The next version of the internet is coming, and it’s called the metaverse. Just ask the leader of the company formerly known as Facebook, which in 2021 rebranded itself as Meta after CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the social networking platform has its sights set on becoming a “metaverse company.”
But what, exactly, is the metaverse? Where can it be found? Why does it matter? And more importantly, how can you and I get in?
What Is the Metaverse?
The metaverse is a network of shared, immersive virtual worlds where people can connect with friends, create and play games, work and shop. You can think of the metaverse as a cyberspace, or an evolved, three-dimensional internet where logging in isn’t necessary. It may also incorporate elements of virtual and augmented reality.
At the moment, the idea of one universally acknowledged metaverse is still speculative — the stuff of science fiction. But that hasn’t stopped some tech giants from building metaverse-like experiences, such as virtual fashion shows, live concerts and workspaces.
In his book The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything, author and investor Matthew Ball offers this comprehensive definition of the metaverse:
“A massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.”
Here’s a closer look at each of these elements that Ball says make up the metaverse:
- Virtual worlds: Computer-generated environments.
- Three-dimensional: Without 3D capabilities, the metaverse would just be the internet.
- Real-time rendered: Virtual worlds that can “respond to input from a user.”
- Massively scaled: As big and diverse as the real world.
- Interoperable network: A standardized set of protocols between various platforms that allow users to “carry” personal information from one virtual world to another.
- Persistence: It’s always on and accessible to users.
- Synchronous: People can share simultaneous experiences in real time.
- Unlimited users and individual presence: Lets millions of users on at the same time, each with control over their own point of view, perhaps through an avatar.
Ball contends that we are still several years away from being able to tick all the boxes required of a true metaverse. In the meantime, tech companies will continue to innovate and inch us ever closer to making the theoretical parallel plane of existence into a reality.
History of the Metaverse
The term “metaverse” first appeared in author Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science-fiction novel Snowcrash, which describes a future where millions of people use virtual avatars to participate in a cyberspace realm. This concept was further popularized in another sci-fi novel, Earnest Cline’s 2011 Ready Player One, in which everyday people strap on VR headsets and log into a virtual world to live out their fantasies.
The metaverse also exists beyond literature: In 2003, the company Linden Lab launched Second Life. Considered to be one of the earliest real-life examples of a metaverse (or something close to it), Second Life isn’t quite a game — there are no points or overarching objectives — but a simulated 3D environment where users can do practically anything. They can adopt new personas, cultivate hobbies, run businesses and create friendships with people from far-flung geographies.
Second Life proved to be a massive hit upon release, with around a million users signing up. Harvard University held classes in it, rapper Jay-Z threw a concert in it and Rolling Stone called it “the future of the Net.” Eventually, though, enthusiasm for Second Life waned, and the platform’s growth flattened. Still, its cultural impact signaled the possibility of a metaverse.
- Meta Horizon
- Second Life
- The Sandbox
In the years following Second Life’s peak, a number of technological advancements, mostly led by the gaming industry, have revitalized the conversation around the metaverse.
Roblox, a sandbox-like virtual platform where people can build and play games and experiences, was launched in 2006 — although it took more than a decade for it to become a mainstream success. By January 2022, Roblox had nearly 55 million daily active users, and Roblox Corporation CEO David Baszucki called his company “shepherds of the metaverse.”
Fortnite, the battle-royale-style action game published by Epic Games, sprang to notoriety in 2019. Functionally a virtual hub for social connection and attending live events, Fornite spans multiple platforms, including PC, mobile and several game consoles, offering an unforeseen degree of interoperability to users despite being in an industry that historically prefers to operate inside walled gardens. That interoperability, along with the way it allows wildly diverse IP to coexist in its game — you might see Iron Man fighting alongside Indiana Jones and LeBron James, for instance — is why Fortnite offers a glimpse into the possibilities of the metaverse.
The popularity of Roblox and Fornite — along with a host of other platforms and apps like Minecraft and Snapchat — helped accelerate discussions about the imminence of the metaverse (in some tech and gaming circles, at least). But it was Facebook’s 2021 rebrand to Meta that catapulted the idea of the metaverse into the larger public consciousness.
“The next platform will be even more immersive — an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it,” Zuckerberg wrote in an open letter explaining his company’s pivot. “We call this the metaverse, and it will touch every product we build.”
True to its word, Meta has since rolled out Meta Horizon, a platform that allows users to create avatars and explore virtual worlds and use co-working spaces in 3D virtual reality.
How the future will shake out is far from known, but it may involve all of the previously mentioned platforms connected together in some larger metaverse.
Web3 vs. the Metaverse
The word metaverse is sometimes mentioned in parallel with another buzzy term — Web3. And while the two concepts share similarities — both cast a vision of the next-generation version of the internet — they are not identical and shouldn’t be used interchangeably.
Web3 is a term used to describe a decentralized internet built on a blockchain foundation. Central to Web3’s premise is that power over the internet will eventually swing away from a handful of tech giants and toward the many individual users and developers.
That said, none of Web3’s core tenets run contrary to those of the metaverse. It’s entirely possible that both visions will co-exist in the future.
Metaverse vs. the Internet: What’s the Difference?
The metaverse is a massive network constantly buzzing with activity where people remotely hang out with friends, create art, play games and shop — so how’s that any different from the internet as we know it today?
Matthew Ball conceives of the metaverse not as something wholly separate from the internet, but an evolution of it — an embodied internet you are within, rather than have access to.
“The metaverse will not replace or fundamentally alter the internet’s underlying architecture or protocol suite,” Ball wrote in The Metaverse. “Instead, it will evolve to build on top of it in a way that will feel distinctive.”
The similarities don’t stop there: “The way the metaverse looks is very similar to how the internet emerged,” Pim de Witte, co-founder and chief executive officer of Medal, a game-clip-sharing platform, told Built In.
De Witte conceives of the metaverse not as a single destination that everyone defaults to, but as a complex network consisting of browsers, indexes and destinations.
He explained it like this: Platforms such as Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft are not in themselves metaverses, but destinations within the metaverse. There will be lots of these sorts of destinations, not unlike individual websites on the internet today. In other words, Fortnite is not a metaverse, in the same way that Facebook is not an internet. The two are both planets within a larger galaxy.
Blockchain, Web3 and the Metaverse
The next frontier of the internet may very well be shaped by companies and projects related to blockchain, Web3 and the metaverse. As stated previously, these concepts are not at odds with one another. In fact, they may support and complement each other as we build toward a more equitable, inclusive, open and secure internet.
Two popular examples positioning themselves at the intersection of blockchain, Web3 and the metaverse are The Sandbox and Decentraland. Both offer immersive virtual worlds, as well as tools that allow users to build monetizable projects within those worlds. And unlike many tech companies commonly associated with the metaverse, The Sandbox and Decentraland are owned by their users and built on the Ethereum blockchain.
How Does the Metaverse Work?
In theory, the metaverse works by allowing an infinite number of people to synchronously connect together in real time in an always-on virtual environment that’s immersive, three-dimensional and connects to our physical world in seamless ways.
In reality, it’s a tricky technological feat to accomplish. Such a thing requires enormous amounts of computer processing and advancements made in smartphone, gaming device and VR and AR headset technology.
Plus, a single, interoperable metaverse — one that would let users carry their identities and digital collectibles across platforms owned by different companies — would require serious coordination and cooperation between various organizations.
Historically, companies (gaming companies especially) have been hesitant to allow their assets to be compatible with a competitor’s ecosystem. Playing nicely with other platforms, the logic goes, would mean giving up some amount of control. But for a fully realized metaverse to come about, such cooperation will be necessary.
How to Access the Metaverse
For now, there is no one entrance or gateway into the metaverse, because the idea of a single metaverse is still theoretical. That said, people who want to participate in metaverse-like experiences have a number of options:
- Buy a virtual reality headset and join a social VR experience like Horizon Worlds, VRChat or Rec Room.
- Create a free account on a platform like Roblox, Fortnite or Minecraft, which you can experience on a PC, mobile device or gaming console.
- Check out ethereum-based virtual worlds like The Sandbox and Decentraland.
In the future, there may be a main hub that connects users to each part of the metaverse, like the forest in The Nightmare Before Christmas, with magical doors that allow anyone to move seamlessly in and out of discrete worlds.
Who Owns the Metaverse?
Just like no one entity “owns” the internet, it’s doubtful that anyone, be it a government organization or multinational corporation, will have sole ownership of the metaverse. Rather, the metaverse will likely emerge with a constellation of companies, collectives and independent developers operating under some agreed-upon policies and protocols.
The Khronos Group is one organization trying to make that happen. OpenXR, Khronos Group’s royalty-free standard VR and AR developers use to create cross-platform experiences, has already gained widespread industry support and demonstrated the benefits of interoperability. So there’s hope that the group’s latest project, the Metaverse Standards Forum, a community made up of more than 1800 standards organizations, nonprofits and companies, will devise and promote ways to build an inclusive and pervasive metaverse.
And that certainly beats the alternative, according to Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney.
“This metaverse is going to be far more pervasive and powerful than anything else,” Sweeney told VentureBeat. “If one central company gains control of this, they will become more powerful than any government and be a god on Earth.”
The Metaverse Economy: Shopping and Investing in the Metaverse
Fortnite is free to play, and yet the game still brought in $5.8 billion in revenue in 2021. That’s because users are eager to pay for costumes, dance moves and character accessories that serve aesthetic and expressive purposes (rather than, say, give players a competitive edge).
The metaverse’s economy will not just consist of companies selling digital goods to users. It will also, perhaps primarily, consist of peers selling to peers. Take Roblox as an example. On the platform, users have the ability to create their own games using Roblox’s developer tools. They can then monetize their creations by selling them to other users. If they cash out, Roblox takes a cut.
For the most part, “It’s a free-market, user-driven economy,” Deepak Chandrasekaran, Roblox vice president of product management, said. And it’s “not just about taking money out of the ecosystem, it’s also about using the same virtual currency and spending it across the ecosystem.”
Roblox users don’t just show up on the platform, sell something, take their money and leave. Most of them put that money back into the platform’s economy, by spending it on games or avatar customizations that other users create. Money travels in and around, rather than out. It’s a growing, self-sufficient economy.
“We actually have to pretty much simulate the entire real world. The only thing I think we don’t have is stocks,” Chandrasekaran said. “But ... I think it’s inevitable that we may end up there.”
The metaverse is also shaping up to be a premier destination for investors. Today, there are several ways to invest in metaverse companies and projects.
Some people have invested in digital real estate with cryptocurrency on the Decentraland and Sandbox platforms. Others have taken a more traditional path, investing in publicly traded companies related to the emerging metaverse sector, like Meta, Roblox, Nvidia, Unity, Autodesk, Take-Two Interactive and Snap, as well as industry giants that may play a role in shaping the internet’s future, such as Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and Microsoft.
These are just examples, of course. The real future of the metaverse belongs to the users — the everyday people whose creative and connective impulses will hopefully bring about a more exciting, imaginative successor to the internet than any science fiction novel could predict.