What is the metaverse?
Although some have only heard of the term âmetaverseâ recently, it has been in use for about 20 years. It was first used in the 1990s in a work of fiction and typically describes a hypothetical future version of the Internet that exists alongside reality as a shared persistent virtual world.
For a long time, fiction writers and technologists have envisioned the metaverse as the evolution of the Internet. And, while some of the attempts to build anything resembling the Metaverse have failed, they have set a precedent.
So what is the metaverse?
The word “metaverse” was created by bringing together the Greek prefix “meta”, which means beyond, and the stem “verse”, a formation behind the word “universe”. The term first appeared in Snow Crash, a science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson, in 1992.
However, the concept referred to by the metaverse had already been described somewhat under a different term: “cyberspace”. The concept first appeared under this term in William Gibson’s Burning Chrome story in 1982, but was popularized by his 1984 novel, Neuromancer.
In Neuromancer, Gibson describes his cyberspace as âa consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation. . . a graphical representation of the data extracted from the banks of each computer in the human system.
Nevertheless, after the advent of the World Wide Web, people began to use the term cyberspace as a synonym for the Internet in its current state. By the time Stephenson’s Snow Crash hit the shelves, the term ‘metaverse’ caught on and common usage established it as the concept signifier.
Stephenson, for his part, describes his metaverse in Snow Crash, rather than as a hallucination, but as “graphical representations – user interfaces – of a myriad of different software that has been designed by big companies” and as “put available to the public on the global fiber optic network. It’s talking science fiction, of course. The metaverse doesn’t really exist.
In a presentation to employees at his company, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressed his desire to create a true metaverse. Later in an interview with The edge, Zuckerberg said: “You can think about it [the metaverse] as the successor to the mobile Internet â, while recognizing thatâ it is certainly not something that one company will build â.
You can think of it as an Internet personified, where instead of just viewing the content, you are there. And you feel present to others as if you were somewhere else. . . but the metaverse isn’t just virtual reality. It will be accessible on all our different IT platforms; VR and AR, but also PC, but also mobile devices and game consoles
So what exactly is the metaverse? Well, since the Metaverse is a concept straight out of a sci-fi novel and has no real referent in the real world, we should probably be asking ourselves a different question: what is it? that the metaverse intends to be?
Internet versus metaverse
From the beginning of the article, we said that the term refers to a hypothetical future version of the Internet. But, just as Zuckerberg suggests, we should see it as the successor to mobile internet.
But what is the Internet? Is this the information you see on your smartphone screen? Or, is it the servers that store this information? Or, is it the physical transoceanic landlines that allow the World Wide Web network to come together?
When we are on our phones checking e-mail, we say we are on the internet, just like we are when we are browsing Facebook or Google for something. However, the place that we give to spatial attributes and that we call cyberspace, or the Internet, is not only information, or the servers that store it, or the fixed lines that set up the network, but the synthesis of all of this in one functional tool.
Then, if we already know that the metaverse will be the successor to the Internet, and that we take into account both the definitions of Stephenson and Zuckerberg and the latter’s assurance that it will be accessible via all our different computer systems , including PCs and mobile devices, we can safely conceptualize what the metaverse is. In theory, at least.
The metaverse is a collection of interrelated information and software made available to the public via a global network, either in the form of persistent virtual spaces shared in 3D or in the form of 2D images.
Since the Internet was first conceived, both science fiction writers and technologists have viewed it as more than just a telecommunications network.
In 1982, at a time when the internet was still developing, William Gibson was already releasing Burning Chrome with its own futuristic version, followed by Neal Stephenson’s metaverse in Snow Crash ten years later. Even though at the time we didn’t have the technology to create such a large version of it, we might be able to achieve it in the not-so-distant future, not to say that we didn’t try.
The precursors of the metaverse
From the moment the Internet became what we know it is today, there have been attempts to create that “virtual world” for which the Metaverse is famous. Some of the more notable attempts are:
- Active Worlds (1995): This online virtual world was developed by ActiveWorlds Inc. Active Worlds allowed users to log in, name themselves and explore 3D virtual worlds created by others, as well as create their own worlds.
- There (2003): Created by Will Harvey and Jeffrey Ventrella, it allowed users to create avatars, explore, socialize, and purchase items and services using an in-game virtual currency, Therebucks.
- Second Life (2003): Developed by Linden Lab, the stated goal of the project was to create a virtual world in which people could immerse themselves, interact, play, do business, and much more.
- Entropia Universe (2003): Developed by MindArk, this video game is famous for being the very first MMORPG to offer a working real money economy.
- Horizon Facebook (2019): a social VR world through Facebook.
- Creative Fortnite (2018): Epic Games is launching Fortnite Creative, a sandbox mode that allows players to interact with their surroundings and invite friends to their private island. Epic Games is increasingly redirecting Fortnite into a Metaverse story.
Science fiction writers can produce ideas that may seem far-fetched. Even so, it is undeniable that they predicted great technological advancements long before they happened.
Do you remember From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne? How about RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots), the 1920 play that predicted the invention of robots?
We’ve been to the moon before, the robotics industry is growing day by day, and we already have the Internet. As scientists work hard to improve VR technology and advancements in telecommunications, what is stopping us from building this shared persistent virtual universe?
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