The tech buzzword of 2021 was, without a doubt, the “metaverse”. The idea, once coined by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his book Snow Crash in 1992, has strongly fascinated Silicon Valley since then, following the hype cycle with various upswings now and then. But after Facebook changed its name to Meta, the phrase went mainstream. As is always the case with tech hypes, nobody wants to miss the boat. Everyone has something to say about the metaverse and almost every tech company feels the urge to somehow connect their operations to the metaverse. In the past year, great stuff has been written about the metaverse but also a lot of nonsense, from unrealistic utopian dreams to dogmatic cynicism. Therefore, it is time for a beginner’s guide, an attempt to find middle ground and thereby deepen our understanding of the metaverse.
If we were to look up some generic descriptions, we would probably end up with something like this: the metaverse is a persistent, real-time, immersive virtual world inhabited by many, where users can concurrently experience a wide range of activities. It is a successor to the current internet and cyberspace, and the next computing platform after mobile. Quite a mouthful. However, this doesn’t tell us much. Or maybe it tells us too much. What do we mean by immersive and persistent? When does something count as a virtual world inhabited by many? There are currently a lot of virtual worlds, such as Decentraland, Second Life and Roblox, that fit this description to some degree. But most people would be reluctant to label them a metaverse; at best they are prototypes of the metaverse. So, we need to specify it more. In a series of questions, we will slowly build the concept layer by layer and deepen our understanding of it.
Sorry, a universally agreed upon definition is not what we can give you. What we can do though, is try to sum up the most important characteristics and qualities of the metaverse. When writing a beginner’s guide to the metaverse, a good place to start is with the metaverse primer of Matthew Ball, as it has been an important source of information for many intellectuals currently interested in the topic and even for the CEO of Meta, Zuckerberg himself.
Although Ball warns that the metaverse is hard to define and impossible to predict, he at least theorizes on a set of conditions the metaverse has to meet. For Ball, the metaverse must be persistent, synchronous and live, without any cap to concurrent users, it must be a fully functioning economy, an experience that spans both the virtual and physical world, offer interoperability, and should be created and operated by an incredibly wide range of contributors. In this article, we will touch on all of these topics and explore their meaning.
Before we start discussing these characteristics of the metaverse, we should clarify what exactly we are talking about. In its broadest perception, the metaverse is simply about the future of cyberspace and thus the discussion is comparable to that surrounding the internet in the ‘80s. Consequently, it is not surprising that debates are heavily imbued with hopes, ambitions, and dreams of what future virtual worlds could be like. What the metaverse eventually will look like is unpredictable. For many people, the metaverse is more of an aspiration and an ideal than a clear and distinct theory or concept.
Nevertheless, the aspirations and ideals circulating are not solely the fruitless reveries of over-enthusiastic tech wizards musing about unrealistic utopian technoworlds. The metaverse is more than fiction. The ideas are always to some extent grounded in knowledge and steer attention and investments in a particular direction. Fact and fiction collide continuously in the process of recursive innovation.
Instead of immediately diving into more technical discussions, we are better off examining the imagination of the metaverse in pop culture. The most popular image of the metaverse is shown in the book and movie Ready Player One (2011 and 2018). The images of the omnidirectional treadmill, VR goggles and haptic suit (see below) have become extremely important in visualizing how people enter the metaverse. In the movie, the metaverse functions as a gateway out of a dystopian physical world full of misery and despair. The interface projects the protagonist into a rich immersive virtual world where he can be whoever he wants to be and do whatever he likes. It is the classic cyberspace dream, to liberate ourselves from everyday social exclusion, physical discomforts, and coercive governments. Yes, this is fiction and our technology is far from delivering anything like that. But take a look at the hour-long presentation of Meta and you’ll see how much tech-utopian prospects influence the daily operations of big tech companies.
Besides Ready Player One, movies and series such as The Matrix, Altered Carbon and Black Mirror offer different perspectives on the future of immersive virtual worlds. Dystopian outlooks predominate in these pictures, perhaps as a natural counterbalance to the utopian tech industry.
Discussions surrounding the metaverse mimic the typical hype cycle of technological innovation. First, there is the interplay of intense hope, utopian visions, and skepticism, followed by a period of disillusion and then a period characterized by a more realistic stance. Remember the early days of the internet, people say. We envisioned a free and democratic realm of freedom on an “information highway” and ended up with porn deepfakes, hate speech, online polarization and cat memes, causing a wave of disappointment among many. Currently, our more pragmatic stance, for instance on how to make digital democracies resistant to fake news, is added to this interplay. Inevitably, the debate about the metaverse will similarly shift back and forth between ideals and disappointment, aspiration and cynicism. We are now in the first phase, so talking about the metaverse always means finding middle ground between overestimating and downplaying.
In addition to techno-utopism and skepticism, there is the interplay between endless possibilities and technological hurdles. Here, the marketeer is counterbalanced by the engineer. He is the person with actual technological know-how, the individual that will constantly remind us of the technological hurdles on the path to reaching our tech dreams. He believes we first have to overcome these hurdles to realize the metaverse his sales colleague is already selling to us.
We hear it constantly: the metaverse is “the next big thing”. Perhaps the easiest understanding of the metaverse is indeed to simply name it “the next-gen computing platform” after the era of the desktop and mobile. The usual explanation for this is: tech companies are placing their bets on wearable technologies such as augmented glasses, smartwatches, and voice-activated speakers to substitute the mobile as the dominant platform. In the coming years, these emerging platforms will then evolve into something that we might call the metaverse. However, calling it a platform is deceptive because the metaverse as a concept focuses on a different aspect than the characteristics of a platform (more on this in our second article [add link]).
Although there are conceptual issues with calling the metaverse a computing platform, this explanation gives us two important characteristics. First, the metaverse is not a single technology but a set of interconnected digital technologies and how we interact with these technologies. Second, the metaverse will slowly emerge out of these converging technologies. It will not happen overnight and only in hindsight will it be easy to define. To understand what this evolution encompasses, we need to link it to the web.
A different way to comprehend the metaverse is as the “future of the internet”. For many currently involved in the quarrel about the essence of the metaverse, this is the best way to understand it: as the evolution of the internet itself. Something that “grows” on top of worldwide computer networks, comparable to the way app stores, social media and E-commerce are virtual spaces that have emerged from the current internet. Just like the worldwide web, with all its different websites, most people believe the metaverse will not be one space controlled by one entity but will instead be the interoperable spatial dimension of the future internet. Often this is the point where web 2.0 and web 3.0 enter the discussion.
Web 2.0, the current version of the web, is radically decentralized at the infrastructure level although highly centralized at the service and platform layer. The current interaction between users and the network centers around apps and websites that we visit through mobile screens and desktops, using mainly our fingers and eyes. Platform owners function as gatekeepers to this digital world, collecting data, controlling identity, and settling payments, thereby further improving their services and cementing their monopoly and rent-seeking position. Shortly, they are increasingly able to set the rules for anything that happens within the gates of these digital (public) spaces.
Many people hope Web 3.0 will break open the data silos and platform power of big tech and give rise to new decentralized cyberspace. This iteration of the web would then better align with what most people also aspire to for the metaverse, an open ecosystem backed by a decentralized structure and respecting social goals such as privacy, data ownership, and a level playing field for all companies. Following this line of argument, proponents then often mention the necessity of technologies such as NFTs, blockchain, tokens, Defi, protocols. These technologies may not be essentially linked to the metaverse, but most of proponents of Web 3.0 would argue that without these technologies we would get a flawed metaverse. As said, aspiration and theory often intertwine.
For them, these innovations need to safeguard things such as privacy, safety, authenticity, and ownership by being organized in a decentral way, not relying on merely one or a few controlling companies or governments. The law and order of the metaverse should be constituted by the people of the global metaverse itself.
All of them. This way we can separate the metaverse from a virtual game world, Zoom meetings, NFT auctions, or Netflix. To most highbrows, only if these worlds are interconnected and integrated into a whole, where we can do all of these types of activities, can we truly speak of a metaverse. In this integrated world, the feeling of presence is often intrinsically linked to the metaverse, as it holistically interweaves virtual practices into one persistent universe.
Thus, to nearly everyone, the metaverse is more than a virtual world that resemblances a virtual amusement park where we can experience all sorts of fun activities such as visiting concerts, watching movies, and playing games. Although this is currently the case in virtual game worlds such as Fortnite, the metaverse is imagined as more than a “virtual Disney XL”, just like the internet in the 1980s was eventually more than a way to send “virtual letters”. Besides all the fun, the metaverse is often portrayed as an economy where we can trade, buy and sell goods, work, etc. In addition, having a meeting with colleagues or consulting a general practitioner will also be possible in the metaverse.
But besides entertainment from the home (“first place”) and work (“second place”), another way to think about the metaverse is as a so-called “third place”: a social environment where people gather to simply hang around with friends or strangers without a specific preset goal. Chatboxes, online forums and multiplayer videogames are preliminary examples of this.
Connected to this idea is the wish for the metaverse to be something that we built together, so it’s not just the big tech companies that have a role in realizing it. Bottom-up is the consensus. This narrative follows the same logic as the creator economy and the gig economy, in which users engage as prosumers that are given the tools by platforms to develop and participate in the economy of their platform.
Another important bone of contention in the metaverse debate is whether it will replace the physical world, add new digital layers to it, or fully blend with it.
Most authors refer to the metaverse as a full-blown virtual world. To them, to truly call it a metaverse our bodies need to be fully engaged and encapsulated into another place. New interface technologies could enhance this feeling of being present “in” the digital spheres, adding a tangible sense that you are in the same “room” as others. Current digital interfaces (e.g. keyboards, mouses, touchscreens) and computing platforms often lack these qualities and have us in two worlds at the same time. Here, in my chair, in the physical world and “there”, wandering around in cyberspace, when I’m playing a videogame on my couch or scrolling through Instagram at the bus stop, for instance. There is no full embodiment. VR has the potential to change this on the visual level, and together with haptic technologies, they are the key technology in this paradigm (leading all the way back to the mid-80s).
Proponents talk about a second human/virtual existence freed of social and economic barriers and an escapist place where you can be whoever you want to be. Apart from the utopian undertone here, interface technologies are indeed improving our selfhood in virtual spaces. We already see that online identities can be stronger than physical world ones and the youth prefer a pair of Jordans in the metaverse to physical shoes. And of course, the extent to which virtual worlds will be able to replace meaningful physical interaction is not easy to predict, but a naïve predilection for the physical realm should be avoided at all costs, as it hinders any thoughtful criticism.
Instead of replacing the physical world, the second option is augmentation. To some, this is the preferred option because it aims to avoid a strong dichotomy between the physical and virtual worlds. The metaverse is then best understood as an ever-present digital layer on top of the physical world, where everything is seamlessly connected. This idea of the metaverse has strong ties to augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MX). The augmented environment is constantly running applications, providing us with contextual information, nudging us, or responding to our needs. The paradigm of ambient computing is often associated with this thought. Computers have merged with our everyday environment and have almost become invisible. Doing groceries, driving to work, or visiting a theater, in these ubiquitous and pervasive computing networks, the augmented metaverse will always be around us.
To make this augmentation work, computer vision and other applications have to mirror every object and movement in real-time digital representations. These digital twins of cities then form the base layer of the metaverse. Living in the augmented metaverse is living in a mirror world.
Augmentation implies we do not have to abandon the physical world and thus the concept also becomes highly relevant to cities and municipalities. Seoul became the first major city to brand itself a future metaverse city in 2030 and entire islands are following.
AR offers a strong vision of what the different aspects of the metaverse could look like, but the tech is still far from a reality and most authors therefore claim this type of metaverse is still decades away. But in the meantime, the unexpected and unforeseen applications, rather than the fancy hologram teleporting us to a physical concert, are the ones that will slowly begin to constitute the metaverse in the upcoming years.
So, what is the verdict? Mostly, we see authors combine both options. The metaverse could mix elements of VR and AR and span both the physical and the virtual world. In the morning we’ll dive into a fully immersive virtual workspace, with the living room as our interface to this metaverse, while in the afternoon we use AR glasses to enrich our running workout session. It will also depend on which tech companies will win the metaverse race (more on that in an upcoming feature).
An important topic of debate is whether we should be ourselves in the metaverse or will be allowed to take on multiple identities. Well, it depends on what exactly we mean by this question. Does it mean a single consistent identity as shown in a recognizable avatar and screen name? Or does it mean there is an authentic identifier “behind” this avatar within an interoperable (decentral) identity system? This makes a huge difference.
Most articles now implicitly talk about identity in terms of avatars, through the classic idea of a cartoon duplicating our physical self in playful resemblance, but this might not be the necessary standard. Just as in the real world, the appearance and social roles we take on in daily life are crucial to building an identity. However, is this what fundamentally constitutes our identity in communal life? Or is it my social security number given to me by the government? Or, more philosophically speaking, is selfhood the invariance of all my different appearances over time? This discussion is still ongoing and not easy to settle as it presupposes fundamental discussion about identity and selfhood. More pragmatically, we could at least conclude that in an economic sense, strict identity systems must exist, as authenticity is a prerequisite of market exchange and transferring ownership. For entertainment purposes, this is obviously less important.
This is a difficult question, with both simple and more complicated possible answers. The simple answer is the modest statement that the fully-fledged metaverse is not yet here and we are at best in an early phase of the metaverse. After all, intuitively, most people will agree the metaverse has yet to arrive and will try to come up with conditions that need to be met first, as we have seen with Matthew Ball. Only in hindsight will we possibly be able to agree on when it fully matured. But even then, because the metaverse is also an ideal in a normative sense, people might always say “well this is not the metaverse, only a flawed one”. Consider the currently popular saying that we need to “fix the internet”, and you will understand what I mean.
A more complicated answer first has to specify what is meant by the concept. For instance, we could argue there is a difference between the “idea” or “essence” of the metaverse and particular concretizations at a given time. However, this “idea” is not a static platonic form but open and dynamic: it is innovation. If we identify Fortnite, Roblox or Meta’s Horizon as the metaverse, we are confusing the content of a specific metaverse with the dynamic concept of the metaverse. Fortnite is not the metaverse, but a metaverse. Consequently, calling Roblox a contemporary metaverse is then not a problem at all. And thus, the fact that the future instantiations of the metaverse will bear no resemblance to current ones, does not mean it has yet to arrive, because we have already accepted the fact that the metaverse will evolve.
Between all the utopian dreams and hard-core cynicism, trying to occupy the middle ground, we can conclude that the metaverse definitely marks a new phase of the internet, but it will be a long and unpredictable journey. Partly technology-driven and partly ideologically driven, the spatial dimension of the future internet is, to a large extent, still open and undecided.