What Do We Mean When We Say: Metaverse
Can any of us actually say what is real? When what we dream is so real that we can't wake up from that dream — does the dream become reality? No. But it might become the metaverse: a simulation of the real world where you can do anything you can do in the real world, including things you wouldn't normally be able to do.
So what is the metaverse, and what do we mean when we talk about it as being the future of personal IT? How will the metaverse affect the IT industry and how soon can we expect the big picture ideas about the metaverse to become our lived reality?
Wherever You Go, There You Are
In simple terms, a metaverse is a virtual reality realm in which users can enter an interactive computer-generated environment and meet and mingle with other users inside that environment. That is a really broad definition on its surface, so users have taken to defining what it means to them individually.
We know that a virtual world can be many different things. It might look like you're inside a game of Donkey Kong, or it might look like you're sitting down to an uppercrust card game in an elegant sitting room. We tend to think that visiting the metaverse needs to involve some sort headset that envelops your entire field of vision and shows you a different reality.
But what if there were a physical room where, upon stepping into it, you were surrounded by a computer-generated environment? Would that be a metaverse? Yes it would. So, broadly speaking, a metaverse includes any environment characterized by a persistent virtual world.
By "persistent," we mean that the virtual world continues to stick around or "exist" even when you are not there to interact with it. Some people are extending the metaverse definition to include augmented reality (AR), where digital items are shown to your eyes layered on top of real things and places in the physical world.
One application of AR tech might be you wearing an Oculus headset and seeing what your new kitchen will look like before it's been built. For this topic, we are talking about a metaverse (and metaversal technology), not "the metaverse," which large digital corporations like Facebook are trying to create to simulate your entire waking life.
A Playground, A Surgical Sandbox, and More
The broad effects of metaverse tech are tremendous. First — and perhaps foremost, in the minds of many — is immersive technology allows for better and more "realistic" game play, both for kids and for adults. If you have kids or are an avid gamer, you've probably heard of the battle royale game Fortnite.
In Fortnite, players land on the same map, mine communal resources, complete quests, and kill or save other players. Players can communicate with each other through live audio and video, swap currencies, create costumes, create worlds, and travel to places engineered by others.
Most importantly, however, Fortnite forms a meta world where the real and the digital meet. There are endless examples: In April 2020, famous rapper Travis Scott held a concert in Fortnite — 12 million users attended. Scott banked a cool $20 million. Lots of others are getting rich, too: the real-world revenue for Epic Games for 2020 was $5.5 billion.
At the same time, Fortnite remains free to play, at a bare-bones level. Epic makes its bones from players spending real cash to make in-game purchases.
For adults and others who don't like to play games, there are many possibilities for virtual environments in the sex worker industry. Most people don't like to say it out loud, but the sex and dating industry often pioneers new uses for interactive technology.
There are numerous applications of metaverse tech that have nothing to do with entertainment, of course. Imagine a world where coma patients can have a brain implant and communicate in a virtual world. Or where a surgeon uses AR to investigate treatments and operations before anyone puts hand to scalpel.
A lot of the popular metaverse use cases may seem far off, but the technology is growing by leaps and bounds, In our lifetime, we may go to work, visit parents, or even travel to Australia without even getting out of bed.
Brought to You by Facebook — Er, Meta
What about the shared, unified, persistent virtual environment that tech companies are presently promoting, and that sci-fi writers have long envisioned? It's hard to actually grasp how far we need to go to get there, but there's a great deal of chatter about what it will eventually look like.
Facebook creator and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg says things like, "Avatars will be as popular as profile images, but instead of a static image, they'll be live 3D representations of you, your expressions, and movements." You'll most likely have a photorealistic avatar for business, a stylized one for socializing, and perhaps even a fantasy avatar for gaming.
More Zuckerberg: "You'll have a virtual wardrobe of outfits for various events, made by various designers and sourced from various applications and experiences." If we are to believe him, we will spend a great deal of time living in a computer-generated world.
In the short term, companies will continue to try to profit from the metaverse concept. Corporations (or maybe even individuals) will create digital art, create digital land to buy and settle, and gimmick up other one-of-a-kind creations that only exist in the metaverse, and that only a single person can buy.
In the long term, I believe the metaverse will be about choice. You will choose to upload your persona and your life experience into the metaverse. You will be able to stay there full time, you will be able to upload your consciousness. Think of a world where people never really die. That level of technology will likely not arrive in our lifetime, but I don't see an end to choice.
Off to Work We Go
The last two years have shown that remote work is both possible and practical for various businesses. Many remote workers have thrived in environments that include both consumer and enterprise technology, finding new ways of collaborating across vast distances without major disruptions to their productivity.
The metaverse promises to unify these types of social connections in a network that includes virtual reality components. The underlying concepts, however, aren't awaiting us at some far-off point in our future. Much of what we may think of in the future as being integral to the industrial metaverse is available now and is already widely in use.
As we continue to move toward a world where constant context switching is part of everyday life, business leaders need to look at the technologies and tools they provide to their workers and reimagine those tools for how people interact in their personal lives.
Platforms like Discord and Slack are paving the way toward a metaverse-like future because they understand that the future of productivity will be about maintaining multiple personal and corporate identities in a digital world. This is the true value of the metaverse for humanity and for the future.
See You Soon
When I stop to think of how the metaverse can affect someone, I simply ponder how long writing takes, how immersed I become in the actual act, how focused I am on the goal. What if I were to put on a headset that blocked out all stimuli, and what if I could turn my creative exertions over to a brain implant that was put in at birth and grew into a neural network along with my brain?
What if I couldn't tell the virtual world from the real one? How long before virtual life is indistinguishable from physical life, or until a cash/services agreement made virtually, for real items in the real world, becomes binding upon all parties? Oh wait, that is already being done every day. Have fun, I will see you in the metaverse.