You’ve probably heard the term “metaverse” floating around in recent tech discourse. Like many buzz phrases, it means different things to different people. Some would describe games like Animal Crossing or Second Life as metaverse experiences; after all, they’re universes outside of reality (meta-universes) in which people can hang out, interact, buy things, and generally exist in the same way that they would in what hackers used to call “meatspace”.
However, when tech companies and journalists use the word “metaverse”, this isn’t really what they mean. The metaverse is a more complicated entity than simply a video game or a shared virtual world. Instead, it’s a space in which many tech companies envision businesses and other entities will be entirely based before very long. Here’s a brief explainer on what the metaverse is and how it’ll be relevant to your life in the next few years.
What is the metaverse?
Rather than the single spaces envisioned by games like Second Life, the metaverse encapsulates a group of connected virtual spaces that you can hypothetically inhabit universally. This means that, for example, you could buy something in one virtual space, then sell it in another with no conversion or modification needed. In essence, this is the metaverse; it’s an entire universe separate from real life, but one in which you can do the same things you could do in a real space.
If you need an example of what the metaverse could look like, then look no further than Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (or, indeed, the book itself). In that story, users are able to create entire worlds comprising whatever they want; there are worlds based on properties like Dungeons and Dragons and Ghostbusters, as well as the music of Prince and various other pop-cultural phenomena.
Of course, there are several differences between the metaverse as tech companies in our world envision it and the one imagined by Cline. Chiefly, developers currently imagine that augmented reality, or AR, will play a far more central role in the metaverse than VR will. This is because we don’t need to strap expensive headsets to our faces in order to enjoy AR; we simply use our smartphones to access metaverse spaces, and after all, we all have smartphones, right?
When will the metaverse happen?
Facebook’s parent company Meta says that it thinks the metaverse could take around 10 years to build and implement. According to Meta, an optimistic assessment of the metaverse suggests that it could be with us by the end of the decade in some way, shape, or form. We can already see this now; many companies are selling “virtual land” on websites and other platforms, and companies are also trialling virtual shops where you can visit in augmented reality.
Others, however, believe the metaverse won’t be with us until after 2030. A nascent form of the technology will be present and available to investors and companies within the next few years, but analysts such as the Enderle Group’s Rob Enderle believe it will take more time for the metaverse to clear the “hills and valleys of met and unmet expectations” in order for it to become fully viable. Most analysts agree, however, that the metaverse likely won’t become fully commercially available for at least another decade or so.
Even so, we only have to look at games like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV to see that the metaverse is already with us to some degree. These games are persistent, always-on worlds, and you can always access them (until maintenance happens, of course). All you need to do is log in and you’re there. These are, of course, distinct entities, and the metaverse would be significantly more connected to the real world, but MMORPGs and other always-on games are indicators of how the metaverse could function.
How do NFTs fit into the metaverse?
If you have heard of the metaverse, you’ve probably also heard talk of NFTs. This acronym stands for “non-fungible token”, and the best way to explain it is thus. If you have a £5 note, then that note is fungible; you can replace it with another £5 note and they will be worth exactly the same. However, a non-fungible token wouldn’t be replaceable with another token, even if it looked the same externally; their unique identifier is what makes them worth anything.
NFTs are going to be a pivotal part of the metaverse as envisioned by tech companies and enthusiasts. The way many companies imagine it, NFTs will be transferable between elements of the metaverse, so you’ll be able to buy a skin in one video game, say, and then use it in another. The practical problems this presents are numerous, and, of course, NFTs have an enormous environmental cost that will need to be offset or eliminated before they are adopted on a widespread basis. Still, there is pretty much no metaverse as tech companies perceive it without NFTs.
What are the problems with the metaverse?
Despite tech companies’ enthusiasm towards the metaverse, there are some issues the concept needs to overcome before it can be fully embraced by the mainstream. One issue is safety; with so many connected spaces, a centralised security protocol would need to be established in order to keep everyone safe while inhabiting the metaverse. This is a significant challenge, though, and it might be one of the biggest challenges inhibiting more widespread adoption of the metaverse.
There are also widespread concerns about data security within the metaverse, which is partially due to Facebook and Meta’s reputation surrounding data leaks. The metaverse has many opportunities for businesses and tech companies, but given how easy it is for bots and hackers to steal data from the internet as it is, the metaverse also presents countless opportunities for security breaches and data theft. Companies are going to have to work hard in order to overcome this problem. There are numerous other issues affecting the metaverse, too, including an intangible benefit to the consumer and a potential environmental cost, that will need to be overcome before the metaverse is viable on a large scale.