The metaverse is a hot topic these days. Persistent online worlds are nothing new, and neither is the concept of virtual reality. But advances in technology might just enable the creation of a new, singular meta space where neon signs cast their glow on bustling commercial streets where customised avatars perambulate all day and all night.
This reality (tricky word, that, when talking about the metaverse) is likely to arrive sometime in the future. But the future starts today, as they say. So, let’s start with the basic question.
What is the metaverse?
A speech with magical force. Nowadays, people don’t believe in these kinds of things. Except in the Metaverse, that is, where magic is possible. The Metaverse is a fictional structure made out of code. And code is just a form of speech. -Snow Crash
Back in 1992, the internet did not exist in the form that we know today. Two years earlier, Tim Berners-Lee had built the basic toolset for a working web, which, at the time, consisted of a local information network confined to the second floor of Building 31 at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) campus near Geneva in Switzerland. (The first web servers outside CERN wouldn’t go online until 1991.)
Still, by the year 1992, the web concept was not yet worthy of the ‘world’ or ‘wide’ prefixes, as it remained a relatively primitive communication network mainly used by specific scientific communities. In that same year, however, a relatively unknown author published a novel that would have far-reaching repercussions both in the development of the internet and on a concept that’s making headlines today.
Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is a cyberpunk-themed story of hackers, big corporations with dastardly plots, and virtual worlds. Stephenson is credited with coining the term metaverse, which, in the context of Snow Crash, describes a virtual world where people can socialise, go shopping, hang out, and vanquish foes through avatars.
The metaverse… revisited?
Snow Crash was published three decades ago. Yet, the similarities with today’s concept of the metaverse are eerie, if not downright prophetic.
What is the metaverse anyway? The word is a portmanteau of meta -the Greek term for after, or beyond– and universe. A place -in a loose understanding of the word- where people can interact with each other through their avatars.
There have been countless works of fiction dealing with this concept. From little known movies like The lawnmower man (coincidentally, released in 1992 too), to blockbusters like Tron (1982), The Matrix (1999), or Ready Player One (2018), and a myriad of novels, video games, and other media have created different representations of an alternate, virtual reality.
To understand what the metaverse is, it is key to understand what it isn’t. It isn’t a real place. It’s a computer-generated illusion, much like Morpheus describes The Matrix to Neo: ‘A computer-generated dreamworld, built to keep us under control.’ The metaverse, today, does not exist outside the confines of a computer system. People need an electronic hardware device (Oculus, or a similar gadget) to gain access to this virtual dimension.
But wait a second. By that definition (that the metaverse is a computer-generated world), you could argue that such a thing has existed for quite some time. Persistent online worlds, such as that of EVE Online or World of Warcraft, have been part of the gaming world for decades.
This is where it gets complicated. Yes, it is true that Warcraft, EVE Online, or any other persistent online games have been accessible for some years. But these games -these worlds- are not the metaverse. Read on to find the answer to this conundrum.
One metaverse to rule them all
Corporations are jumping onto the metaverse bandwagon and building their own version of it. And herein lies the contradiction. A true metaverse is supposed to be a unique, whole global entity, something that anyone in the (real) world can access at any time. The metaverse cannot be an amalgamation of unconnected environments. The Google metaverse, the Amazon metaverse, the Facebook (Meta) metaverse, are nothing but individual projects that will (if they come to fruition) be in competition with each other. Google will want you to use their metaverse. Facebook (Meta) will try to usurp users from everyone else and suck them into their understanding of metaverse. And so on.
A meta thought
A clear definition of the true metaverse is hard to elucidate, for one simple reason: it does not exist yet. What we will have, if the current projects do result in a final product, is a kaleidoscope of siloed, corporate-branded environments that will have little in common with each other, and no interoperability. This is no metaverse: it is a perversion of the concept.
Let’s finish with a quote from Ready Player One‘s protagonist, Wade Watts: ‘People come to The Oasis for all the things they can do, but they stay because of all the things they can be. It’s the only place that feels like I mean anything.’
Oasis is the name given to the metaverse in Ernest Cline’s novel. In its world, Oasis has replaced the internet, and all knowledge ever amassed by the human race can be accessed there. It is a global network -much like the internet- that can be visited by anyone in the world at any time.
Oasis is a fictionalised version of the metaverse, of course, and we’re likely many decades away from it becoming a reality, if ever. But Oasis does represent the true concept of the metaverse: unique, global, connected. So get ready, Reader One, for the future of the metaverse, coming soon.