What is the metaverse and why should we care?

Tech giants have announced grand plans to “bring the metaverse to life”. And with the likes of Gucci, Ariana Grande and Man City on board, how long before the internet swallows us whole? Let’s find out.

The Metaverse. Nope, not a cheap Matrix rip-off. More like the next iteration of the digital world – internet 3.0, if you will. The place where (eek) most of us are destined to spend a decent chunk of our adult lives in the near future.

Sound a bit scary? Well, it kind of is, but we’re going to have to roll with it. Facebook is the latest tech giant to announce grand plans to bring the metaverse to life”, while everyone and their dogs – Gucci, Ariana Grande, Man City – have been busy dipping their toes in. With our internet use doubling during the pandemic, technological developments have turbocharged. It’s the year that we’ve seen NFTs boom and Bitcoin-mania reach fever pitch. But while Google searches for the metaverse” have increased six-fold since 2020, drop the word into conversation and you’ll most probably be met with blank faces.

Have our dystopian nightmares come true, or is this some kind of marketing fad? Spoiler: er, a bit of both. But buzzword or not, the concept is here to stay. Let’s break down what all the fuss is about.

First up, what is the metaverse?

A series of alternate digital realities” is how Cathy Hackl, so-called Godmother of the Metaverse, puts it. It’s the internet in its next form, transformed by AR and VR into an immersive universe where humans will go to socialise, shop, work and live their lives.

Much like how we jump between IOS and Windows, app to app or website to website, we’ll move between different metaverse platforms and worlds. Our online presence will be defined, not by our social media profiles, but by our avatars. Eventually, we’ll use VR to access these worlds, and the real world will be extended with AR, too. We’re creating a 1 – 1 map” of the planet, said tech writer Kevin Kelly in 2019, and when it’s complete, our physical reality will merge with the digital universe”. Rather than having to go onto the internet, Hackl predicts, we’ll be able to experience it all around us every single day”.

Right… isn’t this all a bit far out?

Ok, yes, we won’t be walking around in VR headsets or AR glasses any time soon. But the metaverse is closer than we think.

Games like Fortnite, where teens around the world have flocked to watch Travis Scott and Ariana Grande perform, and Animal Crossing, which has seen an influx of Tinder dates, are setting the scene for how we’ll use the metaverse. Roblox and Minecraft, with their emphasis on user creation, are getting even closer: Minecraft regularly sees users hosting music festivals or building entire villages; and Roblox, home to millions of user-created games and played by almost half of all children in the UK, has fostered a booming in-game economy.

What about those of us that don’t game? Don’t worry, they’ll get us somehow. Zuckerberg is busy working on Facebook’s virtual world, Horizon, and Microsoft is beavering away on its own platform, HoloLens. And just last week Zoom announced plans to create a metaverse workspace, where we’ll all be able to collaborate with our colleagues as customised avatars in virtual meeting rooms (lucky us).

Then there’s Niantic, developers of Pokemon Go (remember 2016, when 232 million people were running around after little AR monsters?). They’re now building a planet-scale augmented reality platform. Their vision is an enhanced” world. Enhanced with what exactly? They haven’t quite got that far yet. But Google has already introduced an AR mode to Google Maps, and as for those Instagram and TikTok filters we hate to love? That’s AR, too. Maybe an extended” reality doesn’t seem so far away, after all.

Wait, hasn’t this got something to do with crypto?

Correct. This is the techy bit: Blockchain will increasingly be used to ensure that these virtual worlds and currencies are safe.

According to experts, the metaverse will only really be considered a true metaverse, a legitimate parallel world, when there’s enough money being exchanged inside it for it to be considered its own economy. In order for these digital economies to hold up against hackers and fraud, they’ll have to be encrypted, meaning that any money exchanged is verified via blockchain.

We’ll buy and sell goods and services via the metaverse, and we’ll buy things FOR the metaverse, too: digital experiences, art, clothes. We are already seeing this in games like Fortnite and Roblox, where kids are splashing their pocket money on skins and accessories for their avatars.

What will these objects be? NFTs, baby. Because they, unlike other kinds of digital file, use blockchain to certify their legitimacy. This means that they’re un-copyable and, crucially, retain their value. Remember the NFT buzz earlier this year? Since then, everyone from Burberry to Man City has been scrambling to make their own, to sell in various virtual worlds. Back in May, a digital Gucci bag sold in Roblox for over $4,000 – more money than its $3,400 IRL counterpart.

By selling highly sought-after digital objects that have very little physical cost, the opportunity for brands is huge. And it’s big news for digital creators, too, who can sell their wares without risk of copycats.

Sure, but why should we care?

Well, by extending reality (and creating new ones) the metaverse is going to change the world as we know it.

The future of the internet holds utopian dreams of decentralised financial systems and the opportunity for communities to thrive in spaces of their own creation. But there’s a flipside: People could give up on Earth and choose to spend time in virtual realities instead.

Then there are the tech giants. Netflix’s 2020 doc The Social Dilemma showed us all-too-clearly how much control Silicon Valley has over our online lives. As the lines between the digital and the physical become increasingly blurred, tech companies will begin to have control over reality itself.

It’s spooky stuff. But no need to freak out just yet – it’ll be a while before the internet swallows us whole. In the meantime, let’s just say it’s probably best that we watch this space…

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