What even is the Metaverse? ... and why should we care?
You may have heard the phrase ‘Metaverse’ being used increasingly often lately. But what is the Metaverse? And why does it matter so much?
Metaverse is a portmanteau word, from ‘meta,’ the Greek for ‘beyond’ and ‘universe’ so it literally means a world that goes beyond this universe. The term was coined by sci-fi author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash – he coined the term Avatar in the same novel – to describe a virtual world where players interact with one another, but the meaning of the phrase has changed since then.
To make matters more complex, there isn’t one single understanding of the Metaverse today, but a competing set of visions and technologies, some of which go by different names: you might hear similar technology being referred to as the Augmented Reality (AR) cloud, as digital twins, or as an omniverse.
Entrepreneur, VC and author Matthew Ball writes that the Metaverse has seven key characteristics. It will:
- Be persistent. This means it will always be ‘on,’ and not end or reset.
- Be synchronous and live: it will be a continuing experience that happens consistently and in real-time.
- Not have a ‘cap’ on concurrent users – everyone can be part of the Metaverse at the same time
- Be a fully-functioning economy: individuals and businesses will be able to participate in an economy. They’ll be able to create, invest, own and sell just as in the ‘real’ world.
- Span both the digital and physical worlds: think AR, not VR.
- Be inter-operable. The Metaverse won’t be a ‘walled garden’ like Apple’s App Store – instead, it’ll be built according to open standards that mean data, digital assets and content can be transferred from place to place, from platform to platform.
- Be filled by content and experiences created by a wide range of content creators.
It’s important to recognise that the Metaverse isn’t, strictly speaking, a wholly digital place – it’s not a VR environment like Second Life. And it’s not a video game with NPCs or simulated people.
Instead, it’s best understood as an AR layer on top of and interacting with the ‘physical’ world which at the same time extends the boundaries of what’s possible in the physical world, which can be accessed using tech like AR glasses.
The kind of infrastructure necessary to build the Metaverse is still being developed, and the vision Ball has, of a vast and ubiquitous digital layer on top of the real world, is a long way off for now. A recent study by technological research and consultancy firm Gartner suggests that the Metaverse might not appear all at once, in a kind of digital ‘Big Bang,’ but instead arrive slowly and in stages as the tech that enables it matures and finds users.
They think that the Metaverse will evolve in three overlapping phases and reach ubiquity by 2030. The technology that powers the Metaverse will slowly become more mature and powerful, growing out of existing Web 3.0 solutions and the Metaverse’s userbase will grow from being used by early adopters and enthusiasts to market saturation over that time. As such, players in the Metaverse tech space shouldn’t look for “killer apps” but develop small, incremental improvements over the next decades based on high-value use cases.
The Metaverse has transformative possibilities – it could change how we do business, and how we interact with others and the world around us in the same way that the telegraph did in the nineteenth century, the internet did in the twentieth century and ubiquitous smartphone tech has done in the twenty-first century.
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