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What the Tech is the metaverse?

What the Tech is the metaverse?

Illustration by Ollie Catton / The Current

Explaining the next revolution in digital media.

Open any news site today, and you’re likely to find a story about the impending metaverse revolution, and what it might mean for the future of the internet, e-commerce and advertising.

But to a layman, the metaverse can seem inscrutable, both practically and conceptually. We’ve assembled this handy explainer about what the metaverse is and why it stands to change the internet as we currently know it.

The big question: What is the metaverse?
Have you seen The Matrix? Because it’s a bit like that.

Metaverse is the name for an online environment that acts as a digital analogue to our real world. A metaverse is an immersive, wholly functional, self-contained virtual universe — one replete with its own laws, economy and culture — populated by avatars (people’s digital representations of their real world selves).

Heady stuff. Can you give an example?

There are several metaverse environments driving general interest, but one of the best examples is the popular online platform Roblox. The app lets users create avatars and interact with each other across a litany of stunning virtual landscapes.

People often refer to Roblox as a video game, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. Roblox isn’t a game unto itself — it’s a sprawling virtual space that contains multitudes of environments, and within that space users can play traditional video games, such as virtual soccer pitches to 3rd-person shooters to jailbreak missions to fantastical adventures in floating mountains in the sky. 

Roblox is a platform upon which a seemingly infinite number of games and environments can be built, that makes it a metaverse and not a standard online video game. And it’s a very popular one at that; the company claims to have more than 50 million daily active users.

Other metaverses, such as Decentraland and Earth 2, function similarly.

So there is more than one metaverse?

There isn’t one specific metaverse. There are several metaverses. (Metaversi? Not sure about the pluralization there.) But metaverse, singular, has emerged as a catchall term for all metaverse-type digital media environments. Pretty meta, right?

Very. The metaverse is an entirely new idea then?
No, not really.

“Metaverse” as a word, has entered the lexicon only recently, but metaverse environments have been around for years.

The mid-2000s online game Second Life, which allowed players to create avatars and interact with each other in a digital recreation of the real world, was a precursor to our current metaverse craze. (Fans of The Office will remember Dwight Schrute was an active member of the Second Life community.)

World of Warcraft, the online role-playing game that had more than 10 million active subscribers in its heyday, is another good example of a proto-metaverse environment. Players created fantasy-inspired avatars — knights, warlocks, trolls — and competed with each other in an online fantasy world, accruing points and skills for their characters.

Why is the metaverse a big deal for the digital media industry? Advertisers want to be wherever consumers are, and if consumers start spending more time in metaverse environments, advertisers will be sure to follow.

We’ve already seen this start to happen. Fortnite, the immensely successful 3rd-person shooter game, has staged several live events in its virtual online environment, including a concert for electronic music artist Marshmello (with more than 10 million players in attendance) and a Godzilla-style battle between a reptile monster and a giant robot.

As metaverse technology improves and metaverse environments become more immersive, consumers may conduct more of their online activity, including their media consumption, within metaverse platforms. Brands want to be in these environments to market their wares to consumers.

Is this why Facebook changed its name to Meta?
Yes, it’s exactly why.

Facebook hopes that combining its metaverse environment, called Horizon Worlds, with its Oculus virtual-reality headset, will provide the most immersive metaverse on the market. The company envisions a future in which people will strap on their Oculus headsets and enter Horizon Worlds to conduct work meetings, construct virtual buildings, make art…anything really.

So should we all pack our bags and head to the Metaverse?
Many marketers are already pursuing opportunities to reach consumers in the Metaverse. But there are sceptics too. Marketing professor and expert Scott Galloway recently gave his perspective on some limitations of the metaverse, not least of which focused on who actually owns it.