When the company formerly known as Facebook announced plans to change its name to Meta in October, it explained that the move would better reflect its intention to “bring the Metaverse to life and help people connect, create communities find and build businesses”. This drastic changeover by one of the world’s most valuable companies sparked all sorts of comment and speculation, raising as many questions as answers. Key questions include: what exactly is the metaverse and why has Facebook focused its future on this space now?
What is the Metaverse?
To understand the concept of a “metaverse,” it can help to first think of a shared virtual space: from a chat room to games like Minecraft and Fortnite. While these spaces differ in terms of the richness of the virtual experience – text, audio, video, visual detail, sense of space, actions one can perform, etc., all offer the opportunity for multiple, if not millions, of people at once to connect in an online environment.
When Facebook, now meta, refers to the metaverse, it just takes it a few steps further. Meta’s vision of this metaverse appears to be inspired by the immersive experience envisioned when the word was coined in Neal Stephenson’s book Snow Crash nearly 30 years ago. However, the structure of the platform – and more importantly who runs it – is different.
Instead, the metaverse would be made possible by a set of underlying rules and a wide range of technologies that allow a variety of devices and software to connect and create these shared experiences, just like a set of protocols mostly invisible to the user that enable the Internet, through which we use a range of services today.
In other words, this platform would not be the metaverse of meta. Instead, companies like Meta would operate shared experiences on a planet among thousands, if not millions, of other virtual destinations in the larger Metaverse.
What’s the fuss about virtual reality?
Much like artificial intelligence, which is slowly evolving, virtual reality as a real-world experience has been on the rise for a very long time. Stereoscopes introduced 3D experiences in the mid-18th century, first with drawings and later with photographs.
More recently, I think there are signs that we’ve been moving towards greater interest in these immersive experiences and the technical possibilities to do so since the year 2000. Fortnite alone recorded 100 million new users in the one-year period between spring 2019 and spring 2020, bringing the total number of registered users to 350 million.
If Fortnite were a travel destination, it would be one of the most popular destinations on the planet. For comparison: 145 million visitors were counted in China in 2019, almost 80 million in the USA. However, Fortnite users don’t have to leave their homes to travel.
Barriers to the metaverse introduction
Technology may no longer be the biggest obstacle to experiences in immersive, virtual environments. These first experiences are already made possible by a device that most of us already own: a smartphone. Phone makers are already building augmented reality capabilities into new devices. Plus, you can slip most smartphones launched in the last few years into a headset – which costs $50 or less – and enjoy a pretty decent VR experience.
The biggest obstacles to a metaverse of the scale being described by companies like Meta are more social, if not socio-political, than technical. Technical hurdles can likely be overcome over time, while social issues become more acute over time. This social hurdle—a community of interest groups that could agree on how things worked—was the same challenge faced by the early internet.