AR / VR, News, Social Media, Technology

What On Earth is a Metaverse? – Part I

Kenton Reynolds

Kenton Reynolds, Writer

A word that is permeating the social consciousness with a loose definition, few who truly understand and some seemingly bizarre possibilities: what on earth is a metaverse?

A what?

I’m usually up to date with tech news and developments. I’ve watched the exponential shifts in AR and VR over the last few years with a keen eye and read or written about many of the new possibilities we have with this futuristic technology. 

However, over the last month a certain word has seeped into my consciousness: in conversation with friends, in lectures and seminars, in news articles, on Instagram and Facebook loading screens on my phone. Whispers and murmurs of what may just be the next stage of VR development or what could be a new universe we are creating.

A loose definition

Google is the first port of call, and it throws up all sorts of results. The first definition that you see describes ‘a persistent online virtual environment’. This is a virtual reality that’s existence does not depend on the user clicking the on or off switch; it exists with or without the user. This means that multiple users can persist in the same virtual environment as there is no master user that controls the environment but instead users that exist within. It is the difference between playing single player offline games – a campaign for example – or online multiplayer lobbies. The prior depends on your participance, the latter will take place regardless of you.

Quartz’s analogy makes the whole concept a little more conceivable, if you think of the internet as a 2D platform then the metaverse is the introduction of the third dimension. It is about walking, seeing, touching, experiencing the content that surrounds you rather than simply seeing it on a screen. Matthew Ball describes it as a “successor to the mobile state”, this is the next stage of our interconnectivity evolution. With the introduction of the metaverse we are levelling up the current form of the internet.

A brief history of virtual realities

The metaverse will not only be the next internet progression but also the newest – and most advanced – form of a virtual world. Virtual worlds have existed since before computers were widespread across the country. Their history – as detailed by Dionisio, Burns III and Gilbert in their ‘3D Virtual Worlds and the Metaverse: Current Status and Future Possibilities’ – began in the 1970s with the creation of Dungeons & Dragons where people could create multi-user dungeons (MUDs). This was a take on a board game that takes place in an imaginary reality with the users playing through and creating a story with their personalised characters. Similar MUDs were also played along the theme of the Lord of the Rings which lends itself to such fantastical creations.

The next stage of a virtual world came with Habitat; a game written for the Commodore 64 and Fujitsu in the late ‘80s. This was a 2D graphical interface that created a virtual world of cartoons via dial up modems. This was also the first use of the now-common term “avatar” in referring to a user’s virtual being within the reality.

We see a paradigm shift in the next stage of development towards user-centric creation. The isometric building platform, Web World, gave multiple users the ability to create on the same platform simultaneously. A year later in 1995, Worlds, Inc was the first 3D virtual world which was fully available to the public upon release. This was focused on providing an online social space to interact with other users as opposed to being a game; a model which was a continuation of MUSHs (multi-user shared hallucinations) that were popularised alongside MUDs in the first phase. In the same year, Activeworlds was launched which was software for users to communicate and collaborate in the construction of a 3D environment based on Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash novel. 1996 brought spatial voice chat to the scene that utilized avatars moving their lips correspondingly to replicate speech when OnLive! Traveler was released.

Phase four was characterised by an initial boom in resources for the industry including a rapidly widening user base, exponentially accelerating graphics, and huge investment from real world entities. Most notable during this phase is Blue Mars which brought state-of-the-art game-level graphics to a virtual world whilst also introducing interesting features such as out-of-world creations. However, the processing power to run the game became so large that most of the target market was priced out.

The final and current phase is brought about by decentralized, open-source contributions to the industry that were brought about by the wider spread of computer literacy that came in the late ‘00s and early ‘10s. This is where we find the open development of the metaverse which, following the path of the current phase, will be able to run in the same way as the world wide web in that the hardware required is shared across a multitude of locations that will all share common protocols in order to share resources and communicate.

Where does that leave us?

The metaverse will be the next phase of the internet as it brings the immersion of virtual reality, the interconnectivity of the world wide web and all the high tech features we have come to expect in this modern age. It could potentially be as important as the world wide web and the “mobile state”, or it could simply be the next level of socialising online. The deciding factor in the importance will be developers, who takes control and which direction the metaverse is taken in.

In the next part of this series, we will look at the open-source developers and big money being put into the Metaverse and what this could mean for the direction that the next stage of computing is taken in.

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