Let's clear some things up
There is a lot of confusion about what “the metaverse” is and will be in the future. The confusion is not surprising, given the broadness of the concept contradicted by companies parceling its ideas. Facebook Inc., for example, has aggravated the entire tech industry by trying to identify itself and rebrand as “Meta.” Many think that Facebook staking a claim on the Metaverse is equivalent to naming a city Earth. It is counterproductive to the united goal of building the metaverse, which goes far beyond any one platform.
Describing “the metaverse” puts us in a similar position as to when we were first trying to describe “the internet.” For one, the far-reaching connectedness was hard to grasp in a world that was at the time anchored to phone lines and printed materials. But perhaps more than the novelty of it was the unlimited yet unclear ideas of what it could actually become.
Since people have experienced the incredibly fast evolution of tech the past couple of decades, it’s not the metaverse technology that seems to throw people off the most. There’s not a lot of “the internet is just a science fiction gimmick” resurfacing to describe the metaverse. Everyone seems to readily accept that it is the future of the internet.
But what does that future look like?
Therein lies the most confusion. What will the metaverse look like and, perhaps most confusingly, what are its limitations?
What does the Metaverse mean?
The metaverse is certainly a vague term, but that’s the point. It’s supposed to be an all-encompassing term for an immersive digital world that intermingles with the real world. It describes digital platforms that are accessible using anything from existing technology, like apps, phones, and video games, to future, conceptualized technology, like future-interconnected-highly-advanced apps, phones, and video games. And really, so much more.
Broadly speaking, the metaverse can include VR, AR, and MR.
Virtual Reality (VR) is characterized by a virtual world that continues to exist even when you’re not immersed in it. Video games, like Fortnite and World of Warcraft, are standard examples of a virtual world you can immerse yourself in (and with the advancements of VR goggles, can really feel immersed in) that continues to exist when you’re not playing. It’s essentially a digital world that exists outside of our reality.
Augmented Reality (AR) is characterized by merging our reality with the digital world. Typically, this means adding digital elements to real-world settings. Just think of catching that Charizard in Pokémon Go in your real backyard, which paints the basic picture. Though, AR has far more applications than just video games, which marketers and eCommerce are learning to take full advantage of. The inception of WebAR has made the proliferation of the tech increase dramatically, take a look at the Web AR Examples article to see examples of this.
Mixed Reality (MR) is another one of those broad terms, but it is basically what its name suggests. It’s a mix of VR and AR. There are no set guidelines of AR to VR ratio to be considered MR. And sometimes, the term is even used to describe one or the other.
The Metaverse, therefore, is where virtual, augmented, and real reality comes together. It’s where the lines between reality and the digital world blur. At times, you can be fully immersed in the Metaverse (like when wearing VR goggles in a game), or part of the Metaverse joins your world (like wearing Google Glass on your way to work). Most of all, the metaverse is about connecting all of those things together.
Even with this explanation, what the metaverse looks like and, more so, what it will look like seems endless yet unclear. But that will be driven by what the metaverse also is…
The Metaverse is Also a Digital Economy
You know that saying, “money makes the world go ‘round”? Well, guess what, it makes the digital world go ‘round, too. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, because it means the metaverse is providing value. Whether its emotional value, entertainment value, or real value, it’s only natural for people to monetize it.
As a digital economy, the metaverse works in much the same way a real economy does. Users can create, buy, and sell goods. People are already familiar with this in buying skins for video game avatars or extra lives in Candy Crush. But the metaverse is expected to deliver it on a grand scale.
People imagine owning virtual mansions they can virtually “live in” and a wardrobe of clothes they can “wear” (or rather their avatar can wear).
Then they can invite their friends to a party in this virtual mansion. Or, a group of friends can go shopping in a virtual mall where they can buy digital or even real clothes that will be shipped to them. Or they can meet new people in a virtual club.
All of which can be monetized.
These ideals are portrayed well in the movie Ready Player One. In that movie, people escape their harsh realities by living vicariously through their avatars. They can socialize, shop, game, and even work as their avatars in a digital world.
To some degree, we can do this now. In Fortnite, for instance, you can attend a virtual concert in addition to playing a game and buying and selling goods. So, there are different aspects of what the metaverse is within Fortnite, but therein lies the biggest limitation: self-contained “mini-metaverses” (which we will talk about very soon).
But first, we need to discuss currency in this digital economy.
Cryptocurrency & NFTs
The world has gotten very used to using digital currency online. We regularly pay using Paypal, Venmo, and other forms of digital money transfers. Digital currency is simply real money being transferred in digital form. It is currently and will continue to be a main currency in the metaverse.
Cryptocurrency and NFTs, however, are less commonly understood, which also adds to the metaverse confusion as they gain popularity as a modern currency.
Cryptocurrency (“Crypto” for short) and NFTs are digital tokens that hold monetary value. Bitcoin is the most commonly known crypto and is traded and sold much like stocks in the stock market. It can also be used to purchase products as awareness and acceptance grow.
NFTs are Non-Fungible Tokens that are entirely unique digital assets that represent real-world items. Unlike crypto, they are not interchangeable (no two NFTs are alike). A good way to think of an NFT is like a one-of-a-kind collector’s item that holds value because of its uniqueness.
As the metaverse grows and evolves, so will the value of digital assets. Crypto and NFTs are currently leading the way in this monetary revolution.
Limitations of the Metaverse
The biggest limitation of this digital economy right now is it’s not interoperable. Right now, you can create virtual identities and avatars, and build virtual inventories in various platforms but can only use them in each platform. Your avatar from Game A can’t walk over to Social Media Room B and so on. Essentially, they’re “mini-metaverses” that are self-contained.
Most in the industry agree that the future of the metaverse is interoperability. That means what you buy on one platform is transferrable to another. That’s the key to making it a united universe where you can seamlessly go from one experience to the next without redesigning and rebuilding avatars and inventories.
Tech giants like Microsoft, Facebook (or, ahem, “Meta”), and Roblox are working on building the infrastructure that could become this interconnected metaverse.
But again, what will that metaverse look like?
People often jump too quickly to holograms in the real world and Ready Player One for the virtual world. While those are the sexiest and movie-ready predictions of the future of the metaverse, they’re not the most realistic. Sure, it will be possible someday, but the near future of the metaverse is much less special-effects and much more practicality.
The Tech Gear
We can use Ready Player One as an example again. Whether you’ve read the book or watched the movie, you know there’s a lot of high-tech gear involved from VR goggles to full-body sensory suits to an omnidirectional treadmill where you can run through a virtual world without covering any ground in the real world. This tech equipment allows the players to immerse themselves in the Oasis (the “metaverse” of the movie).
It’s every gamer’s dream, but it doesn’t address real-world problems.
Like, for instance, it doesn’t address how the majority of people experience some degree of motion sickness when using VR. And how VR goggles are quite uncomfortable to wear. And running on an omnidirectional treadmill while wearing bulky headgear while experiencing motion sickness is probably not as sexy of a reality as it is an ideal.
That’s not to say the metaverse won’t get there someday. But a more realistic near-future projection is less of a full-immersion into the metaverse (like the Oasis in Ready Player One) and more of a gradual addition of digital elements. After all, that gradual addition is what we’ve been experiencing the last few decades.
The idea of holograms, for instance, tantalizes the little Jedi in all of us, but are holographs going to become a part of our daily lives in the metaverse?
Meta (you know, Facebook) released a vision of the metaverse where a holographic version of a girl joined her friend at a concert halfway across the world. It’s a cool concept but it’s a highly conceptualized vision. A much more realistic version would be her friend seeing her pop up in her field of view in her smart glasses. Perhaps that’s what Facebook was illustrating (and exaggerating) in their concept.
Speaking of smart glasses…
Economical and Social Limitations
A realistic example of metaverse tech gear is Google Glass. The glasses project information in your field of vision, like weather updates, text messages, and real-time directions. It’s like a pedestrian version of Iron Man’s vision.
Pretty cool, right?
But Google Glass was released in 2014. So why isn’t everyone sporting the super cool, sci-fi glasses? Even after several years, Google is still trying to overcome the price point, comfort-level, and acceptance of Google Glass.
Remember when Bluetooth first came out? How people made fun of the “Dorks” who wore their Bluetooth earpiece all of the time? Well, Google Glass wearers have experienced that same backlash. Yes, even in the tech-loving day in age.
Then there’s the high price point, discomfort of the actual glasses, and the mental and visual overload of having a bunch of information and notifications literally in your face.
So, there are economic, physical, and social confines that the metaverse must grow and evolve in.
What is the Metaverse Today?
All of this talk of Ready Player One and holograms is the sexy, highly-conceptualized version of the metaverse that could be (sort of, hologramming into a concert is still super far-fetched). Currently, the metaverse is pieces of metaverse-like platforms that are being reshaped and stitched together to complete a metaverse puzzle.
It’s like we’ve figured out how to create mini-metaverses (meta-planets?) that we are now trying to connect in meta-galaxies that will ultimately connect in a metaverse. As expected, the tech giants, like Google, Microsoft, and Meta, are building the framework that the metaverse can operate on. Open source platforms such as Decentraland analytics and Mozilla are also constant being built upon, but only time will really tell what we build on that framework once it’s accessible to the rest of the world.
Yes, the possibilities are endless given enough time and advancement in technology. But the reality will be practically and monetarily driven. Thus, Marketing, Ecommerce, and Gaming will likely continue to be at the main driving force of the metaverse’s evolution.
Rather than being a digital universe to escape to (like the Oasis in Ready Player One), the metaverse will more realistically continue to augment our real world and daily lives. Just like the internet and smart devices have been doing for decades.