In the summer of 2003, an online multimedia platform developed by San Francisco-based tech firm Linden Lab was born. Known to many as Second Life, it was a virtual reality (VR) environment where users could live out – quite literally – a second life. Virtual reality took on an expanded meaning beyond just games, to cover just about everything that parallels the real world from socialising, regular individual or group activities, creating, shopping, trading and even owning property.

Almost two decades later (along with the rise and fall of active users), Second Life lays claim to the title of the first ever example of a metaverse, made popular by major organisations like Facebook and Microsoft.

So, what exactly is the metaverse and why is it gaining traction now?

The metaverse defined

Many articles make reference to Neal Stephenson – author of the 1992 novel Snow Crash – as the ‘thought-father’ of the metaverse. In the book, the metaverse referred to the ‘convergence of physical, augmented, and virtual reality in a shared online space’.

The metaverse as it is known now is exactly that. A shared online space where communities can flourish in different social hubs, every individual owning avatars that represent themselves in real life (or a second version of themselves, if they like), with the help of VR and AR-ready (augmented reality) ecosystems bringing life to an online identity.

As Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook (now Meta) explains: “You can kind of think about [the metaverse] as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example, or different types of fitness.”

The overarching goal of the metaverse? To achieve an interoperable environment where actors in it are ready to collaborate with one another to transform the way we socialise and engage with individuals, businesses, services, and real-life in general as we see it in an online space, while extending our reach beyond the physical realm.

Characteristics of a metaverse

Notice that we mentioned collaboration and an interoperable environment. The idea of a metaverse can only exist with the core concept of the technology that supports it. This refers to the blockchain technology that underpins its decentralised nature, cryptocurrencies that form its financial exchange medium, VR headsets and other hardware devices. To that effect, some may even mention the abstract irony that is the metaverse relies on the physical world to survive.

There are some other key characteristics that are commonly associated with the metaverse, such as the use of avatars that are fully immersive and enabled by VR and AR technologies, allowing individual expression through the process of avatar creation and translation of real-world actions to virtual actions.

The metaverse would also need some sort of economy to thrive, which would depend on a virtual exchange system built on cryptocurrencies. With it, the metaverse provides a marketplace for exchange of goods, services and property, which will also require willing individuals to be on either side of the transaction. Take for example, a fitness instructor wishes to conduct a class in the metaverse and wants to get paid for it. He or she will have to put an enrollment system in place for participants to subscribe to, and via the exchange of cryptocurrency these participants will be able to attend the fitness class. At the same time, the instructor gets paid in cryptocurrency to conduct the class. The transactions are also made possible thanks to blockchain technology and smart contracts.

Lastly, the metaverse also includes the ability for individuals to own property. These can come in the form of virtual real estate, artwork, and even rare clothing and accessories for their avatar. Relatedly, NFTs (non-fungible tokens) have been making the headlines, and Nike recently bought over a virtual shoe company RTFKT that develops NFT sneakers, which come under the concept of ownership of property, where you can be the only individual who has the ownership rights to an exclusive pair of NFT sneakers. Other examples include owning virtual real estate in the form of parcels in the metaverse. The sales of real estate in the metaverse reached US$500 million in 2021, and is set to break new highs this year.

How far have we come in developing the Metaverse?

For years we have been living in two separate worlds that have been very distinct — we conduct our daily lives physically, going to work, shopping, socialising with friends over dinner at a restaurant, while we also create our identities on social media, or connect with loved ones far away through teleconferencing or a phone call. The online has rarely overlapped with the real, until recently.

The era of phygital – where the physical realm experiences the digital – seems to have surfaced in trace amounts, where we use technologies such as the Oculus to see the virtual in physical reality. For example, envisioning how the new dresser will look like next to your bed without having to purchase it through a virtual lens, or working out to a fitness mirror that incorporates a virtual instructor giving you directions to your exercise regime for the day.

Today the metaverse is slowly gaining traction thanks to these prior developments, be it the rise of social media or the exciting prospects of AR. We are slowly seeing the components of the metaverse coming together, owing to the popularity of blockchain technology as an enabler. Where cryptocurrencies start to see more prevalence in the economy, where creator communities start to find a space in NFTs where their work is celebrated, and where people start to find ways to minimise distances between each other through technology thanks to a global pandemic, the metaverse seems to provide an almost-utopian solution for the real-world problems we face today.

Facebook has already started massive work on Horizon Workrooms enabled by the Oculus Quest 2 VR headset, which seems to pave the way for a renewed definition of “meeting someone” or “getting together” starting with the workplace setting. The company predicts a future where you are able to interact with everyone in real-time even if you are geographically separated in different countries, and transit to a lunch appointment at a virtual deli with a friend who lives more than 3 hours away.

Other corporations such as Microsoft and Nvidia have also jumped on the bandwagon to develop their own interpretations of the metaverse.

In theory, even though these metaverses exist as separate entities belonging to different corporations, for the end-user it should be interoperable, which means that you should be able to move seamlessly from one metaverse to another.

Will the Metaverse replace the universe?

Some have already started foretelling the future of the metaverse, where we will be able to attend concerts virtually, or transit to a fully digital work setting (or Work-verse).

But while these are attractive scenarios that we hope are realised in the future, it is tough to deny that the physical world still matters as much as a digital one. As much as we can fully transfer our identities and personalities online to the metaverse, our physical being still needs to be taken care of for our metaverse avatars to exist — they are co-dependent.

One can only wait to see how the future unfolds, imagining exciting ways on how it will change the way we live our lives, perhaps like how Stephenson has described it. For now, the metaverse can be seen as a way to create a second reality you would rather live in, with the ability to construct something immersive out of virtual elements, all while finding balance between the physical and the digital world.

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