In October 2021, Mark Zuckerberg took to the stage of Connect 2021, a virtual conference stream, to announce the formation of a rebranded corporation which saw all of his existing apps and technologies come together under a single brand name: Meta.
Most notably, however, was not the simple act of renaming his organisation; in perhaps one of the most ambitious and optimistic technological advancement proposals of the 21st century, Zuckerberg announced a long-term digital project possessing the potential to shape the very nature of human existence in the coming years.
I am, of course, referring to the Metaverse.
If you have been online for even a moment in the last few months, chances are that you will have seen that the term ‘metaverse’ (alongside ‘NFT ’ and ‘cryptocurrency, but more on that later), has populated the majority of media outlets since its announcement in October. We’ve all seen the headlines, but the sheer novelty, technicality, and complexity of the concept results in a lingering ambiguity towards the whole idea, leaving us average folk with the ever-pressing question: what the hell is a metaverse?
After many hours on the web, plenty of breakdown videos, and far too much of Mark Zuckerberg’s face for one man, I now feel that my understanding is great enough to outline the crux of the metaverse to you in its essence, so here it is: The Metaverse, for dummies: by a dummy.
I will introduce several related concepts which interact to form the metaverse – the novelty is complex, I won’t lie, but bear with me and try to grasp these concepts in their essence: your future may depend on it.
By definition, the metaverse can be narrowed down to a simulated digital environment in which aspects of physical reality, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), blockchain, and social media come together to mimic real-life, comprise superior interactive spaces, and enable enhanced connection on a level previously unparalleled.
Okay great – but what does that mean?
Well, AR is an enhanced version of the real physical world, achieved through digitally projected sensory elements (holograms) such as visuals and sound (a bit like the world Ryan Reynolds discovers when he puts on the ‘hero glasses’ in the 2021 hit film Free Guy). Meanwhile, VR is an immersive, simulated experience in which the user experiences an interactive digital environment through headset technology, which provides auditory and video feedback (as seen in technology like the Occulus rift in video games – particularly, horror games). I’m sure you know what social media is, but blockchain is a bit of a trickier one, so I’ll come back to that.
To clarify, then; AR projects virtual elements into our perception of the physical world, which would be otherwise invisible without the technology that enables it (AR glasses). VR, on the other hand, brings our physical selves into a virtual construction of reality that is detached from our physical environment (real-life). The metaverse seeks to construct a fluid relationship between these three versions of reality, to create a perception of the world which is so integrated with both virtual elements in the physical reality and physical elements in a virtual reality that it becomes difficult to distinguish between them all.
Going back to our lizard friend, Zuckerberg believes the future of working life exists in the metaverse and its limitless potential. Picture yourself sitting in your own desk chair – but rather than sitting at your desk, you find yourself in the virtual environment of your dream office. Next to you, sitting on chairs which do not exist in the physical environment of your room, are projections of your colleagues, who you can talk and interact with as if they were present. The cup of tea you made before you even put on your AR glasses to enter the metaverse is in your hand still, visible to your colleagues, despite being in your presence only as a virtual projection, within your virtual office.
I know this seems like a lot to grasp and that is because, well; it is.
Imagine trying to explain the concept of the latest Macbook Pro to someone a century ago; the fact is: the possibilities are quite incomprehensible, and frankly, fascinating.
Bear in mind, however, that this is not an overnight result; this project could span for decades before we are close to the scenario envisioned above, but the future of technology is promising, nonetheless.
Similar to how you must buy assets in the physical world, you would have to buy that dream office space within the metaverse i.e., own the land and associated assets, in the form of NFTs (non-fungible tokens). NFTs are essentially digital receipts and records of ownership for online assets. The most common question / criticism of NFTs are: why do we need them?
Anyone can screenshot that picture of an ape smoking a joint and say they own it, right?
Well; yes and no. In the same way that taking a picture of the Mona Lisa does not make me the legal owner of one of the most expensive paintings in the world, a screenshot of a digital item does not mean I own the rights to the original, valuable item. NFTs are non-interchangeable, as each NFT is not equal in financial worth nor classification. NFTs facilitate the transactions of non-monetary digital assets.
For these kind of transactions in the metaverse, you cannot pay via cash; that would require the physical co-presence of both parties, while bank transfers would require a centralised middleman (the bank); this is where cryptocurrency holds its power.
Cryptocurrency transactions require no centralised storage and delivery organisation; the currency is owned and stored by you (in your digital wallet) and any transactions are delivered directly to recipients, without the input from a third party. Without a third party to facilitate and record the transaction details, however, the we open ourselves up to scams and dodgy transactions. Re-enter blockchain…
In its most basic element, blockchain is a large digital database for information that can be stored in a ‘decentralised’ way (data that is public domain and not owned by an individual or corporation, as opposed to centralised data, which is privately owned). So, any data entered into blockchain is irreversible, as there is no owner with the rights to edit it. Blockchain provides the database to safely host complete records of cryptocurrency transactions and NFTs.
Zuckerberg claims his agenda remains unshaken with the formation of Meta; to connect people in the most efficient way by providing a method to be ‘present’ at all times, wherever you are. When it comes to work, commuting and all associated costs would be invalidated, carbon footprints would diminish, and business relations would be easier than ever .
Outside of work, metaverse users can interact with anyone from anywhere in the world in a simulated environment of their choosing with simulated projections of their choosing. Individuals can buy land, own houses, and just generally kick a big ol’ chill in a world where almost anything is possible. Zuckerberg envisions a future where we spend more time interacting with the AR and VR in the metaverse than we do living in our own physical reality. With technology currently being developed that could allow us to physically interact with AR and VR, through gloves that mirror touch with micro-air movement, as well as technology that could mirror facial expression, the idea is by no means ludicrous.
One important aspect to clarify is that the metaverse is not a single digital world hosted on a single server; the metaverse Zuckerberg focuses on is just Meta’s own centralised metaverse; there could be, and will be, countless different metaverses, centralised and decentralised, all serving different purposes and hosting different users. The possibilities are, quite literally, endless.
From my brief introduction to the world(s?) of the metaverse, one thing is clear: this is just the beginning. This technology is advancing at an exponential rate, so while the graphics currently look like a bad Wii Sports game, the long-term goal is to seamlessly integrate augmented, virtual, and physical reality to optimise human experience and interpersonal connection. The quicker we educate ourselves on this kind of technology, the more we prepare ourselves for a future filled with unimaginable possibilities .
Whether it is destined to make or break the fate of the human race, the metaverse and associated technology is the future; and ‘when this baby hits eighty-eight miles per hour…you’re going to see some serious s**t’.