(NEXSTAR) – Like it or not, it’s time to embrace the “Metaverse”.
On Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg confirmed that his company – Facebook Inc. – would be renaming itself Meta to better reflect his focus on building the metaverse, that of Zuckerberg as “an embodied Internet in which to experience yourself located, not just “described looking at it.”
The concept of the metaverse, on the other hand, existed long before Facebook existed. Often referred to as the successor to the Internet, futurists and technology experts have imagined the metaverse as a place where our physical realities converge with various virtual experiences in a common virtual space. This idea has been explored in one way or another by science fiction writers or Hollywood filmmakers over the past few decades and is generally presented as a virtual reality platform where users can create an avatar to share with other members of the digital population to interact.
The name of the concept – the Metaverse – was even taken from the 1992 novel “Snow Crash”, in which the plot takes place in both virtual and physical realities.
“The term is older than the internet we know today,” explains Trond Undheim, PhD, a futurologist and author whose podcasts deal with technological innovations and artificial intelligence, among other things. “But it is now the term for the gradual change in digital communication in which the Internet becomes a hybrid reality, that is, physical and digital at the same time.”
Perhaps the easiest way to imagine this concept is to observe the gaming community – which, for Undheim, comes closest to entering the so-called Metaverse. These players have set up virtual avatars of themselves that interact with other virtual avatars across persistent online worlds. They work together in real time, arrange meetings and even spend game currency – all while communicating via headsets or chat.
There were even reports of people having their “wedding” in the cute virtual world of Nintendo’s Animal Crossing – and inviting their friends’ digital avatars to attend – after the pandemic canceled their real-world receptions. More recently, Fortnite reinvented Washington DC around 1963 to “teleport” players back to the Capitol to watch Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
But the future of open world gaming is just one of many ways the metaverse will conquer our lives. Big Tech is of course ready to go one step further.
As Zuckerberg described in a video released Thursday, Meta is trying to build part of the metaverse that will allow users to “do almost anything you can imagine” – or at least be a place to interact , work, shop, play games, gather for social events, or create content. He also claims that Meta’s efforts will create millions of job opportunities, much like the way the internet eventually created jobs that were previously unknown.
“I expect the metaverse will open up a lot of opportunities to people in exactly the same way,” Zuckerberg said. “But the reality is that nobody knows exactly which models work and make them sustainable.”
In addition to Facebook, which had previously bragged about its virtual playgrounds and boardrooms, Microsoft was also discussing its own “Metaverse apps” in order to create completely new shared digital spaces and to connect with them.
The pandemic has only accelerated the need for at least some types of metaverse-adjacent experiences as more people work from home and rely on technology to be places they physically can’t be. There is also a growing interest in making virtual events more accessible, allowing users to visit art galleries or concerts with other online friends, or supporting virtual businesses where they can use their hard-earned currency (or cryptocurrency) for goods or services can output – real or digital.
“The Metaverse is different and much more powerful than a complete virtual reality,” says Undheim, “because it combines both without completely merging them.
“It doesn’t really exist yet,” he adds. “But we’ll know when we see it.”
Much of the technology required to create the metaverse already exists or is currently under development. However, there are still a few hurdles to overcome before the concept can be implemented, including bandwidth requirements and enough people on board. Undheim also fears that the Metaverse could become too commercialized very early on, leaving users feeling alienated or exploited before the concept can reach its full potential.
What Undheim does know, however, is that the Metaverse is coming – relatively quickly too.
“That will inundate us in the next five to seven years,” believes Undheim. “[It’s here] the moment a sane person would say, ‘I don’t really know if I would value my physical reality more than the online interaction.’ Maybe they don’t even see the difference between the two. “
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