A couple of years ago, right before COVID shut down the world, I was sitting with Bob Iger in his office at the Disney headquarters in Burbank and he gleefully asked me if I wanted to see something cool. “Sure,” I said, unsure what magic trick he was about to pull out of his hat by him. He walked over to his giant wooden desk by him, covered with Star Wars, Marvel and Disney paraphernalia, and grabbed his iPad by him. He then sat down on the couch and proceeded to show me video clips from movies Disney was working on at the time, all footage of people and animals that I was sure were real (filmed with actors) but that Iger informed me were 100% CGI . My mind literally couldn’t decipher between reality and a computer-generated version of it. As I sat speechless, Iger looked at me with his trademark all-American smile di lui, and said, “The crazy part about all of this, is that every time we render a new scene, the technology used to make it is already outdated . It’s already obsolete. “
If you’ve heard lately about this thing called the metaverse, you’re getting closer to having that same experience I had on Iger’s couch, but instead, you’ll be doing it from your own couch, sitting at your computer, or using to gaming console. Or perhaps you’ll experience it outside, on your smartphone, using a virtual reality headset, and a pair of digitally connected glasses or even contact lenses. You will be entering a digital world that looks so real, your brain won’t know if it’s a digital rendering or reality. And the metaverse, for better and probably for worse, is about to change everything.
So what exactly is this thing? The term “metaverse” was first coined in Snow Crash, a science fiction novel published in 1992, in which author Neal Stephenson imagines a virtual world where humans, as avatars, interact with each other (and other artificially intelligent versions of people, almost bots if you will) in an online virtual world that has been built to resemble the real world. Since then, as technology has grown and morphed, the ideas around the metaverse have too, and we’ve seen iterations of it brought to dramatic life in Ernest Cline‘s novel Ready Player One, where people interact — and also die — in the virtual Oasis, or in the Matrix, where they die too. (Don’t worry, you’re not going to die in our metaverse, at least not yet.)
The metaverse is such a big idea that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that he envisions a world where it changes the entire premise of his company. “I think over the next five years or so, in this next chapter of our company, I think we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company,” he told The Verge in an interview earlier this year (prior to the latest round of scandals). “You can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it.” (Zuckerberg is so obsessed with the idea of the metaverse that he is reportedly mulling changing the name of Facebook to Metaverse or something similar.)
The number of possibilities around the metaverse are endless, but you can easily imagine how it might change the way we interact in the same way that mobile devices have changed society today. In a world where the metaverse exists, rather than hosting a weekly meeting on Zoom with all of your coworkers, you could imagine meeting in a physical representation of your office, where each person looks like a digital version of themselves, seated at a digital coffee table drinking digital artisanal coffee and snacking on digital donuts. If that sounds a bit boring, you could meet somewhere else, perhaps in the past, like in 1776 New York City, or in the future, on a spaceship, or at the zoo, on another planet — if it made sense for the meeting , of course. You could choose not to be yourself, but rather some form of digital avatar you picked up at the local online NFT swap meet, or at a virtual Balenciaga store. You could dress like a bunny rabbit to go to the meeting. A dragon. A dead dragon. And that’s just one measly little meeting. Imagine what the rest of the metaverse might look like.
You could play first-person shooter video games in the metaverse, that look like they’re in real life. You could take a British history class taught by a digital representation of King George III, or learn about the theory of relativity from Albert Einstein himself. You could attend a TED Talk, or give one, or go to church. You could hook up your exercise bike to race against Maurice Garin in the Tour de France. Or your running machine to race against Usain Bolt at the Olympics (and lose). You could go to the zoo. You could be an animal at the zoo. Visit the Louvre. Le Mans. The International Space Station. You could go for a walk on Mars. Neptune. Float in space. Play “red light, green light” with your friends in Squid Game. You could go shopping, trying on outfits that once you pay for, are actually mailed to your house. You could go to a theme park and ride the world’s biggest roller coaster and maybe even throw up in real life. There are also lots of potential dark sides of the metaverse. Don’t be surprised to see Nazi rallies and people who choose racist and dangerous avatars, or hackers stealing from people, or performing metaversal terrorism, whatever that becomes. All of this stuff could be for sale in crypto, where we buy and sell digital goods with Bitcoin or Ethereum.
For all the talk, and ridicule, about NFTs, the metaverse is where they start to actually make sense — kind of. Perhaps you own a Beeple digital NFT that’s worth $ 70 million. In the real world, you can only show the real thing to someone on your computer, or brag about it, or share it on social media. But in the metaverse, you could hang it on the wall of your digital house so your digital guests can enjoy it. Or you could put it in a digital art museum and charge people a small fee (paid for in crypto) to come and see the piece like it’s the Mona Lisa. If you owned one of the famed Cryptopunks, the digital avatars that you’ve probably seen on Twitter which are currently selling for $ 500,000 or more, you could perhaps wear it as your own avatar in the metaverse. You could imagine in such a scenario that people with these limited avatars are a new form of celebrity in the metaverse. People who are Bitcoin billionaires, will also be billionaires in the digital metaverse.
To truly understand how the metaverse might become real, per se, you have to go back to the history books of the digital world we live in today to see how technology has evolved over the last four decades. In the seminal days of all of this, there was simply the internet. A bunch of tubes and wires connected together that allowed people to send emails and chat on BBS message boards. By 1989, Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web, which allowed people to connect to the internet through a web browser, which in turn went to millions of different websites. This brought on the advent of things like Yahoo and Google, and of course porn. A decade later came the advent of web 2.0, which brought on the advent of user-generated content in the forms of Blogger, Flickr, and Pandora, which eventually morphed in social media. All new layers placed atop the original foundation of the internet. Today, we largely interact in an app-based layer, where we engage with one another and content through apps that we download to our smartphones — Twitter, Facebook, Snap, Slack, Zoom, Kindle, and so on.
The next layer that is going to be placed on top of the world we live in today is the metaverse. A lot of this might sound like something you may have heard about before, or even seen and engaged with in a crude technological form. Back in 2003, a version of the metaverse called Second Life launched as a stand-alone world that you could hang out in, not too distinct from the stuff we’re talking about now.
But the problem with Second Life was, first, that it was a closed system, and second, the technology just wasn’t ready. Today, there are plenty of metaverse-like worlds people play in on a daily basis. Roblox, one of the most downloaded games in the app store, has become it’s own mini-metaverse where people create blocklike games and experiences and where a very crude and rudimentary avatar of you can go and play. During the pandemic, it became the place kids would go to have birthday parties. (It’s also become a place to get a digital lap dance, if you’re into that sort of thing.)
The ways in which you will access the metaverse will likely be what makes or breaks it. Researchers I’ve spoken with over the years about virtual reality and the concept of a metaverse have all talked about the ease with which apps and the internet work, where you literally just pick up your phone, press a button, and you’re talking to people on Facebook, reading a book on the Kindle app, or playing a game on Fortnite. The metaverse will have to work in the same way: a click, and you’re on (or in). But there will be countless ways in which you can access it. For example, you can imagine entering some aspects of it on your smartphone, or your computer, bouncing from one metaversal experience to another like you do with apps today. Or perhaps you will enter through a game console, or your television, which would give you a different kind of immersive experience. But where the true metaverse experiences will likely flourish is through virtual reality and augmented reality.