If you have opened social media recently, you might have seen some news about Facebook launching a virtual reality product for the workplace or about Ariana Grande doing virtual concerts in Fortnite and seen it described by some headlines as a “metaverse”. In this article, I will be talking about what the metaverse is, what its origins, how it is being used now and how it may be used in the future.
What is the metaverse and where did it come from?
When you break it down, the metaverse is a persistent virtual environment shared by everyone else. I emphasise the term ‘persistent’ here because while you could argue that modern multiplayer video games fit the definition of a metaverse since they are a virtual environment that can be shared by players, game developers such as Sébastien Bisch, who developed the space MMO Dual Universe, would argue the opposite because the amount of players that can play in the same area is too limited to be defined as a metaverse as a true metaverse wouldn’t have such limitations.
The metaverse first started out as a science-fiction concept by the author, Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash where humans interact with each other as avatars in a virtual environment that replicates the real world. Other science fiction media which brought the idea of a metaverse into the public eye is the Matrix, where Neo discovers that his world is actually a computer simulation and in the novel Ready Player One, where people go to the virtual world called the OASIS to escape the social problems of the real world.
It started to become a concept in reality in the early 2000s when Linden Lab created an online virtual world called Second Life in June 2003, where users could interact with each other as avatars in a shared space. It grew in popularity and had 1 million consistent users in 2013 but declined to 800,000 consistent users in 2017. Another virtual world that came out in the 2000s is Roblox, which was released in September 2006 and grew popular in the 2010s and the popularity only increased because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The difference between the science fiction depictions of the virtual worlds and the virtual worlds of Second Life and Roblox is that the science fiction depictions used virtual reality while Second Life and Roblox was only accessible via a desktop client.
This changed in 2012 when the Oculus Rift launched and brought virtual reality into the mainstream media. VRChat was the first virtual reality social platform where users could interact with each other by using virtual reality headsets and accessories and it was released in January 2014. Other virtual reality social platforms released concurrently such as AltSpace and RecRoom. These virtual reality social platforms started to get the attention of big tech companies like Facebook who announced in 2019 that they were developing their own VR social platform called Facebook Horizon, which they have released as an invite-only game in 2020.
How the pandemic made the idea of the metaverse more popular
Because people were cooped up in their homes last year, the desktop and virtual reality social platforms mentioned above grew more and more users and got a lot of gaming studios to take another look at the concept of the metaverse. One of those studios is Epic Games, who are most famous for developing Fortnite, an online multiplayer game that is well known for taking characters from other franchises and placing them into the game. Tim Sweeney has stated several times that his end goal is to create a metaverse in Fortnite and this was shown when in April 2020, Travis Scott collaborated with Fortnite to do a virtual concert where his in-game avatar performs music. It was presented as a three day event for Fortnite players to attend and watch a 50-foot Travis perform his music. Fortnite did another 3 day virtual concert this month (August 6th – August 8th) with Ariana Grande where players could travel to different generated worlds and then see a 50-foot Ariana perform music.
Another game studio that believes that the pandemic has made people take a look at the concept of the metaverse is the UK studio Maze Theory, who created Doctor Who games, where the CEO, Ian Hambleton, believes that there has been an increased need for ways to connect with people online, especially with the rise of remote working. The studio’s ambitions for the metaverse involves immersive narrative experiences where the player can feel like they’re interacting with characters in virtual reality story-based games.
“I feel like people look to the metaverse to replace ‘in real life’ social interactions and experiences, but with those expectations they are probably not quite satisfied with what we have now.”Ian Hambleton
Why we shouldn’t be too drawn into the hype
However, not all game developers believe that the metaverse will pan out in the future. Rami Ismail, an indie game developer, has pointed out that we still have a very long way to go before we see a metaverse as there are various technical challenges to overcome like the amount of resources it would take to simulate a persistent, static virtual world and the fact that most games that are out right now are scripted, even the massive multiplayer games like Fortnite and Roblox. The exceptions are procedurally generated games like Dwarf Fortress which generate entire worlds and No Man’s Sky which generates an entire universe algorithmically.
“Even if you remove the VR aspect, most games we play now are very clearly defined in what is possible — the freedom comes from ’emergent’ mechanics or behaviours. To create anything resembling a real-life situation, you’d need something that’s the Dwarf Fortress of Dwarf Fortresses.”Rami Ismail
Another developer that thinks that the metaverse is just a fad is Mandisa Washington, a mobile developer from Brooklyn College, who believes that investors and tech companies desperately want it to be a trend while consumers probably wouldn’t be interested in using it if it’s not a revolutionary piece of technology.
““Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter — and MySpace and Second Life before them — have collectively invested billions into trying to make themselves indispensable and unavoidable. I think where they’ve been successful is in emerging markets, where they can essentially follow AOL’s old model of positioning themselves as the ‘gateway to the internet.’ But in more mature media markets, or in countries like China, with barriers to newcomers and well-established competitors in the social space, I just don’t see how any one company plays its siren song loudly enough to be heard over the din.”Mandisa Washington
In my opinion, I think the idea of a persistent, unlimited metaverse will not be a reality until at least 2050, and even then, it will only be a niche product because even now, virtual reality is very expensive and is still categorised as a niche product. Overall, it is too early to tell if the metaverse will succeed or will fail as we do not yet have the technology to have an experience like the OASIS from Ready Player One.