Facebook goes Meta: What is the metaverse and why is big tech obsessed?

Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash is about a pizza delivery man by day, VR superhero by night, who lives in an online universe called The Metaverse. “So Hiro’s not actually here at all. He’s in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse. Hiro spends a lot of time in the Metaverse,the novel says of the globe-spanning city that everyone pops into in VR. The idea rings, once again, among many other places, in Ready Player One’s Oasis.

Back in 1992, I considered the “metaverse” to be a knockoff of William Gibson’s concept of cyberspace. Of course, cyberspace got reappropriated, coined as a stand-in term for all of the internet. So, too, has the metaverse.

And the term “metaverse” has been around for a long time. How long? CNET wrote about the trend back in 2007.

Over the past few years, the term metaverse has re-emerged in a very big way. On Thursday Facebook announced it’s changing its company name to Meta, to reflect its broad goals in this space but it’s a term that can be applied to properties as broad as Fortnite, Roblox, Minecraft, VR, AR, even Animal Crossing.  

The definition of metaverse, now, is sort of a future-forward social hub, a space where avatars can meet, an ecosystem for connected apps. A VR- and AR-ready dream of bringing people into some sort of virtual universe that’s as creation-friendly as a Minecraft, as popular as a Fortnite, and as useful as Zoom, Slack and Google Docs. Metaverses are perhaps the clearest admission yet that the future of tech doesn’t lie just in VR or AR, but in a mix of many devices accessing a shared online world, which may be more immersive and 3D than the internet you’re currently using to read this story.

Science fiction ideas always get appropriated into tech, and it’s happened with the metaverse, too. To be clear, this isn’t simply a stand-in for the immersive worlds of AR and VR, even though it’s often being used that way. The way to read “the metaverse” is instead about a fusion of VR, AR and all the other tech that is not and will never be a headset you glom on your face. It’s also about companies figuring out how to get more people into these future advanced virtual communities than the few million in VR right now.

Yeah, Fortnite’s a metaverse.


Sarah Tew/CNET

The world’s already living virtually

We’ve already redefined the idea of “virtual” in 2020, and for most people it didn’t involve a VR headset. Zoom, online games, Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces and every other social app on your phone — everyone’s carved out a virtual existence of some sort. I wrote about this last year. The holodeck is a concept that lives beyond VR or AR. 

The metaverse concept has become an umbrella term that floats over the big connected multiplayer worlds, including Fortnite, or Minecraft, or Roblox, or VR apps like Rec Room, VRChat and Microsoft’s AltspaceVR. But it aspires to be a stand-in for all your virtual tools, headset or not. 

The shift to the idea of metaverses is basically a way of including multiple devices and platforms, and not insisting people use a particular gadget. Again, think of Fortnite. Or, again, Roblox. Or Minecraft. Or, in a sense, most apps we use now. But in this case, we’re talking about ones with their own deep social world.

My kids are already deep in their own metaverses. They just call them by the name of the app they are using to access them, and these companies are already well aware of this.

The metaverse is about massively social future things

Most metaverses being discussed are massively multiplayer spaces with avatars and worlds and persistent players or creative tools. Facebook’s upcoming social platform, Horizon, is an example of this: The avatar-based app will work in VR, but Facebook intends for it to work in AR as well, and on regular laptops and phones. Microsoft’s AltSpaceVR is already like this.

VR is a lot of things right now, but it’s not very massively social because most people don’t have VR headsets. Companies are struggling to find tools that loop all the other phone and computer experiences together with VR and AR ecosystems. Microsoft has been working on this for years, but still hasn’t cracked it.

Tech’s realizing not everyone’s going to be in VR (or AR)

Microsoft’s recent push is for AR that also works on phones in addition to the Hololens; Apple’s focus is on AR on iPhones and iPads; Facebook is integrating Oculus with the rest of its non-VR social apps. It’s easy to see a common thread here. You’ll never be able to get everyone into VR headsets. Or, AR smart glasses. Just like not everyone will wear a smartwatch, or wear AirPods, or play a Nintendo Switch.

The cross-platforming of virtual things is a lot of what seems to be the goal of the metaverse. I think of VR headsets and AR glasses as eventually becoming headphones for our eyes, a more immersive and portable alternative to a monitor. Put it on, take it off, pick whatever tool works. Most of the metaverse initiatives are aiming to be around no matter what type of computer you choose.

microsoft-mesh-hololens-1.png

I looked at virtual jellyfish with Alex Kipman earlier this year; both of us wore HoloLens 2 and were in different locations. We each appeared as cartoon avatars to each other.


Microsoft/Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Everyone’s trying to solve remote work and the idea of telepresence

I met with Microsoft’s Alex Kipman virtually earlier this year as he demonstrated Microsoft Mesh. I wore a Hololens 2 and saw his avatar floating in my house. We spoke for a bit and met over a virtual table. Then we jumped into VR on a separate headset nearby and continued our conversation.

This type of transition is hardly seamless, but nobody’s figured out how to take Zoom to the next level. VR and AR present some possibilities for teleporting people together, but it loses some of the natural camera-connected feeling that Zoom, FaceTime and other video calls already have. 

Mark Zuckerberg said to me earlier this year that the goal of his metaverse is to bring people together for work. Microsoft has the same idea. Other software developers, like Spatial, have similar goals. 

No one’s really found the solution that truly works for everyone, but again, when you hear companies striving for a “workplace metaverse,” that’s what’s going on. They’re trying to figure it out, too.

The metaverse idea is also about digitizing your home away from home

Second Life. The Sims. That weird attempt at PlayStation Home. Tech has been trying to solve the idea of a home base online for a long time. Social media reinvented the idea as simply profile pages, a handle, streams of text and photo libraries.

All the current takes on the metaverse focus on worlds where personal spaces can be built and customized. In VR, right now — for instance the Oculus Quest — there are plenty of apps to try, but no place to make your home. Which might be just fine, but so many tech companies are still trying for a more ambitious online experience.

It begins to matter a lot more if there really is some sort of virtualized office, or meeting space, where people can gather and share common things together. Right now, meetings are quick and efficient Zooms, or we just share documents with each other and collaborate a bit. Apps like Spatial are trying to be a place to gather and work, but no one’s agreed on the terms or common apps yet.

Welcome to the turf war

Metaverses aren’t an answer. They’re more of a question. I’ve been waiting for all of these VR headsets, smartwatches, phones, tablets, AR devices to work better together, seamlessly, like they’re interconnected.

But the players involved in these dreams include Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Epic, Google and a ton of others. They all want to be The Place. The Destination. The Software. They can’t all be. Or can they?

We’ve already seen a lot of battles over the boundaries of immersive ecosystems. The Apple-Epic court battle was really about where one paywall ends and another begins. Sometimes that wall is in an app, and sometimes that boundary line is a lot more fuzzy. A future of more-immersive VR and AR, and social spaces that hop in between and onto normal devices, drawing on content that may also be siloed, won’t make those lines any easier to see.



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