The Metaverse is NOT what you think it is.
To help you get a sense of how vague and complex a term “the metaverse” can be, here's an exercise to try: Mentally replace the phrase “the metaverse” in a sentence with “cyberspace.” Ninety percent of the time, the meaning won't substantially change. That's because the term doesn't really refer to any one specific type of technology, but rather a broad shift in how we interact with technology. And it's entirely possible that the term itself will eventually become just as antiquated, even as the specific technology it once described becomes commonplace.
Broadly speaking, the technologies that make up the metaverse can include virtual reality—characterized by persistent virtual worlds that continue to exist even when you're not playing—as well as augmented reality that combines aspects of the digital and physical worlds. However, it doesn't require that those spaces be exclusively accessed via VR or AR. A virtual world, like aspects of Fortnite that can be accessed through PCs, game consoles, and even phones, could be metaversal.
It also translates to a digital economy, where users can create, buy, and sell goods. And, in the more idealistic visions of the metaverse, it's interoperable, allowing you to take virtual items like clothes or cars from one platform to another. In the real world, you can buy a shirt from the mall and then wear it to a movie theater. Right now, most platforms have virtual identities, avatars, and inventories that are tied to just one platform, but a metaverse might allow you to create a persona that you can take everywhere as easily as you can copy your profile picture from one social network to another.
If by now you're thinking to yourself "wait, doesn't this already exist?", you'd be both right and wrong. You could point to things like Fortnite's virtual experiences or World of Warcraft's virtual world, but these wouldn't give you the full picture. Saying that Fortnite is “the metaverse” would be a bit like saying Google is “the internet.” Even if you could, theoretically, spend large chunks of time in Fortnite, socializing, buying things, learning, and playing games, that doesn't necessarily mean that it encompasses the entire scope of the metaverse.
On the other hand, just as it would be accurate to say that Google builds parts of the internet—from physical data centers to security layers—it's similarly accurate to say that Fortnite creator Epic Games is building parts of the metaverse. And it isn't the only company doing so. Some of that work will be done by tech giants like Microsoft and Facebook—the latter of which recently rebranded to Meta to reflect this work, though we're still not quite used to the name. Many other assorted companies—including Nvidia, Unity, Roblox, and even Snap—are all working on building the infrastructure that might become the metaverse.
What is the Metaverse like right now?
The paradox of defining the metaverse is that in order for it to be the future, you have to define away the present. We already have MMOs that are essentially entire virtual worlds, digital concerts, video calls with people from all over the world, online avatars, and commerce platforms. So in order to sell these things as a new vision of the world, there has to be some element of it that's new.
Spend enough time having discussions about the metaverse and inevitably someone will reference fictional stories like Snow Crash—the 1992 novel that coined the term “metaverse”—or Ready Player One, which depicts a VR world where everyone works, plays, and shops. Combined with the general pop culture idea of holograms and heads-up displays (basically anything Iron Man has used in his last 10 movies) these stories serve as an imaginative reference point for what the metaverse—a metaverse that tech companies could actually sell as something new—could look like.
That kind of hype is as vital a part of the idea of the metaverse as any other. It's no wonder, then, that people promoting things like NFTs—cryptographic tokens that can serve as certificates of ownership of a digital item, sort of—are also latching onto the idea of the metaverse. Sure, NFTs are bad for the environment, but if it could be argued that these tokens might be the digital key to your virtual mansion in Roblox, then boom. You've just transformed your hobby of buying memes into a crucial piece of infrastructure for the future of the internet (and possibly raised the value of all that cryptocurrency you're holding.)
It's important to keep all this context in mind because while it's tempting to compare the proto-metaverse ideas we have today to the early internet and assume everything will get better and progress in a linear fashion, that's not a given. There's no guarantee people will even want to hang out sans legs in a virtual office or play poker with Dreamworks Mark Zuckerberg, much less whether VR and AR tech will ever become seamless enough to be as common as smartphones and computers are today.
It may even be the case that any real “metaverse” would be little more than some cool VR games and digital avatars in Zoom calls, but mostly just something we still think of as the internet.