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What is the Metaverse, and is it still relevant?

BY James O'Malley

16th May 2023 Technology

What is the Metaverse, and is it still relevant?

The Metaverse promises to change how we work, socialise and shop in the future, with companies like Meta (previously known as Facebook) leading the charge 

Since the internet was first invented in the 1970s, it has changed a lot. In just a few decades, we’ve gone from white text on a black background to the colourful, whizz-bang, interactive apps we enjoy today. But innovation isn’t going to stop. So what comes next?

The answer—if you believe the panglossian tech executives in Silicon Valley—is something called “The Metaverse”, and it sounds almost ridiculous, until you realise that lots of powerful and important people are actually taking it seriously.

What is Metaverse technology?

Metaverse virtual reality cityscapeThe Metaverse is a virtual reality that you can access by wearing a VR headset

So what is the Metaverse? In its simplest form, it’s an imagined version of the internet we’ll one day access by wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset.

This is basically a pair of goggles with screens instead of lenses, which tries to trick your brain into thinking it is fully immersed inside another world. When you turn your head, the images on screen move with it, so you can move around in a real-feeling space.

Think something like a 3D video game world, but where you feel as though you actually are the character on the screen inside of it.

"In the Metaverse we’ll be able hold business meetings, hang out with our friends and play games together"

VR itself is not new (I remember trying out a very basic version of such a headset and riding the dodgems at a virtual funfair in the 1990s), but over the last few years the technology has evolved, with screen resolution and computing power catching up with what science-fiction writers may envisage about a technologically advanced, futuristic world.

But what makes the Metaverse different is that fundamental to the idea is that you’re connected to the internet—and to other people, in a social experience.

Much like how today we can interact with other people by typing messages on Facebook or even in video on a Zoom call, the idea is that in the Metaverse we’ll be able hold business meetings, hang out with our friends and play games together in a shared, virtual 3D space.

That’s right—it’s like someone watched The Matrix and thought, This sounds like a great idea!

The Metaverse companies building a virtual reality

Metaverse office championed by Facebook/MetaFacebook famously renamed themselves Meta in 2021 to mark their focus on virtual reality offices

Surprisingly, the idea isn’t entirely hypothetical either. Tech companies big and small are today working on products and technologies that could make the Metaverse work. And Facebook is perhaps the most prominent example.

In 2021, CEO Mark Zuckerberg dramatically announced that he was betting big on the Metaverse becoming the next big thing—and even renamed his company from "Facebook" to "Meta" as a statement of intent.

So far, the results have been limited but point to what the future could look like. Maybe. With the name change announcement, the company unveiled what it calls “Horizon Workrooms''.

"You log on, a bit like joining a Zoom, albeit with a headset strapped to your face"

It’s essentially a virtual reality app that lets you hold a meeting in a virtual office. You log on, a bit like joining a Zoom, albeit with a headset strapped to your face, and you appear in the virtual room, populated by cartoon avatars representing each person.

And once you’re "inside", you can talk to your colleagues just like on an ordinary call, or you can use a bunch of collaboration tools together, like writing on a virtual whiteboard.

And unlike a real meeting, if the room isn’t set out like you want, with a click of the mouse you can rearrange the tables and chairs to suit whatever meeting format you like.

And what if you don’t like the view from the virtual window? Well, you can change that too.

Will the Metaverse succeed?

But if this is the first glimpse of the Metaverse, there is still a long way to go. The eventual hope from many in Silicon Valley is that one day the Metaverse will work just like the internet, where anyone can create their own space that can seamlessly integrate with everyone else.

"But if this is the first glimpse of the Metaverse, there is still a long way to go"

The dream is that one day we’ll make our own, fully immersive 3D worlds that will all be joined together—enabling us to leap with our friends directly from the office, to the football pitch—and then, say, to a volcano to fight a dragon. All from the comfort of our own homes.

It might sound crazy now, and the Metaverse does have its sceptics—but not so long ago YouTube and Instagram might have felt just as impossible and magic to the early pioneers of the internet. Let’s just hope that the people working on the Metaverse today watched The Matrix all the way to the end.

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