Internet

EXPLAINER: What the metaverse is and how it will work

LONDON — The term “metaverse” seems to be everywhere. Facebook is hiring thousands of engineers in Europe to work on it, while video-game companies outline their long-term visions for what some consider the next big thing online. The metaverse, which could spring up again when Facebook releases earnings Monday, is the latest buzzword to capture the tech industry’s imagination.

It could be the future, or it could be the latest grandiose vision by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that doesn’t turn out as expected or isn’t widely adopted for years — if at all.

Plus, many have concerns about a new online world tied to a social media giant that could access even more personal data and is accused of failing to stop harmful content.

Here’s what this online world is all about:

WHAT IS THE METAVERSE?

Think of it as the internet brought to life, or at least rendered in 3D. Zuckerberg has described it as a “virtual environment” you can go inside of — instead of just looking at a screen. Essentially, it’s a world of endless, interconnected virtual communities where people can meet, work, and play, using virtual reality headsets, augmented reality glasses, smartphone apps, or other devices.

According to Victoria Petrock, it will also incorporate other aspects of online life such as shopping and social media, an analyst who follows emerging technologies.

“It’s the next evolution of connectivity where all of those things start to come together in a seamless, doppelganger universe, so you’re living your virtual life the same way you’re living your physical life,” she said.

But keep in mind that “it’s hard to define a label to something that hasn’t been created,” said Tuong Nguyen, an analyst who tracks immersive technologies for research firm Gartner.

Facebook warned it would take 10 to 15 years to develop reliable products for the metaverse, coined by writer Neal Stephenson for his 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash.”

WHAT WILL I BE ABLE TO DO IN THE METAVERSE?

Things like going to a virtual concert, taking a trip online, and buying and trying digital clothing.

The metaverse also could be a game-changer for the work-from-home shift amid the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of seeing co-workers on a video call grid, employees could see them virtually.

Facebook has launched meeting software for companies, called Horizon Workrooms, to use its Oculus VR headsets, though early reviews have not been great. The headsets cost $300 or more, putting the metaverse’s most cutting-edge experiences out of reach for many. For those who can afford it, users would be able, through their avatars, to flit between virtual worlds created by different companies.

“A lot of the metaverse experience is going to be around being able to teleport from one experience to another,” Zuckerberg says. Tech companies still have to figure out how to connect their online platforms to each other. Making it work will require competing technology platforms to agree on a set of standards, so there aren’t “people in the Facebook metaverse and other people in the Microsoft metaverse,” Petrock said.

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