The term “METAVERSE” was originally coined in Neal Stephenson’s seminal 1992 cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash. In the book, the Metaverse (always capitalized in Stephenson’s fiction) is a shared “imaginary place” that’s “made available to the public over the worldwide fiber-optics network” and projected onto virtual reality goggles. In it, developers can “build buildings, parks, signs, as well as things that do not exist in Reality, such as vast hovering overhead light shows, special neighborhoods where the rules of three-dimensional spacetime are ignored, and free-combat zones where people can go to hunt and kill each other.”
The Metaverse is more than a massive online multiplayer game or entertainment platform, it will become an integral part of life. For the first time in history, anybody with a virtual reality headset, no matter their real-life circumstances, will be able to experience the best of what life has to offer and much, much more in this virtual universe unbound by the laws of physics.
The ability to own virtual property as you would physical property
This can mean anything from a JPG that’s associated with your account to a collection of powerful gear in World of Warcraft. In either case, your virtual property stays linked to you and doesn’t disappear between sessions.
Recently, people have tried to use non-fungible tokens as a decentralized way to track and establish ownership of virtual goods, independent of any controlling authority or corporate server. In theory, such NFTs could allow virtual goods to be moved freely between metaverses controlled by different companies. In practice, the level of standard-setting and inter-corporate cooperation necessary for this kind of portability writ large remains a pipe dream.
The ability to create your own virtual property
Allowing users to make their own metaverse content can be seen as a boon both for users—who get to shape the virtual world to their whims—and for the metaverse makers—who don’t have to spend a lot of time and effort creating every single virtual object from scratch. Games like Minecraft and Roblox show how metaverses that provide relatively simple building blocks can harness network effects and player creativity to produce a huge variety of in-world creations.
But filling a metaverse with virtual objects isn’t as simple as just saying “let the users do it.” Questions of control, moderation, and copyright infringement can take on outsized importance here, especially if your metaverse is controlled by a corporation that wants to draw value from all that user-generated work (and if the users want to share the profits).
The ability to exchange and/or sell your virtual property
This can range from things like no-longer-grey-market currency exchanges for World of Warcraft gold farming to strictly regulated full in-universe economies like those in EVE Online.
This is seen by many as the last step in achieving a “full” metaverse. Virtual and augmented reality could allow us to advance past the “magic windows” of our flat screens to a world where one actually feels a sense of “presence” with other 3D avatars occupying the same location. “It’ll feel like you’re right in the room together making eye contact, having a shared sense of space and not just looking at a grid of faces on a screen,” as Meta put it in its keynote.
Early efforts like VRChat and Meta’s own Horizon Worlds and Horizon Workplaces already serve as strong proof-of-concept examples of how this could work. But sharing a room with 16 other avatars in Horizon is “a far cry from the metaverse of our visions,” as Carmack pointed out last week. Many technical problems will need to be overcome to have a VR metaverse with “thousands of people milling about” and wandering in and out of virtual rooms at will, as Carmack envisions.