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The virtual land rush, the emergence of increasingly realistic VR technology, and the mass adoption of cryptocurrency that has occurred over the space of a few short years have caused many to rethink their view of future online communities. However, no term seems to have grabbed the public’s attention more than that of the “Metaverse,” which began to gain traction early last year.
Amazingly, while Google barely registered any mentions of the word from 2005 to 2020, the Google Trends’ index on the phrase ‘The Metaverse’ set a new ‘100’ in March 2021. Although this data seems to indicate that the term is a modern creation, the idea actually dates back to the early 90s.
In his 1992 novel titled “Snow Crash,” Neal Stephenson dreamed of a world where people escaped their dystopian existence by connecting to a plane of virtual reality called the “Metaverse.” In the story, users could explore the online world through digital avatars that functioned as personifications of their own physical traits. Once considered science-fiction, Stephenson’s prescient predictions are fast becoming a reality.
What is the Metaverse?
Often portrayed in movies and films as a grim, alternate reality where humans are forced to fight for survival, the metaverse is actually a network of 3D, virtual worlds meant to foster social connection. Simply put, the metaverse will allow users to enter a digital world where they can shop, buy, sell, play, and replicate their own physical experiences by creating an avatar. As Mark Zuckerberg stated in his recent Founder’s Letter, “The defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence — like you are right there with another person or in another place.”
The futurist blogger Matthew Ball gave another eloquent description of the metaverse when he said, “The Metaverse is a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which 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.”
While the Metaverse may sound like a confusing concept, the idea is simply the next step in the evolution of the internet. In the current internet business model, also known as Web 2.0, a select number of corporations control closed economies, where online gamers cannot monetize their investments and efforts outside the platform.
In the user-controlled metaverse, which has been dubbed Web 3.0, capital controls are eliminated. This allows users to own their digital assets, like non-fungible tokens (NFTs), and trade them with other players in-game. These assets can also be transferred to other virtual experiences, creating an entirely new Internet economy that can be converted to real-world currency.
Additionally, while Web 2.0 is solely operated on cloud and mobile networks, current and future metaverse games will be located on the blockchain.
No company has embraced the concept of the metaverse more than Facebook, which recently changed its name to Meta Platforms as part of its plan to focus more exclusively on building its metaverse product.
The company’s vision of the future involves social interactions in virtual 3D spaces where, according to Mark Zuckerberg, people can socialize, learn, collaborate, play, and create experiences “in ways that go beyond what we can imagine.”
Current access points for metaverses include general-purpose computers and smartphones, in addition to augmented reality (AR), mixed reality, and virtual reality (VR) technologies.
One of the cornerstones of Facebook’s vision is its virtual reality product line, embodied in its recently released Oculus Quest device. The Oculus is a headset that allows the user to interact with virtual worlds and connect with friends in shared AR experiences.
The Oculus’ immersive technology makes it possible to sit front row at a live concert, ride a roller coaster, hang out with friends, work, watch a movie, go on scavenger hunts, or partake in a wide slate of games and events that transport the user to another world.
Building off the success of the Oculus, Meta recently launched its first virtual world, Horizon Worlds, on December 9, 2021. Available to access through Oculus’ VR headset, the game allows users to create their own homes and interact with friends through parties and virtual gatherings.
Redefining the Workspace
Ambitious as ever, one of Facebook’s flagship products is its Workrooms platform, which lets people come together to work in the same virtual room, regardless of physical distance. Workrooms are unique in that it allows employees to operate across both virtual reality and the web through the Oculus – combining the physical and the virtual worlds to maximize productivity.
Facebook has marketed the platform as the natural evolution of the workspace and as a way to improve working remotely. Features such as mixed-reality desk and keyboard tracking, hand tracking, remote desktop streaming, video conferencing integration, spatial audio, and the new Oculus Avatars all combine to increase worker connectivity.
Meanwhile, Microsoft plans to launch its own version of the Metaverse in the first half of 2022. Its product, called Microsoft Mesh for Teams, allows workers to meet with each other in a virtual setting through their smartphone or laptop.
Much like Facebook’s Workrooms platform, Mesh for Teams has labeled itself as a “gateway to the metaverse” that is meant to make online meetings “more personal, engaging and fun.”
The platform combines the mixed-reality capabilities of Microsoft Mesh, which allows people in different physical locations to join shared holographic experiences, with the productivity tools of Microsoft Teams, where people can join virtual meetings, send chats, and collaborate on shared documents.
While the announcement of Facebook’s name change and the budding popularity of the Oculus has led to a focus on the company’s products, it’s important to remember that there exists a slate of hugely popular metaverse games operating independently of the tech giant.
Two of the largest gaming platforms include Decentraland and The Sandbox, where players can roam a vast, interactive universe on their Mac or PC and complete tasks with their friends or fellow players.
Players on these platforms also have the ability to buy digital real estate and upload their NFT creations. Once these NFTs are registered on the blockchain, they can be offered on the marketplace where other players can purchase them.
Games such as Roblox, Illuvium, and Axie Infinity also allow players to use digital avatars to earn tokens and rewards, and although their settings aren’t as realistic as the AR experiences generated by the Oculus, each platform effectively functions as a metaverse video game.
The Future of Learning
Compared to its social and work-based initiatives, Facebook has lagged behind in its interactive educational segment, instead choosing to invest $150 million in metaverse creators building new learning experiences.
However, other programs are forging ahead in the company’s stead. The Optima Classical Academy, a charter school in Florida in the US, has embraced the new technology and announced its intention to establish a virtual school that will take in pupils tuition-free commencing August 2022.
The school will equip up to 1,300 students with Oculus headsets so that teachers can review lessons in a virtual classroom. Although The Optima Classical Academy remains one of the first schools to integrate the emerging concepts of virtual reality into learning, it will certainly not be the last.
When Will the metaverse Arrive?
Although Meta’s flagship product is in the early days of development and won’t be available until an estimated date of 2030, it’s important to remember that popular blockchain-based games like Decentraland, Sandbox, and Axie Infinity are already here. Although these games aren’t integrated with VR headsets, they do allow users to buy digital land and earn tokens that can be exchanged for money.
As the number of metaverse networks and games expands over the coming years, the great endeavor of future developers will be to integrate them all into a cohesive network that can be accessed from any point on the globe.