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What is the metaverse? A detailed introduction

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The metaverse is a big topic in the discourse over technology, our economy and the future of daily life. But for a subject garnering so much attention, it’s not always clear what people mean when they talk about “the metaverse.” In large part, that is because there is no single definition. However, the metaverse is here. And although the concept isn’t a new development, companies have more recently started to build out the necessary infrastructure so consumers can now experience the metaverse and all it has to offer.

Origin of the metaverse

It is widely held that a 1992 novel predicted the metaverse. Written by author Neal Stephenson, “Snow Crash” envisioned a world in which the metaverse succeeded the internet as we knew it, heavily integrating the immersion of virtual reality. Since then, works such as “Avatar” and “Ready Player One” have further built on and explored the concept of a more immersive augmented reality or an extension of the internet. However, the term “metaverse” has not always coincided with these imaginings.

The resurgence of this term can largely be attributed to marketing. The term has become a buzzword for companies hoping to innovate by developing VR technology. Most notably, Facebook Inc. announced the introduction of Meta — and officially changed its name from Facebook to Meta — in 2021. This move could position the company to lead the charge in defining this slightly hazy term.

Glossary of terms

To better understand the metaverse, it is important to understand some basic terms:

  • Avatar: An avatar is a digital “body” or other representation that represents you in a digital space. Typically, to operate in the metaverse, you’ll need to create your digital avatar first.
  • Augmented reality: Augmented reality application creates or displays digital additions to your physical space, such as a digital character superimposed on the area of a real room.
  • Blockchain: Blockchain technology is a digital ledger that allows encrypted information to be shared across a decentralized network. 
  • DAOs: A decentralized autonomous organization is a corporate entity based on community-managed software. 
  • Decentralization: This is a procedure in which the management of an organization is distributed across nodes and users rather than controlled by a single person or entity.
  • Digital marketplace: This is an online platform that facilitates commerce; more businesses want to succeed in the digital marketplace landscape to win over consumers and remain competitive.
  • Digital twins: A digital twin is a digital counterpart or reproduction of a real space or object. One example is within the article, “How Digital Twin technology can enhance Aviation.” In this article, Rolls Royce discusses its digital twin jet engine, a precise virtual copy of a real engine that allows the company to simulate more tests under extreme conditions than a physical test engine would allow.  
  • Digital wallet: This is an application that allows you to store and manage digital payment methods. 
  • Extended reality: This is an umbrella term for any technology that allows for the combination of digital and real elements, including virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). 
  • Interoperability: This refers to the ability of different computer systems to effectively share and process information. The future of the metaverse will largely depend on interoperability
  • Liminal spaces: These are virtual spaces that multiple users can visit and occupy.
  • Virtual reality: This describes any simulated environment or experience. 
  • Web 3.0 (Web3): Web3 is a concept for a new iteration of the internet that will prioritize decentralization and the use of blockchain technology. 

Because the metaverse is evolving, important terminology for understanding it could very well change over time.

What is the metaverse?

The metaverse is not a solid concept. Its definition largely depends on who you ask. However, the most common concept involves a decentralized, sweeping network of highly immersive virtual platforms and tools. 

The metaverse operates via extended reality, which includes virtual reality and augmented reality. With extended reality tools such as VR headsets, users can play games, attend virtual meetings, receive simulated training, run simulations to test new technologies and take part in new educational opportunities. And these are just a few of the metaverse’s applications.       

In its most idealized version, users would be able to move freely on the virtual network between different platforms with in-world “possessions” intact. In some cases, users would be able to travel virtually in the metaverse, visiting popular destinations around the world without leaving their homes. However, sometimes when someone refers to “a metaverse,” they may be speaking of a single immersive platform, such as a highly-immersive online game with virtual reality elements. 

Meanwhile, it is important to keep in mind that the metaverse is something that many technology companies are investing heavily in, hoping to benefit financially from its growth and use. 

The ways to monetize metaverse experiences are being explored, but possibilities include advertising (say, by gaming companies on VR video games) or using sponsored content, which is a primary means of making money on the internet today. Advertising already rules the landscape in social media apps like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. 

Characteristics of the metaverse

As established, the metaverse is not yet a clearly defined concept. However, some typical characteristics of the metaverse as a concept include:

  • Highly immersive environments and activities;
  • Various elements of extended reality;
  • Sweeping networks;
  • High levels of interoperability;
  • Use of a decentralized model;
  • The presence of digital marketplaces;
  • Highly-realistic interpersonal interactions.

Again, as the metaverse evolves its key characteristics may change as well. 

Examples of the metaverse

The idea of a highly-interoperable decentralized network is not yet a reality. However, there are some technologies and platforms that have been called or compared to the metaverse, such as:

  • Fortnite;
  • Meta Horizons;
  • Microsoft AltspaceVR;
  • Nvidia metaverse;
  • Pokemon Go;
  • Roblox;
  • Second Life.

Sweeping categories of technologies may also be considered part of the metaverse or compared to metaverse technologies, such as video conferencing platforms and AR games.

Why is the metaverse attracting so much attention?

The metaverse is attracting attention for several reasons, but two, in particular, stand out. First, the metaverse could allow consumers to have more immersive experiences with technology than currently possible, such as when shopping or gaming. 

And second, in part from recognizing the foregoing, major corporations are starting to make significant investments in the metaverse. Whether these investments will generate a meaningful return remains to be seen. 

Additionally, the metaverse could have the following notable impacts:

  • Transformation of communication options;
  • Advancements in scientific research;
  • Expansion of investment opportunities;
  • Enhancement of collaboration and work opportunities;
  • Expansion of educational opportunities already seen in educational video games.

In particular, the metaverse has also gained a lot of attention from parents and teachers alike, largely as they seek to understand what it is, its potential and ways to ensure that kids have a safe experience with it. As a result, many parents may require a guide to the metaverse to fully understand all of the implications of letting their kids engage with this kind of technology.  

On the other hand, while the metaverse theoretically could offer many benefits, there are many concerns about how it may affect our economy and culture.

What concerns surround the metaverse?

The following are common concerns about the metaverse and related technologies:

  • The impacts on real-life interactions;
  • How companies may monetize and engage with users in the metaverse;
  • How widespread engagement with the metaverse and related technology could affect the environment;
  • How it would affect the job market;
  • The value and stability of digital assets;
  • Potential regulations and legal ramifications;
  • Personal, corporate, and government security.

Additionally, these concerns may be more applicable to certain industries than others. 

How will the metaverse impact industries?

The following are some possible impacts that the metaverse may have on various industries:

In all likelihood, virtually every industry would feel the impacts of a fully-realized metaverse. It could also have a substantial impact on efforts such as accessibility.

How will the metaverse impact accessibility?

The metaverse may help build accessibility into an increasingly digital future. This could include:

With the potential benefits available, it may be valuable to seek education and training in anticipation of the metaverse or similar innovations.

Education and training for the metaverse

The following examples of courses and programs can provide education and training for building and navigating metaverse platforms and technologies:

Although not developed yet, career paths specifically related to the metaverse may potentially arise as well. 

The future of the metaverse

The exact future of the metaverse is largely unknown. Everything from its eventual scope to its very definition is difficult to anticipate. What we do know is that many companies are investing a lot of resources into the development of the metaverse or related technologies. 

At the bare minimum, we will likely see a notable expansion of extended reality technologies and applications going forward. Furthermore, additional infrastructure is likely to be built in anticipation of these advancements. However, how these assets will be utilized and how interoperable they will be will depend on a great number of factors and could very well affect the further development of the metaverse.