The term was coined by writer Neal Stephenson in the 1992 dystopian novel “Snow Crash.” In it, the metaverse refers to an immersive digital environment where people interact as avatars. The prefix “meta” means beyond and “verse” refers to the universe. Tech companies use the word to describe what comes after the Internet, which may or may not be reliant on VR glasses.
Think of it as an embodied Internet that you’re inside of rather than looking at. This digital realm wouldn’t be limited to devices: Avatars could walk around in cyberspace similar to how people maneuver the physical world, allowing users to interact with people on the other side of the planet as if they’re in the same room.
But for a robust virtual universe, everyone needs to want and afford VR headsets. The technology would need to be stylish and minimal enough to interest more people and sophisticated enough to work seamlessly. That hasn’t happened yet.
Nimble wireless headsets, like Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2, take a hit on image quality, while bulky VR goggles, like the HTC Vive Pro 2, enable more computing power with their wires. Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2 is among the most affordable at $299, while the HTC Vive Pro 2 headset starts at $799 plus the cost of controllers.
How does the metaverse work?
In theory, you’d log on to the metaverse similarly to logging on to the Internet. Only you’d use a head-mounted display, not a screen, to view content and a form of motion tracking, like Facebook’s wristband, to grab objects.
To be a full universe, no single company could own the metaverse, similarly to how no one owns the Internet. But companies may try to monopolize their respective corners of the metaverse, just as a handful of large tech companies dominate online content today. Firms could do this similarly to how they make money off apps via subscription services, shopping carts, and advertising.
“There will be power players for sure,” said Denise White, founder of the immersive tech company Blank XR. “Once you’re able to put on your new AR glasses and you suddenly see these holograms walking around in the world, then you’ll know, you’re now inside of the metaverse.”
With so many devices offered by different companies, it’s unclear how a single avatar could move between them. One theory is that the metaverse would pick up cues from web browsers. Just like you can toggle between websites on your smartphone, your avatar might jump between platforms built to be cross-compatible and inclusive, said Daniel Liebeskind, CEO of Topia, a video chat platform.
“The metaverse should be a collection of technologies, backends and experiential frontends that all play nicely together,” Liebeskind said.
Who are its power players?
Several large tech companies are chasing down the metaverse.
Facebook bought Oculus in 2014 with this metaverse vision in mind. Zuckerberg said in a statement at the time that the social networking site is “getting ready for the platforms of tomorrow.” More recently, Facebook launched a new product group to build the new 3-D social space, calling for a “connective tissue” to bridge varying services together.
In May, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said the company working to build an “enterprise metaverse.” A month earlier, Epic Games said it raised $1 billion to spend on its metaverse plans. The computing giant Nvidia and gaming platform Roblox are also working in this realm. Last year, Spatial released a free AR app allowing avatars to appear within a user’s real-world environment. Meanwhile, Snapchat has been moving in this direction for years, introducing custom avatars and filters that overlay the world with digital content. Apple also has longtime AR ambitions.
Magic Leap was one of the earliest companies to draw attention to the space when it released an augmented reality app in 2011. Today, it mostly sells to businesses, according to its website.
But there’s still room for start-ups, since a digital world would require loads of content, tools and places for people to see and engage with.
Will the metaverse actually happen?
It’s not yet clear. While technological advances have made VR headsets lighter weight and more affordable in recent years, the devices are primarily used by a niche group — gamers — and have been since the beginning. And most gamers still don’t have a VR system. Just 29 percent of the 169 million gamers in the United States say they own one, according to figures from the Entertainment Software Association.
“At the moment, VR is stuck as a subset of games consoles, and it’s not self-evident that it will break out of that,” said Benedict Evans, a tech analyst and former partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. “Gaming is a big business, and it’s hundreds of millions of people, but is not billions of people. So it’s not a universal experience.”