The Metaverse Is on the Way: Here's What You Need to Know

The Metaverse Is on the Way: Here's What You Need to Know

You've probably heard the hype: the metaverse is going to change the way you live.

A vision for the next step in the internet's evolution, the metaverse refers to digital worlds in which people will gather to work, play and hang out. Some of those online spaces will be immersive 3D experiences and require fancy goggles to enjoy. Others will play out on a computer screen. The term's been in flux, and might still keep evolving and renaming itself.

Tech hype cycles come and go. The metaverse could fizzle before it's even realized. As of yet, however, interest continues to grow. Across gaming, NFTs and shopping, it's become a repeated buzzword.

Microsoft's planned acquisition of ActivisionBlizzard for $69 billion, was explained as part of an expansion into metaverse. Last year, Facebook rebranded itself as Meta, a nod to the social network's ambition to be a prime mover in the new world. Rec Room and world-building games, like Roblox and Minecraft, all get rolled into discussions of what the metaverse is or will be.

Facebook, Microsoft and a host of other companies are jockeying to define the next iteration of the internet.

What is the metaverse?

Unsatisfyingly, the metaverse is a squishy concept. An evolution of the internet, it's often described as online spaces where people can socialize, work and play as avatars. Those spaces are shared and always available; they don't disappear when you've finished using them, like a Zoom call. The description is so broad that many people say the metaverse already exists in the digital worlds of Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite, which allow players to gather in 2D environments. Second Life, a nearly two-decade-old social-and-gaming platform, is the OG metaverse. (It's being revamped.)

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and other proponents see a deeper, more immersive experience that marries a host of existing technologies, such as VR headsets, mobile devices, personal computers and cloud-connected servers. These futurists envision the development of a 3D virtual world, one that you might enter while wearing a headset or AR glasses. There's no agreement you'll need VR or AR to get to the metaverse but they pretty much go hand in hand. That suggests these headsets will be compatible with whatever's on offer. A new wave of VR and mixed reality headsets are expected this year from Meta, Sony, Apple and maybe others.

Metaverse and life in virtual reality

The metaverse will take cues from our IRL lives.

James Martin/CNET

One common theme: The metaverse will be a virtual world that parallels our IRL lives. Digital neighborhoods, parks and clubs will spring up, possibly in a single virtual world or spread across many. Some people see a metaverse that overlaps with the physical world and includes AR overlays. Investors are already splashing out on plots of virtual land. Barbados has indicated it wants an embassy in the metaverse, underscoring the cachet the concept has generated.

Naysayers are skeptical that the metaverse will be all that Zuck and others suggest. Many point to the cumbersome headsets that will be needed to access the most exciting chunks of the metaverse. (The inventor of the Playstation called them "simply annoying," while a senior Meta executive called his own company's headset "wretched.") They argue that Big Tech hasn't figured out how to curb hate speech, misinformation and bullying already on the web. Getting a handle on those problems in an even more freewheeling environment will be daunting, they say.

Will there be one metaverse? Or many metaverses?

That remains to be seen. No standards for the metaverse exist and lots of companies are clamoring to lay the groundwork others will follow. Facebook, Microsoft, Sony, Epic Games and a bunch of smaller companies are all working on projects with the hopes of grabbing first-mover advantage. It's unclear whether one company's VR headset will be compatible with another company's expansive multiplayer world or cloud-based graphics. Most companies promise a metaverse that allows other companies in. But that requires them to agree on how they work together.

Meta, which plans to spend billions on its metaverse projects, says interoperability is crucial. If you have an avatar on Facebook, you should be able to use it on a Microsoft platform. That suggests a single metaverse. Try moving a skin you bought in Fortnite to another platform and you'll quickly find those add-ons are stuck in the battle royale game.

The vision of a single metaverse supporting services from lots of different companies is reminiscent of the utopian ideals of the early internet. When the early pioneers figured out how much money could be made online, however, all bets were off. It'll likely be the same with the metaverse. If Zuck and others are right, too much money will be on the line for companies to allow customers to pick up and move.

Our best guess *and it's just a guess* is that the metaverse will start as a slate of competing platforms, each laying claim to being the metaverse. Think of an environment that looks like the early days of instant messaging, when services were fragmented. Over time, however, standards will emerge, and eventually the big players will use compatible technology, evolving into something that resembles email protocols. The internet broadly works that way now with battles between agreed-upon protocols and proprietary standards, content from a host of companies and competing software ecosystems.

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