Imagine you’re sitting in your living room in the not-too-distant future but instead of reaching for your phone, you slip on virtual-reality glasses. Now you’re looking at your digital living room, in your digital home, with all your digital things around you.
On the wall are photos you snapped with your kids barely half an hour ago; with a swipe of your hand you could change them for, say, images from this day five years ago; or some Rothko paintings. In fact, with a swipe of your hand, you could change anything in your digital living room.
On the table in front of you are some objects you could point at to “activate”. One, say a glowing cube, opens a terminal for your work, but for now, you’d rather go shopping. You raise your wrist and a circular menu fans out, offering your favourite locations and letting you know the microphone is live to take your requests. You say your favourite shoe brand and – voila! Your digital home whooshes away and is replaced by a digital shoe boutique …
This is the metaverse, the next evolution of connected living expected by many to replace the smartphone-led mobile internet. At least, it’s the metaverse as some envision it.
The company formerly known as Facebook believes the metaverse will work this way. It’s so invested in the idea that it changed its name to Meta.
This week, Meta saw what may be the largest one-day share drop in Wall Street history, wiping out more than $322 billion of its value. While the plunge could be viewed as market scepticism of the company’s metaverse plans, it could also be an indicator of why Facebook is making this move – and why the stakes are so high.
Facebook, the app, is emblematic of the mobile internet that rose to ubiquity over the past two decades. Yet it’s facing a future where it may not be relevant, as young social media users shift to newer services such as TikTok. Meanwhile, Meta divisions including Reality Labs are bleeding money as they develop and invest massively in the metaverse, hoping to leapfrog the likes of TikTok and meet young users where they’ll be in 10 to 15 years.
The metaverse may be what’s next. But what is it? What does this version of a connected future look like? When can we go there – and would we want to?
Below: Characters snap on virtual-reality glasses in Player Ready One, a film about a virtual world that offers respite from a dystopian reality.
How did we get from web to metaverse?
“Metaverse” comes from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, where it was a digital world in which people existed as three-dimensional avatars. Many of the themes are cautionary, predictably. The Metaverse in Snow Crash is controlled by media moguls and virtual real estate traders, reinforces social inequities, becomes a carrier of an ancient virus and seduces some users into rejecting “regular” reality entirely. Still, the idea of geographically separated people meeting in virtual space inspired a generation of nerds. The same idea was explored 20 years later in the novel (and later, the 2018 Steven Spielberg film) Ready Player One, set in 2045.
In both stories, people use the digital realm as an escape from a dystopian world. This isn’t explicitly a feature of the vision detailed by Meta and others but it is a difficult association to shake; with a pandemic and a climate disaster, many people might be up for a change of reality.
As with most real technology modelled on science fiction, the metaverse we will see in the next few decades is unlikely to whisk you into a new reality indistinguishable from our own. Even the highest-end virtual-reality headsets of today can’t fool you into feeling as though you’re in a different place; they’re just video displays that can track your movements. And a true metaverse would require the entire world’s worth of information, services, data and society to be redesigned to talk to one another. But if you look at the state of things today, you can see signs of the metaverse emerging.
Companies certainly see it coming. You may think the example of virtual shoe shopping above is a flight of fancy, but Nike doesn’t agree. It recently bought a company that makes NFT (non-fungible token) sneakers.
Below: Roblox is an online platform where anyone can create games and experiences, or just hang out with friends in places other people have built.
Are we there yet?
Since Facebook changed its name to Meta in October, “metaverse” has become something of a buzzword to refer to any vaguely social online game, or to any experience that presents information in an immersive or visual way. Even the recent Australian Open had its own “metaverse” experience, where you could explore a virtual approximation of the real-world arena and buy special tennis balls as NFTs.
But while these might not be truly the metaverse at work – they exist on closed systems and operate more or less like regular online video games – they do often constitute a blurring of the lines between our regular and online selves.
Online video games have had avatars (customised visual representations of a person) and social communal spaces for ages. If you’re the parent of a child aged between seven and 16, you’ve probably heard about Roblox, a platform where anyone can create their own games for everyone else to play. If you don’t understand the game elements of what you’re seeing, it’s going to look like stilted toy people and flat environments — but kids spend ages there, the games are often secondary to socialising.
“It’s the perfect backdrop for hanging out with friends,” says Stephen Phillips, whose company Splash operates the most popular musical destination (also called Splash) inside Roblox, where players can get up on stage and perform live DJ sets.
“Kids are clearly playing games there,” says Phillips, “but that’s not what they’re doing most of the time. Most of the time the kids in our servers are just vibing.”
In a sense, Roblox is part game and part social media network, but it’s also halfway between something like Facebook and what the metaverse promises to be. Your account information, currency, identity and appearance all stay consistent as you jump between any of the millions of different digital experiences, which is very different from the older model of video games where you’d need to manage that data for each individual game.
And because your list of friends is consistent from one game to another, you can see what they’re up to and, at any point, “teleport” to be by their side. On Roblox, that mostly means joining them in whatever games or hangouts they’re frequenting. But in years to come, the entire digital world could work the same way. No matter what virtual shop, concert hall or movie theatre you visit, there would be a consistent layer of communication and data that stayed with you.
“The magic of that, as a social thing, I haven’t seen anywhere else. We can’t be friends on our iOS phones and I just jump in and play whatever game you’re playing. It’s not possible,” Phillips says. “We see waves of friends come through our game, arrive to watch someone perform a set and then disappear again – which feels very natural, but also very new at some level.”
The other important aspect of Roblox, as far as predicting how the metaverse will go, is that second-order effects such as economies and commerce are emerging organically. As the young Roblox audience invests more time in the virtual world and are given (or create) tools not under the direct control of the platform, they’re working out ways to create businesses.
“We’ve invested time into building a tool that lets the players design their own clubs, and now all the most popular clubs are designed by players,” says Phillips. “It feels like what’s going to happen in lots of entertainment areas around the metaverse.
“Some hustler kid emailed me saying, ‘all future correspondence with these five players has to go through me, I’ve signed them, they’re part of my label and will only be performing in the following venues’.”
There are also platforms that claim to exist in the metaverse or to constitute a metaverse on their own, but in most cases these are social playgrounds for cryptocurrency enthusiasts and other speculative investors. Decentraland is an online VR platform that looks similar to Roblox in which you can use cryptocurrency to buy virtual real estate as NFTs, although despite the narratives many platforms push, there’s no obvious reason a plot of virtual land bought in one specific game today will be at all valuable in the metaverse of the future, where virtual land will likely not be scarce.
Below: A mock-up video from Meta shows how elements of the metaverse, such as text chats or avatars controlled by your friends, could appear in the real world, thanks to next-generation glasses.
So, how will we travel around in this metaverse?
In many visualisations of the metaverse presented by Meta and its chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, you are a game-like avatar, working at your real desk but surrounded by avatars or holograms (3D images) of your colleagues beaming in from their desks. Or you’re sitting at home on your real couch, say, but also in a virtual movie theatre next to the avatars of your friends who are home on their real couches. It’s the kind of immersive trick you can pull off only with a virtual-reality headset.
Nobody wants to put on and take off headsets; we want to check our phones while watching TV, look over to talk to our kids while working. But while wearing a VR headset and seeing our physical surroundings clearly at the same time is not possible now, there’s no reason it won’t be in a few years. Next-generation headsets reportedly in development at Meta, Google and Apple will be smaller and will more closely resemble glasses or goggles. They’ll be able to pass through a view of the real world or integrate it into the virtual space so you can be present in your physical space, transported to a virtual one or somewhere in between.
And while in a virtual space, there’ll be no need to come out of it to look at your phone. Remember, the whole of the internet and all your data is in there with you, so there will be ways to access it inside without additional devices. But nobody knows exactly how that will work yet.
Also unclear is how a core building block of the metaverse – the ability to move from virtual place to virtual place naturally – will function. Think about how easily we get around the web now thanks to URLs, hyperlinks and home-screen shortcuts, and then imagine how indecipherable the internet would be without them. That’s where we are with the metaverse.
“If we, the industry, are successful, we’ll come up with a set of protocols for travel. You want to be able to seamlessly move around while having this common social layer that underpins everything,” says Chris Cox, Meta chief product officer.
“It’s funny to think about the fact that web pages were a metaphor from print. We were trying to figure the internet out so we figured we’d just call everything a page. The way we probably need to start thinking about this next version is to think about it spatially.”
Below: Mark Zuckerberg chooses an outfit and jumps into a virtual spot where his friends are waiting, in this mock-up from Meta.
Why are tech companies so keen on the metaverse?
For the money, unsurprisingly. A metaverse would make something like Facebook or Instagram antiquated. And even if you take Meta at face value when it says it supports and is investing in a truly open and equitable metaverse, someone has to provide the infrastructure and the tools and the standards, facilitate transactions and organise content. Microsoft may well think the same way when it looks at how diminished the need for laptops, Teams or Xbox would be in a metaverse, but people are still going to need hardware and software of some kind.
Gaming companies such as Roblox and Epic Games (maker of Fortnite, the popular online shooter game that’s gradually becoming a social space as well) want to continue in the creator-economy style, where they take commissions on transactions and just try to keep users engaged. Meanwhile, Meta, Google and others, one imagines, are hoping to corner a market with proprietary technology. But a host of web activist types and cryptocurrency fans want a radically more open internet that doesn’t belong to big tech at all.
Chris Barter, co-founder of the King River Capital venture fund, which invests in metaverse-friendly Australian companies including Splash and the crypto-gaming outfit Immutable, believes that just about every element of entertainment will end up in the metaverse, along with huge amounts of commerce.
“Instead of going and seeing [the music band] Chvrches at the Enmore, where we have to wait for them to come to town, what if they could be playing at my favourite venue, a club that me and my friends conceived of and built together? The community owns it, we have equity stakes in it, we use tokens to buy merch like Chvrches T-shirts, and we see them perform live,” he says.
“Or what if we’re going to a museum, a metaverse gallery that has every Picasso in the world in it. And we can do it in a Paris setting, a Barcelona setting – we can choose.”
DJ sets performed inside games are already common but tend to be “live” only in the sense that players experience them at the same time. Music stars Travis Scott and Ariana Grande have both performed concerts in Fortnite; the music was pre-recorded and their likenesses were crafted by the game developers, but the show included in-game effects that players could enjoy.
The big difference between that and what Barter is talking about is that artists and viewers would both be present equally in a metaverse scenario; Chvrches might be performing in, say, Scotland, and you might be home in, say, Balwyn or Surry Hills, but you would both be present in the same virtual space.
Below: Mark Zuckerberg moves from his “real” home to his “virtual” home in this mock-up from Meta.
Will we be better off in a metaverse?
Nobody’s keen to hand unlimited power to a tech giant such as Meta by letting it build the next version of the internet. The company may say it only wants to be a small part of the metaverse but,at the very least, Meta will be hoping it can control the framework that allows you to enter – for example the physical goggles you use, or the virtual house that serves as your home base – to continue to power its operations.
Still, while the big tech company and businesspeople can have all the plans they like, it doesn’t make their vision of the metaverse a foregone conclusion. Governments and regulators are a lot savvier than they were when Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 were being built, and you can bet there are many fights to come in terms of who can own and make money from the metaverse and how. There’s no reason to think potential users — who, considering this will be many years from now, will have grown up with digital lives and digital products — will accept a system that takes without giving.
Secondly, many people instinctively recoil from the idea of a metaverse because it seems so far from how they live now. But Apple ushered in the modern smartphone only 14 years ago, and imagine if someone said to you then that one day you’d use your phone to work, do your banking, have lunch delivered and take videos of your kids that their grandparents can watch instantly. Streaming video on demand is about the same age, and has similarly revolutionised our expectations and habits.
As well as giving you more options in how to interact online – speaking, signing or typing, with varying levels of video and audio – one area of potential benefit from the metaverse is better quality of human connection in our online interactions. There will always be advantages to seeing people face to face but when we can’t — or don’t need to — the metaverse could make working or socialising a lot more “natural”, as long as syntaxes can be developed to make it all manageable and not exhausting.
And if spaces such as Roblox are any indication, people will be free to appear as they want online, or appear differently to different people depending on their comfort level, using cameras or made-up avatars. Splash’s Stephen Phillips notes an interesting connection between debates about fluidity of identity in physical spaces, and the acceptance of those norms in digital spaces, which will likely carry over to the metaverse.
“At some point, I’ll be whatever I want to be, in both places. And why would you be yourself when you could be your ultimate self, or any other self, in those virtual spaces,” he says. “I think it will be fascinating to see how it plays out.“