Since Facebook changed the name of its company to Meta in October 2021, the term “metaverse” has become inescapable.
Mainstream media publications talk about people buying property in the metaverse — even getting married there. Professional and tech-focused outlets write about the necessity of embracing the metaverse as if it's as innovative as the internet itself.
But what is Meta's vision of the Metaverse, and why would we want to spend time there?
What Is a Metaverse Anyway?
The term metaverse was coined by science fiction author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash to describe a type of virtual world.
While Stephensen didn’t specify the criteria that make up a metaverse, venture capitalist Matthew Ball provided the world with a general definition:
"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."
A single VR-enabled massively multiplayer online game (MMORPG) wouldn't fit the criteria for a metaverse. A virtual world like Roblox, however, which includes millions of user-created games, would.
Critics of the metaverse gold rush note that the concept is nothing new.
The Evolution of Virtual Worlds
Second Life creator Philip Rosendale said, "Second Life is, in my opinion, still the largest and the closest thing to a metaverse that we have as it relates to grown-ups.”
The virtual world, created by Linden Labs in 2003, allows users to create their own experiences, run stores and earn Linden Dollars for their creations. It attracted a lot of attention in the late 2000s, with big brands like Intel and 20th Century Fox taking an interest. Even today, at nearly 20 years old, the platform sees around $650 million in annual transactions and roughly 1 million users.
Yet Rosendale admitted that Second Life didn’t succeed as a metaverse. It had poor graphics and required high-speed internet to launch. The result was a slow and clunky interface that prevented mainstream adoption.
While today’s computers are more powerful, Rosendale isn't convinced the tech has caught up.
"I think after working on VR headsets, in particular, for the last five or six years with High Fidelity, we discovered how difficult it is to actually try to make that final jump to getting everybody using this stuff.”
Meta hopes for breakout success with the launch of its metaverse, with long-term goals aiming to make the virtual world part of the social status quo.
Meta, as a company, already has advantages that Linden Labs lacked. The Facebook brand is well-known among people of all ages, and while recent privacy concerns may have hampered its public image, the sheer utility of the platform for messages, groups and the marketplace means it still has a large user base.
In addition, the Oculus VR — owned by Meta — is popular with gamers due to its affordable price and large catalog of games. As a result, the barrier to entry for Meta's Metaverse is relatively low.
Yet what will the Metaverse offer? The company's official blog claims, "You’ll be able to hang out with friends, work, play, learn, shop, create and more. It’s not necessarily about spending more time online — it’s about making the time you do spend online more meaningful."
They go on to add that they won't be the only company working on the Metaverse, and the process will take a long time — between 10 and 15 years — to get right.
Yet the question stands: Does the demand for a large-scale metaverse truly exist, or is it all hype.
Related Article: Why Facebook Is Taking the Metaverse to Europe
Not Everyone Wants a Piece of the Action
Digital land grabs and pay-to-play issues aren't the only things deterring some from Meta's Metaverse. Apple has made it clear that it's not interested in the Meta version of a virtual world.
Apple's Mark Gurman said their vision of future interaction doesn’t include wearing headsets that "take us out of the real world." Instead, we'll be using something akin to Google Glass that can be worn daily. (In fact, Google itself has released an updated version of their AR product, now simply called Glass.)
Apple and Meta have long been rivals, often taking different stances on the handling of user data. Now, these two tech giants will grapple with questions surrounding privacy and online harassment in the metaverse.
The World Economic Forum highlights the risks and challenges of digital safety in the metaverse, saying, "Imagine an unwanted individual being able to come into someone’s virtual space and 'get up close' with that person in the metaverse.
“With haptic technology, the risks that harms in the metaverse will feel more 'real' are not far-fetched, given that many companies are working to incorporate touch as an additional sensation in an immersive reality."
Metaverse Could Bring Surveillance Into Homes
Privacy and safety concerns exist within Meta, too. Whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former product manager at the company, warned the metaverse "will be addictive and rob people of yet more personal information while giving the embattled company another monopoly online."
Haugen explained, "The metaverse will require us to put many, many more sensors in our homes and our workplaces,” forcing users to relinquish their data and privacy. In a world where companies embrace Meta's Metaverse, employees may have to choose between privacy and a paycheck.
Meta promised to build the metaverse responsibly, currently working with several organizations to promote safety online. Haugen, however, has a different view. "They’re going to hire 10,000 engineers to work on video games when they haven’t actually gotten safety right on their main product.”
Related Article: Who Will Stop Facebook's Metaverse?
Is Metaverse Ready for the Mainstream?
Meta isn't the only company working on VR and AR technology. Both Niantic’s Lightship and Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 aim to go beyond popular gaming and bring practical AR applications to the masses.
Despite continued development on the technology, a few issues persist, such as:
- It requires a smartphone to operate
- Applications draw heavily on battery power
- Users need ample floor space to move around
- Extended headset use can cause eye and neck strain
While consumer VR has been available since the mid-1990s with the Sega VR-10 and Nintendo Virtual Boy, today’s technology doesn’t differ much. We may have eliminated cords and improved graphic quality, but the same problems persist.
With Google’s new Glass design and Apple’s AR aspirations, an improved user experience could be on the horizon. Yet it’s still too early to tell.
The Metaverse Is Still The Internet
Mark Zuckerburg described the metaverse as an "embodied internet." He hopes for it to become a place where people can engage in a wider variety of experiences, including things that can't be done using traditional apps or 2D web pages.
Joan Donovan, Research Director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, questions whether this desire to distinguish the metaverse from the internet is an attempt to avoid regulation.
"As long as you can make technology seem fresh and new and cool, you can avoid regulation," Donovan noted. "And you can run defense on that for several years before the government can catch up."
Before consumers decide which version of the internet they prefer, they need to ask themselves one question: How much data are they willing to hand over to Meta?