The term "metaverse" has gained a lot of attention lately, especially since major tech companies such as Facebook made it a business priority. However, many people outside of the tech industry still struggle to understand what the metaverse is and how it works.
Some wonder if it's a game, a virtual reality environment, or something larger in scale, like what was portrayed in movies such as Ready Player One. And if it exists right now, how do you access it? These are all fair questions, as the vision of the metaverse that most of us have in our minds, based on sci-fi movies, and the actuality of what has been created, are two very different things.
The intention behind the metaverse can perhaps be deduced by the construction of the word itself. "Meta" means above, beyond, or after, while "Verse" is part of the word "universe." This suggests that the ultimate intention was to build a world that goes beyond the universe, a world that comes after our present reality, or perhaps one that lies parallel to our real world, but is also above and beyond it in some way.
In our imagination, the metaverse is a hyper-sensory, immersive, and interactive world, where we can do and be anything and where we are not constrained by limitations such as gravity. It is a world where we can shapeshift, build fantastical structures, and express ourselves freely. However, currently, this decentralised, free, and open world is not the reality.
Instead of having a shared virtual space that is fully immersive, interactive, and seamlessly interconnected, we have a variety of versions of a metaverse, offered mostly by technology and gaming companies. Many different types of experiences or environments are described as 'metaverse', and some of them may differ significantly from the idea we have in our minds.
For instance, for a layman, virtual reality immersion is synonymous with the idea of a metaverse. However, many metaverses do not require or use immersive virtual reality or a headset. For example, in Decentraland, you access it via a desktop interface and control your avatar with the keyboard - far from the high-tech, immersive experience you might expect!
Other metaverses are more like a game or a series of connected games, rather than a world. For example, in Roblox, you cannot walk between user-created experiences. Instead, the platform presents a variety of different worlds or games that you can jump between, and users can create their own experiences and user-generated content, such as wearables, a feature that seems to be emerging as a key component in creating a metaverse.
As such, while there is no single idea or version of a metaverse, there are some common themes emerging: user-generated experiences, a virtual economy, the ability to create communities and the ability to take part or experience different types of immersive game-like environments and events.
This developing idea of what a metaverse should include, coupled with what is technologically possible in this early phase of development, means that we have everything from something that resembles a 'world', to platforms that are based more on gaming, to spaces where you can build or host events in VR (such as Spatial).
For many proponents of the metaverse, the ultimate aim is to create an 'open metaverse'. This vision is one where the metaverse is open and decentralised, with no single company or entity controlling it. It is based on open standards and protocols, allowing for interoperability between different platforms and systems.
In this vision, anyone can create their virtual world or application, and users can move seamlessly between them without restrictions or limitations. In this type of metaverse, the ownership and control of the world may be in the hands of the community, and governance would be decentralised, perhaps by way of a DAO (decentralised autonomous organisation) that would distribute funds and exercise functions on behalf of the community.
The potential of this type of metaverse would be noteworthy. It would allow us to make experiences and events available to all. It would allow creators to access new markets and revenue streams and for people to express their individuality in new ways. For example, in the physical world, not everyone has equal access to resources or opportunities. However, in the metaverse, access, to things like education, would be able to become much more democratic. The utopian ideal for the metaverse is a world built by its creators, controlled and governed by the community and where we experience new levels of self-expression, fun and freedom.
Many people are afraid of the metaverse eclipsing reality. There is potential for addiction as the metaverse could be so engaging and immersive that people may be reluctant to leave it and return to the blandness of the physical world. However, it can also be a source of connection and community in a new age of loneliness and seclusion in many parts of real-world life. The metaverse can enable people to find and connect with like-minded individuals, regardless of distance or identity. It has the potential to allow people to build new communities and relationships based on shared interests and passions.
All of this is well and good. But why should you care? Right now, for many people, the metaverse seems silly, a distraction from real life, and perhaps a haven for escapists. But the metaverse of the future, one which is likely to be closer to an open, alternative reality, is probably coming. And that version will likely become a part of your daily life, just like social media and the internet.
And even if you don't imagine yourself using it much, just like Facebook in its early days, the metaverse will compound due to network effects. If everyone you know uses it, then you may find yourself engaging with it too. You may find yourself attending events that you couldn't access in the real world, catching an art exhibition taking place in another country, attending virtual meetings, or even doing your shopping in new ways. In the future, the metaverse won't be just for gamers, but integral to the way in which you conduct everyday interactions. For example, a simple banking transaction may benefit from the ease of online banking, but may also maybe come with a heightened sense of brand engagement and customer service.
The metaverse is still evolving, but the dream of an open metaverse is an exciting concept that could result in a more borderless world, a more free and creative reality and a more inclusive and democratic community.
If we do this the right way, an open metaverse aims to put the power back in our hands. This idea of this version of the metaverse belongs to the next generation of the Web - often called Web 3. Web 2 (our current internet and everything built in that era) was dominated by big technology companies, that we discovered too late had too much power and control over our daily lives, and often abused that power. For people driven by the vision of Web 3, a key mission is to build a new world - where these power dynamics are turned around and to empower the users and the community, rather than a handful of technology oligarchs.
As technology continues to evolve, and the metaverse becomes an increasingly important part of our daily lives, if we don't want to create another version of Web 2, which ended up basically putting the way we run and experience our lives in the hands of a small number of major technology companies, then we need to start to engage so that we can help build this new world in a way that is representative, empowering, economically inclusive and safe.
At the moment this world is still being built, and there is a unique opportunity to take part and shape it. In that way, we can really create something different this time, a new version of how we engage with each other and how we create new economic models of ownership and new political models of governance. Maybe we have another chance to create a better world, and not just create a slightly tweaked version of what we have had before.
What do you think? Let me know below.