If we build the metaverse, will anybody come?
Old idea, new hype
For months, the "metaverse" has dominated discussions about the future of online life. It's pitched as this wondrous, virtual world we'll all spend our time in, living as avatars in a world free from the constraints of physical life.
But is it really a new idea?
The answer is an emphatic "no."
The metaverse has actually been around for decades. The online world Second Life was referred to as the metaverse almost 20 years ago. Online gamers who play Fortnite and Roblox have also been in the metaverse for years.
So why all the hype now?
Part of it comes back to the pandemic. "People were indoors, and so thinking more about online interactions, because a lot of times, that's all they could do. They're all stuck indoors. And at the same time, we saw a huge growth of usage in platforms that could be said to be early metaverse … which started getting tens and millions of active users," said Wagner James Au, who writes the blog New World Notes, and the author of The Making of Second Life.
And, of course, Mark Zuckerberg re-named his company Meta, staking a claim on the metaverse in Facebook's image.
So how would this newer, refreshed version of the metaverse work? Au said it's basically an immersive, shared, online three-dimensional space where users interact as avatars, and can create content that's somehow connected to the real world, especially when it comes to making money.
So, for example, rather than working at a desk in your bedroom and connecting to your colleagues through a chat app, you might put on a VR headset, and actually work in a virtual office, with your avatar sitting next to your colleagues' avatar, so you could interact in much the same way as you'd interact in a real office environment.
That's the hope, anyway. But Au said he's doubtful there are so many people willing to put on a clunky headset and completely remove themselves from their physical context.
Right now, the metaverse is mostly populated with teenagers and young adults, who grew up playing games like Minecraft and Roblox and are comfortable in a fully virtual environment. But at this point, at least, most people engage less and less in these environments as they get older. "They get married, they have kids, they're single in the city, and so they enjoy being out," Au said.
However, Au estimated that around 25 per cent of the population will want to be on platforms that are considered part of the metaverse, so it's still a big segment of people.
Optimistically, Au sees the same potential in the metaverse that many saw in the original concept of the World Wide Web: where anybody can create content without needing the resources of a large corporation.
One of the most impressive possibilities about the metaverse and metaverse technology will be the ability to render things in three dimensions — so, for example, you could upload a picture of your living room and when you shop for furniture, you could actually 'place' the furniture in an exact replica of your room to see how it fits and what it looks like. The same is true for clothes shopping, Au said.
On the other hand, there are likely to be interoperability issues: will someone's avatar be able to move from a game environment to Facebook's environment or to Amazon's environment seamlessly? Not likely, Au said, as it's the coding that underlies each segment of the metaverse that is likely to be different.
So will the metaverse ultimately differ from the often misanthropic online spaces we currently inhabit? Au hopes so. "But I will not say perfect, and it will introduce new problems. So we always have to be aware of those."
Written by Adam Killick. Produced by Nora Young and Michelle Parise.