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A Short Story of the Metaverse…to Date

Before it becomes too much of an integral part of our lives, and we lose track of its origins completely, it’s worth having a look back at the Metaverse and how it has already become such a powerful feature in our lives.  

Talking about the Metaverse now is a little like discussing how the Internet was going to turn out back in the 1970’s, and then looking back in the 2000’s to see just how ground-breaking it was. But this is a technology that is moving much faster – mostly because the infrastructure and technology is mostly in place – and before we know it, it will be an everyday reality. So, where did it all spring from, and where do we think it is going?

The Metaverse is really synonymous with what we have previously regarded as being cyberspace. That term in itself is fairly nebulous and undefined, but is taken to mean a virtual computer world, more especially, an electronic medium used to allow online communication. Cyberspace is often taken to comprise a huge computer network of several global computer subnetworks that use the TCP/IP protocol to facilitate communication and data exchange operations. 

The essential element of cyberspace was an interactive and virtual environment for a wide variety of people. In the mainstream IT jargon, “cyberspace” refers to any system with a large user base or simply a well-designed interface. But that too is fairly nebulous since cyberspace has always been a little, well, notional, rather than a real thing that we could enter. It was just a term that tech people bandied around in an attempt to look like it was some technical black hole that could be disappeared into, and anything was possible. Cyberspaces, if anything, wasn’t that.

But the Metaverse is different, and is everything that cyberspace was supposed to be and so much more. People often cite movies such as Ready Player One and Free Guy as being examples of what the Metaverse will be, but is that likely? In reality it is most likely going to start off like a combination of VRChat, RecRoom, AltspaceVR, or Horizon Venus but with virtual property and the ability to purchase more land and property, along with everyday items. However, many experts agree that it is likely to become increasingly game-based, but in a more believable way. Ready Player One might only end up being the half of it.

The word “Metaverse” was originally used in Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk book Snow Crash, which was published in 1992. The protagonist in the novel is a hacker who can travel between a dystopian Los Angeles and the so-called ‘Metaverse,’ a virtual environment where avatars communicate. Meanwhile the Oxford English Dictionary currently defines the term as a “virtual-reality realm in which users may interact with a computer-generated environment and other users.” So, it seems that Stephenson wasn’t far off the mark when he wrote his novel all those years ago.

Like the Internet before it, the Metaverse has no specification for developers to follow and its growth has been a little haphazard to say the least. However, the launch of mainstream VR headsets gave more people access to virtual worlds – the bread and butter of the Metaverse – and boosted the incidence of the development of further virtual environments in the form of content designed especially for virtual devices. While these have been VR headsets for some years, they didn’t become mainstream until the launch of the low-cost Oculus Quest 2, from Facebook. In fact, the development of the Quest 2 seems to have been part of Mark Zuckerberg’s ultimate plan, and it came as little surprise when he renamed and marketed Facebook as ‘Meta’ in October 2021. Plainly, Zuckerberg was aiming to be a central point of reference in the expanding – and increasingly financially viable – Metaverse.  

However, Meta isn’t the only company with hardware on the market, and Sony and Samsung both revealed in 2014 that they were developing their own VR headsets, while Google unveiled its first Cardboard gadget and Google Glass AR glasses around the same time. Google’s Cardboard is a low-cost cardboard VR viewer for mobilel phones, while Sony and Samsung’s solutions were more complex devices. Microsoft also started to enter the fray with the HoloLens, but so far it is only the Quest devices that remain sufficiently cheap for massed take-up.

However, Zuckerberg, Microsoft, and Google weren’t the only visionaries in the field, and the inception and rapid growth of both Decentraland and Somniumspace as independent Metaverse environments could well scupper the big players plans. Both of these virtual environments are well designed and encourage users to become entrenched in them and are growing steadily. It is possible to buy virtual land in either of them and use blockchain payments to create and personalise avatars. While Meta and others seem to be concentrating on the hardware required for entry into the Metaverse, other players like Decentraland and Somniumspace are actually getting down to the work of growing virtual areas for people with the technology to use. 

Perhaps it is for the best: the spirit of the Metaverse is the creation of virtual worlds that are free from corporate interference, and somehow, Metaverse owned and controlled by Meta themselves may not be the best idea for freedom.

The Metaverse is still embryonic and where it ends up is anyone’s guess. The hardware is steadily getting better and with Meta’s Quest 3 and Magic Leap 2 (admittedly more of an AR -orientated device) getting ready for release, the hardware is in place, it is going to lead to exciting times.

Today we are only at the initial stages of the Metaverse, but where it ends up could literally be beyond the imagination of anyone at the moment. Thrilling times, indeed.