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What is this metaverse thing anyway?

Author Neal Stephenson coined the term “Metaverse” in Snow Crash, his 1992 novel. It referred to a 3D virtual world dominated by corporations. Despite the grim view the book portrayed, the geek world thought it was cool and what was once a unique concept has now become commonplace in science fiction.

I haven’t been able to find a consistent definition of the metaverse. This little bit of bureaucratize comes from venture capitalist Matthew Ball:

“The Metaverse is an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations that support continuity of identity, objects, history, payments, and entitlements, and can be experienced synchronously by an effectively unlimited number of users, each with an individual sense of presence.”

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, parent company of Facebook, Instagram and whatever other company he may have acquired this week, defines it more simply:

“The ‘Metaverse’ is a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you.”

Given Zuckerberg’s clout, I suppose he can call it anything he wishes, and that definition will carry weight. Beyond the macro level definition, there are certain attributes common to the various metaverse platforms that are either extant or in development:

  • Common features that overlap real life and likely incorporate older web services (like Facebook).

  • Real-time 3D graphics and personal avatars.

  • Social interactions that are more like the real world than today’s more popular video games.

  • The ability for users to create their own environments.

  • The opportunity to purchase goods and services that remain in one’s own digital space.

Whether my list is comprehensive or not, it will likely change over time as not only technology advances but also businesses innovate. Both Facebook and Fortnite (a leading video game publisher) see their version of the metaverse as part of a larger network. And, that larger network hasn’t yet emerged. That is largely because available technology, despite its phenomenal advance over the last two decades, still relies on clunky headsets at a price point most consumers won’t indulge. Consider that today’s most popular social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn – don’t require any additional investment to join once you’ve decided to purchase a computer with an internet connection. The Metaverse does.

On the other hand, folks in the investment community (including the aforementioned Mr. Ball whose blog is a must read for insiders) have cranked up the hype machine. So, the term Metaverse has already become overused enough to confuse common folks like us about what it is. Ball himself has suggested the term be used if only to separate it from the internet in the minds of investors and, eventually, consumers. The use of the word has the added advantage of separating its development from the scrutiny now being applied to social media platforms. Why else would Zuckerberg change the name of his landmark company to Meta?

There are also those who see business applications as an area for growth. And, a real estate market has emerged with early players investing substantial sums in “owning” buildings or other spaces where business may be conducted virtually. Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Metaverse developer Republic Realm acquired “land” in the metaverse for the tidy sum of $4.3 million.

So, how will this look to all of us? Well, we might wrap up a business meeting in a virtual world and switch to playing a game, taking a virtual 3D hike or watching a movie via Netflix without logging off. Old dogs like me might sit back and say, “why bother?” I can do all those things now. (And, I’d rather take a real hike.)

It’s also fair to say that all of this is very speculative. Will it happen? I don’t know. But with so many big players and investors betting big bucks on its future, you can be sure something will happen.

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