What is the metaverse? A look at what Big Tech views as the next stage of the internet

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On Thursday. Mark Zuckerberg announced his company would be changing its name to Meta to better reflect its goal of building out the metaverse. (Photo by Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images)

(NEXSTAR) – Like it or not, it’s time to embrace the “metaverse.”

On Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg confirmed his company — Facebook Inc. — would be rebranding itself as Meta, to better reflect its focus on building the metaverse, described by Zuckerberg as “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.”

The concept of the metaverse, meanwhile, has been around long before Facebook even existed. Often described as the successor to the internet, futurists and tech experts have envisioned the metaverse as a place where our physical realities converge with various virtual experiences in a shared virtual space. This idea has been explored in some way or another by science-fiction authors or Hollywood filmmakers over the past several decades, generally depicted as a virtual-reality platform where users can create an avatar to interact with fellow members of the digital population.

The concept’s name — the metaverse — was even adopted from the 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” in which the plot plays out in both virtual and physical realities.

“The term predates the internet we know today,” explains Trond Undheim, PhD, a futurist and author whose podcasts explore technological innovation and artificial intelligence, among other topics. “But it has now become the term for the gradual shift in digital communication whereby the internet is becoming a hybrid reality, meaning it’s becoming physical and digital at the same time.”

The easiest way to envision this concept, perhaps, is to observe the gaming community — which is the closest any group has come to entering the so-called metaverse, as far as Undheim is concerned. These gamers have established virtual avatars of themselves, which interact with other virtual avatars across persistent online worlds. They’re working together in real time, arranging meet-ups, even spending in-game currencies — all while communicating via headsets or chat.

There have even been reports of people hosting their “wedding” inside the cutesy 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” reimagined Washington D.C. circa 1963 to “teleport” players back to the Capitol to watch Martin Luther King, Jr. give his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

But the future of open-world gaming is just one of the many ways the metaverse will take hold of our lives. Big Tech, of course, is ready to take things a step further.

As Zuckerberg described in a video released Thursday, Meta is trying to build a part of the metaverse that would let users do “almost anything you can imagine” — or at least be a place where they can interact, work, shop, play games, gather for social events or create content. He also claims Meta’s efforts will create millions of job opportunities, much like the internet eventually created jobs that were previously unheard of.

“I expect that the metaverse is going to open up lots of opportunities for people in the exact same way,” Zuckerberg said. “But the reality is that no one knows exactly which models are going to work and make this sustainable.”

In addition to Facebook, which had previously boasted its virtual playgrounds and boardrooms, Microsoft has also been discussing its own “metaverse apps” for creating, and connecting to, all-new shared digital spaces.

The pandemic only accelerated the need for at least some types of metaverse-adjacent experiences, with more folks working from home and relying on technology in order to be places that they can’t physically be. There’s also growing interest in making virtual events more accessible, allowing users to attend art galleries or concerts with other online friends, or patronize virtual businesses where they can spend their hard-earned currency (or cryptocurrency) on goods or services — real or digital.

“The metaverse is different and much more powerful than a complete virtual reality,” Undheim says, “because it is combining the two without merging them all the way.

“It doesn’t truly exist yet,” he adds. “But we’ll know it when we see it.”

Much of the technology needed to create the metaverse already exists, or is currently in development.  But there are still several hurdles to cross before the concept can be put into use, including bandwidth requirements, and getting enough people on board. Undheim also fears that the metaverse may become too commercialized very early on, making users feel alienated or exploited before the concept has a chance to reach its full potential.

What Undheim does know, though, it’s that the metaverse is coming — relatively fast, too.  

“We will see this wash over us in the next five to seven years,” Undheim believes. “[It’s here] the moment a reasonable person would say, ‘I don’t really know if I would value my physical reality over interacting online.’ Maybe they don’t even recognize the distinction between the two.”

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