What was, is, and will be the metaverse?

Designed to be a generation-defining leap forward in human interaction, the Metaverse combines online avatars with our offline selves, touching every aspect of our in-person and virtual lives – impacting the way we work, the places we socialize and our relationship with technology.

The Metaverse will bring an iterative reality, amid technological and legal issues, the likes of which have not been seen since the formation of the World Wide Web. And with new technologies including NFTs, blockchain and crypto already firmly established in today’s society, the race is on for organizations to understand how their businesses can operate in a new metaversal reality.

So grab your headset and select your avatar, as we begin this article series by unraveling what was, is, and will be the Metaverse.

The Metaverse as a concept is far from new, coined in Neal Stevenson’s 1982 novel “Snow Crash”. Stevenson describes the Metaverse as a virtual world where Hiro Protagonist, a katana-wielding hacker, ventures to escape his corporate-run totalitarian society.

Although pre-Internet, Snow Crash serves as a touchstone to our current understanding of the Metaverse and what it will be – not because of its author, but because of who would continue to read it. The novel touched the minds of our generation’s most prominent tech founders, including Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg (whose company project managers were once forced to read the novel) and would serve as a playbook for their vision of what we currently understand to be the Metaverse.

The Metaverse came to the forefront of society in 2022, when Facebook changed its name to Meta and Google searches for ‘Metaverse’ hit an all-time high. In its current iteration, the metaverse is commonly understood to describe a fully immersive internet, where users can access augmented and virtual reality and interact with an unlimited range of environments (in-person and online) using avatars and innovative digital technologies.

Some say the Metaverse is already here – we buy and sell through online platforms such as Amazon and eBay; we engage in conversations online through social media sites like Instagram and Twitter; we work online through online platforms such as Teams and Zoom; and we’ve even started seeing live events online, like Ariana Grande’s Fortnite Rift Tour, which would have attracted 78 million players to the virtual event

While we are to accept that the metaverse is already here, its current iteration is characterized by centralization, controlled by big tech, and accessed through independent apps, platforms, and proprietary technology.

Recent conversation has turned to a new kind of metaverse, free from developer rules, that allows users to operate in a decentralized collective of virtual worlds. Nations and private organizations are rushing to develop this new iteration. For example, in 2021, South Korea spear its national Metaverse alliance, built from 17 of the country’s industry leaders, its objective is to develop a national VR and AR platform. In 2022, Epic Games would have secured $2 billion in funding for the development of its Metaverse experience; and Microsoft has announced that it will begin rolling out its Metaverse in the form of Mesh for Microsoft Teams.

This vast investment from companies and countries is a clear signal that the decentralized Metaverse is being developed but, as always, innovation brings new legal challenges, many of which are already prevalent on the Internet but will no longer take on greater prominence in the Metaverse. Appropriation of the virtual world is a particular challenge – how current property and intellectual property rights apply and what will they protect? Data protection and cybersecurity come into play as biometric data begins to be used to produce ever more realistic and unique avatars of individuals. There will likely be contractual issues in a multi-jurisdictional metaverse contracting with consumers, and inevitable regulatory conflict, not to mention the challenges of protecting children and vulnerable people – something we don’t properly controlled on the Internet. With big tech at the forefront of development, future laws to regulate their market power could date very quickly and we will likely need new ways to regulate this new environment (especially in the world of work) focusing on issues we may not have given much thought to until now.

Tech companies are already considering the opportunity and reserve a budget for their transition to a new hybrid business offering – what it will really look like in the future, only the developers know, but hopefully we don’t have to be in a corporate-driven totalitarian society to make it happen.

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