What is the Metaverse? What it means and why it matters

The term ‘metaverse’ is gathering momentum as we move into the next phase of its evolution, but what exactly is the metaverse? And how will the metaverse impact human culture?

First of all, the metaverse could be called a point in time that we are moving towards. Indeed, the metaverse is an era, which will revolutionize every industry, but we haven’t arrived yet. We’re just getting started.

The metaverse is not virtual reality, nor is it a video game-like “Fortnite” or “Roblox” because the metaverse can’t be confined to one place. However, these are all experiences that will feature in the metaverse, which we could call very loosely an expansive, immersive digital world. Think Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One”, ‘Oasis’ – a world where you can do anything and go anywhere, be anyone (as your avatar). This is the scale the metaverse developers are envisioning.

Yet, no one knows what it will truly look like. For now, we know that something transformative is in the works, far more real than we’ve ever seen in the digital space. In fact, the metaverse has ignited a thrilling race to the top – with many of the world’s tech giants and geniuses engaging in a battle of the metaverse.

Over time, as history has taught us, there will be innovation followed by innovation until the metaverse experience, one day, is completely seamless. Much like the internet and mobile internet era, the metaverse is going to change everything and it all starts now.

Definitions of the metaverse

Note the plural in definitions, because there’s no single, unified definition of the metaverse at this point in time. Instead, there have been various attempts to define the metaverse, so let’s look at a couple of high-profile weigh-ins, starting with Mark Zuckerberg.

The social media mogul, who recently rebranded Facebook to Meta, has invested $10 billion in his own metaverse project. Additionally, he recently bought Oculus Rift VR – makers of premium VR headsets – for $2 billion.

Zuckerberg said: “Video has become the main way that we experience content … but this isn’t the end of the line. The next platform in media will be even more immersive. An embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it. We call this the metaverse.”

Thus, in Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse, we’re looking at a new, more immersive phase of the internet, which is “embodied”. Central to his vision of the future is VR headsets and last year, 7 million people bought Oculus VR headsets. A rising trend.

Zuckerberg continued: “The defining quality of the metaverse is presence, which is this feeling that you’re really there with another person or in another place.”

Similarly, Matthew Ball, CEO of Epyllion and the former global head of strategy for Amazon Studios, used the word “presence” in his attempt to define the metaverse in his essay “The Metaverse Primer”.

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.”

Hence, according to Ball, interoperability is going to be a key factor in our arrival at the true metaverse era. In other words, the ability to move seamlessly between all virtual platforms with our avatars.

Metaverse origins

It’s true, the term ‘metaverse’ was first heard in the 1992 sci-fi novel “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson and certain elements of the novel are still relevant today. For example, Stephenson’s vision of a 3D massive multiplayer online game (MMO) and user-controlled avatars. He envisioned the metaverse as a game and that’s quite prophetic.

Indeed, Microsoft made quite a statement when they bought the gaming giants Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion in January. This is the company responsible for the RPG classic “World of Warcraft” and legendary experiences like “Call of Duty” and “Overwatch”.

It’s entirely possible that we could see Microsoft, with the expertise of Activision Blizzard, release their own metaverse game. Yet, although ‘metaverse game’ seems like an oxymoron, we can’t call any one game the metaverse. Right now, we have games or ‘walled gardens’ which mimic a metaverse, but actually are still quite restrictive and even shoddy in some cases. There’s a world of room for improvement.

“Second Life”, an immersive open-world game by Linden Labs, has often been touted as a metaverse and in the future, we may remember this game as formative in the origins of the metaverse.

In Second Life, you experience a 3D environment, surrounded by user-generated content with your own virtual avatar. In ‘The Grid’ you can explore freely, meet other residents, socialize, build, create, shop, and even trade virtual land.

These experiences are a precursor to the metaverse. However, we’re only getting started with the metaverse and its potential in our lives. The utility of such an immersive platform could provide immense value to the world and to our reality. For instance, imagine how this sensory-rich, immersive digital realm could transform education, teaching and learning and of course, training for key skills.

Regardless of what the metaverse will look like in the future, the present reality is this: we’ve reached a starting point in the metaverse. Highly immersive VR headsets are available and we also have augmented reality glasses coming, which Apple are heavily invested in. Moreover, we have 3D open-world video games, which are offering real, immersive experiences like live concerts. Soon, we will have Microsoft’s Mesh for Teams available, which will bring ‘holoportation’, 3D avatars, and multi-device compatibility into the digital workplace.

In the near future, we’re going to see multiple metaverse platforms emerge, which should, in theory, inspire one another to reach greatness in their quest for immersion and richness in the digital realm.

Games in the metaverse

As mentioned, the metaverse will allow us to seamlessly take our avatars around various digital experiences and one of the pioneering platforms in this regard could be Arcade.

This platform is calling itself “the world’s first decentralized cross-metaverse bridge”. This means that they will provide “cross metaverse asset interoperability”. In other words, you will be able to take your favorite NFT avatar from other platforms into Arcade Metaverse.

This would be a big step forward in our journey towards the metaverse, solving a key barrier – the lack of flexibility or interoperability. It shows the potential of gaming to take things forward and drive us into the metaverse era.

Interestingly, Arcade Metaverse is being developed by the same team who created the Apes vs Mutants game. They’re part of the Yuga Labs umbrella, who created Bored Ape NFTs and own the rights to Cryptopunks NFTs.

Thus, ‘Arcade Metaverse’ has promised multiple gaming experiences within their digital realm and it could be a pioneering platform if it pulls it off. Moreover, I expect we will see something formative coming from the direction of Microsoft, whose acquisition of Activision Blizzard laid forth their mighty intentions; gaming is the biggest industry on the planet and it’s going to be a key player in our metaverse era.

Buying land in the metaverse

Digital land acquisition has become a prominent feature in the world of decentralized gaming. Indeed, virtual real estate is going to become a major industry.

The growth is already happening, epitomized by the staggering land sales in “The Sandbox” – the Ethereum-based open-world game – which accounts for three-quarters of all digital land sales at the time of writing. The largest virtual land acquisition ever made in The Sandbox currently stands at $4.3 million by Republic Realm, a virtual real estate company.

In another 3D free-roaming game, ‘Decentraland’, a plot of land was sold for $2.4 million to the Metaverse Group. These are all ground-breaking digital land purchases and they show us how serious companies are taking the future of our digital world. Upon these plots of land, buyers will explore their creativity, experiment, build communities and add value to the digital world.

This may sound extraordinary to some, but to others, these land sales could be seen as quite savvy. We’re talking about a multi-trillion dollar industry in years to come, as billions of people are now spending more time in the digital world than the real world – as highlighted in “Ready Player One”. Investors would be wise to explore these virtual lands as some of the platforms will be key players in unlocking the metaverse.

All these large land acquisitions are made possible by NFTs, non-fungible tokens, which act as a record of digital ownership stored on the blockchain. The aforementioned land sales were all executed via NFTs and the blockchain provides the keys to a successful metaverse economy.

Economy in the metaverse

The blockchain has given rise to a breakthrough in tech, providing opportunities for transparent transactions to take place on what is essentially a public ledger.

Yes, there have been breaches of the blockchain, like the recent $625 million breach of Axie Infinity. Phishing and malicious cyber attacks will always be there, but these are still early days in the development of blockchain tech. From each breach, the blockchain will surely learn and become more robust.

Thus, as reported in the Financial Times, NFTs will be critical to a stable functioning economy in the metaverse.

“Since each NFT is secured by a cryptographic key that cannot be deleted, copied or destroyed, it enables the robust, decentralised verification – of one’s virtual identity and digital possessions – necessary for metaverse society to succeed and interact with other metaverse societies.”

Hence, blockchain technology has enabled us to authenticate and verify digital transactions immediately and indisputably. This has given rise to some thriving economies on the blockchain and NFTs are the tool which makes it all possible. Essentially, NFTs give you real proof of ownership and will be central to our thriving metaverse societies, and their economies, in the future.

E-commerce in the metaverse

Can you imagine shopping online for a pair of trainers in the metaverse? Visualize strolling into a virtual store and trying on your trainers, as a friendly avatar attends to your needs. This may be a reality soon. The metaverse will revolutionize e-commerce, adding the immersive touch that it so desperately needs.

It’s the convenience of e-commerce married with the feeling of presence. In addition, imagine the community aspect that brands will build in the metaverse. Passionate customers and fans of brands will be brought together in an immersive, branded digital realm.

Does this vision not grab you? Perhaps the NFT factor will because NFTs will have rich, real-life utility. We’re going to see brands using NFTs to sell an array of exciting new, multi-layered products. For instance, an access pass to a special event with your jeans, or VIP meet and greets. The NFTs will essentially be your receipt and proof of purchase, as well as your ticket to a unique real-life experience.

Long live the metaverse?

The virtual world is evolving rapidly and as technology grows more sophisticated, the visions we have seen foreshadowed in films like “Ready Player One”, “Iron Man” and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” seem more real. Sure, there’s a tinge of madness to it all and there’s years of work to be done in this realm before we truly make it.

Yet, when I received my first Nokia mobile phone in 1996, I would have called you mad if you had shown me the iPhone 13 and its capabilities!

Thus, the metaverse marks a new era in technology. This evolution is going to bring with it some inevitable struggles and on the flip side, breathtaking joys. One thing is for certain; our experience with the virtual space is going to get much richer and more immersive, with cross platform exploration on the horizon.

Whether we subscribe to the hype or not, it appears that the freight train is moving at an unstoppable pace – first stop – the metaverse.