What is the metaverse?

You’ve probably heard about it online, amid lots of excitable chatter. But what is the metaverse, and what will it involve?

Wednesday, 6 July, 2022

If you’re not familiar with the digital world, its terminology often seems baffling.

This is particularly true when new concepts emerge, which are often still evolving as people attempt to apply recognisable labels to them.

A classic case in point is the metaverse.

The hype around this has built to a crescendo, with Fortnite now promoting itself as a metaverse environment, and Facebook rebranding its parent organisation as Meta.

So what is the metaverse? Is it the future of our online world, or just another technological dead-end?

I’ll take your brains to another dimension

To answer the question ‘what is the metaverse’, you first have to consider the two-dimensional nature of the existing internet.

Webpages are flat, video content is often presented in a small on-screen window, and ecommerce hasn’t evolved far beyond jerky 360-degree product views.

A simple definition of the metaverse would be to imagine the internet in 3D.

Visiting an online shopping portal would see a 3D avatar of you bedecked in whatever clothes you were considering purchasing, sculpted around your pre-mapped body shape.

Role-playing games would involve strapping on a VR headset and losing yourself in a full sensory experience, complete with wraparound vision and surround sound.

There’s a price on your head

Needless to say, the hardware required for metaverse content won’t come cheap. Nor will the program coding, which is why the metaverse might necessitate new financial models.

Many metaverse advocates had hoped cryptocurrencies would provide the underpinnings for a new global digital economy, but the ongoing market collapse may have nixed that idea for now.

There are grand schemes to support transferable assets between platforms, though this would require a degree of cooperation as yet unseen from software developers.

What we’re likely to see is a thousand different metaverse-based platforms and experiences, in the same way the internet has fragmented into numerous sub-sets.

Video streaming, the Dark Web and using a company intranet bear little resemblance to one another, but they’re all underpinned by the internet.

The same could be said of virtually ‘attending’ a live concert, playing Minecraft and ordering your groceries. They might all involve VR headgear or AR projections, but they differ wildly.

Some could involve motion-tracking technology through webcams, others an immersive headset that requires you to stay still. Some may incorporate aromas, though this currently seems rather far-fetched.

Don’t believe the hype (yet)

Many companies (most notably Meta) are pinning their future prosperity on the metaverse.

Some firms are investing heavily without a defined plan, or any confidence that unproven hardware and first-generation software will achieve widespread consumer acceptance.

For such bold/risky acquisitions and investments to pay off, the metaverse must be marketed as an instant success – a compelling proposition nobody can afford to remain outside of.

In truth, many people will do precisely that, while others will only dip their toes into what’s being optimistically marketed as a fully immersive digital universe.

Today’s visions of a Utopian metaverse will slowly be diminished by reality – slow uptake, malware, fraud, early adoption costs, incompatible hardware and so forth.

Hyperbolic advertising shows a metaverse we’re unlikely to ever see, while concepts like virtual land purchases are frankly ludicrous.

Expect a number of technological false dawns; people are already wising up to the fact that NFTs aren’t worth the cryptocurrency required to buy them.

But make no mistake, the metaverse – or a thousand largely unrelated metaverses – will be with us soon enough.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!