Remember The Matrix? It was a fantastic movie that illustrated a dystopian future, one in which humans live in a depressing world ruled by machines that harvest them for energy. Why would humans choose to live as servants to these machines? Well, they’re unaware of the alternative because they’re living in a completely fake reality, one that looks very similar to our own. It’s a digital world that feels so incredibly real that it’s practically impossible to tell the difference between reality and simulation.
While The Matrix can be boiled down to an intriguing science fiction movie with a horrifying reality, it did help inspire some of the technology being created today. Enter the metaverse.
The metaverse is a concept that’s difficult to explain or define due to the fact that it doesn’t quite exist yet. The term originated in Neal Stephenson’s “1992 novel Snow Crash, where it referred to a 3D virtual world inhabited by avatars of real people“. An avatar is essentially a 3D representation of yourself that you create with numerous customization options.
It’s probably best to think of the metaverse as a realistic 3D digital world that you can actually become a part of, a virtual society that allows you to identify however you want, look however you want, and do whatever you want… within reason, of course. Just like in our real world, you could interact with objects and other people using all five senses, purchase goods, study that world’s history, and even travel across the world! Your digital currency would theoretically be linked to real money or assets. The world would always be “on”, events would happen live, and “experiences and content [would] be created by individual users and huge corporations alike“.
In other words, the metaverse could be the next evolution of the internet. It would be a world with its own laws and moral quandaries, meaning crimes could still be defined and punished in various ways. For example, authorities (in this case, likely the world’s developers) could potentially fine you for stealing money from other users or altogether ban you from reentering their world.
That said, the digital world wouldn’t perfectly emulate reality. If it did, what would be the point of entering this 3D environment? The metaverse could potentially blend the realms of science fiction and fantasy with reality. Technology that exists only in theory in reality could be utilized and tested in a 3D simulation.
To get a better idea of the metaverse, think of Ready Player One, a Steven Spielberg film that was released in 2018. In the movie, the main character (Wade Watts) inserts himself into a virtual reality simulation in which his avatar looks and feels like his actual self.
Anything and anyone Watts interacts with leaves an impression on his real self thanks to sensors on his body and his virtual reality headset; for example, if someone touches him in the simulation, it’s as if he was touched in real life. The virtual world is designed to immerse the user so that it actually feels like a real world.
While the simulation has its own rules, giant monsters, pulse/laser weapons, and the ability to fly (none of which exist in our reality… right?) flourish in this environment as if it was a video game. To the average user, however, the simulation feels incredibly realistic.
Ultimately, people seem to plug into the metaverse in order to escape from the harshness of reality, to build memories and share experiences that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. And though this could be chalked up to be the silly fever dream of an imaginative writer, technology giants in our actual world are embracing the concept of the metaverse. In fact, its existence might be just around the corner…
Technologies that Are Building on the Metaverse
Though the metaverse doesn’t quite exist yet, many technologies over the last two decades were designed around features of the metaverse. Roblox, for instance, is “a venue for free games, a creation engine that allows users to generate new activities of their own, and a marketplace to sell those experiences, as well as side products like outfits for a personalized avatar“.
Video games, particularly MMO (massively multiplayer online) or VR (virtual reality) games, offer a level of immersion and social interaction that’s synonymous with the metaverse concept. Likewise, video games that allow you to build your own fictional world or series of levels have flourished over the last decade. These worlds or items built can be shared with other users for free, and even sometimes for a fee: “Eve Online, released in 2003, once prompted a user to spend the equivalent of $30,000 on a virtual spaceship“!
Virtual shopping, casinos, and concerts also combine digital experiences with ways to spend actual money. Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) – ““one-of-a-kind” assets in the digital world that can be bought and sold over the internet” – allow users to actually own the digital goods they buy instead of purchasing a license to a product/service that can later be revoked (e.g., a subscription to Netflix).
Social media also utilizes elements of the metaverse, and many companies ultimately seem to think the metaverse will be attainable within the near future. Think of Facebook’s recent name change to Meta, for example, as the company works to integrate VR into their platform. Imagine interacting with your friends or coworkers online from different countries, yet each of you has a 3D avatar in the same virtual space! The metaverse would offer the opportunity to connect and communicate with people in a new way.
The main struggle of introducing a true metaverse, however, is in combining all of these elements. In a capitalist society that thrives on competition, getting companies and individuals to cooperate on a massive scale may prove to be difficult. Could Disney and Warner Brothers ever collaborate on an interactive film in which you play the hero? What about video game skins that can be used in multiple different video games? Could banks work together and approve a digital currency to be used for every single purchase made in the metaverse?
At the moment, these seem like impossibilities, or at least decades away from coming to fruition to build a fully integrated metaverse. But never say never.
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