At first mention, you may think the metaverse sounds like a fantasy world in the latest futuristic Hollywood blockbuster, and truth be told you are not wrong.
The term was first coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash, in which he described a virtual reality-based successor to the internet.
A few decades later, the 2011 dystopian science fiction novel Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, also centred around a metaverse called the OASIS, which is accessed with a virtual reality headset and wired gloves to escape a world crumbling by an energy crisis.
Fast forward to today, and the metaverse is now a hot buzzword in Silicon Valley. It is also tied to the development of Web 3.0, which some believe will be the next chapter of the internet’s existence.
So what is the metaverse?
The metaverse is an extensive online world in which people are able to interact via digital avatars.
It is a hypothesised 3D environment, through personal computing, smartphones, and virtual augmented reality headsets, combining both virtual and physical spaces. It also implements social media elements such as avatar identity, and content creation.
Meanwhile, Web 3.0, also known as the decentralised web, is the latest generation of internet applications and services, powered by distributed ledger technology, the most common being blockchains.
It focuses on connecting data in a decentralised way, rather than having it stored centrally, with computers able to interpret information as intelligently as humans.
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So far, a number of companies have announced plans to develop metaverse experiences, services and hardware, particularly social media firms and gaming companies.
Similar experiences already exist in the gaming world, such as Pokemon Go which is played on mobile phones. Epic Games’ Fortnite, and Roblox (RBLX), have both similar technologies and have previously hosted virtual concerts with artists such as Ariana Grande, Travis Scott and Lil Nas.
Metaverse companies are also looking at hosting sporting events for thousands of people simultaneously.
Some organisations are also looking to expand metaverse spaces to businesses, in which people can attend and participate in work meetings, or shop online and try on clothing digitally.
It is also set to play a big part in education to allow a more focused learning environment for schools and universities.
Virtual reality has long been used in the real estate sector for home tours, and metaverse development may also expand that function.
“It’s the next evolution of connectivity where all of those things start to come together in a seamless, doppelganger universe, so you’re living your virtual life the same way you’re living your physical life,” Victoria Petrock, an analyst who follows emerging technologies, said.
What companies are involved?
A battle for control is heating up over whether the metaverse will be dominated by one company, or be made up of multiple companies that collaborate with each other.
Last month, technology boss Mark Zuckerberg renamed social media platform Facebook to Meta Platforms (FB), announcing the company’s commitment to developing a metaverse ecosystem.
Zuckerberg sees the metaverse as a string of virtual worlds that are combined together, with people’s individual avatars wandering between them.
“We believe the metaverse will be the successor to the mobile internet, we’ll be able to feel present – like we’re right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are,” he said.
The firm recently tied-up with Ray-Ban to launch smart glasses, which have cameras for photos and videos, and a microphone and speaker. The metaverse was also the driver behind Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR which helped it to launch a meeting software for companies, called Horizon Workrooms.
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“A lot of the metaverse experience is going to be around being able to teleport from one experience to another,” Zuckerberg said.
On Wednesday, Disney (DIS) chief executive Bob Chapek also said the company was set to also leap into the realms virtual reality.
He said: “The Walt Disney Company has a long track record as an early adopter in the use of technology to enhance the entertainment experience.”
“Our efforts to date are merely a prologue to a time when we’ll be able to connect the physical and digital worlds even more closely, allowing for storytelling without boundaries in our own Disney metaverse.”
Dating platform Bumble (BMBL) said this week it was exploring how to integrate the metaverse and Web 3.0 into a relaunch of its platform.
“We’ve got a couple of tests that we’re very excited about that we will be rolling out in the upcoming months around this, but we think that’s the first toehold there,” Bumble president Tariq Shaukat said.
“This is something that is going to evolve. We want to make sure we’re setting the technical and engineering foundation for whatever emerges in the metaverse and in the Web 3.0 world.”
The concept of the metaverse is not without its critics, who have accused it of being “over-hyped” and based on existing technology.
Some of the more worrying concerns centre around privacy information, data protection and user addiction. Mental health is often a huge topic around online gaming, with some users preferring the virtual world over the real world, and struggling with engaging socially, as well as neglecting real-life needs.
The other implication is cost. Facebook has already announced a $50m (£36m) investment programme to ensure the metaverse is built “responsibly”, but it has spent billions of dollars a year already.
Investors currently seem to be playing a wait-and-see game to see which young startups are worth backing as the expansion of the metaverse unfolds.
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