TO HEAR TECH CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg or Satya Nadella talk about it, the metaverse is the future of the Internet. Or it’s a video game. Or maybe it’s a deeply unpleasant, worse version of Zoom? Hard to say.
Talking about what “the metaverse” means is, in a way, a bit like discussing what “the Internet” means in the 1970s. The building blocks of a new form of communication were just being built, but no one could really know what the reality would be. Although it was true at the time that “the Internet” was coming, not every idea of what that would look like is true.
On the other hand, there is also a lot of marketing hype in this idea of the metaverse. Facebook, in particular, is in a particularly vulnerable place after Apple’s move to limit ad tracking hit the company’s bottom line. Facebook’s vision of a future where everyone has a digital wardrobe to browse through is impossible to separate from the fact that Facebook really wants to make money selling virtual clothes.
Seriously, what does ‘Metaverse’ mean?
To help you get a feel for how vague and complex a term “the metaverse” can be, here’s an exercise to try: Mentally replace the phrase “the metaverse” in a sentence with “cyberspace.” In ninety percent of cases, the meaning will not change much. That’s because the term doesn’t really refer to a specific type of technology, but to a broad change in the way we interact with technology. And it is quite possible that at some point the term itself will become just as antiquated, even if the specific technology it once described becomes commonplace.
By and large, the technologies that make up the metaverse can include virtual reality — characterized by persistent virtual worlds that continue to exist even when they are not playing — as well as augmented reality, which combines aspects of the digital and physical worlds. However, it is not necessary that these rooms are accessible exclusively via VR or AR. A virtual world, like aspects of Fortnite that can be accessed through PCs, game consoles and even phones, could be metaversal.
It also leads to a digital economy where users can create, buy and sell goods. And in the more idealistic visions of the metaverse, it is interoperable and allows you to transfer virtual items, such as clothes or cars, from one platform to another. In the real world, you can buy a shirt at the mall and then wear it at a movie theater. At the moment, most platforms have virtual identities, avatars and inventories tied to only one platform, but a metaverse could allow you to create a persona that you can take with you wherever you go, as easy as copying your profile picture from one social network to another.
It is difficult to analyze what all this means, because when you hear descriptions like the above, an understandable answer is: “Wait, doesn’t this already exist?” World of Warcraft, for example, is a persistent virtual world where players can buy and sell goods. Fortnite offers virtual experiences such as concerts and an exhibition where Rick Sanchez talks about MLK Jr. can learn. Is this really what “the metaverse” means? Just a few new types of video games?
Well, yes and no. To say that Fortnite is “the metaverse” would be a bit like saying that Google is “the Internet”.” Even if you could theoretically spend a lot of time in Fortnite, socializing, buying things, learning and playing games, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it covers the entire scope of the metaverse.
On the other hand, just as it would be correct to say that Google is building parts of the Internet — from physical data centers to layers of security — it is similarly correct to say that Fortnite creator Epic Games is building parts of the metaverse. And it’s not the only company doing this. Some of this work is being done by tech giants like Microsoft and Facebook — the latter was recently renamed Meta to reflect this work, although we are not quite used to the name yet. Many other companies — including Nvidia, Unity, Roblox, and even Snap – are all working to build the infrastructure that could become the metaverse.
It is at this point that most of the discussions about what the metaverse entails begin to falter. We have a vague idea of what things currently exist that we could call the metaverse, and we know which companies are investing in the idea, but we still don’t know what it is. Facebook — sorry, meta, I still don’t get it – thinks it will contain fake houses where you can invite all your friends to hang out. Microsoft seems to believe that it could include virtual meeting rooms to train new employees or chat with their remote employees.
The pitches for these visions of the future range from optimistic to downright fan fiction. At one point during … Metas
The video then cuts to the concert, where the woman appears in an Avengers-style hologram. She can make eye contact with her friend who is physically there, both can hear the concert and you can see floating text floating above the stage. This seems cool, but it doesn’t really advertise a real product or even a possible future one. In fact, it brings us to the biggest problem with “the metaverse.”
Why does the metaverse include holograms?
When the Internet arrived, it began with a number of technological innovations, such as the ability to let computers communicate with each other over long distances or to create hyperlinks from one web page to another. These technical features were the building blocks that then gave rise to the abstract structures for which we know the Internet: websites, apps, social networks and everything else that is based on these core elements. Not to mention the convergence of interface innovations that are not necessarily part of the Internet, but are nevertheless necessary for it to work, such as displays, keyboards, mice and touch screens.
With the Metaverse, there are some new building blocks, such as the ability to host hundreds of people in a single instance of a server (ideally, future versions of a metaverse can handle thousands or even millions of people at the same time). or motion tracking tools that can distinguish where a person is looking or where his hands are. These new technologies can be very exciting and feel futuristic.
However, there are limitations that may not be overcome. When technology companies like Microsoft or Fa—Meta show fictionalized videos of their visions of the future, they often tend to gloss over how people will interact with the metaverse. VR headsets are still very clunky and most people suffer from motion sickness or physical pain if they wear them for too long. Augmented reality glasses face a similar problem, in addition to the not insignificant problem of figuring out how people can wear them in public without looking like huge suckers.
So, how do tech companies show the idea of their technology without showing the reality of bulky headsets and dorky glasses? So far, their primary solution seems to be to simply make technology from the whole fabric. The holographic woman from Meta’s presentation? I hate to destroy the illusion, but even with very advanced versions of the existing technology, this is simply not possible.
In contrast to digital avatars with
motion tracking, which are a bit shaky at the moment, but could be better one day, there is no shaky version to make a three-dimensional image appear in the air without strictly controlled circumstances. No matter what Iron Man tells you. Perhaps these are meant to be interpreted as images projected over glasses — both women in the demo video are wearing similar glasses after all — but even that assumes a lot about the physical capabilities of compact glasses, which Snap can tell you is not an easy problem to solve.
Mentally replace the phrase “the metaverse” in a sentence with “cyberspace.” Ninety percent of the time, the meaning won’t substantially change.
This way of glossing over reality is often found in video demos of how the metaverse could work. Another of Meta’s demos featured characters floating in space — is this person strapped to an immersive aerial device or is he just sitting at a desk? A person represented by a hologram — is this person wearing a headset, and if so, how is his face scanned? And sometimes a person reaches for virtual objects, but then holds them in seemingly physical hands.