What Is the Metaverse?

What Is the Metaverse?

December 1, 2021

Imagine this: You win a bidding war for a plot of undeveloped land in a prime location. Then you turn around and sell it for three times your investment. The whole process only takes five minutes.

The plot of land you just bought and sold isn't one that you can go visit. It isn't one that allows you to host your family on long weekends. And it isn't one that requires maintenance or mowing. That is because it doesn't actually exist in the physical world. It exists in Decentraland, a blockchain-powered "metaverse" --- a persistent, three-dimensional virtual environment in which users can work, play, socialize and even buy and sell digital property.

The metaverse is likely a concept you've heard about numerous times in the last few weeks, but my guess is that it isn't one you confidently explain to your grandmother just yet, and that's okay. The metaverse and Web 3.0 are the next generation of the internet and they are challenging the traditional infrastructure such as financial and political institutions and that shouldn't be simple.

Although the metaverse won't take over all forms of interactions and transactions as soon as tomorrow, it is important for us to understand what future this concept might bring to the world in which we live. Recent technological developments have opened the door to moving more interactions to the metaverse, and in order to understand implications, we must first understand the core facets.

A brief history of the future

You may know the odd person who is interacting in metaverse-like spaces, and each day technological developments are opening the door to more complex interactions. In the real and practical implementation, the metaverse is just beginning, but it's been part of our collective imagination since the earliest days of the internet. The word itself was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 cyberpunk science fiction novel Snow Crash. The idea of a fully immersive, connected digital world was first explored in seminal works of the cyberpunk genre by Vernor Vinge and William Gibson in the early 1980s, years before the World Wide Web was invented. In 1999, the metaverse---though by another name---became a household concept following the release of the film The Matrix. Steven Spielberg's 2018 adaptation of the novel Ready Player One proved that the idea continues to excite our imaginations decades on.

Advances toward a real, functioning metaverse have, until recently, been modest but steady. The software Second Life introduced a shared online world with no game-like objective in 2003.  It was followed by the game-within-a-game multiplayer platform Roblox in 2006, "sandbox" video game Minecraft in 2011 and sandbox-slash-survival game Fortnite in 2018, among others.

Looking at technology companies, Facebook has been working on metaverse concepts since 2018. They have felt so strongly about the inevitability of the metaverse --- and its global impact --- that they have renamed the company Meta to stake its claim.

Inside the virtual world

When trying to explain what the metaverse is exactly, it's good to look at what we do today and what that might mean tomorrow. Today, you might interact with the internet constantly, but those interactions don't require you to enter a three-dimensional virtual space. You use email, post to social media, and shop online. You navigate with your phone's GPS app, search online databases, stream media content, and video chat with friends, family, and co-workers who you've largely met in the real world. And for the most part, you're sitting, standing, riding, and interacting in the physical world while actively choosing when and how to engage with a screen.

The metaverse challenges that status quo by immersing you into the digital realm in all facets of your life. Although it is described as singular in concept, the metaverse is plural in present-day reality as there can be more than one "metaverse" in existence. The metaverse ensures that your interactions with the internet take place in a world that is virtual, persistent, and pervasive. Let's unpack those three concepts:

  • Virtual. The metaverse ensures some level of immersion into the digital sphere in a way that we previously haven't seen before. Instead of video chatting for a business meeting, digital representations --- or, avatars --- of you and your co-workers meet up in a virtual conference room and talk while seated at a virtual conference table. Instead of scrolling through a website to shop for clothing, your avatar walks into a virtual clothing store. And, hey, since you spend so much time inside the metaverse, maybe you'll spend your money on digital outfits that your avatar can wear to virtual social events. You may be able to display a holographic version of your digital Gucci purse in your living room. Although the metaverse can be accessed in your world through augmented reality glasses, it often is focused on being completely immersive through virtual reality devices.

  • Persistent. Not every shared virtual space is a metaverse. It has to be persistent, meaning it is something that will stay active even when you aren't engaging with it. That is, the digital land you build today can't up and disappear tomorrow based on the whims of others. Assuming the platform or blockchain which supports your metaverse is still running, you should be able to hold onto your land, develop it and even sell it to another user. Ideally, digital property and attributes should persist across platforms as well. That would mean that you could acquire items in one community's or company's space and carry them into another. That interoperability may determine whether we end up with "the metaverse" or several, semi-isolated metaverses as we have today.

  • Pervasive. In order for the metaverse to create its full impact, it needs to be pervasive, meaning everyone can access the same interface or world and see the same thing.  The metaverse is built on a networked, community model which necessitates a common ground in which to operate. If you own a property in the metaverse, you can invite your virtual friends over and they will be able to see your Beeple art NFT hanging on the wall. You can play games together in the casino, or grab a virtual beer. Consistency within the world is fundamental to the interactions in which it fosters.

Why the metaverse matters

Recently, the success of massive metaverse events and timely advances in technology have intensified the excitement about the metaverse.

As online social environments have gotten more immersive, user enthusiasm has suggested a broad willingness to live more of our lives in virtual worlds. When Fortnite held its first virtual concert in 2019 with electronic artist Marshmello, it attracted more than 10 million users. 2020's concerts with rapper Travis Scott attract more than 27 million. This impact of such numbers comes into focus when realizing the capacity of the largest stadium in the world is only 250,000. More and more people are able to experience a global event with a global audience, meaning that people are no longer signing onto these games to simply play the game, but to engage in other entertainment activities with their globalized community.

Blockchain technology has only recently made it possible to create decentralized metaverses, an important advancement in the development of the metaverse-for-all and for meaningfully challenging our current economic systems. Metaverse-like worlds such as Minecraft and Fortnite are centrally controlled. In each case a company can unilaterally alter the world, change the rules, or manipulate the economy. But the ideal metaverse has no central control, allowing users to build their presence on the metaverse without worrying that the company behind it might tank or change the terms of service.

The blockchains that power cryptocurrencies have mechanisms for enforcing the persistence of items---from real estate to artwork---in a completely decentralized way. That same technology is used to power Decentraland, a persistent metaverse-like environment that no one person or company governs. Decentraland landowners not only have non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that prove their land ownership, but these NFTs also permit Decentraland users to vote on community decisions essentially creating proto-governments.

If the implications of all of these developments escape you, they haven't escaped tech behemoths and even world governments. Gucci opened a fashion installation inside Roblox; Microsoft announced a new holographic virtual collaboration platform called Mesh; and the government of South Korea announced a "metaverse alliance" of public-private partnerships to develop virtual reality platforms.  

Where is the metaverse heading?

What exactly the metaverse will look like is impossible to know. In fact, that's partly what the commotion is about. Investors and companies are placing their bets on the future of the metaverse and actively working to shape it. That said, a few things are apparent:

  • The metaverse won't simply arrive one day. It will move forward, step by step, becoming more immersive and playing a larger role in how we interact, earn our living and spend our free time.

  • Adoption won't be universal. Just like every other advancement in digital technology, not everyone will take advantage of it to the same degree. Some will rarely - if ever - use the metaverse; others will use it constantly. Some of us are halfway there already.

  • It could affect your life whether you use it or not. Even without universal adoption, the metaverse has the potential to change the contours of our economic and political systems---making the world more globalized, decentralized and technologically dependent.

    The metaverse has transformed from a speculative idea into an emerging reality. Like the web and Internet of Things before, its reach is expected to extend beyond the specialized world of tech enthusiasts to change the way we live---and to do so in profound and surprising ways. As ATB Ventures, we know we have a duty to ensure that as many people as possible meaningfully and safely enter into the next generation of the internet. Join us as we continue to explore what that means in the scope of the metaverse in the coming weeks.

Miranda Mantey