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Exploring today's technology for tomorrow's possibilities
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What is the Metaverse?

Arthur Smalley
It’s the new buzzword you see online, and you know it maybe has something to do with virtual reality and perhaps Facebook. But you’ve never actually had it explained to you.
So, just what is the metaverse exactly?

Metaverse definition

The metaverse is a phrase used to describe virtual spaces within digital environments like online games and social media.
The term metaverse gets thrown around a lot to describe different online scenarios, to the point where it can be challenging to define the metaverse. But, in general, it refers to online interactions that take place in shared persistent virtual worlds.
Many see the metaverse as the future of the internet, offering new and exciting ways for people to interact and express themselves online without the constrictions of the physical world or the need to be in the same location.
The metaverse is linked to augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), where users wear headsets to enhance the physical world around them or build entirely new realities. However, these are not prerequisites, and the term metaverse also describes virtual spaces that take place on traditional screens.
Still unsure as to what is the metaverse and what isn’t?
Here is a more comprehensive metaverse definition from Matthew Ball, author of the Metaverse Primer:
“The Metaverse is an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations that support continuity of identity, objects, history, payments, and entitlements, and can be experienced synchronously by an effectively unlimited number of users, each with an individual sense of presence.”

Origin of the term metaverse

The term itself is a portmanteau of the words “meta” (meaning beyond) and “universe.” Metaverse-like systems are a staple of science fiction media, and that is where the phrase was first coined.
Neal Stephenson first used the term in his 1992 novel Snow Crash. In the book, the metaverse is a 3D virtual world that real people inhabit as avatars.

Why has the metaverse become so popular?

The metaverse exploded in popularity during the pandemic. With people unable to be in the same physical spaces, they turned online and to the metaverse for more immersive ways of interacting. This is especially true for younger generations who grew up with the internet, social media, and online gaming as part of everyday life.

Example of the metaverse

A better way to answer the question of what is the metaverse? May be to take the example of Fortnite and how it is expanding users’ experience.
Epic games’ Fortnite is an extremely popular online battle royale game, holding the record for the most yearly revenue ever by a game ($2.4 billion). However, the game is moving beyond shooting and building forts on a map consumed by a storm.
Fortnite is beginning to provide users with a range of virtual experiences unrelated to gameplay.
These include concerts and museum exhibits. To many, the idea of attending a virtual concert or learning about history while navigating a cartoon-ish virtual world will seem strange. But, for vast numbers of people (particularly younger people), this is just an extension of a world they know well and have already spent an incredible amount of time interacting with their friends.
Fortnite and its new user experiences don’t encapsulate all the metaverse offers. However, it is an example of the metaverse, and what many are predicting will become our future. A world where interacting with one another in shared virtual spaces is equally as important as real-life interaction.

What does the metaverse look like now

We’ve described what is the metaverse and how that can sometimes be difficult to answer. It can be useful to take a look at features common across metaverse platforms.
While the metaverse is a broad term and often used in an aspirational context to describe the future of the digital world, there are many recurring features. These include:
  • Real-time 3D computer graphics that build the virtual environment users inhabit. While this can incorporate AR/VR headsets, and many see that as the future of the metaverse, it also includes traditional screens (computers, phones, etc.).
  • Avatars representing users that allow for personalisation and exclusive items. With virtual representations of ourselves, metaverse users can express themselves how they choose.
  • Interactions focused more on socialising than competition. The metaverse is often compared to or seen as an extension of online gaming. However, when playing games, the interactions between users are based around a competition or goal. The metaverse facilitates shared experiences closer to the real world where users interact without a defined task or specific goal to work towards.
  • Allowing users to create, build, and own virtual items. Support for these features is already prevalent across online gaming. For example, games like Minecraft and Roblox act as a sandbox where users are free to build whatever they choose. In-game purchases are also a common economic model for game developers, allowing users to unlock virtual items, such as appearance upgrades or new “skins.”
  • Ways of purchasing virtual goods are integral to the metaverse. Platforms facilitate links to real-world currency for users to buy in-platform goods. Examples of these could be virtual clothing to personalise a user’s avatar or virtual real estate within the metaverse.

The metaverse and NFTs

This brings us to the relationship between the metaverse and NFTs. The metaverse is often described in relation to web 3.0 and blockchain technology.
Blockchain technology provides a permanent and anonymous record of transactions, and through NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) allows people to own virtual goods. Given virtual goods are a massive part of the metaverse, it is common for platforms described as part of the metaverse to incorporate NFTs.
NFTs can act as the metaverse’s financial architecture, allowing users to buy and sell virtual goods and prove ownership potentially across different platforms.

What does the future of the metaverse hold?

There is considerable debate around the metaverse and what its future holds. Many believe it is the next iteration of the internet, and soon the digital world will become just as important to us as the real world. We’ll split our time between universe and metaverse, or the virtual will spread into the physical with AR holograms showing off our latest virtual purchase.
The reality is it is hard to say what the future of the metaverse will be. To find wider use will require further adoption of new technologies, such as VR and AR headsets, and a growing consumer appetite for the digital economy and virtual goods.

The company’s driving the metaverse

Many companies are getting behind the metaverse, including big tech and gaming companies.
You probably heard about Facebook’s recent name change, with the holding company now known as “Meta.” The rebrand signalled the companies new focus on the metaverse, and as part of the announcement, Mark Zuckerberg stated:

“I believe the metaverse is the next chapter for the internet and it’s the next chapter for our company too ... today we are seen as a social media company, but in our DNA we are a company that builds technology to connect people and the metaverse is the next frontier.”

But they aren’t the only big players when it comes to the metaverse and gaming. Companies like Epic Games (Fortnite) and Roblox are looking to expand to build the future metaverse. This means creating worlds where users gather to meet, socialise, play games, collaborate, and have shared experiences.

Should you care about the metaverse?

If all this seems strange and a bit silly to you, then the metaverse is probably not for you. You’re not going to attend a virtual concert any time soon or spend money to get a virtual plot of land in a shared digital world.
But the reality (real, not virtual) is you will likely still need to know and care about the metaverse, at least a little bit. There are enough people in the world entrenched in virtual worlds that the metaverse will be around in some form for the foreseeable future.
To these people, the time they spend in the digital world has real value to them, and they are willing to spend real money on it. Interest and economics are two forces likely to drive a wave of metaverse innovation and growth.
About the Author: Arthur Smalley is a science and technology writer based in the UK.

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