With 2022 upon, most of us have heard the word “metaverse” spoken around us, if for no other reason than Facebook generated enormous media attention when it rebranded itself as “Meta” in late 2021. But, what does the term “metaverse” mean and why is it one of the hottest digital trends of late?
Most importantly, will the metaverse impact the world as seriously as the internet did?
With these questions in mind, this article will provide insight into what the metaverse is and the likely changes it will usher in. Let’s dive in.
Metaverse Meaning: What Is It?
The metaverse is a term that refers to immersive environments that are emerging as a result of advances in virtual technologies (VR) and augmented realities (AR). Think of it like the internet, but immersive, so you can interact within it.
The prefix “meta” means “referring to itself”, while the term “universe” means “matter and space considered as a whole.” Thus, the term “metaverse” refers to a universe that exists on top of or is reflective of the universe that we’ve always occupied.
For this reason, the images conjured up by this new digital space can be vague, ominous, utopian, even strange, in some cases.
While the meaning of the metaverse is certain to evolve over time, at this time it describes a digital realm where you can exist as an avatar, interact with other people’s 3D representatives, and can undertake a wide range of activities, from purchasing clothes for your digital wardrobe, to socializing, working, and gaming.
While the term “metaverse” wasn’t invented by Mark Zuckerberg, the term has picked up steam in the wake of Facebook’s surging investments into VR and AR investments. Most notably, Facebook bought the virtual reality company Oculus in 2014 for an astounding $2 billion, while Facebook’s parent company changed its name to “Meta” in October of 2021.
Leadership at Facebook has publicly reported by that it expects its investments into augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) through Facebook Reality Labs to reduce its overall operating profit for 2021 by approximately $10 billion. Meaning, it is investing into this emerging realm now with the hope to reap (really) big rewards in the future.
Decentraland and The Sandbox
The rise of the “metaverse” has grown since the advent of two popular digital spaces that serve as templates for these types of virtual reality worlds—namely, The Sandbox and Decentraland.
The Sandbox is a virtual world consisting of almost 200,000 plots of land that people can rent or own, along with general spaces that allow for gameplay, buying, and trading goods. It is a centralized virtual world that was created by The Sandbox gaming company in 2012 and is now operated by its co-founder and chief operating officer, Sebastien Borget. Over the past few years, the Sandbox’s total virtual land sales have surged past $21 million.
Decentraland is a little smaller, but it’s a similar idea and it’s also incredibly popular. It is different from The Sandbox in that it is not run by a single (“centralized”) company. Rather, it is decentralized world that runs on the Ethereum network. Specifically, Decentraland is an open source 3D virtual world that launched to the public in early 2020. Its purpose is to allow a global network of users to build and continually evolve a shared virtual world. Similar to The Sandbox, virtual plots of land within it can be bought within Decentraland as NFTs (non-fungible tokens).
For those who aren’t familiar with the term NFT, it is a simply a term that describes a unique, non-interchangeable unit of data that is stored on a blockchain. Usually, the purpose of an NFT is to publicly track the ownership of digital goods.
Metaverses and the Evolution of 3D Immersive Worlds
Put simply, immersive metaverses such as The Sandbox and Decentraland have incentivized people and companies (like Meta/Facebook) to invest heavily into virtual headsets, 3D technology, and the rapidly expanding theme of virtual worlds.
Plus, the pandemic exposed the fact that it’s possible to do a lot of work online, so the metaverse is emerging as an immersive way to engage remotely. There are a lot of other applications that could come from the existence of 3D metaverses, though.
At this time, it’s not as important to think about what the metaverse is as opposed to what it could become. Put yourself in the shoes of someone in 1970 who was wondering what the internet might do to the world. It would have been impossible to predict the internet’s far reaching applications, but its use today it is ubiquitous.
What we do know is that technology never goes backward. Meaning, technologies cannot be “undiscovered”. Thus, it’s extremely likely that 3D immersive worlds (aka, “metaverses”) will be here to stay.
Social Applications of the Metaverse
What will the metaverse mean for your future social life? While it’s hard to know for sure, early metaverses suggest that you will exist within these immersive realms as a strikingly lifelike avatar. Your friends will have similar avatars and you will all spend time together in digitally created public squares, restaurants, cafes, and concerts.
These places will be constructed by digital architects, run by actual businesses, and hosted by the internet. Within these worlds, you will be able to purchase clothes, travel to “distant” places, and engage in an incredible range of compelling activities of that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to (think skydiving or exploring the surface of the moon, for example).
You’ll also have the ability to express yourself in different ways, do things that would pose far too much risk in real life, and “travel” nearly instantaneously. In some ways, the metaverse may be similar to a lucid dream where you have the ability to do things that you could never do in a waking state.
These are all speculations, but the fundamental pieces are already in order. Some of the rough edges still need to get worked out, though.
Virtual Reality Limitations
If you’ve played a virtual reality game or worn a headset recently, you know that VR is getting better. It has the ability to startle you, engage you, and provide an interesting space to watch movies or play games.
That said, it’s not exactly a mirror of real life. Things are still clunky. Not to mention, a virtual reality headset isn’t the most discrete thing in the world. If the streamlining of smartphones and almost all technology is any indication of the future, though, that clunkiness will be gone soon.
Moore’s law states that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit should double almost every two years. That’s a fancy way of saying that computers double their potential every two years based on human application and desire to improve.
Improved technology allows humans to improve upon future technology, and growth becomes exponential. Once the metaverse hits the mainstream, the demand for improvements in virtual reality will accelerate. Companies will fill that space like cool air rushing into a warm room.
Potential Benefits and Consequences of the Metaverse
Like anything, the metaverse could be very good or very bad. On one hand, it could reduce human consumption of fossil fuels and other consequences caused by travel. A comprehensive metaverse could reduce our carbon footprint significantly.
There could be a lot more efficiency in the workplace as well. Playing as yourself in the metaverse would give you immediate access to far more information and allow you to manipulate that information in whatever way you like.
For example, you could snap your fingers and pull up a massive database and drag data points with your hand into a spreadsheet that gets presented to a group of your coworkers in a virtual room.
On the other side of things, we can only speculate as to the impact that such a place could have on human culture. The smartphone and internet have shifted the foundation of many cultures already.
While technology can help us stay in touch and streamline the things we do every day, there’s a dark side to it as well.
For example, digital addictions of all kinds are omnipresent. Technology tends to reduce the amount of time that people spend on in person, face-to-face interactions. Depression and anxiety in younger people are closely correlated with smartphone use. And, technology can expose us to thousands of digital advertisements every single day.
An immersive digital world will surely produce similar effects, if not worse, so we do need to be cautious as we start venturing into these enticing virtual worlds.
The Future of the Metaverse?
Any way you look at it, the metaverse is fascinating. Never before in history have we have the technology and means necessary to interact with each other within these types of immersive worlds.
Now the question is, how will the metaverse affect our lives in the decades to come? If you have thoughts about this, let me know in the comments below.