TAccording to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, in the first six month of 2022 the word was used a lot. Meta More than 1100 mentions were made in regulatory filings. In the previous year, there were 260 such mentions. In the two previous decades, how many? There have been fewer than twelve. It increasingly feels as though every corporate executive feels the need to mention the metaverse—and of course, how it naturally fits the capabilities of their company better than those of their competitors. Few seem to explain what it is or exactly what they’ll build. The executive class also appears to disagree over fundamental aspects of this new platform, including the criticality of virtual reality headsets, blockchains and crypto, as well as whether it’s here now, might be soon, or is decades in the future.
None of this has slowed investment. Much has been written of Facebook’s name change to “Meta” and the more than $10 billion it now loses each year on its metaverse initiatives. But another six of the largest public companies in the world—Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nvidia, Tencent—have also been busy preparing for the metaverse. The companies are restructuring their internal operations, revising their job descriptions and retooling their product offerings. They also plan to launch multi-billion dollar product launches. In January, Microsoft announced the largest acquisition in Big Tech history, paying $75 billion for gaming giant Activision Blizzard, which would “provide building blocks for the metaverse.” In total, McKinsey & Company estimates that corporations, private equity companies, and venture capitalists made $120 billion in metaverse-related investments during the first five months of this year.
Nearly all the work mentioned has remained hidden to the common person. It’s almost like the metaverse. There isn’t really a metaverse product we can go buy, nor “metaverse revenue” be found on an income statement. Although it may seem like the metaverse is gone, in reality it has not existed. Crypto has fallen. So too has Facebook’s market capitalization, which topped $900 billion when the company changed its name to Meta, but now sits around $445 billion. Video gaming revenues have increased this year. fallenBy nearly 10% due partly to the end the pandemic forced many people in.
Illustration by Micah Johnson, TIME
To many, it’s a good thing that the metaverse seems to be sputtering. Already, the largest tech platforms wield enormous power over our daily lives and the business models that underpin the modern economy. It’s also clear that there are many problems with today’s internet; why not solve them before moving onto what Mark Zuckerberg calls “the successor” to it?
This very question contains the answer. While the term metaverse has been around since 1998, it is almost 100 years old. Every few decades, a platform shift occurs—such as that from mainframes to PCs and the internet, or the subsequent evolution to mobile and cloud computing. Once a new era has taken shape, it’s incredibly difficult to alter who leads it and how. These things can change between eras. If we—consumers, voters, users, developers, governments—hope to build a better future, then we must be as aggressive about shaping it as are those who are investing to build it.
What is the future of this world?You can think of the metaverse in terms of a parallel virtual existence which spans all digital technology and may even become the control plane for much of the world. This construct helps explain another common description of the metaverse as a 3D internet—and why establishing it is so hard, but also likely to be worthwhile.
Nearly every country has 40,000 networks and millions of apps. There are also almost two billion websites. Tens of billions more devices. Each of these technologies can coherently, consistently exchange information, find one another “on the net,” share online account systems and files (a JPEG, an MP4, a paragraph of text), and even interconnect (think of how a news publisher links to another outlet’s report). Nearly 20% of the world economy is considered “digital,” with much of the remaining 80% running on it.
Though the Internet is resilient, wide-ranging, and powerful, it wasn’t built for live and interactive experiences involving a large number of participants—especially when it comes to 3-D imaging. The Internet was built to enable one static file to be shared (email or spreadsheet), so it could be independently reviewed and modified. This is partly why, even in the age of the “Streaming Wars” and multi-trillion dollar big tech companies, simple two-person video calls can be so unreliable. (It’s a marvel that online multiplayer games work at all.) Furthermore, there’s no consensus on file formats or conventions for 3D information, no standard systems to exchange data in virtual worlds. The computing power required to create the metaverse we envision is also lacking. And we will want many new devices to realize it—not just VR goggles, but things like holographic displays, ultra-sonic force-field generators, and, spooky as it sounds, devices to capture electrical signals sent across muscles.
We cannot know in advance exactly how important a 3D internet might be to our global economy, just as we didn’t know the value of the internet. However, we have some insight into the question. As internet connectivity and computer processors have improved, we’ve shifted from colorless text to primitive webpages and web blogs, then online profiles (like a Facebook page) and video-based social networks, emojis, and filters. From a handful of messages board posts or emails per week, to an incessant stream of multimedia content that encapsulates our lives, the amount of online content has increased. The next evolution to this trend seems likely to be a persistent and “living” virtual world that is not a window into our life (such as Instagram) nor a place where we communicate it (such as Gmail) but one in which we also exist—Moreover, in 3D (hence our focus on VR avatars and headsets).
Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite Creative are accessed by nearly one hundred million people every day. The platforms have tens to millions of interconnected worlds and support an consistent virtual identity. Most time in these platforms is spent on leisure—playing games, attending concerts—but we are starting to see people go further.
Roblox’s very first music festival was The Electric Daisy Carnival. It took place over several days during October 2021.
The digital revolution is expected to change education. However, it has been resisted so far. The cost of higher education in America has risen by more than 1,200% since 1983. Medical care and other services have seen a half-point increase over the same period. Realizing the true thing is no easier than decades ago. What is lost is when it is moved to distant computers. Eye contact. Peers. Hands-on experimentation. Equipment. The real deal is not available through Zoomschool or YouTube videos.
The metaverse is home to the Magic School BusThis is what makes it possible. Over the years, gravity was taught to students by their teachers dropping a feather, a hammer, then watching David Scott (commander of Apollo 15) do the same on Earth. The fall speed is the same. These demonstrations are not permanent. However, they could be supplemented with elaborate virtual Rube goldberg machines that students can test on Mars under Earth-like gravity and Venusian higher atmospheres. We can instead of dissecting the frog’s circulatory system, and we can do the same thing as Mario Kart. All of this can be done regardless of where you live or the resources available at your local school board.
In 2021, neurosurgeons at Johns Hopkins performed the hospital’s first-ever live patient surgery using an augmented-reality headset, thereby providing the surgeon with an interactive display of the patient’s internal anatomy. Dr. Timothy Witham, who performed the surgery and also directs the hospital’s Spinal Fusion Laboratory, likened it to having GPS. It is crucial to have this frame of reference. We often think of the metaverse replacing something we do today—such as wearing a VR headset instead of using a smartphone or watching TV—but we don’t drive GPS instead of a car; we drive a car With GPS.
Earlier in 2021, Google unveiled its Project Starline device, which uses machine learning, computer vision, a dozen depth sensors and cameras and fabric-based multi-layered light field displays to create 3D “holographic video” without requiring the use of mixed reality goggles. In comparison to traditional “2D” video calling, Google says its Starline technology leads to 15% increases in eye-contact, 25-50% increases in non-verbal forms of communication (hand gestures, head nods, eyebrow movements) and 30% better memory recall of the conversation. Zoom may not be a favorite of many of us. Perhaps adding an additional dimension to the conversation can help ease some of our frustrations.
Another good example is the infrastructure. The Hong Kong International Airport now operates a live “digital twin” of the facility, allowing airport operators to use a live 3D simulation to determine where passengers and planes should be directed. Multi-billion-dollar, multi-decade city projects are using these technologies to determine how a given building might affect traffic flows and emergency response times, or how its design will affect the temperature and sunlight of a local park on a specific day. They are mostly simulations that have not been connected. The next step is to bring them online—like shifting from offline Microsoft Word documents to cloud-based, collaborative ones—and turning the world into a digital development platform.
However, society is a better place. It is not clear what exactly the metaverse refers to.It is understandable that this gives some pause, since billions are being invested in something they feel like a video game. But think of the Metaverse as a fourth era of computing and networking—succeeding mainframes, which ran from the 1950s to 1970s; personal computers and the Internet of the 1980s to mid-2000s; and the mobile and cloud era we experience today. Every era had a profound impact on who was able to access computing and network resources and when and where and why. These changes had profound consequences. They were difficult to predict.
Even the biggest believers in the mobile internet once struggled to predict more than “more people, online more often, for more reasons.” Having a detailed technical understanding of digital networking didn’t illuminate the future, nor did deploying billions in R&D. Services such as Facebook, Netflix, or Amazon’s AWS cloud computing platform are obvious in hindsight, but nothing about them—their business models, technology, design principles—was at the time. This is why we need to recognize that chaos, confusion and uncertainty are necessary for disruptive change.
However, certain issues can still be resolved. The metaverse is often misdescribed as immersive virtual reality headsets, such as the Meta Quest (née Oculus VR), or augmented reality glasses, the most famous example of which to date is Google’s infamous Glass. While AR and VR devices might be a popular way to enter the metaverse today, they aren’t it. Remember that AR and VR devices aren’t the same as smartphones. The metaverse doesn’t include Roblox, Fortnite or Fortnite. These are virtual worlds that you are most likely to find. Teilin the metaverse. Facebook and Google, however, are both part of this internet. For similar reasons, think of the metaverse as singular, just as we say “the internet” not “an internet.” (To the extent we identify different internets today, this largely reflects regional regulatory differences.) The metaverse, Web3, crypto and blockchains are often conflated. This trio may become an important part of realizing the metaverse’s potential, but they are merely principles and technologies. Many metaverse leaders are skeptical that crypto has a future.
Metaverse isn’t meant to replace any mobile model, device, or software. New technologies and new behaviors will be produced by it. But that doesn’t mean we leave what we prefer behind. I still write on a PC, and that’s likely to remain the best way to write long-form text. Although most of the internet traffic originates from and terminates via mobile devices, nearly all is sent over fixed-line lines using the Internet Protocol Suite. This suite was created in 1980.
Sign Up for TIME’s Newsletter on the Metaverse
Even though some executives may claim that it is imminent or already here, the metaverse isn’t yet there. At the same time, transformations don’t experience “switch flips.” We are in the mobile era today, but the first cellular network call was in 1973, the first wireless data network was in 1991, smartphone in 1973, and so on until the iPhone in 2007. While it’s impossible to say when the development of the metaverse began, it’s clearly underway. In mid 2021, only weeks before Facebook unveiled its Metaverse intentions, Tim Sweeney, CEO and founder of Fortnite maker Epic Games, tweeted prerelease code from the company’s 1998 game It’s impossible to believe, adding that players “could go into portals and travel among [different worlds]…with no combat and [would stand] in a circle chatting.” These experiences didn’t take off at the time for a number of reasons—there were too few people online, tools for world-creation were too difficult to use, the devices that could support them were too costly and heavy, etc. “We’ve had metaverse aspirations for a very, very long time…” he added a few minutes later, “but only in recent years have a critical mass of working pieces started coming together rapidly.”
A billboard reading “unlocking the metaverse” was displayed in Times Square at the fourth annual NFT.NYC conference, which took place in New York City on June 20, 2022.
Noam Galai—Getty Images
Also, the Metaverse does not have an inherent dystopic nature. This a common misconception as the world “Metaverse” comes from a dystopic novel, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Snow Crash’s forebears, such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Philip K. Dick’s Bubbles: What the Problem?The metaverse has made the world worse (1953), leaves readers similarly. The root of all fiction is drama. Utopias are seldom the settings for popular stories. But since the 1970s, numerous “proto-metaverses” have emerged that have not been centered on subjugation or profiteering, but on collaboration and creativity. As these universes get more real, their value, functionality and cultural impact improves with every decade.
The foundation of today’s internet was built over several decadesThrough the efforts of universities and government research laboratories. Most of these not-for profit organizations were focused on creating open standards which would allow them to exchange information between servers. This allows for easier collaboration on future technology, projects and ideas. This approach had many benefits. Everyone could use the internet to access and build from anywhere on the network at minimal cost.
Businesses can still make a profit via the internet, or create closed-loop experiences using proprietary technology or paywalls. Rather, the “openness” of the internet enabled more companies to be built, reaching more users, and achieving greater profits, while also preventing pre-internet giants (and, crucially, telecom companies) from controlling it. It is because of this openness that the internet has been considered as having democratized information. The majority of world’s most important public companies today were established (or reborn), in the internet era.
It’s not difficult to imagine how different the internet would be if it had been created by multinational media conglomerates in order to sell widgets, serve ads or harvest user data for profits.
However, a “corporate internet” is the current expectation for the metaverse. When the internet was born, government labs and universities were effectively the only institutions with the computational talent, resources, and ambitions to build a “network of networks,” and few in the for-profit sector imagined its commercial potential. This is not true for the metaverse. It is instead being developed and pioneered by private companies.
In 2016, long before the Metaverse was seriously contemplated by the corporate executives worldwide, Epic Games’ Sweeney told VentureBeat that “If one central company gains control of [the metaverse], they will become more powerful than any government and be a god on Earth.” It’s easy to find such a claim hyperbolic. Citi and KPMG claim that by 2030 the metaverse could produce as high as $13 trillion per year in revenue. Morgan Stanley projects $8 trillion to be generated in the U.S.A and China. That is roughly similar to Goldman Sachs worldwide projections between $2.5 billion and $12.5 trillion. McKinsey, however, predicts that $5 trillion will be created globally. Jensen Huang, the founder and CEO of Nvidia, which ranked as one of the ten largest public companies in the world for most of the year, believes the GDP of the metaverse will eventually exceed that of “the physical world.”
This is where fears of dystopia appear fair and not alarmist. A metaverse is a concept that an increasing share of our lives, labour, leisure time, money, happiness and relationships will be spent in virtual worlds. This idea can not only be aided by digital devices, but also means that we’ll have to spend more of our life, labor, time, leisure, times, money, wealth, joy, happiness and relations inside them. It is a parallel existence, which will exist above our digital and physical economies. As a result, the companies that control these virtual worlds and their virtual atoms will be more dominant than those who lead in today’s digital economy.
It will make many of the problems that digital existence presents more difficult, like data rights, security and privacy, platform power, happiness and misinformation and radicalization. The Metaverse era’s culture and priorities will influence whether our future will be more real or virtual.
As the world’s largest corporations and most ambitious start-ups pursue the Metaverse, it’s essential that we—users, developers, consumers, and voters—understand we still have agency over our future and the ability to reset the status quo, but only if we act now. Although the idea of the metaverse may seem intimidating, or even scary at times, it is an opportunity to unite people, transform existing industries, and build a better global economy.
Many things about the future are uncertain. This is just like the internet in the 2000s and 1990s. We can still understand the potential metaverse and how it will work. What experiences may be offered when, where, and to who; and, what could go wrong. There are trillions of dollars at stake, as executives are wont to remind us—and, more importantly, our lives.
Adapted from Matthew Ball’s new book The Metaverse: It will Revolutionize Everything.Copyright © 2022 by Matthew Ball. With
permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Here are more must-read stories from TIME