November 9, 2021
Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol
Silicon Valley has a new favorite buzzword: Ever since Mark Zuckerberg announced earlier this year that Facebook's future would be in the metaverse, everyone has been rushing to figure out what a metaverse even is. And when Facebook rebranded as Meta in October, metaverse fever swept the tech industry. From Microsoft to Nvidia, every company is suddenly in the metaverse business, and seemingly overnight, countless people became metaverse experts.
But what actually is the metaverse? Why does it matter, and who needs to worry about it? If the metaverse is truly "the next chapter for the internet," as Zuckerberg put it, it's important to understand and define it so as not to be caught flat-footed when (or if) the metaverse wave catches on.
The metaverse, at its core, is an embodied internet: a social sphere where people will be able to meet with the help of personalized avatars that make them feel more present than a plain video call. It's synchronous, which makes it feel more like real life than today's feed-based social media. Instead of catching up on what others have been up to, you'll meet with them in real time.
It will also be persistent, just like the world around us. When you revisit a metaverse space, you won't have to start over from scratch. And just like real life, it's going to encompass all kinds of things that you may want to do with other people: go to concerts and other events, play games, hang out, date and, yes, work and shop.
But to be very clear, the metaverse does not exist — yet. What we do have, though, are some predecessors:
Ultimately, there's one big reason why we don't have a metaverse just yet:
The metaverse is a network. It's not one single service, but a collection of services loosely tied together, both by companies building dedicated roads between their services, as well as by people beating their own paths to get from one destination to another. That's also why some of the first generation of avatar-based services, like Second Life, are not the metaverse on their own. Just like the mobile internet isn't just one single app, and none of the apps on your phone would have succeeded if it weren't for the existence of many other apps and services, the metaverse depends on a multitude of interconnected services to succeed.
Believe it or not, the rush to the metaverse didn't start with Zuckerberg falling in love with VR. Instead, it's driven by a multitude of factors. People are adopting avatar-based social gaming platforms by the millions; the pandemic has driven all of us to find new forms of real-time interaction; and companies like Apple, Amazon, Google and Meta all are trying to figure out the next big thing after the smartphone. And while these trends play out in real time, a few very important questions are still up in the air.
There are plenty of companies trying to build the metaverse. Here are some of the biggest players in the space:
No matter whether creating the metaverse will take one or many decades, it's clear that immersive hardware will play a major role in making it popular. That's why the horse race between Meta, Apple, Snap, Microsoft and others to create AR glasses is so important. Whoever wins it may not automatically win the metaverse as well, but will definitely have a massive home team advantage.
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