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What Is the Metaverse, Exactly!?

The word “Metaverse” is on everyone’s lips these days. Whether you’ve witnessed Mark Zuckerberg’s surreal virtual debut as he transformed Facebook into Meta (we’re still adjusting to that new name), attended live concerts within the immersive Fortnite universe, or explored a digital art gallery in Decentraland, the Metaverse is undoubtedly the internet’s favorite buzzword.

But what exactly is this Metaverse? Is it a boundless virtual realm offering endless possibilities for escapism? Is it a dystopian internet future straight out of speculative sci-fi? Or is it merely a fancy term encompassing extended reality (XR), which includes augmented, virtual, and mixed-reality technologies?

Discussing the Metaverse often feels like talking about the early internet in the ’70s and ’80s. Back then, as the foundations of this new form of communication were laid, people speculated about what it might become and how it would be used. Everyone was talking about it, but few truly understood its potential. Looking back, it didn’t unfold exactly as some envisioned.

However, with the Metaverse projected to become an $800 billion market by 2024 and tech giants like Facebook (now Meta), Microsoft, Apple, and Google pouring substantial investments into its development, it’s high time to demystify this complex term for those who remain perplexed.

So, What Exactly Is the Metaverse?

While the term “Metaverse” has been circulating for a few years, it was actually coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 sci-fi novel, Snow Crash. In his book, Stephenson described the Metaverse as an all-encompassing digital world existing parallel to the real world. However, in 2022, experts are still uncertain if the real-world Metaverse will evolve into something resembling Stephenson’s vision.

“The Metaverse is a 3D version of the Internet and computing at large,” explains Mathew Ball, a venture capitalist known for his essays on the Metaverse’s potential. He likens it to the evolution of internet and computing technologies from text-based interactions to media-based experiences and now into the 3D realm. Think of the Metaverse as a persistent, 3D internet realm accessible from within the digital landscape.

Many experts view the Metaverse as a 3D model of the internet, a parallel digital realm where users interact through avatars. However, some argue that the truest form of the Metaverse has yet to materialize.

Essentially, the Metaverse represents a 3D version of the internet, a logical progression that ideally users would access through a single portal. It aims to be more distributed, democratic, fluid, and varied, enhancing real-world equivalence.

While interpretations of the Metaverse may differ, in its simplest form, it’s a shared, interactive, immersive, and hyper-realistic virtual space. It includes personalized avatars and digital assets, often recorded on a blockchain.

Is the Metaverse Just a Video Game?

While the Metaverse extends far beyond video games, the gaming world has already embraced its rudimentary form. Consider online multiplayer games like Fortnite, where users interact through avatars, earn virtual currency, and unlock outfits. 

A closer example is Second Life, a simulation game where users experience virtual reality, complete with shopping, socializing, and daily life activities. The Metaverse, according to technologists, takes this experience to the next level, offering users the ability to engage in various activities, including buying land, hosting parties, and even marrying through digital avatars.

How Do I Access the Metaverse?

Currently, there’s no single gateway to the Metaverse, but experts suggest investing in hardware for an immersive experience. Depending on your budget, this could range from the affordable $10 Google Cardboard to the mid-range $300 Oculus Quest 2 headset or the high-end $999 Valve Index VR.

Cybersecurity expert Ibrahim Baggili compares the current Metaverse structure to that of the Apple App Store, with multiple platforms offering various virtual reality, augmented reality, and extended reality experiences. However, there isn’t yet a unified portal, akin to Yahoo’s early Internet portal.

Some experts argue that a VR headset isn’t necessary to access the Metaverse. While smartphones, tablets, and computers might not provide the same immersion, they offer an opportunity to dip your toes into this new digital frontier.

What’s the Purpose of the Metaverse?

The Metaverse is expected to become a major player in growing the digital economy. It holds the potential to enhance various sectors, including entertainment, fashion, gaming, and socializing. However, its most promising application could be in education.

3D-based education within the Metaverse offers a more immersive learning experience. Just as hands-on activities can enhance understanding, 3D education can surpass traditional methods, making concepts more accessible and engaging.

Is the Metaverse Safe?

Safety and responsibility are central concerns in the Metaverse discussion. Incidents like virtual harassment and privacy breaches raise questions about its safety. The Metaverse’s potential for extensive data collection and surveillance also poses concerns.

Legal frameworks addressing virtual harassment and privacy need to be established, akin to real-world laws. Implicit trust in technology, similar to relying on Google Maps for directions, must be supplemented by responsible development and legal considerations.

Will We All Be Living in the Metaverse?

While some experts predict that a large portion of the population will engage with the Metaverse in some way by 2030, significant challenges remain. Accessibility, interoperability, legal and commercial issues, and user preference all play roles in shaping the Metaverse’s future.

The Metaverse could become an intermittent digital destination, akin to enjoying VR experiences in short bursts rather than prolonged stays. Or, in a decade, we might look back and chuckle at our early skepticism as the Metaverse becomes an integral part of our digital lives.

As the Metaverse continues to evolve, one thing is clear: it’s a fascinating frontier with endless possibilities, waiting to be explored. Whether you’re a digital native or a newcomer, the journey into this new digital realm promises to be an exciting one.

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