Billions are being invested in building it and tech tycoons are calling it the future, but what exactly is the metaverse?
The term was first coined in US author Neal Stephenson’s 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash. In the book, the protagonist is a hacker who is able to jump between a dystopian Los Angeles and the so-called ‘Metaverse’ – a virtual world where avatars interact.
Some 30 years on and, incredibly, Stephenson’s fictional concept is looking, in many ways, like it could become a reality.
The word ‘metaverse’, is now defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a “virtual-reality space in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users”. So Stephenson really wasn’t far off.
When Facebook changed its name to Meta in 2021 it may have come as a surprise to many of the platform’s users, but it was a major moment in the company’s history. It signalled Mark Zuckerberg’s ambitions for his business; to be the leader in the development of the metaverse.
He said at the time his company would be focusing on bringing the “metaverse to life” and helping people connect, find communities and grow businesses.
It’s probably important to point out the novelist Stephenson has since confirmed he has “nothing to do with” anything Facebook is doing involving the metaverse besides the fact the tech giant is using the term he coined.
According to digital regulation expert Tom Harding, a Bristol-based partner in law firm Osborne Clarke’s commercial team, the Facebook metaverse won’t be the only one in existence; it will, in fact, be one of many.
“There have been lots of stories that Facebook is going to be the metaverse, but that would just be their version of it,” he explained.
“The theory is that each person or organisation would build their own one, but they are all inter-operable and they all speak to each other.”
So how do you access it? Through a video games console or VR headset, according to Harding, who points out many young people are interacting this way already.
“The concept is a virtual world that you would access through a VR headset or console, such as a Playstation,” he said. “It’s like living in a video game where you have your own avatar.”
Although Facebook’s metaverse may well be one of the biggest when it launches, swathes of other big-name brands are joining the race to build their own.
However, while the technology that will support individual metaverses is still under development, companies that can afford it are using existing online gaming platforms as a way in.
Nike, for example, has already set up its own virtual world, or metaverse – called Nikeland – within a platform called Roblox.
Roblox is used by millions of (mostly young) people around the world, who create an avatar and interact in a user-generated 3D world. Players can create their own games as well as buy, sell and create virtual items which can be used to decorate their avatar.
According to Nike, the buildings and fields inside Nikeland are inspired by its real-life headquarters, and there are areas for the Roblox community to test their skills competing in various mini-games. A digital showroom also allows players to deck out their avatar with special Nike products.
But Nike and Facebook aren’t the only ones jumping on the metaverse bandwagon. Last year, ITV and John Lewis launched their own metaverse within the video game Fortnite.
ITV’s I’m A Celebrity experience in Fortnite Creative allowed players to take on their very own challenges in a virtual version of the castle where the show is filmed. For John Lewis, there was a virtual shop where players could obtain supplies and power up Christmas lights for their virtual camp.
“In the longer term, the idea is that you could walk from one brand’s metaverse into another,” explained Harding. “We will have this digital interconnected world where you will have an avatar and you will go into Nike’s metaverse, for example, to buy something and it will be delivered to your door.”
How the metaverses will connect is still a mystery but it is likely an organisation such as Facebook will develop a standard, according to Harding.
“There is no understanding yet of how they will be connected, but they all speak to each other and join together to be ‘The Metaverse’,” he said.
“It’s a digital concept and in 10 years time, or whatever, we will have this digital interconnected world.”
The use of the metaverse for retailers is clear to see, but it could also be used for events and virtual meetings, Harding points out. He doesn’t believe it will replace face-to-face gatherings, but could work alongside them.
“I hope it will work alongside live events,” he said. “For example, anyone could go to a Taylor Swift concert in the metaverse and you don’t have to leave your own house. But, there will always be demand to see performances in person too.
“You will probably have the real thing in the concert venue and then you would probably have a duplicate version going on in the metaverse. So you could have live participants and virtual participants.”
For smaller firms, the commercial opportunities as yet are limited. But as the metaverse develops, it will erase the issue of geography for business interaction.
According to Harding, 2022 will see growing numbers of companies “getting on the metaverse train”.
“I think more people will start to build their own little metaverses – and it will start to become more of a reality. At the moment it is still slightly theoretical for the majority of people.”
Some 31 years on from the launch of the world wide web to the general public, it remains unclear whether the metaverse will enjoy the same meteoric rise of the internet.
Harding believes it will be “significant”- but building the technology will take time and huge sums of money.
“In 10 years time I am sure my kids will be pottering around in the metaverse and meeting their mates, but there will always be a place for face-to-face contact.
“Companies are spending a lot, and there is a lot of behind-the-scenes investment in the technology to support it. You need to build it first and then exploit it.”
His advice to businesses is to keep up with general developments around the metaverse and look out for opportunities about how they can get involved.
“I am sure Nike at some point will say brands can have areas in their world, like a virtual department store with concessions.
“There will be opportunities for collaboration between brands. It will be a new shopping experience. It won’t entirely replace bricks and mortar and face to face, but it will be a whole new experience.”
The metaverse might be the hot topic of this year, but it seems it could be some time before even the largest and wealthiest of firms launch versions of their own.
“There is a lot of hype around the metaverse and whether it’s the next big thing,” Harding added. “In my view, it will be, but in several year’s time – not in 2022.”
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