If you pay attention to the tech, gaming, or crypto worlds, then you might have heard about the metaverse well before late 2021. But even if you aren’t immersed in those spheres, chances are good that you’ve seen the marked increase in chatter since Facebook marked out its grand plans to build the metaverse.
What is the metaverse, exactly? Well, that’s tough to pin down in a quick snippet. Effectively, it’s a future vision of the Internet that could be more immersive and all-encompassing, with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) headsets likely to play a big role as online experiences look and feel more real—and potentially replace some real-world activities.
How the metaverse will work and who will control it both remain to be seen, however, and the term has recently been used as a catch-all for a wide array of forward-looking tech, gaming, and NFT-centric initiatives. Plus, it could be years before we’re all vibing online as avatars.
What is Metaverse?
The metaverse is a concept of an online 3D digital world with virtual land and objects. Imagine a world in which you can work remotely, visit virtual museums to see the latest artworks, or join your fellow rock band fans at a virtual concert, all from the comfort of your home.
Axie Infinity, The Sandbox, Decentraland have already incorporated certain aspects of the metaverse to bring multiple elements of our lives into online worlds. However, the metaverse is still under development. No one knows whether there will be just one big all-encompassing metaverse or multiple metaverses that you can travel around.
As the idea continues to develop, it’s expected to expand beyond video games and social media platforms. Remote working, decentralized governance, and digital identity are just some of the potential features the metaverse can support. It can also become more multi-dimensional via connected VR headsets and glasses, so users can actually walk around physically to explore the 3D spaces.
Why are video games linked to the metaverse?
Because of the emphasis on 3D virtual reality, video games offer the closest metaverse experience currently. This point isn’t just because they are 3D, though. Video games now offer services and features that cross over into other aspects of our lives. The video game Roblox even hosts virtual events like concerts and meetups. Players don't just play the game anymore; they also use it for other activities and parts of their lives in "cyberspace". For example, in the multiplayer game Fortnite, 12.3 million players took part in Travis Scott's virtual in-game music tour.
Who’s building it?
Lots of companies, apparently—and the list keeps growing over time. Beyond Facebook, we’ve seen Chinese tech and gaming giant Tencent dedicate a lot of resources to the metaverse, and Microsoft said that its planned acquisition of Activision is about building up to the metaverse.
Elsewhere, brands as diverse as Walmart and Disney have revealed plans to extend their offerings into the metaverse, with Disney CEO Bob Chapek calling it "the next great storytelling frontier." Others are taking a more cautious approach; Shuntaro Furukawa, president of gaming giant Nintendo, has stated that while there's "great potential" in the metaverse, the company has yet to formulate any concrete plans.
In crypto space, there are seemingly countless startups and communities building parts of the metaverse, whether it’s game worlds, interoperable assets, or infrastructure. Because the concept of the metaverse is still pretty nebulous and difficult to succinctly describe, it feels like nearly anything blockchain-related could potentially be a piece of the coming metaverse.
It’s also worth asking: who’s buying in the metaverse? Digital land sales spiked in late 2021, even topping $100 million worth in a single week, and we’ve seen multi-million-dollar land sales across Decentraland and The Sandbox, with brands like Gucci snapping up virtual real estate.
How does Metaverse work?
In Facebook’s vision of the metaverse, users would interact together in 3D spaces and have the ability to shift between different experiences. For example, you could share a room with other users and chat or play cards, and then pop out with a pal into a 3D surfing game. From there, you could hit an NFT art gallery, pop into a digital casino, or check out a live concert. And then you can get some alone time in your own personal, customizable home base.
But it won’t just be Facebook building experiences: it’ll likely be an array of companies and creators, large and small. The unifying element may be the use of a crypto wallet or similar functionality to log in to services and tap into your owned assets. Whether it’s equipping a 3D avatar, playing with in-game items, or loading up a personal location that you own as an NFT, you’ll want access to your own digital stuff no matter where you’re at.
In other words, the metaverse won’t be a single destination run by a single company or community. It’s expected to be more open than that, but all built on an interoperable, potentially blockchain-based framework that enables easy movement across places and spaces.
While we don't yet have a single, linked metaverse, we have plenty of platforms and projects similar to the metaverse. Typically, these also incorporate NFTs and other blockchain elements. Let's look at below examples:
Axie Infinity is a play-to-earn game that’s provided players in developing countries an opportunity to earn consistent income. By purchasing or being gifted three creatures known as Axies, a player can start farming the Smooth Love Potion (SLP) token. When sold on the open market, someone could make roughly $200 to $1000 (USD) depending on how much they play and the market price.
While Axie Infinity doesn't provide a singular 3D character or avatar, it gives users the opportunity for a metaverse-like job.
Decentraland is an online, digital world that combines social elements with cryptocurrencies, NFTs, and virtual real estate. On top of this, players also take an active role in the governance of the platform. Like other blockchain games, NFTs are used to represent cosmetic collectibles. They're also used for LAND, 16x16 meter land parcels that users can purchase in the game with the cryptocurrency MANA. The combination of all of these creates a complex crypto-economy.
The Ethereum-based game lets users purchase plots of land—which are sold as NFT assets—in the shared world and then build on top of it, creating things like NFT artwork galleries and other interactive experiences.
Key technologies power the Metaverse
To make the metaverse experience more immersive, companies are using cutting-edge technologies like blockchain, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), 3D reconstruction, artificial intelligence (AI), and the Internet of things (IoT) to power the 3D world.
Blockchain and Cryptocurrency
Blockchain technology provides a decentralized and transparent solution for digital proof of ownership, digital collectibility, transfer of value, governance, accessibility, and interoperability. Cryptocurrencies enable users to transfer value while they work and socialize in the 3D digital world.
For example, crypto can be used to buy virtual lands in Decentraland. Players can purchase 16x16 meter land parcels in the form of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) with the game’s cryptocurrency MANA. With the support of blockchain technology, the ownership of these virtual lands can be established and secured.
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) can give us an immersive and engaging 3D experience. These are our entry points to the virtual world. But what’s the difference between AR and VR?
AR uses digital visual elements and characters to morph the real world. It’s more accessible than VR and can be used on almost any smartphone or digital device with a camera. Through AR applications, users can view their surroundings with interactive digital visuals, similar to what we have in the mobile game Pokémon GO. When players open the camera on their phones, they can see Pokémons in the real-world environment.
VR works differently. Much like the metaverse concept, it produces an entirely computer-generated virtual environment. Users can then explore it using VR headsets, gloves, and sensors.
The way AR and VR work shows an early model of the metaverse. VR is already creating a digital world that incorporates fictional visual content. As its technology becomes more mature, VR can expand the metaverse experience to involve physical simulations with VR equipment. Users will be able to feel, hear and interact with people from other parts of the world. Considering the hype around the metaverse, we can expect more metaverse companies to invest in AR and VR equipment development in the near future.
Artificial intelligence (AI)
Artificial intelligence (AI) has been widely applied in our lives in recent years: business strategy planning, decision making, facial recognition, faster computing, and more. More recently, AI experts have been studying the possibilities of applying AI to the creation of immersive metaverses.
Within the metaverse, AI can be applied to the non-player characters (NPCs) in different scenarios. NPCs exist in almost every game; they are a part of the gaming environment designed to react and respond to players’ actions. With AI’s processing abilities, NPCs can be placed across the 3D spaces to facilitate lifelike conversations with users or perform other specific tasks. Unlike a human user, an AI NPC can run on its own and be used by millions of players at the same time. It can also work in several different languages.
Another potential application for AI is in the creation of metaverse avatars. AI engines can be used to analyze 2D images or 3D scans to generate avatars that look more realistic and accurate. To make the process more dynamic, AI can also be used to create different facial expressions, hairstyles, clothes, and features to enhance the digital humans we create.
One of the challenges for the metaverse is to create a digital environment that appears as close to our real world as possible. With the help of 3D reconstruction, it can create realistic and natural-looking spaces. Through special 3D cameras, we can take our world online by rendering accurate 3D photorealistic models of buildings, physical locations, and objects. The 3D spatial data and 4K HD photography are then passed to computers to process and generate a virtual replica in the metaverse for users to experience. These virtual replicas of physical world objects can also be referred to as digital twins.
Internet of things (IoT)
The concept of the Internet of things (IoT) was first introduced in 1999. Simply put, IoT is a system that takes everything in our physical world and connects them to the Internet through sensors and devices. After connecting to the Internet, these devices will have a unique identifier and the ability to send or receive information automatically. Today, IoT is connecting thermostats, voice-activated speakers, medical devices, and much more to a wide range of data.
One of the applications of IoT on the metaverse is to collect and provide data from the physical world. This would increase the accuracy of digital representations. For example, IoT data feeds could change the way certain metaverse objects function based on the current weather or other conditions.
Implementing IoT can seamlessly connect the 3D world to a large number of real-life devices. This enables the creation of real-time simulations in the metaverse. To further optimize the metaverse environment, IoT could also use AI and machine learning to manage the data it collects.
The Future of Metaverse
Part of the reason why the term “metaverse” feels so nebulous right now is that it’s probably still years away—at least in a polished, cohesive form. It’s early days for crypto games and NFTs, and blockchain-driven decentralized apps (dapps) still have a long way to go before they’re accessible and easy enough for mainstream consumers to use.
While a single, united metaverse is likely a long way off, we already can see developments that may lead to its creation. It looks to be yet another sci-fi use case for blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies. If we will ever really reach the point of a metaverse is unsure. But in the meantime, we can already experience metaverse-like projects and continue to integrate blockchain more into our daily lives.