Last April, the Coca-Cola Company issued a triumphant press release announcing that it had introduced a soft drink in the metaverse. The 136-year-old beverage maker touted its latest concoction, Coca-Cola Zero Sugar Byte, as “transcend[ing] the digital and physical worlds.” Along with a limited-edition real-world version that was aimed at gamers, the drink was available in virtual form within the wildly popular online game Fortnite.
Coke’s landmark moment had an absurdist tinge: After all, you can’t taste a virtual cola or get a caffeine hit from it. But it would have been almost odder if the company hadn’t staked its claim in the metaverse. Over the past year, many high-profile brands have trumpeted their own arrivals in this curious netherworld, from Zara (fashion for avatars) to Ferrari (a digital 296 GTB supercar) to Nike (an entire virtual theme park called Nikeland).
Yet, here’s the strangest part of this mad rush: The metaverse doesn’t exist yet.
Sure, we’ve got virtual worlds such as Fortnite—and Roblox, Minecraft, Decentraland, and many others. But they aren’t the metaverse. What the metaverse’s true believers are imagining is a universal, global 3D environment that seamlessly merges digital and physical realities—possibly via lightweight goggles you wear throughout your waking hours. That might still be many years away, if it comes to be at all.
Even those with deep knowledge of the metaverse can only guess where it could go over the next decade.
So what is this metaverse that all these brands (and venture capitalists and startups) are talking about? For one thing, it’s a white-hot buzzword that intersects and overlaps with other trendy concepts, such as Web3, virtual reality, augmented reality, NFTs, cryptocurrency, and the blockchain. It’s an obsession among the leaders of today’s most powerful tech companies—most notably Meta, née Facebook, which changed its corporate name to underscore its pivot to colonizing this emerging world. It’s also a concept, a potential reinvention of our relationship with technology that some see as democratizing and others regard as downright creepy.
According to a November 2021 report by digital currency asset manager Grayscale, the metaverse market could surpass $1 trillion in annual revenue in the coming years. But like past computing sea changes brought on by the creation of the web or smartphones, its arrival will likely sneak up on us. “We’re not going to flip some switch and be like, ‘This is the way we [now] experience the internet,’” says Forrester analyst Julie Ask.
Even those with deep knowledge of the metaverse can only guess where it could go over the next decade. But this we do know: Something lies beyond the internet as we currently experience it. The metaverse is a fungible enough construct that it may well become our new interface for digital life. We can’t be sure how or when the pieces will fall into place. But that isn’t stopping everybody from talking about it—and if you’re interested in joining the conversation, you’ve probably got questions. Such as . . .
Can you just explain to me what the metaverse is?
Not in a way that will capture every possible permutation of the concept. But let’s give it a shot.
Most of the digital content that we consume today—whether on smartphones, tablets, or PCs—involves scrolling pages of text, images, and videos. In effect, we’re outside the internet looking in.
By contrast, the metaverse is much more like a video game. You’re part of the action, depicted as an avatar. So is everyone else you interact with. Everything takes place in simulated 3D spaces that can be as mundane as a conference room or as fantastic as a planet in another universe.
Wait, how is that different from virtual reality?
They’re similar—to such a degree that “the metaverse” can feel like a rebrand of VR, a technology that’s waxed and waned since the 1990s without taking over our lives. But VR, in its current incarnation, is something that even ardent fans experience only in isolated bursts—say, if they’ve strapped on a Meta Quest 2 headset to play a game, such as Beat Saber. Metaverse architects aspire to build a grand, unified 3D interface for everything from working to shopping to hanging out with friends and family. In other words, it’s a sweeping replacement for the flatter, less immersive internet we experience today.
Many metaverse enthusiasts aren’t talking about something that’s entirely virtual. Instead, they see it as an ambitious form of augmented or mixed reality, most likely viewed through some sort of goggles that give the physical world a new digital layer. As Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg likes to point out, you might kick back in your living room and watch a movie on a 100-plus-inch TV—which actually consists entirely of pixels painted on the display of the headset you’re wearing, saving both space and money.
In their most wildly expansive form, metaverse experiences could involve living in a simulated reality that’s indistinguishable from the real thing, and deeply enmeshed with it. Last year, when Zuckerberg announced that he was reimagining Facebook as Meta, he explained where it could all go with the help of several glitzy what-if videos. In one, a young woman in Kyoto, Japan, enters the metaverse to join her friend at a Jon Batiste concert in L.A. She doesn’t morph into a cartoony avatar. She just beams into the audience looking like herself, albeit glowing and slightly translucent. Both women seem to be wearing AR glasses that don’t look much different from something you’d buy at LensCrafters today.
That sounds like science fiction.
For now, it is. And it may stay that way for way longer than Zuckerberg and other metaverse cheerleaders expect because the technology necessary to make it real will involve multiple epoch-shifting hardware advances beyond anything that exists today. “Trying to layer in all of the sensors we require into [a headset] that is lightweight, that’s affordable, and that can last for a day and come anywhere near the power of the device in our pocket is an extraordinarily hard challenge,” says Matthew Ball, an investor and the author of The Metaverse And How It Will Revolutionize Everything.
No rule says that the metaverse has to be viewed through goggles at all.
To be fair to Meta, the company is already tackling many aspects of this overwhelming challenge. It has teased some of its prototype headsets, including one that sports varifocal lenses so your eyes can focus on different elements at varying distances, just as they do in real life. With another of its headsets, the virtual world is so crisp you can make out the bottom line of an eye chart. A third prototype offers 200 times the image brightness of today’s Meta Quest 2, and yet another slims down the hardware into something that might be comfy enough to slip on for extended periods.
It’s telling that these are four different prototypes: It’s too early even to think about cramming all the tech into one headset that anyone would willingly don for hours a day.
So the metaverse can’t exist until all this gadgetry is ready?
Not necessarily. No rule says that the metaverse has to be viewed through goggles at all. Plenty of people are already interacting with immersive 3D worlds on today’s screens. Fortnite, Minecraft, and Roblox are all well established and massively popular: Roblox, for example, has been around since 2006 and has 52 million daily active users.
Although these platforms are all nominally focused on gaming, they long ago transcended any conventional definition of gameplay. When the pandemic disrupted in-person gatherings in 2020, for example, an Indonesian technical university moved its graduation ceremony into Minecraft. Ariana Grande’s August 2021 concert in Fortnite attracted an audience of 78 million. Just this year, merchants from Gucci to Dick’s Sporting Goods have set up shops in Roblox.
Alongside these crowd-pleasing companies with roots in gaming, other entities are creating metaverse-like worlds to satisfy particular niches. Virbela, for instance, lets businesses establish virtual headquarters where workers can mingle as 3D avatars rather than being boxed into video windows in Zoom. “You have those watercooler-type interactions occurring,” says cofounder and president Alex Howland. “And that’s when the ‘aha’ goes off for a lot of people.”
Okay, so why don’t Roblox, Minecraft, Virbela, and the rest already add up to the metaverse?
Because they’re utterly walled off from each other. For instance, there’s no way to stroll from Roblox into Minecraft and take your avatar, any virtual property you’ve accumulated, and general digital self with you. During a pop-up experience in May 2021, for example, someone plunked down $4,115 in Roblox‘s “Robux” currency for a virtual Gucci Dionysius bag—and in Roblox that bag will stay.
If there’s going to be a single metaverse, it needs to be built on shared standards that permit seamless navigation from place to place—similar to how we’ve always been able to click from website to website. The effort to build those technologies is just starting.
That hasn’t stopped plenty of people from referring to today’s 3D worlds as metaverses. But it’s more accurate to call them proto-metaverses, and so I will.
Got it. So how do we make the leap from these walled-off proto-metaverses to the one true metaverse?
Some people think we’ll do it via another emerging, much-hyped concept: Web3. Rather than having the details of your digital identity locked up in a database at a company such as Meta or Roblox, you could store them in a public blockchain, a database that isn’t controlled by anyone in particular. Digital possessions, from your avatar’s clothing to its home, would exist as NFTs, which use the blockchain as a way of establishing ownership. Buying and selling them would involve cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin or Ethereum.
This is a much more decentralized vision for internet infrastructure than we’ve seen in the Web 2.0 era, with enormous companies, such as Meta, controlling distribution and monetizing the creations of their members. “There’s not a lot of goodwill towards some of those companies by the creator community,” says Anand Agarawala, cofounder and CEO of Spatial, a “metaverse for culture,” where artists can share their NFT creations. “They felt like they got the shaft with Web 2.0, and those companies grew on the backs of their labor. If you believe Web3 and decentralization will be key tenets of the metaverse, then it’s going to be kind of hard for those trillion dollar companies to really engage with that.”
Some proto-metaverses are already built atop Web3 standards, including Decentraland and The Sandbox, two 3D worlds whose members can purchase virtual real estate. Over time, this decentralized approach could permit a vast number of interoperable virtual worlds to coexist—a metaverse of metaverses. You could have one online identity that spans “different kinds of metaverses that serve different purposes,” says Natalia Modenova, the cofounder of virtual fashion startup DressX—say, one for work, another centered around dating, and a third for residents of your (real-world) neighborhood. (That’s assuming you wouldn’t prefer to maintain separate metaverse personas for different personas—as some people surely will.)
The whole idea here is that many metaverses can standardize on some enabling technologies that benefit everybody. “The more interpretable you are with others, the more value you create for everybody,” says Mathieu Nazareth, U.S. CEO for The Sandbox. “This is for a fundamental difference between Web 2.0 and Web3.”
This would require buy-in from a lot of people, wouldn’t it?
Whether the blockchain, NFTs, and crypto will end up as a standard for this sort of plumbing in the metaverse remains to be seen. One way or another, however, the metaverse will require consensus on an array of enabling technologies. Last June, an industry consortium arose that’s devoted to them. The Metaverse Standards Forum plans to facilitate collaboration on everything from 3D rendering tech to payment systems. Its 500-plus principal members include behemoths such as Google, Meta, Nvidia, Microsoft, and Samsung as well as intriguingly named startups like EveryRealm, Ready Player Me, and Surreal. (The holdout: Apple, going its own way as usual.)
This broad agreement that metaverse standards are essential is just a start. “When there’s trillions of dollars at stake, it’s not necessarily about infrastructure,” says The Metaverse author Ball. “It’s not about extraordinary advances in computing power or battery. It’s about agreements. And those are always the hardest.”
A certain selflessness on the part of the companies involved will be required. “We all have to take a win-win approach and forget the individualistic goals of each stakeholder,” says Sravanth Aluru, founder and CEO of Avataar, which helps e-commerce companies build AR experiences, and is a principal member of the Metaverse Standards Forum.
Isn’t it more likely that the metaverse will end up being dominated by a single tech giant, much as Meta dominates social networking and Google dominates search?
Maybe! Several of the industry’s existing heavyweights are certainly jockeying to play that singular role.
There’s at least some chance that the metaverse will turn out to be a place where being massive puts you at a disadvantage.
It’s easy to see why they’re taking the prospect of a metaverse revolution seriously—and maybe with a little healthy paranoia. In the metaverse, existing feed-centric social networks, such as Facebook and Instagram, could suddenly feel obsolete. Some piece of high-tech eyewear, rather than the iPhone, would be the world’s defining consumer electronics gadget. Google’s whole mission—”to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”—might need to be expressed in wildly new ways. All in all, it’s as much a threat to the incumbent giants as it is an opportunity for them.
And there’s at least some chance that the metaverse will turn out to be a place where being massive puts you at a disadvantage. “There’s not a lot of goodwill towards some of those companies by the creator community,” says Anand Agarawala, cofounder and CEO of Spatial, a “metaverse for culture,” where artists can share their NFT creations. “They felt like they got the shaft with Web 2.0, and those companies grew on the backs of their labor. If you believe Web3 and decentralization will be key tenets of the metaverse, then it’s going to be kind of hard for those trillion dollar companies to really engage with that.”
How do these companies plan to stay on top?
In part by controlling the entire metaverse experience—not just their own online services, but also the hardware they run on. Apple doesn’t deign to use the term “metaverse” in public, but it’s widely expected to release AR goggles in 2023. Meta, which has a hardware arm called Reality Labs, with 17,000 staffers, has reportedly postponed its first AR headset’s release to 2024. Unfazed by the failure of its Google Glass AR glasses and Daydream VR headset, Google has demoed experimental AR glasses that can translate between languages on the fly.
Then there’s Microsoft. Its existing assets, such as Minecraft and the HoloLens AR headset, make it a dark horse in the metaverse-kingpin race. Furthermore, the company says that its planned $69 billion acquisition of game maker Activision Blizzard “will provide building blocks for the metaverse”—a vague but significant claim.
Not that having access to vast resources guarantees anything. Microsoft threw as much money at smartphones as anyone—including spending $7.2 billion to acquire Nokia’s handset business in 2013—and eventually gave up on Windows-powered phones altogether. As the metaverse starts to get real, there’s no reason to think that any of today’s biggest tech players will have an easy time of it. Indeed, they’re likely to find themselves competing against new giants yet to be founded.
The first wave of metaverse hardware will tell us only so much about who the winners and losers are likely to be. As headsets begin to appear, the entire industry has “several generations of hardware to figure our way through,” says Greg Cross, CEO of Soul Machines, which works with brands to create “digital people,” such as customer-service avatars.
This all sounds pretty complicated, but kind of fun. Why are some people already expecting the metaverse to be a dystopian hellscape?
This fear dates all the way back to the origin of the term “metaverse” in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science-fiction novel Snow Crash, in which citizens of a 21st century dystopia escaped into a virtual world that was pretty grim. Today, many people are trying to spend less time staring at screens. Yet the metaverse could involve walking around with tiny ones mounted on our faces. And Meta has become (literally) so synonymous with the whole idea of the metaverse that some are picturing us all living in Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the future—not exactly a universally appealing proposition.
You don’t have to be reflexively anti-metaverse to worry about its potential to unleash new forms of online harassment. In May, a researcher for advocacy group SumOfUs reported that her avatar fell victim to a virtual sexual assault within an hour of entering Meta’s Horizon Worlds, a proto-metaverse experience available on its Quest headsets. (By default, Horizon Worlds maintains a virtual 4-foot “personal boundary” around avatars that prevents strangers from venturing too close, but other members goaded her into turning it off.)
All the Metaverse Is a Stage
The actual metaverse isn’t real yet, but that isn’t stopping companies from experimenting with the virtual platforms that do exist. Here are three types of experiences currently available in the virtual realm.
As with current moderation on social networks, policing the metaverse will likely involve both AI algorithms and human intervention. But its inherently distributed, real-time nature will make for an even more Sisyphean task. “If you have multitudes of environments and situations, how many can you actively monitor?” asks Everest Group partner Rajesh Ranjan, who theorizes that metaverse inhabitants might need the equivalent of a 911 number to call in times of distress.
I’m finding this less and less enticing. How soon are we all going to be sucked into the metaverse—ready or not?
This could take a while. In a recent survey of 624 technologists conducted by Pew Research Center and North Carolina’s Elon University, only a slim majority—54%—thought that the metaverse would be a highly evolved part of everyday life for at least 500 million people by 2040. Even that figure is equal to just one-tenth of the internet’s global population in 2022.
It’s not just about the technology being ready. Among Pew/Elon respondents, “a large share predicted that the metaverse will not be broadly adopted if the public perceives it to be an even more invasive and threatening geography of intrusive surveillance and rampant monetization” than the current internet, says Janna Anderson, the director of Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center.
Maybe boosters and skeptics alike can agree on one thing: The metaverse will only matter if a meaningful percentage of humanity wants to spend time there. Tech companies are definitely building it. Let’s see how many people come.