The term “Metaverse” means different things to different people and has been aggressively overused in marketing campaigns for plain ol’ 3D games. But where does it originate?
The word “metaverse” is a combination of the prefix “meta,” which means “beyond” or “transcending,” and the word “universe,” which refers to everything that exists. The word has its roots in the popular novel Snow Crash, published in 1992, authored by Neal Stephenson, an American science-fiction author.
The word has since been adopted by technology enthusiasts and futurists to refer to a potential future version of the internet that is fully immersive and three-dimensional.
In the book, the main character, Hiro Protagonist, delivers pizza to the Mafia controlling territory in what used to be the United States, and plugs into the Metaverse when he is not working.
The next internet?
Immersed in the metaverse, in this case a networked virtual reality where people appear as self-designed avatars,
Hiro would engage in activities both mundane (conversation, flirting) and extraordinary (sword fights, mercenary, espionage). This world would be filled by cartoonish looking computer-generated figures.
Yet to others the metaverse is the next generation of the internet.
Now, the big names in technology are in a race to create the next version of the internet known as Web3, a concept for a decentralized iteration of the internet. Some others call it Web5. A lot of it will probably take place in the metaverse.
Like the internet, Stephenson’s Metaverse is a collective, interactive endeavour that is always on and is beyond the control of any one person.
As such, it is widely believed that the metaverse is being built by various players at the moment in the same way the internet was built.
The very first Metaverse
While Stephenson aptly coined the term metaverse in his famous book and his Hiro Protagonist was the first fictional character to plug into the metaverse, he was not the first person to envision VR. In reality, he did nothing more than re-imagine what a Harvard scientist and his team had actually experienced when they built a VR system 20 years earlier.
Ivan Sutherland, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering at Harvard University, had already designed a VR system in 1968, called ‘The Sword of Damocles’, widely considered to be the first augmented reality HMD system.
Sutherland’s system displayed output in a stereoscopic display, depending on the position of the user’s gaze, and used head tracking. Its graphics were basic but demonstrated the concept of today’s virtual reality as subjects navigated the simple wireframe rooms.
“Metaverse” is a broad term
The term metaverse includes VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality) and MR (mixed reality), but can also mean other things. Remote-sensing and -controlling of avatars, for instance. Or neurally interconnected consciousnesses.
AR is arguably the easiest and quickest to adopt, not as prone to inducing motion-sickness as full-on VR. In AR the user experiences an overlay on reality – the screens add elements to or transforms the environment in front of the user. There are a growing number of applications in both VR, AR and in mixed setups. Finnish headset maker Varjo is an example of the latter.
In order to immerse into the metaverse, the user needs a VR headset. Although more than 400 million people have “used the metaverse” in some form or another, the VR headsets are still beyond the reach of many, with some going for up to $3,500. Prices will, however, come down and the metaverse will mean something to even more people.
The metaverse is seen stretching into nearly every industry including real estate, gaming, fashion, events, and education—thus attracting plenty of users along the way.