While the idea of the metaverse has been around for decades, it has been attracting fresh attention lately, thanks to Meta, formerly known as Facebook, and its pivot from social media to developing an “embodied internet” that CEO Mark Zuckerberg regards as “the next evolution of social connection”. What exactly is the metaverse? How can we access it and what can we do in it? Diving into the topic of the metaverse throws up some answers and plenty of questions.

Definitions of what the metaverse actually is are varied and vague. It is sometimes confused with the word “cyberspace” but broadly speaking, the metaverse will involve how its technology will dramatically change the way we digitally interact with others. Zuckerberg described the metaverse in his 2021 Connect keynote presentation as “the successor to the mobile internet” and nearly everything we do in real life can be done in the metaverse using wearable tech like Quest 2 and augmented reality (AR) glasses or phones and computers. Like the real world, the metaverse is a place where you can work, socialize, learn, play games and enjoy various forms of entertainment.

It will also enable individuals to do things that are not technologically feasible yet such as teleporting in and out of virtual reality (VR) worlds and easily syncing and sharing resources in digital 3D among remote teams that are working on collaborative projects.

The metaverse was first coined in the dystopian sci-fi novel, Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. He imagined it as a virtual universe of shared connections populated by digital avatars of people who access this alternate world by plugging into terminals and donning goggles. The characters in another popular sci-fi book, Ready Player One, go through full sensory experiences in VR with the help of haptic suits.

Rather than the job of one company, building the technology, protocols and infrastructure to bring the metaverse to life is the work of many. Tech giants like Microsoft and Meta have a number of metaverse-tech in the pipeline, as do other assorted companies, including Nvidia, Unity, Roblox and Snap.

Based on the metaverse products and services being developed, there appears to be some general consensus on what this futuristic world might look like and what it should entail.

The metaverse is a single, shared social space where avatars of individuals can connect. You see the digital world through the eyes of your avatar and others will see you in your avatar form. To enhance the realism of avatars, Meta is working on a high-end, mixed-reality headset, codenamed Project Cambria, that will, among other capabilities, display your actual facial expressions on your avatar’s face.

A combination of VR, AR and other tech tools will be used to integrate 2D and 3D worlds into a virtual community. Access can be via VR headsets, AR glasses, PCs, game consoles and even phones.

Holograms play an important role because they lend a sense of presence with other 3D avatars. VRChat and Meta’s Horizon Worlds and Horizon Workplaces offer examples of how this technology might work.

The metaverse will operate under a digital economy, allowing people to create, buy, exchange and sell goods. From an economic standpoint, virtual goods will be perceived to be as real as goods in the real world. Just like physical goods, virtual goods do not disappear between sessions.

Blockchain technology can be used to pay for items. Non-fungible tokens, for instance, are a decentralized way to track and establish ownership of virtual goods. As cryptocurrency is independent of any central authority or corporate server, it allows virtual goods to be moved freely inside the metaverse even if the movement is between different parts of the metaverse owned by different companies. This means you can take virtual items like cars from one platform to another.

The freedom of movement across the metaverse space indicates an open architecture with broadly agreed-upon standards for different entities. It is a shared universe of IPs. Different interoperable servers will connect to the same shared metaverse. Often cited examples of globally shared systems are the world wide web and the email.

Stephenson took this idea further in his book – in his fictional metaverse, while the myriad of software has been engineered by different corporations, the developers need to work with an overarching organization to obtain approvals and permits.

Ideally, the metaverse has the ability to host millions of people in a single instance of a server. Some existing apps and games seem to possess these metaverse-like features and capabilities. Second Life, an online multimedia platform, is a virtual world that mimics the space constraints and land scarcity of the real world. There, individuals represented by avatars can create their own spaces to host games or events. Fortnite meets some of the criteria too – it has millions of players with customizable avatars who gather to socialize, play and purchase objects that have the quality of persistence like real objects. Massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) like World of Warcraft, Minecraft and Roblox are essentially entire virtual worlds. Even so, these gaming worlds fall short of a true metaverse as players are segregated so that only a small subset of them can interact at any one time.

Some limitations may stand in the way of a global metaverse. VR headsets, despite the strides made in improving comfort, are still heavy to wear for extended periods. Many people experience motion sickness in VR. AR glasses are not aesthetically pleasing and the physical capabilities of compact glasses are also questionable. People may still prefer in-person meetings and events to virtual ones. There are also concerns over how much control any corporation should have and how that squares with ownership of user-generated work.

Which aspects of these features will come to fruition and which will stay a pipe-dream remains to be seen. In the meantime, given the eagerness of many companies to jump on the bandwagon and invest huge resources in developing the next iteration of the internet, the metaverse hype is not going away any time soon.