Jay Ownes in New Humanist:
The metaverse leapt into popular awareness in 2021, in a world all too prepared for virtual sociality thanks to a year and counting of pandemic social distancing and Zoom Christmases. Last April, Epic Games announced $1 billion in investment to build “revolutionary” connected social experiences. In June, Facebook announced itself as “a metaverse company”, with 10,000 employees working on virtual reality products and experiences, and by October, it had rebranded itself as Meta, driving a flurry of commentary as people scrambled to work out what that might actually mean.
The word quickly made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, where it’s defined as “a virtual-reality space in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users”. Venture capitalist Matthew Ball, whose “Metaverse Primer” essays have done a lot to shape thinking around the concept, wrote of it: “You can walk into any experience or activity, and potentially address almost any of your needs, from a single starting point or world that’s also populated by everyone else you know.”
Online video games are probably the easiest way in to imagining the metaverse. They allow for flexibility of interaction (for example, while Fortnite began as a shooter game, it now tags itself as the place where you can “Watch a concert, build an island or fight”) as well as scale (Fortnite has over 200 million players). There are also their highly developed internal economies and social organisation – in Second Life, for instance, users can build houses and open businesses, which contribute to its $600 million economy. But the metaverse is potentially more than just a gateway to digital experiences. It crosses over into physical experiences too. Augmented reality, where the so-called IRL (“in real life”) world is visible alongside digital content, does not require special headsets or fancy glasses.