"I believe the metaverse is the next chapter for the internet." – Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta.
The Metaverse may very well be the next chapter in the evolution of the Internet, as Zuckerberg says. But many are wondering what chapters came before, and how did we get here? Others may ask a simpler question: what is the Metaverse?
In this blog, we'll provide an overview of the Metaverse, the technology it's built upon, and what it could mean for business and society in the months and years to come.
Let's start with some definitions and examples.
Virtual Reality (VR)
Virtual Reality (VR) is the use of computer modeling and simulation that enables a person to interact with an artificial three-dimensional visual or other sensory environment. These environments can be designed to realistically simulate real-world environments and events, which helps our brains process the experiences we have in VR in the same way we process real-life experiences. Pilots have trained for years on flight simulators; these simulators are an example of VR.
Augmented Reality (AR)
Augmented Reality (AR) is a process of combining or “augmenting” our view of the real world with digital images using video or photographic displays. Forbes states: "In augmented reality, virtual information and objects are overlaid on the real world. This experience enhances the real world with digital details such as images, text, and animation." Examples of AR include the Pokemon Go game, or interior decorating apps that allow you to see what furniture would look like in your home.
Extended Reality (XR)
Extended Reality (XR) is an umbrella term that accounts for all immersive technologies that extend the reality we experience by either blending the virtual and “real” worlds, or by creating a fully immersive experience. VR and AR can be thought of as sub categories of XR, or technologies that exist on the spectrum of XR technologies. XR is often used as a term to reference the entire category of VR and AR technologies.
Immersive technology is another term for extended reality, or spatial computing technologies. These terms can be used interchangeably to refer to the spectrum of VR, AR, and XR technology. The word “immersive” is indicative of the engaging nature of the experiences that these technologies create, and their ability to deliver a new level of focus and realism in comparison to other digital experiences, like consuming video content, viewing 2D images, or participating in a video conference call.
These technologies make the Metaverse possible. Companies are starting to introduce VR conference calls – where you can collaborate in real-time with a colleague who is on the other side of the world. You'll be able to attend an open house even though you are several states away. Or try on clothing in the Metaverse without ever leaving your house. These experiences will happen in the Metaverse, and they'll be made possible by technology like VR, AR, and XR.
So what is the Metaverse? Author Neal Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” in 1992 in his science-fiction novel “Snow Crash,” which discussed a virtual reality-based successor to the Internet. Investopedia defines it as "a shared virtual environment that people access via the Internet. Technologies like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are combined in the metaverse to create a sense of 'virtual presence.'”
In other words, the Metaverse is the idea that the aforementioned virtual and augmented reality experiences will eventually be connected, offering people a way to move from one environment to another within a much larger and interconnected virtual environment. This is analogous to the way people move from one building to another within the same city in the real world.
In comparison to individual or siloed virtual reality simulations, the Metaverse connects these simulations, and allows people to have co-presence in VR - One user can be having a virtual experience, and another can join the same virtual environment from a completely different location to share the experience. This opens up possibilities for the Metaverse to host virtual events ranging from group learning sessions to concerts and art exhibits.
Many may wonder: How do I access the Metaverse today, and what is it like?
Shared Virtual Environments
In decades past, many technology companies thought that their competitive advantage came through their own platform and product ecosystems. They worked to get customers into their environment, and their environment alone. Apple and Microsoft, for example, made it difficult for consumers to leverage iOS software on Microsoft hardware, or the Microsoft Office suite on Apple devices. Over time, companies realized that a rising tide lifts all ships: they've collaborated to make an open ecosystem that best serves consumers.
The current state of Metaverse technology development and adoption is following suit, and has not yet facilitated a single overarching Metaverse that everyone has access to, as the aforementioned definitions of the term suggest. Rather, numerous separate Metaverses, or ‘Microverses’ have been developed. These walled garden Metaverses are their own environments or proprietary platforms, created by companies like Meta, Microsoft, Roblox, Epic Games, and more. Accessing them requires users to create accounts on each respective Metaverse platform in order to access them, similar to the way users access different social media platforms.
As these immersive environments evolve, companies may keep them distinct and siloed – or opt for interconnectivity between them, depending on consumer demands. In many ways, it could mirror the social media platform landscape: where there is connectivity among different platforms, but distinct content and influencers exist on each. Just as TikTok, Twitter, and Facebook might have different users, there may be different users for different Metaverses – though they can still easily go between environments.
The early Metaverse days have been defined by specific environments. But we predict this will change as Metaverse consumers want a decentralized and interoperable structure where they can move seamlessly across platforms and virtual environments.
Virtual Human Avatars
People also have realistic digital representation in the metaverse, as virtual human avatars have become the standard for how people take on a presence and communicate in VR and AR experiences. Users can create an avatar for themselves and access immersive environments via a VR headset, such as Oculus, as well as through laptop computers and mobile devices.
Virtual human characters mimic real people both visually, as well as with their realistic speech and body language. Virtual humans can be controlled by users, or they can be included in immersive experiences as non-playable characters (NPCs) for users to interact with. No-code authoring tools enable organizations and individuals to pre-determine the speech and physical movements of NPCs in virtual experiences.
Metaverse platforms can be accessed using both XR hardware like virtual reality headsets, as well as traditional 2D devices like desktop computers, laptops, and mobile devices. Platforms for virtual conferencing for example allow users to call into the same conference call using VR or 2D devices, and offer differing levels of an immersive experience depending on which hardware they use.
For example, users logging into a multi-user experience in the Metaverse using a VR headset have the ability to move their heads to dictate their point of view, or may be able to walk around in their physical environment to determine where their avatar moves within the virtual environment.
The same goes for simulated experiences in the Metaverse, as immersive learning simulations can be consumed using a VR headset, or streamed in a web browser. The VR experience offers a deeper level of immersion as the user’s entire point of view is within the virtual space, and their head movements allow them to “look around” the virtual environment. Whereas a desktop user would use their mouse to navigate the experience, and will still see their real environment in their peripherals.
Enabling access to the Metaverse via multiple types of devices is critical for its growth and adoption, as the majority of the population will first experience metaverse technology using devices they already have, like their computer or smartphone. As VR and AR hardware becomes cheaper, and our current devices get new XR capabilities, accessing the Metaverse will only get easier and more engaging.
The potential for the Metaverse is limitless: Citi predicts that the Metaverse economy could be worth as much as $13 trillion by 2030. Promising use cases driving such predictions span consumer and enterprise Metaverse applications, including education, entertainment, and e-commerce. As society looks for answers to the question “what is the Metaverse?,” the answer is revealing itself across a multitude of use cases and experiences.
The Metaverse in the Workplace
One of the new ways people are experiencing the Metaverse is through work. In the past few years, we've heard a lot about the hybrid workplace: working from home or at the office. We may add a third environment to this: the Metaverse – where workers can interact in real-time with life-like conditions, without having to meet in a physical office location.
Use cases for virtual workplaces range from immersive conference calls to company events, employee onboarding, and design thinking sessions. These virtual workspaces offer a higher level of connectivity for employees where they can do things like hand each other virtual objects, brainstorm on virtual whiteboards, and enjoy the feeling of co-presence that is often lacking in a remote work setting.
Education could be completely transformed by the Metaverse, both traditional education and workplace training. Education in the Metaverse is more learner centric, as it's on-demand, more efficient and optimized, and tailored to an individual's needs.
In fact, immersive learning is proving to be more effective than in-person learning and traditional e-learning: PwC found that learners trained with VR were 275 percent more confident to act on what they learned after training, representing a 40% improvement over the traditional classroom and 35% improvement over e-learning.
Companies are already taking advantage of the ROI of learning in the metaverse, deploying VR training for use cases like leadership development, employee onboarding and VR soft skills training. Currently, these training experiences take place in Microverses, or siloed environments, that are analogous to a virtual office space or classroom. In these virtual environments, companies can have their employees practice skills through individual role play, coaching and mentoring sessions, and larger group learning formats with multiple learners in the same space.
If the immersive learning experiences we have today are taking place at a classroom level, the immersive learning experiences of the near future will represent entire virtual schools and academies. These immersive skills development academies will offer the scale and level of co-presence promised by the Metaverse, as organizations enable thousands of learners to learn in shared virtual environments and develop new skills. With the technology already in place, and immersive learning use cases continuing to expand, the Metaverse is poised to change education forever for students and the workforce alike.
Arts, Entertainment and Real Estate
Consumer experiences are also gaining traction, as entertainment is becoming one of the more promising consumer use cases for the metaverse. The technology allows people to have engaging shared experiences no matter where they are in the world.
"Imagine your best friend is at a concert somewhere across the world. What if you could be there with her?" asks Mark Zuckerburg. It may seem like a far off idea, but already prominent artists including Ariana Grande, Travis Scott, and The Chainsmokers have made concerts or performances accessible via the Metaverse for millions of people.
The music industry isn't the only one working to bring their experiences to the Metaverse. Walt Disney announced in November that they are working to bring their theme parks to the digital world through wearables and VR.
"Our efforts to date are merely a prologue to a time when we’ll be able to connect the physical and digital worlds even more closely, allowing for storytelling without boundaries in our own Disney metaverse," said Disney CEO Bob Chapek.
Some of the most popular Metaverses today already fall in the gaming and entertainment category, including environments from different platforms such as Sandbox, Mirandus, Decentraland, and Treeverse, for example. Users in these environments can do everything from buy digital real estate to shop for real or virtual products. Digital real estate has become popular because immersive technology allows people to recreate a "digital twin" of a location, with an example being that a company can create a replica of their physical office space in the digital world, or brands can re-create digital versions of their storefronts to showcase products to customers.
Meanwhile, non fungible tokens (NFTs) have driven a sort of digital gold rush as consumers try to make investments in digital artwork. According to Forbes, NFTs are defined as "a digital asset that represents real-world objects like art, music, in-game items and videos. They are bought and sold online, frequently with cryptocurrency, and they are generally encoded with the same underlying software as many cryptos." Adidas, for example, launched an original partnership, Into the Metaverse, working with artists to create and sell NFTs – they already sold out of the collection, netting more than $22 million. This level of consumer attention has led brands to begin racing to create digital twins of their products and IP for the Metaverse.
Some of these digital assets sell for significant amounts of cryptocurrency: a Beeple video sold for $69 million last March, according to The Verge. But the value of the Metaverse also lies in the ability for artists to put together virtual exhibits and connect with physically distant buyers, collectors, curators, or other artists who would be unable view their work otherwise.
As more commercial and consumer use cases for the Metaverse prove their value, the idea of more immersive internet experiences will become the norm, rather than a novelty. And we are already seeing those use cases prove themselves today. While we are in the nascent days of the Metaverse, its growth is only limited by the number of virtual experiences and environments that people create: just about anything that you can do in the real-world, you'll be able to do in the Metaverse in the near future.
To many, it may seem far-fetched. But some of the same things said about the Metaverse – about how the digital world would never be able to rival the real-world – were said about the Internet just a few decades ago.
The Metaverse represents a new destination for individuals and organizations to explore. It's a place where artists, musicians, gamers, colleagues, learners, and more can connect in ways never before possible. It's a place of limitless potential, and we are well on our way there.
Check out the Talespin blog for further analysis, updates, and Metaverse intel.