears as a hologram in the style of the Avengers. She can make eye contact with her physically present friend, they can both hear the concert, and they can both see floating text hovering above the stage. This appears to be cool, but it isn’t really advertising a real product, or even a potential future one. In fact, it brings us to the crux of the “metaverse” problem.