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What in the world does 'the metaverse' even mean - and should we be concerned?

By SAAB LARIOSA Published Oct 26, 2021 9:38 pm

If you've been lingering around the tech world lately, there's one buzzword that's been popping up nonstop: the "metaverse"

The word first caught public interest when news spread that Mark Zuckerberg was planning to change the name of Facebook to cater to "the metaverse," with numerous articles and sharing the mysterious keyword in headlines.

“What I think is most interesting is how these themes will come together into a bigger idea,” Zuckerberg shared. “Our overarching goal across all of these initiatives is to help bring the metaverse to life.”

Though it's still a growing concept with a constantly evolving definition, The Verge defines the metaverse as a "convergence of physical, augmented, and virtual reality in a shared online space."

Where did it come from?

"Metaverse" was first coined by science fiction author Neal Stephenson in the 1992 novel 'Snow Crash,' a story about people that wear virtual reality (VR) headsets to interact in a digital world.

It's a term that has stood the test of time for over 29 years, with Silicon Valley tech execs using it to refer to a faraway concept - until now.

So, what is it?

The metaverse is essentially a maximalist or broader and more "real" version of the internet. Instead of being "confined" in the rectangle screens of our phones and laptops, Zuckerberg argues that the metaverse will be a fully digital space we can sink into, rather than tap with our fingers.

"In the future, instead of just doing this over a phone call, you’ll be able to sit as a hologram on my couch, or I’ll be able to sit as a hologram on your couch, and it’ll actually feel like we’re in the same place, even if we’re in different states or hundreds of miles apart," he shared with The Verge.

Remember the virtual Gucci bag that sold for over $4,000 on Roblox? That's already the metaverse at work, wherein physical and online properties come together to bring a whole new experience for users. It may sound weird, but it's already happening. 

The metaverse has also been utilized by Fortnite's game company Epic Games when it brought the likes of artists Lil Nas X and Marshmello into a virtual concert. Again, it might be weird to you, but it did gain over 33 million views. Imagine if those were actual paying concertgoers. 

It's a clearer picture to see when you're thinking about gaming, but the metaverse isn't in just closed off in that aspect as it's been dubbed a "virtual reality sandbox environment."

"[The Metaverse is] not just text or voice communications, you’re also virtually moving through these spaces; it’s an office, it’s a performance space," The Verge's Casey Newton explained.

In its most basic form, think of it as a real-life version of the OASIS in Ready Player One, but hopefully, the real world isn't in dystopia.

"Being engaged more naturally"?

In the defense that the metaverse will ultimately distract people from the real world, Zuckerberg argued that the metaverse will allow people to be "engaged more naturally" to the world, rather than cut off.

"What the metaverse broadly is going to help people experience, is a sense of presence that I think is just much more natural in the way that we’re made to interact... The interactions that we have will be a lot richer, they’ll feel real."

"I don’t think that this is primarily about being engaged with the internet more. I think it’s about being engaged more naturally."

The metaverse will be persistent: which is to say, it never “resets” or “pauses” or “ends”, it just continues indefinitely

Though in a different lens, venture capitalist Matthew Ball wrote that he sees the metaverse as a persistent space: "which is to say, it never 'resets' or 'pauses' or 'ends', it just continues indefinitely."

And because the metaverse seeks to be a new way to connect rather than a single application, Ball reckons that there'll be no one person running the metaverse company will run the metaverse. Zuckerberg shares this idea, calling it an “embodied internet" operated by many.

When is it happening?

The new age of the internet is something that won't happen immediately or even obviously.

"We basically put together a roadmap that was a three- or four-year roadmap to get through all of the work that we needed to get to a good place," Zuckerberg shared, though he didn't give an exact date.

Ball argues that there'll be no such thing as a pre and post-metaverse period, as it will slowly envelop into the technologies we know today.

"The Metaverse will require countless new technologies, protocols, companies, innovations, and discoveries to work. And it won’t directly come into existence; there will be no clean “Before Metaverse” and “After Metaverse”. Instead, it will slowly emerge over time as different products, services, and capabilities integrate and meld together," Ball said.

Indeed, with the introduction of e-cash services that we use on the regular and VR goggles that others can play with for leisure, there may come a time wherein 'metaverse' is something that simply rolls off the tongue. After all, even the likes of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) is something that the internet has dealt with.

If it's in any way still confusing to you, don't worry. It's a concept that's hard to wrap your head around, in the same way it was probably hard for people in the 1950s to grasp the concept of the Internet we have today.

Whether its effects will be good or bad, whether it actually changes the course of how we live or fizzles out of existence like so many online concepts, it's one with an almost 30-year arc that remains to be seen.