Imagine a world where you could sit on the same couch as a friend who lives thousands of miles away, or conjure up a virtual version of your workplace while at the beach.
Welcome to the metaverse: a vision of the future that sounds fantastical, but which tech titans like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg are betting on as the next great leap in the evolution of the internet.
The metaverse is, in fact, the stuff of science-fiction: the term was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash”, in which people don virtual reality headsets to interact inside a game-like digital world.
The book has long enjoyed cult status among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, but in recent months the metaverse has become one of the tech sector’s hottest buzzwords, with companies pouring millions of dollars into its development.
Facebook fuelled the excitement further Monday by announcing the creation of a new team to work on Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse.
Facebook, the world’s largest social network, has invested heavily in virtual reality and augmented reality, developing hardware such as its Oculus VR headsets and working on AR glasses and wristband technologies.
It has also bought a bevy of VR gaming studios, including BigBox VR. It has about 10,000 employees working on virtual reality, The Information reported in March.
Zuckerberg has said he thinks it makes sense to invest deeply to shape what he bets will be the next big computing platform.
“I believe the metaverse will be the successor to the mobile internet, and creating this product group is the next step in our journey to help build it,” he said on his Monday Facebook post.
He told The Verge: “If we do this well, I think over the next five years or so … we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”
As with many tech buzzwords, the definition of the metaverse depends on whom you ask. But broadly, it involves blending the physical world with the digital one.
With the help of augmented reality glasses, it might allow you to see information whizz before your eyes as you walk around a city, from traffic and pollution updates to local history.
But metaverse enthusiasts are dreaming of a future in which the idea could be extended much further, allowing us to be transported to digital settings that feel real, such as a nightclub or a mountaintop.
As workers have grown weary of video conferences during the pandemic, Zuckerberg is particularly excited about the idea that co-workers could be brought together in a virtual room that feels like they are face-to-face.
Games in which players enter immersive digital worlds offer a glimpse into what the metaverse could eventually look like, blurring virtual entertainment with the real-world economy.
As far back as the early 2000s, the game Second Life allowed people to create digital avatars that could interact and shop with real money.
More recently, plots of land in Decentraland — a virtual world where visitors can watch concerts, visit art galleries, and gamble in casinos — have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars in MANA, a cryptocurrency.
The hugely popular video game Fortnite has also expanded into other forms of entertainment, with 12.3 million people logging in to watch rapper Travis Scott perform last year. Fortnite’s owners Epic Games said in April that $1 billion of funding raised recently would be used to support its “vision for the metaverse”.
And on Roblox, a gaming platform popular with children, a digital version of a Gucci bag sold in May for more than $4,100, more than the physical version would have cost.
(With inputs from agencies)