Metaverse is a portmanteau of the prefix “meta-” and the word “universe.” Meta- comes from Greek, and has multiple meanings including after, behind, among, and beyond. This last meaning is perhaps the most relevant, implying that the metaverse is beyond the known or physical universe.
Defining the metaverse is a difficult task because the term has come to mean a wide range of internet-connected technologies. Some are virtual worlds hosted by large companies, some rely on user-generated content, and others are even built on blockchain technology.
However, the common thread among all metaverses is shared experience. Citizens of the metaverse can interact with each other by participating in games, attending events, exploring a collective virtual world, and more. Because of its interactive nature, the metaverse is often described as the next generation of social networks.
Further, many of these metaverses involve the use of virtual or augmented reality, two technologies central to their functioning and future development. With virtual reality (VR), users are transported to a digital world through headsets, goggles, or other devices that allow them to be completely immersed in their experience. With augmented reality (AR), digital information and experiences are integrated within the user’s real environment.
History of the metaverse
The modern idea of the metaverse was first introduced in a 1992 science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson called “Snow Crash.” In the book, the Metaverse is represented by a planet made up of plots of virtual real estate, accessed via goggles or terminals. A more recent example is Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One,” released in 2011, which plays on similar themes.
However, the technology behind modern metaverse projects has a long history predating the 1990s. The stereoscope, invented in 1838, used separate images presented to a user’s left and right eyes to simulate three-dimensional projections.
Over 100 years later, Morton Heilig took this idea one step further in building his Sensorama. This device presented users with stimuli intended to give them a fictitious—but convincing—multi-sensory experience.
Computer scientist Jaron Lanier first used the term virtual reality in the 1980s when he and collaborators developed wearable gear that acted as sensors, such as the DataGlove, the DataSuit, and—almost too familiarly—the EyePhone. This last device was a head-mounted display that tracked a user’s head movements. Today’s modern devices, like the Oculus (Meta) Quest system, owe their foundations to these early inventors.
The technology required to access the metaverse is only one part of the equation. The other is the concept of shared virtual spaces, or virtual worlds. The 1970s saw the birth of internet-based gaming worlds where users could interact in real time. These have since developed into the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMPORG) genre, with popular entries like Runescape, World of Warcraft, and Elder Scrolls Online.
How does the metaverse work?
The most important part of any metaverse is its structure. Although there are many possible types of metaverse experiences, the one that most commonly comes to mind is the virtual world.
Virtual worlds can either represent pre-existing geographies or newly imagined spaces. For instance, a project called Virtual Helsinki digitally mapped the Finnish city so users could experience concerts, exhibitions, and other events as if they were physically there. Meanwhile, many video games create purposely unrealistic, fantastical universes that allow for unique gameplay experiences.
Within the virtual world, users are represented by avatars. These can be chosen and modified by users to depict them in whatever way they like.
Accessing the metaverse
Fully virtual worlds are generally accessed via computers, mobile phones, or VR headsets. Think of the familiar process of logging into a video game on your favorite platform. Once a user is logged in, their avatar appears at a predetermined location in the metaverse and is able to move around and interact with the world based on user input.
Metaverses based on AR are similar, but they are more frequently (though not always) tied to geolocation tagging. In other words, AR-based metaverses are commonly built on the world around its citizens. The AR technology simply overlays components of the metaverse—user interaction devices, graphics, games, and more—onto real-life places and objects.
While most popular metaverses (such as video games) are centralized and thus owned and operated by companies, there is a new wave of virtual worlds that are built using blockchain technology.
Blockchain platforms provide unique opportunities for metaverses to remove centralized control and embrace the decentralization ideology of web3. For example, blockchain technology makes it possible for users of metaverses to truly own their avatars and objects. By tokenizing digital property like wearables, in-game weapons, and real estate, players can assure the provenance of their metaverse assets.
Further, blockchain-based metaverses use decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) to employ community-driven governance rather than having to rely on a centralized operation. Governance simply means that the community has decision-making power over platform upgrades, can manage a common treasury, and are able to generally decide on the future of the metaverse.
What are some examples of metaverses?
- Decentraland – One of the most popular decentralized, blockchain-based metaverses, Decentraland hosts a vast world comprising parcels of virtual real estate on which residents can build customized experiences. It is governed by a DAO and has hosted myriad events from concerts to fashion shows, drawing users from across the (real) world.
- The Sandbox – This blockchain-based metaverse is similar to Decentraland but with a focus on gaming. It was initially developed for iOS but was acquired by a software company that shifted its metaverse development to the blockchain. Like Decentraland, it uses non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to allow users to own and trade virtual land and other assets.
- Horizon Worlds – Developed by Meta (formerly Facebook) in 2021, Horizon Worlds is a metaverse that focuses on events, games, and various other social activities. This virtual reality world is meant to be accessed with a Meta Quest headset.
- Second Life – Introduced in 2003 and billed as an online virtual world, Second Life is perhaps the first modern metaverse platform. Millions of users have explored this open world and traded in its digital goods using its unique in-world currency, including everything from vehicles to real estate.
- Roblox – This platform allows users to build their own worlds and games that others can explore as well as actively use to play together and transact with each other.
- Pokémon Go – An example of an AR-based metaverse, Pokémon Go uses a player’s local geography as landmarks that have significance in the game, providing opportunities to catch Pokémon creatures specific to an area and participate in battles depending on where a player moves—both physically and in the virtual world.
- The metaverse is a virtual space where users can connect and share experiences through internet-connected devices.
- Access to the metaverse can be through traditional means like computers, mobile phones, and video game consoles, but it is increasingly becoming more immersive thanks to leaps in the development of augmented and virtual reality technology.
- Current examples of the metaverse include blockchain-based platforms like Decentraland and The Sandbox as well as more conventional software like Second Life and Pokémon Go.