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What Is the Metaverse, Exactly?

Well, yes and no. Saying that Fortnite is “the metaverse” would be a bit like saying Google is “the internet.” Even if you could, theoretically, spend large chunks of time in Fortnite, socializing, buying things, learning, and playing games, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it encompasses the entire scope of the metaverse.

On the other hand, just as it would be accurate to say that Google builds parts of the internet—from physical data centers to security layers—it’s similarly accurate to say that Fortnite creator Epic Games is building parts of the metaverse. And it isn’t the only company doing so. Some of that work will be done by tech giants like Microsoft and Facebook—the latter of which recently rebranded to Meta to reflect this work, though we’re still not quite used to the name. Many other assorted companies—including Nvidia, Unity, Roblox, and even Snap—are all working on building the infrastructure that might become the metaverse.

It’s at this point that most discussions of what the metaverse entails start to stall. We have a vague sense of what things currently exist that we could kind of call the metaverse, and we know which companies are investing in the idea, but we still don’t know what it is. Facebook—sorry, Meta, still not getting it—thinks it will include fake houses you can invite all your friends to hang out in. Microsoft seems to think it could involve virtual meeting rooms to train new hires or chat with your remote coworkers.

The pitches for these visions of the future range from optimistic to outright fan fiction. At one point during … Meta’s … presentation on the metaverse, the company showed a scenario in which a young woman is sitting on her couch scrolling through Instagram when she sees a video a friend posted of a concert that’s happening halfway across the world. 

The video then cuts to the concert, where the woman appears in an Avengers-style hologram. She’s able to make eye contact with her friend who is physically there, they’re both able to hear the concert, and they can see floating text hovering above the stage. This seems cool, but it’s not really advertising a real product, or even a possible future one. In fact, it brings us to the biggest problem with “the metaverse.”

Why Does the Metaverse Involve Holograms?

When the internet first arrived, it started with a series of technological innovations, like the ability to let computers talk to each other over great distances or the ability to hyperlink from one web page to another. These technical features were the building blocks that were then used to make the abstract structures we know the internet for: websites, apps, social networks, and everything else that relies on those core elements. And that’s to say nothing of the convergence of the interface innovations that aren’t strictly part of the internet but are still necessary to make it work, such as displays, keyboards, mice, and touchscreens.

With the metaverse, there are some new building blocks in place, like the ability to host hundreds of people in a single instance of a server (ideally future versions of a metaverse will be able to handle thousands or even millions of people at once), or motion-tracking tools that can distinguish where a person is looking or where their hands are. These new technologies can be very exciting and feel futuristic.


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