What Is the Metaverse?

The 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash introduced the word “metaverse” — a term now bandied about in technology circles and laden with high hopes of redefining the Internet.

This space is still forming, and gaps remain between the visions being woven about what a metaverse-infused future could look like and what exists today.

While definitions vary over what, exactly, constitutes a metaverse, they are commonly described as immersive, persistent, interactive digital environments, and often one that mimics the real world to some extent.


These platforms are often expected to be used for activities like socializing, entertainment, e-commerce and work meetings.

People today commonly access the Internet as text and visuals on a flat screen, but metaverses aim to more heavily use augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to create a 3D experience. And just like activities on social media platforms or in massive multiplayer online (MMO) games continue regardless of whether a particular user is logged in, metaverses, too would be continuous and “always-on.”

Metaverses are also expected to use blockchain technologies like cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to support digital transactions.

At present, the phrase “the metaverse” may seem like a bit of a misnomer because there is no single metaverse and various technology companies are working on creating their own such platforms. Many observers like Marty Resnick, research director for Gartner’s Technology Innovation team, say that the space will only achieve its full potential if the various metaverses become interoperable.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Definitions of the metaverse vary. Resnick told GovTech that the metaverse aims to be “a collective virtual space” with three key elements: it must be “transport[ive](such as by using VR to bring users into a 3D simulated environment); “transformat[ive]” (using spatial computing and AR to bring digital elements into the physical world); and “transact[ive]“using technologies like cryptocurrencies and NFTs to support its economy and infrastructure.

Ensuring the various metaverses are interoperable will also be key to achieving the full vision, he said.

Tech Companies

Firms trying to create metaverses present their visions of the work.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a 2021 public letter that the metaverse is the “next chapter for the Internet,” characterized by its immersive nature. His firm’s gaming and — per the company — “social VR experience” Horizon Worlds is seen as a metaverse project.

The metaverse will be “an embodied Internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it. … The defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence — like you are right there with another person or in another place,” Zuckerberg wrote. He said this hypothetical new kind of Internet experience would enable activities like virtual gatherings, playing, e-commerce, design, work and more.

The e-commerce element will rely on technologies like cryptocurrencies and NFTs, while tools like AR, VR, phones and computers would enable different levels of digital immersion and functionalities, he said.

In its blog, computing platform company NVIDIA defines the metaverse as “a shared virtual 3D world, or worlds, that are interactive, immersive, and collaborative.” Another feature is that digital goods and avatars should persist and be transportable among different virtual platforms and — thanks to AR — between platforms and the physical world. The company offers an “omniverse” 3D simulation and design platform intended to be used by metaverse developers.

Public Sector

Some state and local governments have been watching the space as well and offer their own views.

Utah Chief Technology Officer Dave Fletcher told GovTech that “The metaverse is basically a virtual three-dimensional environment where people can socialize and interact and perform transactions” that replicates “a real or unreal universe.”

The National League of Cities (NCL) said in a recent report that, while it “doesn’t have an agreed upon definition… generally speaking, the metaverse is the next evolution of the Internet that will further integrate physical and digital experiences. For some, it’s an online space that digitally recreates the real world. For others, it is a shift in how people interact with their world, using technologies like 3D computing, augmented reality, virtual reality and blockchain to form new immersive virtual world experiences where digital information can be overlaid on our physical world.”

THE METAVERSE TODAY

Current metaverse forays and metaverse-like projects include platforms where users’ avatars can meet for gaming and other social and commercial experiences.

  • Horizon Worlds, offered by Meta, describes it as a “social VR experience for creators to build worlds and explore together.” Users connect with others’ avatars in a digital platform, where they can design virtual locations and play games, attend work meetings and virtually view concerts or other shows. Players use Oculus headsets to experience the VR.
  • Roblox Serves an under-18 audience with “immersive, user-generated 3D worlds” where visitors design and play user-created games and experiences, according to the company. This platform includes an economy: players buy virtual Roblox tokens (called “Robux”) that they can use to purchase items in games and game developers can convert their cuts of the Robux back into real-world currencies, per Polygon. Users can access the platform through VR headsets as well as with older technologies like the Xbox One, computers, tablets and smartphones.
  • The Sandbox is a self-described “community-driven platform where creators can monetize voxel ASSETS [3D digital objects] and gaming experiences on the blockchain.” The company emphasizes its virtual economy in which players use blockchain-based digital tokens to buy and sell user-created games, 3D objects usable in games, space on the platform to play the games and other items.

A variety of challenges must be overcome before the grandest dreams of the metaverse can be realized, some of them quite practical.

The Verge reports that computing power will need to advance, for one. As of December 2021, Horizon Worlds could support 20 simultaneous users in a virtual space, and other persistent, virtual, interactive platforms that avoid VR — and thus avoid those greater computing requirements — still faced strict limits. The games Fortnite and Battlefield 2042, for example, reportedly could support only 100-128 simultaneous players.

Interoperability remains to be achieved as well, and plenty of questions remain over how — or whether — policymakers will try to regulate aspects of the space, such as commerce and taxation, privacy, hate speech and disinformation.

Find out what metaverses mean for the public sector in part 2 of this series.

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