A beginner's guide to the metaverse: What it is, how you can access it and more
Facebook recently changed its name to ‘Meta’ in order to position itself at the forefront of a new digital frontier called the metaverse. But what the heck is the metaverse, and what can it offer us mere mortals who do not inhabit the shiny Silicon Valley bubble?
In the beginning, the metaverse was created. And to borrow from Douglas Adams, “this has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move”. In truth, the metaverse was neither good nor bad and ever since its creation it’s been imagined as a place of extremes – either a utopian horn of plenty, brimming with creative expression and untold wealth, or a dystopian cyber surveillance state, leaning in to systemic abuses of power and inequality.
When you start to dig in, it becomes clear that most of the people making these claims have never actually been in a metaverse. If you do go there yourself, you’ll find the answer lies somewhere in between. Let’s take a look inside…
What exactly is the metaverse?
Put simply, the metaverse is a whole lot of digital stuff that runs parallel to our physical life. That might sound like the internet, and that’s because the metaverse is a bit like the internet, only with more dancing. Bear with us.
The metaverse is essentially a collection of virtual worlds, where users can meet, play games, chat and buy stuff. Mark Zuckerberg recently made the term famous when he changed his company’s name from Facebook to Meta. At the same time, he showed off a new vision for the metaverse where you could be thrown into a virtual video call at any moment. Terrifying.
This universe was accessed via virtual reality goggles, but today some ‘metaverses’ already exist in video games like Roblox, Minecraft or Fortnite. A metaverse can even take hold in augmented reality spaces, where objects from the virtual world are projected into the real world via our screens. In short, metaverses are virtual spaces that we coexist in, free from the constraints of our fleshy meatsuits.
“It is immersive experiences that let you do things with other people, like having fun adventures,” explains Craig Donato, the chief business officer of modern metaverse poster child, Roblox. Roblox is one of the neighbourhoods in the wider metaverse-verse. When you venture into Donato’s world, you can create games and share them with other people. But elsewhere in the metaverse’s consensual hallucination, there are (or are going to be) companies providing social networking, education and commerce. And that won’t be all you can do there.
The real attraction is the other stuff – the things that aren’t anticipated. “It’s increasingly going to a concert or watching entertainment, or anything you can’t do in the real world,” explains Donato.
Eagle-eyed readers will recognise that all these things are possible in the so-called real world. “But the twist is that you get to do these things free of physical constraints, however you do it or how you enjoy it. It’s transformed in a positive way,” Donato says.
This guide recognises that this nuts-and-bolts description isn’t as sexy as ‘the future of the internet’, or even ‘a sandbox that lets us explore human imagination’. It doesn’t come close to ‘freeing people from geographical and economic limits’. But, at the moment, that is what it is. And indeed, what it has been. And until technology catches up with the hype, what it will be. Because when you venture into the metaverse, you’ll discover that there’s really no there, there.
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Where did the idea come from?
Ground Zero for the metaverse is difficult to pin down. Some people suggest it reaches back to the Great Exhibition of 1851, when the future of the world was housed within Crystal Palace in the centre of London. Inside, Victorians could behold the wonders of the first fax machine, submarines and mechanical birds. In a sense, it was a metaverse filled with wonder and held together by the latest technology.
Others say the metaverse is based on the annual art festival in Black Rock, Nevada – better known as Burning Man. This is Silicon Valley’s metaverse mental model: building something out of nothing, bonding with strangers in the inhospitable desert, breaking it all down, and then never mentioning it again once the body paint has washed off.
Most say the metaverse premise fell out of the pages of the 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, written by world-builder Neal Stephenson. That metaverse isn’t an advertisement; it’s a warning. In the novel, the virtual world of hacker Hiro Protagonist is full of inequalities and end-capitalist horrors. Hiro wanted to escape the physical world, but he didn’t want to live in the virtual one.
Whatever the origin, all metaverses exist to eliminate friction, and that does sound like a nice bit of escapism after two years glued to Zoom and doomscrolling on our phones.
Who controls the metaverse’s laws?
The metaverse does have rules. Each jurisdiction has its own, and sometimes they correspond. Some of these are posted in the endless terms of service that you have to agree to before you can enter, but many are not. It is the responsibility of the metaverse dweller to learn each neighbourhood’s rules and adhere to them.
The majority of the metaverse operates on a general principle of civility. “The idea is just to spend a good life with a group of people, having as real an experience as you can have,” explains Second Life’s founder Philip Rosedale.
But sometimes, someone in the metaverse does something so bad that it calls for action by everyone else. And that’s when the collection of computer users decides someone does need to rule the world. Historically, that’s ended up being the person who owns the technology, and because he or she is a technologist and not a political or social scientist, they’re often the least qualified to take this role.
They are, however, the people keeping the lights on. “There is a bargain that we do need to keep the servers running,” says Donato. So civility and governance end up being the domain of the technologist.
At best, the way the metaverse is run is at the whims of a mostly benevolent dictator.
Need to know
Currency: Some crypto, but mostly each specific neighbourhood has its own. There are some currency exchanges, if you want to turn your V-bucks into Robux into platinum pieces into Linden dollars.
Language: A little bit of everything, though you’ll have to translate between them because the tech to do it for you hasn’t been invented yet.
Tech specs: A smartphone will give you access to basic metaversian experiences, and is necessary for some specific activities, like augmented reality.
Time: All the time.
Opening hours: All the time.
What metaverses exist already?
A game world where creators can make and share their projects. Although it’s part of the new wave of metaverse tech, it’s been around for almost two decades.
Née Facebook. Sprawling social media site with direct ties to (and impact in) the offline world, and increasing tendrils in fantasy. Meta owns a raft of metaverse technologies, and one of the most established virtual reality headsets that people use to access it.
Sprawling game and simulation world, mostly occupied by kids and teenagers, who create everything out of Lego-like building blocks. Also a long-term player in this space.
3D virtual sandbox where you can build what you want, go to concerts, visit libraries and even attend a virtual Hajj. Poster child of the previous wave of metaverses, with more than 15 million accounts. “The original premise that I liked about Second Life was that it was this big, messy interaction between people,” says Philip Rosedale, its founder.
Your avatar in the metaverse
The most important thing to pack when entering the metaverse is your identity. There are plans in place to make this one continuous self as you move from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, and so it requires some careful consideration. At the very least, your identity will be a profile picture.
In many cases, it will be an avatar, the 3D representation of you when you’re embodied online. Whatever the situation calls for, Donato says you should take the time to invest in it. “Have it express who you really are,” he says.
Some denizens of the internet, however, believe being yourself in the metaverse is a waste of transistors. Why be Aleks Krotoski when you could be ZaphodBeeblebrox42?
In other words, tying who you really are to your metaverse persona might sell the experience short. And Donato agrees. “We’ve seen so many examples of how powerful this is for teenagers,” he says. “They can be whoever they want to be and it’s just so freeing. I don’t think we want to roll backwards on that.”
We have already learned with social media that past indiscretions can come back to haunt you. So if you’re planning some out-there self-discovery, you might want to have another little identity in your pocket that you can wear for crazy times.
You can understand, though, why keeping the same self could be useful. You can carry gear and skills with you across virtual neighbourhoods and apps, like a kind of passport control. But bear in mind that one single identity makes it even easier for the companies building the metaverse to keep track of you. After all, these are the people upon whose lands you are treading.
What you can do in the metaverse
The metaverse has no landscape. It has no ecology. And yet its panoramas are some of the most beautiful in the world. The way to enter it is from the outside, wherever you find a rabbit hole to fall through. You might receive a link to a teleconference. You might log in to a gaming platform. You might put on a VR headset and press ‘On’. All you need is a screen.
But when you get there, it seems like an awfully empty place. The challenge is figuring out where to go. Do you want to work? To learn? To go to a gig? To immerse yourself in the synthesised experience of the hallucinations of someone with schizophrenia? Or just fly around?
If you find yourself paralysed by the possibilities, you’re not alone; there is no search engine in the metaverse to give you a destination. What you need is insatiable curiosity and the time to wander around the neighbourhoods to serendipitously find it.
“I think we’ve already hit the tipping point for immersion,” says Donato.
We have AR and VR and machine learning that map human facial expressions onto avatars. We have 3D surround sound. Some people are even working on smell-o-vision.
“I think the area where we need a lot more innovation is on the social side, how people come together in these spaces and act in ways that are productive,” says Donato.
You might just be the person with the bright idea.
The metaverse in the workplace
The earliest indication that something was going meta was when Facebook announced Horizon Workrooms just as everyone was getting a Zoom headache, circa 2021. Work is a likely way that people will fall into the metaverse – because they have to. All of the technologies we now use to get things done existed before, but there wasn’t an ultimatum hanging over our heads that forced us to use them before the pandemic made them essential.
Workplace ‘solutions’ of this kind require the purchase of a VR headset, and an avatar. The thought process goes that seeing the cartoonish faces of your fellows will increase productivity. The idea is good. In the metaverse, people do need to feel like they are somewhere. When it comes to work, decades of research shows that in the absence of actual presence, telepresence is superior to voice-only.
And so there are walls and conference tables and fancy designer chairs. So far, these kinds of virtual embodied offices have yet to catch on, simply because they are more of a faff than clicking a Zoom link.
Sex, fashion and other subcultures
The first industry to colonise any new technology is pornography. The sex industry is forward-thinking, always coming up with out-of-the-box solutions. Usually, the industry is propelled towards new shiny tech because it has been regulated out of previous ones. So since the beginning, the metaverse has been a space of sexual self-expression. So much self-expression.
When it was a niche hobby, metaversians enjoyed all kinds of free (and hopefully consenting) fun. It was only when the masses arrived that it became inappropriate for people to build and deploy swarms of flying penises. The technologists creating the metaverse now have to consider what is and isn’t appropriate for a much broader demographic.
After all, the metaverse is supposed to be a place where everyone can go wherever they want. How will that work? Mostly, the solution will be to throw even more technology at the situation. Companies usually use machine algorithms to seek out inappropriate words or items of clothing, so if you’re worried about getting caught with your virtual pants down, you might want to slap a password on your private space, or use a codeword.
There are other things to do in the metaverse. For example, educators love these spaces to show rather than tell. Fashion designers can prototype their latest looks and test drive them on not-people. Some governments are gung-ho; if their people are there, they may as well be too. You can expect an embassy or four to pop up in the next new worlds.
Truly, if you can imagine it, you can make it. You’ll have to dive in to see if you like it!
Making money in the metaverse
Hanging out with avatars in work or play isn’t the only reason people are interested in the metaverse. Word has it that there’s money to be made in them thar digital hills.
We are currently in the midst of a virtual land grab. This is traditional with any new digital service. We saw this when people bought up website domains during the dotcom boom, and now people are buying up cycles of processing on computer servers stored in giant warehouses. One patch of not-there ground went for more than $2m in early 2022.
It could pay off; one land speculator in Second Life became a multimillionaire by purchasing parcels and selling them to the highest bidder. And that’s what these speculators are banking on.
Another popular speculative market is personalisation – stuff to pimp out the neighbourhoods or user avatars. These might be clothing, poses, park benches, animations and sometimes digital art, like a very popular sub-category called NFTs.
Mostly, these tap into users’ vanity; the amount of money you should be willing to spend on these items should correspond to how much you care about what everyone else thinks of you.
What's in the pipeline?
Most of what we imagine the current metaverse to be is based on what it was in the past, so if you’ve been online before, you’ll know the general gist. But a few important things have changed that will have a big impact on what’s to come.
First, more people are online now. Metaverses used to be niche destinations, mostly determined by access and interest. Now, the portals are everywhere; we’ve lived with social media for more than a decade, and people are used to the idea of a virtual life.
Second, technology has advanced, so that the things that undercut the old metaverse dreams are possible today. More people can get together in a single virtual space for a single virtual gig. Phones have enough power to do astonishing things.
Third, cryptocurrencies – while still a specialist pastime – are changing expectations of how the metaverse can be built and owned.
Underlying all of this is the fact that the tech will purely be facilitating human interaction. While much has been written about how the metaverse will make the world a better place, it really won’t. It’ll be a sum of the people who go online. The metaverse is us. Mostly harmless.
- This article first appeared in issue 376 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here
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