What Is the Metaverse, Exactly?

The metaverse is the future of the internet, according to tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg and Satya Nadella. Or even a video game. Or maybe it’s a much worse, more unpleasant version of Zoom? It’s difficult to say.

Nearly six months have passed since Facebook said it will change its name to Meta and concentrate on the approaching “metaverse” for its future. What the phrase signifies hasn’t changed in the intervening period. Roblox is supporting user-generated video games, Meta is developing a VR social network, and other businesses are providing nothing more than broken gaming worlds with NFTs tacked on.

The lack of coherence, according to proponents ranging from minor entrepreneurs to tech behemoths, is caused by the metaverse currently being developed and being too young to define what it means. For instance, the internet existed in the 1970s, but not all of the preconceived notions about what it would ultimately look like were accurate.

On the other side, selling the concept of “the metaverse” involves a lot of marketing hype (and cash). Following the financial impact of Apple’s decision to restrict ad tracking, Facebook is particularly susceptible. It’s hard to divorce Facebook’s desire to earn money from selling virtual clothing from its vision of a world in which everyone has a digital closet to browse. But Facebook isn’t the only business with a financial stake in the buzz around the metaverse.

Seriously, What Exactly Is a Metaverse?

Here is a task to show you how nebulous and complicated the word “the metaverse” may be: In a sentence, mentally change “the metaverse” to “cyberspace.” 90% of the time, the meaning won’t be altered. This is due to the fact that the phrase doesn’t truly apply to a single form of technology, but rather to a wide (and often hypothetical) change in how humans engage with technology. Additionally, it’s completely feasible that the name itself may ultimately become equally out of date as the particular technology it originally defined.

Virtual reality, which is characterized by persistent virtual worlds that continue to exist even when you’re not playing and augmented reality, which combines elements of the digital and physical worlds, are two examples of the technologies that companies generally refer to when they discuss “the metaverse.” However, it is not necessary for such locations to just be accessible via VR or AR. The term “the metaverse” has begun to be used by virtual worlds, such as portions of Fortnite that can be accessed via computers, video gaming consoles, and even mobile devices.

Numerous businesses that have jumped on the metaverse bandwagon also have plans for a brand-new digital economy in which users will be able to produce, purchase, and sell items. The metaverse is interoperable in more utopian depictions, enabling you to transfer virtual goods like clothing or automobiles from one platform to another, however, this is trickier than it seems. While some proponents claim that emerging technology, such as NFTs, may allow movable digital assets, this is simply untrue, and moving goods from one video game or virtual world to another is a very difficult problem that no one firm can resolve.

It’s challenging to grasp what all of this implies since a reasonable reaction to descriptions like those above is “Wait, doesn’t it already exist?” For instance, the persistent virtual world of Warcraft allows people to trade things. Rick Sanchez may learn about MLK Jr. by visiting an exhibit and virtual performances in Fortnite. Put on an Oculus headset to enter your own virtual home. Is it the true definition of “the metaverse”? merely some fresh video game genres?

Yes and no, I suppose. Comparing Fortnite to “the metaverse” is like comparing Google to “the internet.” Even if you spend a lot of time networking, shopping, studying, and playing games in Fortnite, it doesn’t always indicate that it covers the whole range of what individuals and businesses mean when they refer to “the metaverse.” Similar to how Google does not create all of the internets, including physical data centers and security layers.

Tech behemoths like Microsoft and Meta aren’t the only ones developing technology for interfacing with virtual worlds. A wide range of smaller businesses and startups, as well as several more significant corporations like Nvidia, Unity, Roblox, and even Snap, are constructing the necessary infrastructure to develop better virtual worlds that more closely resemble our real-world experiences.

For instance, in order to strengthen its potent Unreal Engine 5 platform, Epic has purchased a number of businesses that assist in the production or distribution of digital assets. Unreal is a platform for video games, but it’s also utilized in the film industry and may make it simpler for anybody to build virtual worlds. Building digital worlds are experiencing genuine and fascinating advancements.

Despite this, the concept of “the metaverse,” a single, cohesive location akin to Ready Player One, remains mostly impractical. This is partially due to the fact that such a world would require businesses to collaborate in ways that aren’t profitable or desirable—Fortnite wouldn’t have much incentive to provide players with a portal to instantly switch over to World of Warcraft, even if it were simple to do so, for example—and partially due to the possibility that the necessary computing power may be much more distant than we think.

This annoying fact has resulted in the development of significantly diverse nomenclature. Nowadays, a lot of businesses or supporters refer to any one game or platform as “a metaverse.” According to this description, a “metaverse” might be anything from a VR concert app to a video game. Some go even further and refer to the assortment of different metaverses as a “multiverse of metaverses.” Or maybe we are in a “hybrid verse.”

Or, these phrases might signify almost anything. A Fortnite tie-in mini-game and a “flavor created in the metaverse” were both introduced by Coca-Cola. No regulations exist.

Why Do Holograms Play a Role in the Metaverse?

When the internet originally appeared, a number of technical advancements were made possible, such as the capacity to connect across web pages and the ability to communicate amongst computers over long distances. Websites, applications, social networks, and everything else that depends on these fundamental components were created using these technological capabilities as the building blocks. Not to mention the convergence of interface developments like displays, keyboards, mice, and touchscreens that aren’t exactly related to the internet but are nevertheless required to make it function.

There are some new building blocks available thanks to the metaverse, such as the capacity to host hundreds of users simultaneously on a single instance of a server (idealistic metaverse predictions assume this will increase to thousands or even millions of users, but this may be overly optimistic), or motion-tracking tools that can identify a user’s gaze or the position of their hands. This modern technology has a futuristic vibe and may be quite intriguing.

There are, however, certain restrictions that may not be able to get around. It’s common for software corporations like Microsoft or Meta to gloss over specifics of how users will interact with the metaverse in their fictitious future vision movies. The majority of individuals get motion sickness or physical discomfort when using VR headsets for an extended period of time. In addition to the not trivial challenge of finding out how individuals can use augmented reality glasses in public without coming off as enormous dorks, this dilemma affects augmented reality glasses as well. The accessibility issues with VR are another issue that many businesses are ignoring at the moment.

So how can tech businesses showcase their technologies without displaying the hefty headsets and awkward eyewear that are really required? Their main strategy so far seems to be to just create technology out of thin air. The lady in Meta’s holographic presentation? I’m sorry to break the illusion, but even with very sophisticated forms of current technology, it is just not feasible.

There isn’t a janky way to have a three-dimensional image appear in midair without carefully regulated conditions, unlike motion-tracked digital avatars, which are now sort of janky but may be better eventually. Anything Iron Man may tell you. Given that both of the women in the demonstration video are wearing glasses, it’s possible that these are intended to be taken as images projected by the glasses. However, even that interpretation makes a lot of assumptions about the physical capabilities of compact glasses, which Snap can attest is a challenging issue.

Videos that show how the metaverse may function commonly skim over reality in this way. Another one of Meta’s demonstrations had actors hovering in space—is this person seated at a desk or is he or she attached to an immersive aerial rig? Does the holographic person wear a headset, and if so, how is their face being scanned? And at times, a person seems to be holding what appears to be their real hands while grabbing virtual things.

This demonstration generates many more questions than it answers.

This is OK up to a point. Microsoft, Meta, and any other firm that exhibits crazy demonstrations like these want to present a creative vision of the potential future, not necessarily to address every technological issue. It’s a long-standing tradition that dates back to AT&T’s demonstration of a voice-controlled folding phone that could produce 3D models and magically remove people from photographs, all of which may have seemed equally absurd at the time.

However, the recent metaverse pitches—from both IT behemoths and startups—have mainly depended on idealistic notions that depart from reality. Chipotle’s “metaverse” was an advertisement that was presented as a Roblox game. The only “real estate” mentioned in stories about the “metaverse” is a glitchy video game with virtual land tokens (which also glosses over the very real security and privacy issues with most popular NFTs right now).

Because most “metaverse” initiatives are so riddled with ambiguity and disappointment, when a video from 2017 showing a Walmart VR shopping demo began trending again in January 2022, many people assumed it was yet another metaverse demo. It also served to highlight how much hyped the present metaverse debate is. Evidently, Walmart’s VR shopping demonstration never took off (and for good reason). So why should Chipotle doing it make anybody think it’s the future?

We are left in a position where it is difficult to determine which elements of the numerous visions of the metaverse (if any) will truly be genuine one day due to this kind of wishful thinking used as a technical demonstration. A virtual poker game with your buddies as robots and holograms floating in space would be partially realistic if VR and AR headgear become comfortable and affordable enough for people to use on a regular basis—a big “if.” If not, you could always use a Discord video conference to play Tabletop Simulator.

What is the current state of the metaverse?

The paradox of defining the metaverse is that you must define away the present for it to be the future. We already have MMOs, which are basically full virtual worlds, online avatars, commerce platforms, digital concerts, video chats with people all over the globe, and digital concerts. Therefore, there must be some aspect of these items that are novel in order to sell them as a fresh perspective of the world.

Spend enough time discussing the metaverse and someone will always (and tiresomely) bring up fictional works like Ready Player One, which imagines a VR environment where everyone works, plays, and shops, or Snow Crash, the 1992 book that introduced the phrase “metaverse.” These stories serve as a creative reference point for what the metaverse—a metaverse that tech companies might actually sell as something new—could look like when combined with the general pop culture concept of holograms and heads-up displays (basically anything Iron Man has used in his last 10 movies).

Possibly more important to the concept of the metaverse than any particular technology is that type of hype. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that proponents of NFTs, which are cryptographic tokens that, in a sense, function as certificates of ownership for digital goods, are also embracing the concept of the metaverse. Sure, NFTs are awful for the environment, and the public blockchains that the majority of them are based on have serious privacy and security issues. However, if a tech business can claim that they will hold the digital key to your Roblox virtual house, then boom. You’ve just elevated the value of all the bitcoin you own while turning your hobby of collecting memes into an essential component of the internet’s future infrastructure.

It’s crucial to keep all of this in mind because, despite how tempting it may be to compare our current conceptions of the proto-metaverse to those of the early internet and believe that everything will improve and advance linearly, that is not a given. There is no assurance that consumers will want to play poker with Dreamworks’ Mark Zuckerberg or hang around without legs in a virtual workplace, much alone that VR and AR technology will ever be as widely used as smartphones and PCs are now.

The idea of “the metaverse” has been a potent tool for repackaging outdated technology, exaggerating the advantages of new technology, and grabbing the attention of speculative investors in the months after Facebook’s relaunch. However, as everything from 3D TVs to Amazon’s delivery drones and Google Glass can testify, money pouring into a sector doesn’t always signal a significant paradigm change is just around the horizon. The remains of unsuccessful investments may be seen all across the history of technology.

That does not imply that nothing exciting is in the works. Cheaper than ever VR headsets like the Quest 2 are slowly weaning themselves off of pricey desktop or console systems. The creation and design of video games and other virtual environments are becoming simpler. And personally, I believe photogrammetry advancements—the method of producing digital 3D things from still images or moving pictures—are an absolutely exciting tool for digital artists.

However, the IT sector as a whole is somewhat dependent on futurism. Selling a phone is good, but it’s more lucrative to sell in the future. It’s possible that any actual “metaverse” would consist mostly of what we now refer to as the internet, along with some fantastic VR games and virtual avatars used in Zoom conversations.

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