ready player one metaverse

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Metaverse definition: Facebook, Epic, and the battle for our digital future

Some of the biggest tech companies in the world want to make a digital universe a reality.

Warner Bros.

Facebook reportedly has plans to fully rebrand the company, with many industry experts suggesting the move could have major implications for the tech giant’s metaverse ambitions. But what is the conceptual metaverse? Is it really as bonkers as the dystopian pop culture reference smoothie that is the Ready Player One book and film adaptation? Here’s a dive into the basics of what a “real” metaverse might look like and how it will factor into Facebook’s ambition and the world of cryptocurrency.

Where does the term “Metaverse” come from?

The word metaverse, as it’s understood today, was coined by sci-fi novelist Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash. In the book, characters retreat to the avatar-populated metaverse to escape the horrors of the real world. Perhaps the most prevalent example of the concept in pop culture is Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One, which was adapted for film in 2018.

Ready Player One offers perhaps the best way to explain the metaverse. Warner Bros.

What is the metaverse?

According to its most staunch believers, the metaverse is essentially the next major iteration of the internet. The main difference, however, is that, while the internet we know is largely populated by 2D webpages and platforms, the metaverse is a series of fully 3D interconnected worlds that avatars can participate in. Social spaces from the early 2000s like Second Life and Habbo Hotel were early pioneers in the space, but since then technology has advanced far enough where the idea can be pushed in a multitude of more intricate directions.

Habbo was one of the earliest examples of what a metaverse concept might look like.Sulake @ Twitter

Generally speaking, products that qualify as a metaverse involve 3D avatars participating in non-competitive activities like watching movies, attending concerts, or shopping for digital goodies with friends. Epic Games’ Fortnite, and company CEO Tim Sweeney, have emerged as major metaverse figureheads, as the company’s free-to-play battle royale game has also been the site of concerts from the likes of Travis Scott and Ariana Grande. Outside concerts, limited-time events have also allowed players to watch full-length Christopher Nolan movies while in control of digital avatars surrounded by equally digital recreations of real-world friends.

A key factor about the metaverse, though, is that typically not everything in the metaverse is made by a single company. Theoretically, in the same way we currently browse countless websites made by different companies on the same internet, the metaverse will have digital spaces with different owners all connected by a new kind of multidimensional interweb.

Facebook and the metaverse

As a non-competitive platform based on digital interaction, Facebook seems like a prime candidate for expansion into some sort of metaverse concept, and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has expressed great interest in the idea in recent years. In July 2021, Zuckerberg told The Verge, “We will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”

Mark Zuckerberg hopes Facebook will become a metaverse company.Hannah McKay-Pool/Getty Images

Facebook’s biggest vehicle for realizing this goal is a social interaction platform, called “Horizon,” that’s still in development. Some experts have suggested the new name for Facebook’s parent company could be tied to that namesake.

Is the metaverse real?

Not quite. The metaverse as executives like Zuckerberg and Sweeney envision it is likely still far off from being a reality. One of the biggest hurdles still left to clear is finding a unified system of digital avatars that all companies involved in the metaverse will accept as the default creation tool. While it’s possible to make avatars look somewhat similar across myriad platforms, the true metaverse won’t exist until that character model is identical and carries its purchases, looks, and other cosmetic belongings wherever it goes.

It’s hard to believe so many tech companies used to being competitors would suddenly allow universally transferable wallets and character models, but Fortnite in particular has proven that unlikely partnerships between brands can happen if enough money is on the table. Fortnite currently features avatars from Terminator to Halo and God of War, all owned by different media companies. Still, this is just one example of something that will likely take a very long time to come to fruition.

Does the metaverse need to be in VR?

Not necessarily. While immersion in digital worlds by way of AR or VR could be key to the concept, examples like Second Life and Fortnite prove digital worlds can function just fine on traditional screens as well. Ready Player One heavily associates the metaverse with VR, but a simpler conceptualization — at least initially — is the far more likely first step in our increasingly more digitized future.

Fortnite proves that not all metaverses have to be in VR.Epic Games

What do NFTs and cryptocurrency have to do with the metaverse?

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and cryptocurrency are intrinsically linked to the metaverse because they could be key means through which users interact with the space. In other words, any metaverse would need some form of currency to exchange digital goods, and crypto technology provides the perfect solution.

NFTs are digital items that typically exist in rare supply, with an ID that proves the item belongs specifically to the owner. This idea could become essential to shopping in the metaverse. If, for example, you walk into a digital metaverse clothing shop, use of NFTs would dictate that only a certain number of every item will appear in stock, similar to how stores function in the real world. Then, when it comes to making that purchase, a completely digital currency like cryptocurrency could be used to make the transaction.

Love it or hate it, NFTs and crypto are essentially the backbone of a fully functioning metaverse.

Is the metaverse good or bad?

Like most questions of morality, deciding whether the metaverse is good or bad is a matter of perspective. While the idea of a fully realized digital world sounds kind of awesome at face value, most people don’t love the idea of corporations like Facebook and Epic being so involved in building it. After all, one company has a history of playing fast and loose with privacy law, while the other shamelessly weaponized an army of 11 year-olds to potentially win a lawsuit that it willfully incited.

Should big corporations be in control of the metaverse?Epic Games

Because everything about the metaverse is so theoretical, it’s hard to know what the end result will be. But, with billions of dollars being leveraged to make it real, the digital-world future seems inevitable. As for when it actually happens, that’s another question entirely. But if only one or two companies are in full control over it, then the monopolistic nature of such a metaverse could lead to some dire consequences.

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