What Is the Metaverse? Is It Just Virtual Reality, or Something More?

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Tech CEOs keep talking about “the metaverse.” Mark Zuckerberg insists that Facebook will be seen as a “metaverse company” instead of a social media company. Satya Nadella proclaims Microsoft is creating a “metaverse stack” for the enterprise. We’ll explain what’s going on, starting with Snow Crash.

The Origins of “Metaverse”: Snow Crash

Author Neil Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” in Snow Crash, a dystopian cyberpunk novel published in 1992.

In the novel, the metaverse is a sort of 3D virtual world. It’s not simply a virtual reality game but is a persistent, shared virtual world. Or rather, the metaverse is a whole universe of shared virtual spaces seemingly linked together—you could, essentially, teleport between them.

If you think this all sounds a bit like Ready Player One or a higher-tech version of Second Life, you’re right.

In fact, in 2011, Stephenson told Forbes that he saw video games like World of Warcraft as the real metaverse: Virtual worlds you could inhabit with your friends. In 2021, games like Minecraft and Fortnite are perhaps closer to the vision of the metaverse he foresaw.

Is the “Metaverse” Just Rebranded Virtual Reality?

Let’s be honest: When Mark Zuckerberg talks about the metaverse, part of the puzzle is just a desire to rebrand virtual reality. No, it’s not just running games or social apps on a Facebook Oculus VR headset: It’s accessing the metaverse!

In 2017, Stephenson made that case to Vanity Fair, pointing out that virtual reality (VR) and not augmented reality (AR) was necessary for that kind of vision:

If you’re in an AR application, you are where you are. You’re in your physical environment, you’re seeing everything around you normally, but there’s additional stuff that’s being added. So VR has the ability to take you to a completely different fictional place—the kind of thing that’s described in the Metaverse in Snow Crash. When you go into the Metaverse, you’re on the street, you’re in the Black Sun, and your surroundings disappear. In the book, Hiro lives in a shabby shipping container, but when he goes to the Metaverse, he’s a big deal and has access to super high-end real estate.

RELATED: Today’s VR is Just the Start: Here’s What is Coming in the Future

Maybe the Metaverse Is Just the New “Web 2.0”

So is that what the metaverse is? A big alternative digital simulation we access through VR headsets where we can pretend to live a good life while we live in “shabby shipping containers” and the world decays around us, as in the novel?

No no, of course not—not according to Mark Zuckerberg, anyway. Here’s what he told The Verge:

The metaverse is a vision that spans many companies — the whole industry. You can think about it as the successor to the mobile internet…you can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example…

I think a lot of people, when they think about the metaverse, they think about just virtual reality — which I think is going to be an important part of that… But the metaverse isn’t just virtual reality. It’s going to be accessible across all of our different computing platforms; VR and AR, but also PC, and also mobile devices and game consoles…

Zuckerberg goes on and on like this, insisting that “the metaverse” is going to be the next big thing and that, “in the next five years or so,” Facebook will be seen as “a metaverse company” instead of a social media company.

To Zuckerberg and other tech CEOs, the concept of “the metaverse” seems to have more in common with “Web 2.0.” It’s a bunch of new technologies: VR headsets! Presence! Persistent digital worlds! Imagine having an office meeting in VR while working from home—but don’t worry, you can avoid the VR headset and just participate on your laptop if you like!

When you realize Facebook owns Oculus, the company’s desire to strongly push a future VR-based platform makes a lot of sense.

Microsoft and “Digital Twins”

Microsoft’s vision of the metaverse seems to take the form of rambling, buzzword-heavy talk about “digital twins” and “converging the physical with the digital” with “mixed reality.” Microsoft’s Azure cloud can do it!

Of course, as we learned with Windows 10’s “Mixed Reality” headsets, that term often just means Virtual Reality to Microsoft. However, it can also mean augmented reality: And, little surprise, Microsoft also has a headset to sell you: The HoloLens.

Coined the Term

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