Do you remember the game Second Life?
It’s internet ancient history now but for a brief moment, it was a huge thing.
Started in 2003, Second Life was a little bit like playing first-person Sims. You create an avatar, walk around and interact with other people who are also avatars in a virtual world. There’s no point or purpose to it, other than allowing people to live out their fantasies as a communist revolutionary attacking neo-Nazis.
While it’s still going on today, many consider the game to have been a failure that never lived up to the promise of its title. That might all be about to change with the advent of the metaverse.
Where Second Life went wrong was not in its ideas or ambitions but in the technology supporting it. People couldn’t exist virtually inside the game while distanced by the experience of a screen or a keyboard. Now though, we have the technology to bring people in and, if it’s done right, it could completely revolutionise the internet and our world as we know it, according to its proponents.
The internet has made day to day life almost unrecognisable compared to the pre-internet era of the early 90s and beyond. If the techies are right, the metaverse is going to do the same once again.
There are some very big players in the space already who are betting big on its success. First and foremost is Facebook creator and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who is building his own metaverse called Horizon that seeks to go far beyond the ambitions of his social media platform. In fact, he’s just announced that he’ll be hiring 10,000 new employees to build it.
Tim Sweeney, the creator of Fortnite, also has grand designs for the metaverse and much of the early hype around the idea has come from the gaming sector.
Here we dive into what exactly is going on here, how big is this thing going to be, and whether or not we’ll all be living in the Matrix very soon.
What is the Metaverse?
The metaverse has been described by Zuckerberg as “the next best thing to teleportation”.
It’s a confluence of the internet and virtual reality, bringing in elements of video calls, cryptocurrencies, email, social media, live streaming, and gaming. Think of it a bit like The Matrix, or Ready Player One, where you’re essentially plugged into a fully customizable virtual world that offers everything you could ever dream of and more.
While it sounds a bit like VR on steroids, the reality is much bigger. Everything that exists now will be online, meaning all experiences you would normally have outside of your home will be had inside.
Instead of doing work on a laptop, you would interact at your virtual office using a headset to attend virtual meetings. Instead of going to the cinema, you would walk to a virtual screening with your mates and sit in the virtual seats to watch a film. Instead of ordering clothes or groceries online, you would buy them from a virtual shop where you can try them out before having them shipped to your door.
Just like the internet, it would never shut down, would run in real-time, and have every component interconnected, meaning you wouldn’t have to log in and out but move fluidly through experiences.
The name itself comes from the science fiction novel Snow Crash, written by Neal Stephenson in 1992. He envisioned a 3D virtual world where people interact with each other like in the real world as a successor to the internet.
Although it has a lot of promise, there is little in the way of examples just yet.
What Does the Metaverse Look Like?
While the metaverse is just an idea at the moment, lots of companies are getting ready for its arrival in the hopes that it will be the next big thing.
Mark Zuckerberg recently said that he hopes people will stop thinking of Facebook as a social media platform and more of a “metaverse company” soon.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently referred to his company’s new offerings as part of an “enterprise metaverse.”
Chinese conglomerate Tencent, one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world, with investment in everything from social media apps to Hollywood studios, have also been laying the foundations for entry.
However, one of the best selling and most popular games of all time, Fortnite offers a taste of what the metaverse could actually be like.
The game’s creator, Tim Sweeney, is a huge metaverse maximalist and his company, Epic, has been slowly acquiring all of the components to build this new virtual world over the past few years.
American DJ Marshmello hosted a concert in the game in 2019 which attracted over 10 million people, all dancing and interacting with the music as virtual avatars controlled by real people. Travis Scott did the same thing in 2020, attracting 45 million attendees.
While these events are somewhat gimmicky, they’re underpinned by this grand vision that Sweeney has for the metaverse.
You may remember that Epic went to war against Apple over the way it charges developers to sell apps on its app store. The fight wasn’t just over money, it was about breaking down Silicon Valley’s “walled gardens” that Sweeney sees as closed platforms that silo the internet and stifle creation.
“As we get out of this, everybody is going to realise, ‘Okay we spent the last decade being taken advantage of’,” Sweeney said.
His metaverse vision sees no walls between people who want to play games, stream movies, or interact on social media.
“A carmaker who wants to make a presence in the metaverse isn’t going to run ads. They’re going to drop their car into the world in real-time and you’ll be able to drive it around. And they’re going to work with lots of content creators with different experiences to ensure their car is playable here and there, and that it’s receiving the attention it deserves,” Sweeney said.
Arguably this is a vision shared by all metaverse maximalists, as even Zuckerberg notes that no one company is going to be able to build the whole thing.
“The metaverse is a vision that spans many companies — the whole industry,” he told The Verge.
“I think a big part of our next chapter is going to hopefully be contributing to building that, in partnership with a lot of other companies and creators and developers. But you can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it”.
Zuckerberg sees the metaverse as the next phase of the internet — something that will be experienced both in 2D and in 3D as well as through wearable technology like glasses that project augmented reality information into our world.
This video from Adobe does a good job of summing up what that might look like:
It’s essentially more internet, more of the time, and while that might sound terrifying or even impractical, given the internet barely works at the best of times in Australia, the inevitable march of technology is going to make all of this happen.
Whether we end up embracing it or not is another question.
How the Metaverse Could Spell the End of The Internet… Maybe
In the early days of the internet, the place was a whole lot wilder and weirder than it is today. There were few central hubs like Google or Facebook, and you pretty much heard about websites from your friends or through links. You’d remember all of these and spend your time clicking through various sites finding bizarre and highly unregulated content.
Then Google came along and indexed the internet, giving us a practical way to find things that we needed. While it was incredibly useful, it also homogenised the place, making our online experiences predictable and routine.
That’s not to say that the metaverse will be anywhere near as chaotic as the early days of the internet, but those central hubs could diminish in power and use, paving the way for new ideas and new forms of interaction and content discovery.
Google Search could become a thing of the past, with virtual assistants in place of the search engine (granted, they’ll likely be backed by Google, but still).
Keyboards, mice, and screens could also go as we interact through virtual headsets and talk instead of typing. Apps would become redundant as we just voice-command or travel virtually between applications across the metaverse.
All of this of course requires proper hardware. Those chunky virtual reality headsets are simply not going to cut it but if you think about what the mobile phone looked like in the 80s compared to today, it’s not impossible to imagine that this kind of virtual reality technology could become flawlessly integrated with our everyday lives.
The line between online and offline would become pretty indistinct as we spend more of our time conducting our business and going about our day to day through this virtual and augmented existence.
Of course, this all depends on adoption. While Zuckerberg’s metaverse is primarily centred around work and social interaction, The New York Times has already dubbed the idea “inescapably dull.”
Technology is another sticking point because if it doesn’t work, no one is going to want to rely on it for Serious Work.
While the idea of the metaverse might work well for gaming and leisure, it’s probably at least a decade or two away from being properly integrated into our everyday lives. But then again, we never thought QR codes would become so relevant just a few short years ago, so who knows.
It’s also easy to write the whole thing off as some techy/gaming thing that has limited appeal, but don’t forget that 67% of Australian’s say that they play video games, and many millions more tune in to watch live streaming gaming events than they do sport around the world.
Whatever happens, some of the biggest companies in the world are already pouring billions into the idea and with that kind of heft and profit-making potential, it’s unlikely to go away any time soon.