Updated: Mar 29, 2022
Facebook, Microsoft and a host of other companies are jockeying to define the next iteration of the internet.
You've probably heard the hype: the metaverse is going to change the way you live.
A vision for the next step in the internet's evolution, the metaverse refers to digital worlds in which people will gather to work, play and hang out. Some of those online spaces will be immersive 3D experiences and require fancy goggles to enjoy. Others will play out on a computer screen. The term's been in flux, and might still keep evolving and renaming itself.
Microsoft's planned acquisition of ActivisionBlizzard for $69 billion, was explained as part of an expansion into metaverse. Last year, Facebook rebranded itself as Meta, a nod to the social network's ambition to be a prime mover in the new world. Rec Room and world-building games, like Roblox and Minecraft, all get rolled into discussions of what the metaverse is or will be.
The term metaverse has circulated for decades. Virtual reality, augmented reality and 3D computing – the technological concepts behind it -- are older still. The current boom in interest is just the most recent peak in a years-long push to make these advances useful to everybody.
What's changed is a shift in understanding, a conviction the internet needs to be reimagined. How far-reaching those changes end up being is anyone's guess. After all, the road map for the metaverse is half-paved. It isn't clear it'll be completed as promised.
What's for sure is that if there's money to be made, big companies will be involved. In addition to Microsoft and Meta, Qualcomm, Nvidia, Valve, Epic, HTC and Apple are all dreaming up new ways of connecting online. So you'll be hearing more about the metaverse in the years ahead.
What is the metaverse?
Unsatisfyingly, the metaverse is a squishy concept. An evolution of the internet, it's often described as online spaces where people can socialize, work and play as avatars. Those spaces are shared and always available; they don't disappear when you've finished using them, like a Zoom call. The description is so broad that many people say the metaverse already exists in the digital worlds of Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite, which allow players to gather in 2D environments. Second Life, a nearly two-decade-old social-and-gaming platform, is the OG metaverse. (It's being revamped.)
Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and other proponents see a deeper, more immersive experience that marries a host of existing technologies, such as VR headsets, mobile devices, personal computers and cloud-connected servers. These futurists envision the development of a 3D virtual world, one that you might enter while wearing a headset or AR glasses. There's no agreement you'll need VR or AR to get to the metaverse but they pretty much go hand in hand. That suggests these headsets will be compatible with whatever's on offer. A new wave of VR and mixed reality headsets are expected this year from Meta, Sony, Apple and maybe others.
One common theme: The metaverse will be a virtual world that parallels our IRL lives. Digital neighborhoods, parks and clubs will spring up, possibly in a single virtual world or spread across many. Some people see a metaverse that overlaps with the physical world and includes AR overlays. Investors are already splashing out on plots of virtual land. Barbados has indicated it wants an embassy in the metaverse, underscoring the cachet the concept has generated.
Naysayers are skeptical that the metaverse will be all that Zuck and others suggest. Many point to the cumbersome headsets that will be needed to access the most exciting chunks of the metaverse. (The inventor of the Playstation called them "simply annoying," while a senior Meta executive called his own company's headset "wretched.") They argue that Big Tech hasn't figured out how to curb hate speech, misinformation and bullying already on the web. Getting a handle on those problems in an even more freewheeling environment will be daunting, they say.