So what exactly is “the metaverse”?

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Aurich Lawson | Getty Images

These days it seems like everyone and their parent company are talking about the “metaverse” as the next big thing that will revolutionize our online lives. But everyone seems to have their own idea of ​​what “the metaverse” means, that is, if they have a real idea of ​​what it means.

The original source of the term
Zoom in / The original source of the term “metaverse”

The term “metaverse” was originally coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 seminal cyberpunk novel, Snow accident. In the book, the Metaverse (always capitalized in Stephenson’s fiction) is a shared “imaginary place” that is “made available to the public through the worldwide fiber optic network” and projected onto virtual reality glasses. In it, developers can “build buildings, parks, signs, as well as things that don’t exist in reality, such as vast suspended light shows, special quarters where the rules of three-dimensional spacetime are ignored, and free combat zones. Where people they can hunt and kill each other. “

Meta (formerly Facebook) CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his colleagues mentioned the word “metaverse” more than 80 times in less than 90 minutes during presentation of last week’s Facebook Connect keynote, where the company announced his new name. But Stephenson has it was abundantly clear that “there was no communication between me and FB and no biz relationship”. This means that Facebook’s interpretation of the “metaverse” could end up being very different from that originally described by Stephenson.

While Meta’s rebranding drives most of the metaverse conversation these days, the nearly 30 years since then Snow accident appeared have seen a lot of online networks that embody some or most of what Stephenson’s book describes. These efforts to create “the metaverse” have included numerous online games and gathering places that have captured some of the most important concepts of the metaverse without ever using the term.

“But here we are,” as Oculus consultant CTO John Carmack recently put. “Mark Zuckerberg has decided that now is the time to build the metaverse, so huge wheels are spinning and resources are flowing and the effort will certainly be made.”

So is the metaverse the next big breakthrough that will revolutionize the way we all connect with each other? Is it just a repackaging of existing technologies into a new all-encompassing concept? Or is it just the last word in marketing buzzword?

The answer depends on what you mean by “metaverse”.

Define the metaverse

In his Facebook Connect keynote last week, Zuckerberg said that “the best way to understand the metaverse is to experience it for yourself, but it’s a bit difficult because it doesn’t exist completely yet.” From where we’re sitting, asking people to try something non-existent doesn’t seem like the best way to convey a full understanding of your bold new business direction.

Elsewhere in the keynote, Zuckerberg described a grandiose vision of the metaverse as “an even more engaging and embodied Internet” in which “you’ll be able to do almost anything you can imagine: get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, it buys, creates, as well as completely new categories that don’t quite fit the way we think about computers or phones today. ” This helps a little, but any description that includes the words “almost anything you can imagine” is so broad that it is almost meaningless.

After breaking down the Meta vision – and looking at the history of the metaverse both as a concept and as an embodiment of multiple distinct online spaces – we have identified the following elements which, taken together, seem to define a metaverse. Anything that has a business that uses the term will include any or all of the following:

A social space shared with avatars to represent users

This basic building block of the metaverse concept is what Zuckerberg is talking about when he calls for a more “embedded” Internet. On a website or social media network, you may be represented by a username or a thumbnail image. In the metaverse, you are represented by a customizable avatar who can move, speak and / or perform animated actions.

These types of avatars have been common in all kinds of online games and social spaces since the 1990s (whoever remembers Habbo Hotel?). But an avatar’s loyalty and abilities can vary greatly from service to service. Recent advances in virtual reality have allowed users to truly embody their awesome avatars, seeing through their virtual eyes and using hand-tracking controllers to gesture and interact with virtual objects. Spaces like VRChat shows how elaborate these VR avatars can be now.

Is Habbo Hotel a metaverse?  Well ... like?
Zoom in / Is Habbo Hotel a metaverse? Well … like?

A persistent “world” for avatars to inhabit and interact with

In some cases, this means a virtual world that mimics the space constraints and land scarcity of the real world, as seen in Second lifethe discrete plots of land. In other cases, it simply means that users share spaces created specifically for a particular game or time-sensitive special event, such as recent multimedia concerts held in Fortnite.

In an idealized metaverse, every single user shares a single virtual world, where elements and properties persist for everyone between online sessions. For technical reasons, however, many modern metaverse-like spaces end up dividing users into partitioned servers where a small subset of users can interact.

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