What is the metaverse?

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(Image courtesy via Pixabay.)

“Metaverse” is a word thrown around a lot lately, and its meaning seems to mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. Here’s a breakdown of the most common definitions.

Metaverse as virtual reality

The term “metaverse” was first coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash. He used it to refer to an immersive, virtual reality world in which people are embodied as their avatars.

If you want a movie version, think of Tron, The Matrix, or Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

Most recently, Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg tried to hijack the term to refer to Facebook’s own virtual reality platform.

More likely, the metaverse will come to mean the web of interconnected virtual worlds that will evolve out of all the closed, proprietary ones we have today, similar to the way that America OnLine, Compuserve, and other walled-garden online platforms were eventually replaced by the World Wide Web.

So, in the metaverse, any company or group will be able to put their own virtual world online for the public to teleport to and play inside. Some will be gaming-oriented, some will be business-focused, some will be social worlds, and others will allow users to create their own virtual environments for other people to visit.

I personally would be very interested in working with someone on a virtual reality version of WordPress, an open source platform that helps people, groups, and companies create their own virtual environments for anyone to visit. Like Second Life, but in VR, and with better content management features. If you’re a developer or VC, call me!

Metaverse as augmented reality

You look around and through your glasses — or through your high-tech contact lenses or brain implants — you see a digital overlay over everything around you. When you look at a person, you’ll see their name and short bio hanging in the air next to them. When they talk, you’ll get subtitles translated into your language. When you look at a building, you can see its blueprint. When you look up into the sky, you’ll see the names of the stars.

(Image by Reto Scheiwiller via Pixabay.)

If you turn on an app, you can see Pokemon hiding behind the bushes, or magical beasts from the Harry Potter franchise.

If you turn on another, you’ll get pop-up ads. No, quick, turn that app off.

If you go into a cafe and sit down at a table, you’ll see a menu show up in the air in front of you. And your friend — who’s actually sitting a table on the other side of the world — will pop up across from you and the two of you can have a conversation as if you were actually in the same place.

Metaverse as a single closed virtual world

This vision of the metaverse, of one single giant virtual world controlled by a single entity is the view of the future we saw in Ready Player One, where that one platform was the Oasis.

You also had a single virtual world in The Matrix, except this time it was controlled by aliens.

Meta’s virtual world is called Horizon. Some people might think it’s the same thing, and that Zuckerberg is himself an alien. But that’s a topic for another article.

Meta’s Horizon platform starts with Horizon Home. That’s where users of the Meta Quest — formerly Oculus Quest — find themselves when they first put on the headset. It’s kind of your home screen for VR. Horizon Home is going to evolve into customizable personal rooms and people will be able to invite their friends to join them in these rooms. You can watch a video about Horizon Home here.

There’s also Horizon Venues, for concerts and other events, and Horizon Workrooms, for business meetings.

Horizon Worlds will be a platform where people can create entire virtual worlds, with in-world objects and interactivity.

You can watch a video about Horizon Worlds below:

Metaverse as any 3D world

There are currently many immersive, 3D games that can be played on a traditional screen, without a virtual reality headset. First-person shooters, for example. Second Life, for another. You play as an avatar, inside a virtual world.

Some are even hyper-connected. For example, virtual worlds running on the OpenSim open source virtual world platform allow people to teleport from one company’s world to another’s — much the same way that you can follow hyperlinks to other websites.

I personally like this definition of a metaverse, but that’s probably because I’m a huge fan of OpenSim.

Most of these worlds don’t currently support VR access but could, in theory, be updated to include VR support.

In fact, Second Life has tried to add VR support to their main platform and failed. The problem is that the old-style virtual worlds and games are designed to look good on a computer screen. That means that they try to show as much of the view as possible all at once, and if there’s a slight delay, well, so be it. It doesn’t matter too much if the screen takes a quarter of a second to load or ten seconds.

In virtual reality, however, the view has to be updated often enough, and consistently enough, that it feels realistic to users. That means a fast and steady refresh rate. It can’t lag behind if you move your head. If it does, your body will think you ate something bad and you’ll want to throw up.

OpenSim, for example, can be accessed via a virtual reality headset with a little fiddling around. But the refresh rate is too low and inconsistent, so it gives me motion sickness.

As computer speeds go up, though, this might become a non-issue.

Metaverse as any 3D world plus crypto

One definition of the metaverse that I’m seeing a lot in the news lately is that of the crypto enthusiasts. The pyramid schemers in particular, looking for any opportunity to sell their NFTs, virtual coins, and blockchain tech are jumping on the metaverse bandwagon hoping to convince people that crypto will eventually have some value.

For example, they say, the blockchain can be used to prove the authenticity of items. And yes, once you put something on the block chain it does have a digital signature built in, so that you can’t change it later. But just because someone put it on the blockchain doesn’t mean it’s any good. Lots of people are putting stolen content on the blockchain — the blockchain is not a substitute or replacement for good old copyright law. Plus, anyone can create a blockchain. My block chain says I’m the owner, your blockchain says that you’re the owner. Who’s right? Now we’re back to the courts. The fact that someone has something on a blockchain is no more proof or ownership than sending a copy to yourself by registered mail or posting it on Twitter under a verified account or registering it with the Copyright Office.

Another claim I’m seeing is that crypto can be used as a payment mechanism, and that the metaverse won’t succeed without it. Well, the Internet was doing fine before crypto, and the vast majority of payments are still done without crypto. In fact, cryptocurrency makes a lousy payment mechanism. It’s slow, expensive, and too volatile to be used in any practical way.

Criminals use it because it evades regulation. But regulators are starting to step up, so, eventually, even this use case will probably shrink down as well.

I’ve also heard of people promoting NFTs as a funding mechanism. Metaverse creators can sell NFTs and make money. Virtual worlds can sell NFTs and make money. This is technically true. You can also sell beanie babies and make money. The problem is, once the fad is over and the bottom falls out, it’s the people who bought in last who’ll lose all their money — and these are the people who often can least afford it. The smart money gets in and out quick.

The crypto bros are pretty aggressive in pushing their stuff. Of course they are — they stand to make millions. So if you follow metaverse news, you’ll see a lot of them trying to hijack the definition of the metaverse to include their crypto scams.

Metaverse as anything beyond the physical world

The widest possible definition of “metaverse” goes back to the root meaning of the word “meta” — “beyond” or “above” or “about the thing itself.”

So, in this definition, Google Maps is part of the metaverse. And so are street signs. Flickr is part of the metaverse. And so are old-timey photo albums and cave paintings. The Internet is part of the metaverse. And so is radio, and television, and libraries, and museums.

By this definition of the term, humans have been creating the metaverse ever since we developed the idea of symbolic expressions.

Heck, ants have a metaverse, with the scent trails that show the paths to food sources.

This is my favorite definition of the term, though it’s not particularly practical or specific.

What’s your definition? Let us know in the comments below.

MetaStellar editor and publisher Maria Korolov is a science fiction novelist, writing stories set in a future virtual world. And, during the day, she is an award-winning freelance technology journalist who covers artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and enterprise virtual reality. See her Amazon author page here and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email her at [email protected]. She is also the editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business, one of the top global sites covering virtual reality.

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