News websites abound with discussion of the metaverse and what it means for the Global landscape. But what is the metaverse and how will it impact you?
In recent years, discussions of the metaverse as a major evolution of digital experiences have become more and more common, yet the average person and even the more digitally savvy among us, still have a very vague idea of what the metaverse actually is.
That’s because the word metaverse doesn’t refer to one specific thing, but rather a network of applications that facilitate deeply immersive, online interactions through the employment of developing technologies in virtual, augmented and mixed reality (collectively referred to as extended reality or XR).
Essentially, the metaverse refers to a version of the internet where users can embody digital avatars of themselves and communicate and move through a wide variety of digital spaces as one would in real life.
Where did the idea of the metaverse come from?
The Sensorama, from US Patent #3050870
The conception of a metaverse predates the internet itself, going all the way back to 1956 when Morton Heilig created the world’s first virtual reality machine (above).
Heilig’s "Sensorama" simulated a motorbike ride through the streets of Brooklyn, immersing users with a vibrating chair, scents and audio that mimicked those of the bustling New York borough.
"The conception of a metaverse goes all the way back to 1956"
By the 1990s, VR games were being introduced into arcades by the Japanese gaming company Sega, and sports broadcasters began experimenting with graphic overlays on live broadcasts.
Current iterations of the metaverse can be attributed to these technologies, as well as fictional, immersive online worlds (as in Neil Stevenson’s 1982 novel Snow Crash) but no one piece of tech is more important to the development of the metaverse than the Oculus VR headset.
How did the Oculus lead to the metaverse?
Prototyped in 2010 by the then 18-year-old inventor, Palmer Luckey, the Oculus VR headset is currently the only key to entering the metaverse.
It was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion, a deal that signalled Zuckerberg’s belief in the metaverse long before Facebook’s rebrand to "Meta" last year. Meta is not the only tech giant to make massive investments in this space however, with companies like Microsoft, Google, Apple and Amazon also spending huge amounts to develop metaverse platforms.
Who is using the metaverse right now?
The people getting the most out of the metaverse as it stands are gamers, who can enjoy more intense experiences of their favourite video games like Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft.
Gaming may be the first and most obvious frontier for the metaverse to tackle but the idea is that eventually, the metaverse will host something for everyone, much like the internet, it will allow for the exchange of ideas and commercial activity in addition to an array of recreational activities.
"The versatility of the metaverse presents boundless opportunities to help us adapt to our changing world"
Apps like Flirtual, a VR dating service, and Upland, a virtual real estate platform, are already realising the metaverse’s potential to digitise all aspects of life. For a society facing a climate crisis and several public health crises, the versatility of the metaverse presents boundless opportunities to help us adapt to our changing world.
How will the metaverse change culture?
The success of virtual concerts held on Roblox and Fortnite has shown how the metaverse can transform the entertainment industry, with pop legends ABBA being amongst the latest acts to perform in the metaverse.
Soon it may be commonplace for music and sports fans to don a set of VR goggles and experience the action live, without ever having to leave their homes. This spells a new era of accessibility for those unable to attend crowded venues in-person and is just the tip of the metaverse iceberg.
It’s likely that everything from healthcare, to education to engineering, shopping and travel will be enhanced by metaverse technology; AR is already being used to guide surgeons in complicated surgeries and VR counselling is available to the masses as well as VR games that bring science lessons to life and apps that allow us to visualise furniture in our homes before purchase.
Are there any downsides to the metaverse?
There’s no doubt that the metaverse will make life more convenient in lots of ways but as with all new technology, it has its downsides. Challenges facing metaverse developers include issues of privacy, child protection, inequality, legality and health.
There are already very real concerns around personal data sovereignty online, with data now the most valuable commodity, the metaverse will potentially exacerbate data exploitation as it blurs the lines between physical and digital data.
"It is possible that the metaverse will worsen our culture of desensitisation and cyber addiction"
There is also no official process of identity verification in the metaverse, making it very easy for digital impersonation to take place and since the metaverse is still largely unregulated, impersonation is just one of a host of potential meta-crimes that might go unchecked.
It is also possible that the metaverse will worsen the culture of desensitisation and cyber addiction, yet companies investing in the space don’t seem to be doing much to counter these negative implications.
It’s difficult to say whether the benefits of the metaverse outweigh the dangers this early on in its development but the technology is sure to have far-reaching impacts on all aspects of our lives, so we better start preparing now.
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