What is the metaverse? A deep dive into the ‘future of the internet’

Long before Facebook rebranded to Meta and CEO Mark Zuckerberg talked about “the metaverse” at great length, the concept of the metaverse was already thriving and rapidly expanding. There’s no escaping the truth — the metaverse is here, and it’s probably here to stay.

The question is, what is the metaverse? Is it as big a deal as some companies make it out to be, or is it just a passing trend that will be forgotten in a few months? Do you need to know all about the metaverse, and should you get involved before it blows up further? In this article, we take a deep dive into the concept of the metaverse and talk about its past, present, and most importantly, its future.

The metaverse is a virtual reality

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The metaverse is indeed a virtual reality, but it’s not quite the same thing as what you’ve seen in science fiction blockbusters.

Imagine a franchise like The Matrix, where the world is a digital simulation that everyone is connected to, and is so well-made that nearly no one knows that it’s not real. The metaverse is not quite like that, but it definitely has the potential to evolve into something fantastically immersive.

The idea behind the metaverse has been around for much longer than Meta’s vision of it — in fact, it’s far older than even Facebook itself. Zuckerberg referred to it as “an embodied internet that you’re inside of instead of just looking at.”

The real meaning of the metaverse is just as broad as Zuckerberg’s vague description of it.

At its most basic, the metaverse is a virtual reality that allows people from all over the world to interact, both with each other and with the metaverse itself. Users are often allowed to obtain items that remain theirs between sessions, or even land within the metaverse. However, there are many ways to interpret that concept, and it has evolved greatly over the years.

On the internet, we’re always interacting with something — be it a website, a game, or a chat program that connects us to our friends. The metaverse takes this one step further and puts the user in the middle of the action. This opens the door to stronger, more realistic experiences that simply browsing the web or watching a video fail to evoke very often, if ever.

What’s the difference between VR and the metaverse?

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are both concepts that are closely tied to the metaverse, but they are not one and the same. Instead of viewing them as different iterations of what is essentially the same thing, it’s good to view them as separate entities that supplement each other.

VR and AR equipment allows the user to immerse themselves in a virtual world. In the case of VR, we are shown completely different surroundings. Be it a game or a movie, VR lets you interact with the changing world around you. AR, on the other hand, adds elements to your real surroundings and lets you interact with them in various ways.

A person wearing a virtual reality headset.

The difference lies in the purpose. You can play a VR or AR game at any given time without interacting with others, but the foundation of the metaverse, as envisioned by Meta and other companies, is human contact.

In short, the metaverse is the playground for both of the above — a way for people to share a virtual universe together, be it for work, school, exercise, or simply for fun.

The use of VR and AR tools will go a long way in expanding the metaverse and making it feel like a real experience as opposed to a video game with extra steps. However, the concept of the metaverse goes far beyond just VR and AR — it’s meant to bring people closer together in previously unheard of ways. This, in turn, also opens a lot of room for expansion.

Who is building the metaverse?

Zuckerberg’s recent Meta keynote turned millions of new pairs of eyes toward the metaverse, but there are several giants in this race to the future. Each of these companies has its own vision of the metaverse, which only serves to further expand the already vast meaning of the word.

Facebook’s journey toward the metaverse is actually not that surprising. In March 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus for $2.3 billion. The company continued releasing Oculus Quest products, making some of the best VR headsets currently out there.

Considering that Meta now plans to heavily rely on both VR and AR in order to bring realism to the metaverse, buying Oculus seven years ago doesn’t feel like a random decision at all. It’s worth noting that Oculus Quest will soon be no more. Starting in 2022, the entire product line will be rebranded to Meta Quest, thus finally completing the acquisition and erasing the previous branding.

In addition to Meta Quest, Andrew Bosworth, chief technology officer of Meta, announced that some Oculus products will be called Meta Horizon. According to Bosworth, this will be the branding that encompasses the entirety of the VR metaverse platform.

A person wearing and using an Oculus Quest 2 VR headset in front of a gray background.
Oculus.com/Facebook

With Facebook’s huge announcement out in the open, Microsoft was not far behind to jump on the metaverse train. The tech giant is looking to build a metaverse of sorts inside Microsoft Teams starting as early as 2022.

Microsoft’s plan is to utilize Mesh in order to let every Teams user participate in video meetings, replacing webcam images with animated avatars. Artificial intelligence will be used to listen to the user’s voice and animate their avatar accordingly, complete with matching lip movements. Switching to 3D meetings will also produce additional hand movements.

While Microsoft’s announcement may seem small when compared to Meta’s, it’s definitely a step into the metaverse that clearly illustrates the company’s interest. These changes to Teams indicates that, much like Meta, Microsoft might want to integrate the metaverse into the future of remote work.

Nvidia also has a horse in the metaverse race, and it’s called the Nvidia Omniverse. The company calls it “a platform for connecting 3D worlds into a shared virtual universe”. Nvidia’s Omniverse is cloud-native, meaning that it’s a shared, persistent platform that remains the same between sessions. It runs on RTX-based systems and can be streamed remotely to any device.

Omniverse Replicator applications.

The graphics card giant seems to have, so far, gone down a slightly different route with its metaverse. Meta and Microsoft place a lot of emphasis on the social aspect of the metaverse, but Nvidia’s focus is collaboration and exploring new technologies. The Omniverse is used by designers, robotics engineers, and other experts to simulate the real world in virtual reality. One example is Ericsson — its engineers use Omniverse to simulate 5G waves in urban environments.

Looking into the future, we’ve got another big-ticket player on the horizon. Apple is rumored to be working on both a full VR headset and AR glasses, and all signs point toward the brand reaching for the metaverse. Both of these devices would likely have to plug into a metaverse in order to function, so Apple may not be that far behind Meta when it comes to building the metaverse.

Is the metaverse just a video game in disguise?

Short answer: Not really.

Long answer: Maybe a little bit, depending on your point of view.

Online games such as Fortnite, World of Warcraft, or Minecraft are all metaverses — each in their own way. They create a lasting world for their players to join and leave as they please. A player’s progress is saved on an external server and shared with other users, meaning that everything you do in these games can be revisited at a later time.

Technically, every game could be considered a metaverse, and the metaverses that various tech giants are working on can all include some aspects of gaming. However, the idea of the metaverse is much broader than just that of a video game. The metaverse is meant to replace, or improve, real-life functionality in a virtual space. Things that users do in their day-to-day life, such as attending classes or going to work, can all be done in the metaverse instead.

There are some similarities between video game metaverses and the idea of a broader metaverse. You can interact with others, perform various tasks together, and to some extent, shape the world around you. However, all of this is firmly set within the limitations of the game.

A good example of this is that you can build yourself a giant castle in Minecraft, but in World of Warcraft, you don’t have that same freedom. Players are allowed to own a garrison, which is a plot of land of sorts, but they have little to no influence on what it looks like and where it’s placed. More importantly, the plot is the same for all players and they can only visit each other when invited.

A Minecraft build featuring buildings and terrain.

Although the titles mentioned above are what’s popular right now, it’s worth noting that the concept of the metaverse exists in many video games, and it has been around for a long time. Second Life, a game from 2003 that’s still around to this day, is essentially a metaverse that doesn’t have an end goal the way many other games do: It just lets you roam the world and interact with other players. Oh, and you can also fly.

In an ideal metaverse, you forge your own destiny, and many of the common video game limitations are removed. However, the first step is the same for nearly every metaverse, game-related or not: You have to create your character.

Becoming an avatar

In the metaverse, users are given an avatar — a representation of themselves that they can tweak to look however they like. The way the avatar looks depends on the platform. It can be something very basic, but it can also be high quality, with a lot of room for customization. Users can strive to remain true to life, but they can also turn themselves into someone entirely different.

The avatar, once created, is the user’s ticket to the metaverse — a virtual universe where the sky is the limit, provided one has the imagination to suspend reality for a little while. The avatar can move, speak, explore the area, and more. The limitations of the avatar lie entirely with the platform.

Four avatars from the Meta Horizon Worlds metaverse.

Some instances of the metaverse resemble a video game and let the user walk around using a keyboard and mouse. More advanced versions involve the use of virtual reality headsets and controls that truly immerse the user in the world by replicating their real-life movements in the metaverse.

Different companies have different takes on the avatar-creating process. Microsoft Mesh is being integrated into Teams in 2022, bringing something new to the metaverse table. The program will allow the user to create a fully customized avatar of themselves. Through the use of mixed reality technology, the avatar will represent the user in a realistic way. In the future, this will involve a full range of facial expressions, body language, and backgrounds.

Meta has big plans when it comes to avatar creation in its upcoming metaverse, Horizon Worlds. The avatars will be supported by VR and will replicate the user’s actions in real time. While this all sounds peachy, these avatars do not currently have legs — possibly to make the movement and travel easier to manage. However, Meta is also working on photorealistic Codec Avatars: Impressive-looking, ultrarealistic avatars that will be rendered in rea time along with the surrounding environment.

Regardless of the platform, the ideal metaverse will let the user pick what they want to look like while retaining the realism of facial expressions and movements when supported by VR.

What does the metaverse look like?

Before answering this question, we need to distinguish “the metaverse” from “a metaverse.” There is no one singular metaverse that connects all the other universes into one cohesive whole, although they all involve the use of the internet to connect their users to one another. As such, every metaverse can look entirely different from the rest.

The way a metaverse looks depends entirely on its creator. Some metaverses are sandbox-like, giving a lot of room for creation and not limiting the user a whole lot in terms of what they end up building. Think Minecraft, but bigger: Everyone shares the same world instead of sharing a server with friends.

A metaverse can look like a classroom, a street, a fantasy forest, or the bottom of the ocean.

In such a metaverse, real-world rules still mostly apply. You’re likely to see the sky, buildings, and nature, and most significantly, other people. The art style depends on the metaverse and can be cartoony, realistic, or anything in between.

However, as Zuckerberg emphasized during his Meta keynote, the metaverse doesn’t suffer from the same limitations as the real world does. There is no reason why you couldn’t go to space with your entire family in the metaverse, provided its creators allowed for this to happen.

The bottom line is that a metaverse can look like a classroom, a street, a fantasy forest, or the bottom of the ocean. However, the most popular instances of it offer something that’s a mix of all of those things, all thanks to the freedom they provide their users.

Is a metaverse possible?

Let’s take a moment to quickly recap where we stand. We’ve got a virtual reality where the only limitations lie in the hands of its creator. We’ve got an avatar that represents us. Of course, we have an internet connection that lets us join this shared world.

Where do we go from here? It depends.

A vision of the metaverse with several characters pointing to a futuristic world.

In an ideal world, the metaverse should connect each and every user to one another. Joining a public server should provide the ability to interact with everyone else who is connected at the time. The reality is often different.

As certain metaverses grow more popular, it becomes impossible for the servers that host them to handle such huge traffic loads. This means that some developers create different layers that separate the users, effectively making the world a little smaller.

There may come a time in the future when this can be avoided, but right now, the metaverse is often fragmented — not to mention the fact that people use different platforms, effectively choosing their preferred universe.

As mentioned above, every company has a different take on the metaverse. Facebook is working on Horizon Worlds, Nvidia has its Omniverse, and much smaller fish in this very big pond are also joining in. The cryptocurrency world has metaverses of its own.

The fact that these metaverses are disconnected from each other, operate on different platforms, and have no shared uses or goal, means that the idea of one large metaverse is currently impossible.

If the metaverse is meant to be one giant, shared virtual world, all the companies involved in releasing their own metaverses would have to join forces. For that to happen, not only would these brands have to cooperate, but server technology would have to rapidly advance.

In order to host all of these different iterations of the metaverse on one platform, unimaginable server loads would have to be handled not just by the host, but also the end user.

Until this is possible, the metaverse may always be somewhat fragmented, forcing the users to choose their universe of choice before they connect to the shared world.

What is the purpose of the metaverse?

The metaverse, as a concept, is not very easy to define, if only because of how limitless it seems to be. This means that its general purpose can be defined on a case-by-case basis — not just the company or group of people that create it, but also each individual user.

The general purpose of the metaverse is to connect with others through a virtual, shared universe. Be it for work, self-improvement, or simply entertainment, the metaverse exists to breach the borders of reality and distance, connecting people from all over the globe.

Allowing users, portrayed by their avatars, to interact with the world at large without giving them any clear goals allows for a lot of freedom of choice. This is also what Meta has built its big reveal on — the fact that in the metaverse, you can essentially do just about anything you want.

Let’s take a look at some of the more common things you can do in the metaverse.

Own property

A common theme in metaverses involves allowing users to buy plots of land. Such a property, upon purchase, becomes assigned to one particular user and is unavailable to other players as long as it’s owned by that specific avatar. Plots can be bought or rented, just like in the real world.

Owning property often allows the user to utilize it in whichever way they might want. Some choose to build a gallery to house the items they own, while others create shops or shared public spaces.

The concept of letting the users roam free and build whatever they want in their own space is not new, and it definitely plays into the success of games such as Minecraft or Roblox. User creativity saves a lot of time for the developers of the metaverse, who would otherwise have to spend it on designing the buildings themselves.

Of course, this is the internet, and too much freedom can lead to various forms of abuse. Most metaverses continue to supervise the content created by their users, and depending on the host, it may be taken down. Even a seemingly infinite universe has its limitations.

Trade property

Once you own something in the metaverse, it can be sold or traded to one of the other users. This adds an element of wealth and prestige to an otherwise detached world. Some lots are worth more than others, some items are rare while others are common — all of this adds up to the creation of an economy that applies to a particular metaverse.

Typically, plots of land in the metaverse vary in size and location. As this is a virtual rendition of real life, it’s not a surprise that the real estate market is alive and well even in the metaverse. Contested plots, located closer to busy areas or simply made more desirable through some other luxury, can reach much higher prices than a tiny square of grass on the outskirts of town.

A screenshot of Decentraland.
Decentraland is a blockchain-based metaverse.

Advertise

Some metaverses attract not just regular users, but also companies. As the universe is shared by many, this opens up the opportunity to advertise. Simply buying land and displaying the logo of the company can be an effective way to pique or refresh interest.

Companies are able to benefit from the metaverse in more ways than one. Organizing events, creating crossovers between franchises, and engaging with the user base is made easier in a seemingly limitless universe.

Live and interact

The above examples of what you can do in the metaverse are all technicalities when you compare them to the ideal metaverse — a place almost capable of replacing reality. We’re not quite there yet (and we won’t be for years), but the efforts of companies like Meta or VRChat are bringing us closer to this than we’ve ever been before.

In a perfect metaverse, you are capable of interacting with every person around you. This goes beyond the text-based chat we’ve all seen in games such as Second Life or Habbo. Incorporating voice communication, VR headsets, and AR glasses allows for interaction on a whole new level.

Whether it’s meeting your friends and going skydiving or forming a study group in a virtual library, the main concept of the metaverse will always revolve around human interaction — just not in person.

Work and study

From Meta to Microsoft, many companies place a lot of emphasis on the ability to work, cooperate, and study together in the metaverse.

Microsoft is planning to use Mesh to bring realism to otherwise dull video meetings. Meta hopes to create virtual workspaces, giving remote workers a chance to spend time together in virtual reality during their workday.

The metaverse can also be used for work in different ways, including simulating real-world tasks in virtual reality first. This can be utilized by engineers, programmers, designers, and many other professionals through metaverses such as Nvidia’s Omniverse.

The connection between the metaverse, cryptocurrencies, and NFTs

When speaking of the metaverse, it’s impossible not to mention cryptocurrencies. After all, some of the biggest instances of it are based on the blockchain — the decentralized framework that cryptocurrencies operate within.

One such example is Decentraland, a sandbox-like metaverse that lets its users buy plots of land, explore other plots, and interact with each other. The entire economy is based around MANA — a cryptocurrency used specifically in Decentraland.

A screenshot of Decentraland.

What sets these metaverses apart from commercially owned universes is the fact that they rely on a decentralized network where your assets are your own and are not controlled by the owner(s) of the metaverse.

Cryptocurrencies, and therefore also the universes that are set around them, are usually decentralized. This means that the currency, virtual land, or the whole metaverse is not owned by a single entity and cannot be taken down, sold, or otherwise destroyed on a whim. Decentralization involves contracts distributed to a network of users and a majority vote. Unless the majority of the network votes to take the metaverse down, it should, in theory, remain accessible to everyone.

This is not the case in gaming metaverses, such as World of Warcraft, where your account continues to belong to the company in charge of the game. This means that all of your assets, such as your equipment or your characters, are ultimately not yours to control. This is where non-fungible tokens (NFTs) come in.

NFTs can be anything from (frankly, rather ugly) 8-pixel avatars to breathtaking works of art. At their core, NFTs are a decentralized way to assign ownership to virtual goods. Anyone can download a photo and claim it as their own, but NFTs involve cryptocurrency and contracts that pin down ownership to one particular user.

In the metaverse, this opens up a whole new level of economy that turns this fantastical concept into a way for people to make (or lose) real-world money. Users can buy virtual plots of land, avatars, or even a hat for their metaverse avatar — all through the use of cryptocurrency.

non fungible tokens concept, NFT neon sign-picture on circuit board, crypto art

Non-fungible tokens are independent of the metaverse, but they do play a part in the economy of certain universes, such as Decentraland or The Sandbox — an upcoming metaverse that is not yet live.

The Sandbox sells plots of land in the form of NFTs, assigning full ownership to the person who buys them. The users can then visit that plot and interact with its contents. Just one glance at The Sandbox’s map shows that this form of NFTs caught the interest of not just cryptocurrency fanatics, but also dozens of companies that see it as a new advertising space to explore.

A screenshot of the Sandbox metaverse map.

Some big-name brands and franchises already own land in The Sandbox ahead of its launch. You’ll see gigantic plots of land belonging to Atari, RollerCoaster Tycoon, The Walking Dead, Shaun the Sheep, and even South China Morning Post.

This is a mix of brands that no one would ever accuse of having much of an interest in either NFTs or the metaverse, but the concept shows promise, and some companies are looking to capitalize on that.

It’s difficult not to draw similarities between the real-world economy and the way the cryptocurrency market ties into some of the most popular metaverses. The end result can be wonderful or jarring, depending on which side of the fence you’re on.

The future of the metaverse

No one can deny that the concept of the metaverse has started to spread to previously uncharted lands. We’ve gone a long way from its humble beginnings in games such as Second Life, Habbo Hotel, or even the long-gone, long-forgotten Club Penguin.

According to Zuckerberg, Meta hopes to hit the ground running with Horizon Worlds, although even Zuckerberg admits that we’re not quite there yet. It will take years for the metaverse to permeate our reality to the point of being as widely known and accessible as what Meta is hoping to achieve.

The vision of the metaverse as a shared universe where people separated by continents can play, learn, share, and even work together is futuristic and idyllic in equal measure. Bustling streets filled with stores, parks, and people can all be recreated in the metaverse, but the technology needed to support it is still not something that every person can easily access.

Another step toward mainstream recognition lies in the realism of the metaverse experience. The introduction of VR and AR into the metaverse will certainly go a long way in making the experience feel far more realistic than it does with a keyboard and mouse.

A screenshot of Travis Scott's concert in Fortnite.

We’ve already seen interesting crossovers that tested the limits of the metaverse. Travis Scott performed a virtual concert in Fortnite that was attended by over 12 million people. Justin Bieber has just announced that he plans to do the same. Even though The Sandbox isn’t live yet, Snoop Dogg, an avid supporter of NFTs, already owns land in it and lets people buy VIP passes to visit his mansion in the future.

Zuckerberg believes that the future of the internet lies in the metaverse — he even went as far as to call it the successor to mobile internet. Whether that is true still remains to be seen.

One thing is for sure — it’s difficult to deny that the metaverse is no longer a wild concept pulled straight out of a sci-fi film. Facebook/Meta has just added fuel to a fire that has already been burning, and in a few years, we may be seeing the metaverse utilized in ways we previously haven’t even thought possible.

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