The metaverse is all the rage these days, with everyone and their confused mother trying to make sense of what it is, who is creating it, and when it’ll reach critical mass in becoming an essential, everyday part of our lives. There are plenty of detractors, of course: “Stop trying to make the metaverse happen, Zuck, it’s not going to happen!” Yet anyone who says as much simply doesn’t understand that the metaverse is already here and it’ll soon be as ever-present as watching shows on our televisions, playing games on our tablets, and using apps our phones.
So to better understand what the metaverse is now, it’s important to know the history of the metaverse, its origins, and its evolution over time.
The term “metaverse” was first used by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science fiction novel ‘Snow Crash.’ It’s a portmanteau that combines the words “meta” and “universe,” with the former being etymologically derived from the Greek prefix and preposition meta, meaning “after” or “beyond.” When combined with words in English, meta often signifies derivation or change, such as the words metaphor or metamorphic. In Stephenson’s novel, his concept of a metaverse is strikingly similar to what it has evolved into today–programmable avatars interacting with one another inside a three dimensional virtual space that is accessible via personal terminals and virtual reality goggles.
The metaverse is often synonymously used in conjunction with the emergence of the next iteration of the internet, Web 3.0. This naturally begs the question, “What the heck is Web 1.0 and Web 2.0?” The answer also conveniently explains the metaverse.
Web 1.0–the initial version of the world wide web–was primarily text-based. We visited basic websites that were mostly informational in nature. We interacted in chat rooms, writing comments to one another. We sent emails to one another and corresponded via text messages.
Web 2.0 is far more socially connected and jam-packed with digital media. Think of the rise of Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, and podcasts. The way we presently interact with the digital world is far more immersive than before. And rather than simple text-based data, the rise of on-demand audio, images, videos, and livestreams now dominate the way in which our digital world persists.
Web 3.0, along with the metaverse, is simply the next step in that ever-evolving process. Advanced technology and computing is allowing users to go from inhabiting the current two dimensional internet landscape to transforming it into an even more immersive, three dimensional landscape. This can be in the form of pure virtual reality, i.e. wearing VR goggles and participating in a digital games, education, or entertainment, or in the form of augmented reality, which is created by smart glasses or smart phones blending digital graphics with the real world (think holograms or, more simply, the Pokémon Go craze of 2016 in which characters would appear on your phone’s screen while scanning your immediate surroundings).
Therefore, in order for something to be considered part of the new reality that is the metaverse, it simply must incorporate two basic elements: a digital component and a 3D component. That’s it. And given that the technological hurdle for entry is so low, that’s also why we’ve already crossed the threshold into the metaverse that so many folks assume is perpetually suspended in the near future, like a mirage of an oasis in a sunbaked desert.
It is often presented that the 2003 release of the computer game ‘Second Life’ stands as the earliest iteration of the metaverse. Players of the game created customized avatars, interacted with one another, owned virtual property, and exchanged goods and services. The digital elements were all there, however none of it existed in the heightened reality of a three dimensional environment. So upon its initial launch, ‘Second Life’ would more accurately be described as a protometaverse, since the platform was still relegated to the two dimensional realm that is inherently tethered to the technological limitations of Web 2.0.
The distinction may seem slight, but it represents a chasm of difference between the pre-metaverse world of yore and the fundamental changes to society that are occurring as a result of the new digital reality.
“We’ve gone from desktop to web to mobile; from text to photos to video. But this isn’t the end of the line,” writes Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg in his 2021 Founders Letter to employees. “The next platform will be even more immersive—an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it. We call this the metaverse, and it will touch every product we build.”
Indeed, the metaverse is changing everything, from business to education to medical applications to entertainment and beyond, as humanity’s immersion into the internet inevitably continues. After all, the internet exists as a digital extension of our society, and over time that fusion between the internet’s digital representation and the three dimensional presence of the real world is becoming ever-increasingly bound, until the day in which the two essentially exist as one in the same.