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What is the Metaverse? Big Tech’s Bold Vision of the Internet of Tomorrow

With Facebook’s big rebranding to Meta, the concept of the metaverse has become the latest buzzword in the world of big tech. Metaverse is bandied about as the new replacement for social media and leading tech companies including Microsoft, Roblox and Epic Games are hard at work on their own competing metaverse platforms.

So, what exactly is a metaverse anyways and why is it suddenly so important? A metaverse is essentially a digital alternative to our reality gathering virtual communities to work, shop, and play in an immersive 3D environment. Using such varied means as VR Headsets, AR Glasses, Apps and videogames, metaverses seek to provide users more engaging digital interactions than just looking through a screen. The end goal is to create a fully virtual duplicate that allows you to interact virtually just as you would in your physical life. If that sounds like something out of science fiction, that’s because it was.

Origins of the Metaverse
As a concept, the Metaverse was first established in author Neal Stephenson’s dystopian cyberpunk novel Snow Crash. First published in 1992, Snow Crash put forward a vision of the future where humans, as avatars, interacted with each other and software programs in a simulated real-world space called the Metaverse.

One of the most widely read and influential authors in high tech circles, Stephenson’s writings captured the imagination of many of the brightest minds of Silicon Valley with Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos, and more finding inspiration in his work. Snow Crash was even considered required reading for new recruits at Facebook, with Stephenson’s novel helping define the company’s vision for Meta.

Although the basic ideas for the metaverse were floating around the tech world since the early days of the internet, the first serious attempt at realizing it was made a decade later with the creation of Second Life in 2003. Created by Philip Rosdale and his team at LindenLab, the purpose of SecondLife was to create a virtual place where people around the world could meet, work, and socialize.

Second Life has declined in prominence since its heyday in the early 2000s, but it still boasts a substantial userbase of over a million people to this day. As the original and longest running metaverse experiment, Second Life serves as a key early model for how users interact with a metaverse. In a warning to Meta and other new metaverse companies, Rosdale says that many people won’t see the value of experiencing the digital world when they could spend time in the real thing. It’s a problem that Second Life could not overcome and which he has yet to see any real solution to.

Why Does the Metaverse Matter?
With the restrictions on in person gatherings for work and play, the Pandemic has generated a lot of momentum for the metaverse concept. Superstar musicians Travis Scott and Ariana Grande performed live virtual concerts to cheering crowds comprised of millions of users in Epic Games’ Fortnite. Beyond its value as an entertainment venue, the metaverse is also showing potential as a co-working space in the current work-from-home climate. Rather than connecting via Zoom calls or Skype, employees could more effectively collaborate within the metaverse space of a virtual office.

In addition to its use as a digital meeting place, the Metaverse also presents excellent advertising opportunities. Big name brands like Gucci and Coca Cola have already collaborated with metaverse creators to offer digital only items. Movie studios have used Fortnite events to promote upcoming film releases. With all the potential that the metaverse offers, companies could even create their own virtual worlds for customers to tour.

Also of consideration to marketers is the metaverse’s ability to harvest valuable customer data.

Just as Facebook created its multibillion-dollar empire off of its users accounts, posts, likes, photos, and more, with Meta they plan to bring their data collection and targeted advertising with them into their version of the metaverse. In a recent investor call, Zuckerberg admitted as much saying “Ads are going to continue being an important part of the strategy across the social media parts of what we do and will probably be a meaningful part of the metaverse too.” People’s interactions with the metaverse will be even more personal than with social media, allowing for even more useful and effective user profiling but also greater potential for abuse. For this reason, Meta’s approach is controversial to many of the metaverse’s biggest enthusiasts who imagined it as an online space free of the problems of corporate platforms like Facebook.

While the metaverse still has a long way to go before we see wide adoption by consumers, the world’s top tech companies clearly consider it to be worth investing in. When one or more of these metaverses are finally realized, it will be utterly transformative to the way we socialize, work and advertise.

- True Fong-Vig