What is the metaverse, why does it matter and how does it work?

When Facebook changed its name to Meta last year, it catapulted the metaverse into the mainstream news agenda. But what is the metaverse? Or should it be what is a metaverse, or what are metaverses?

One fact we can be certain of is that there aren’t many definitive answers, so let’s try and establish what we do know… or think we might know.

What is the metaverse?

Even if there is little consensus on if the question should be ‘the’ or ‘a’ metaverse there is consensus that it is a virtual world. A virtual place where real people can go and interact with other real people as avatars or representations of themselves.

Is metaverse new?

Second Life is a virtual world that launched in 2003.

No. Were you in Second Life? I was. Second Life was a 3D multi-user online virtual world that launched in 2003. In the late 00s it was big news, even if it didn’t have lots of users. It had its own newspaper – The Second Life Herald. It had its own currency – the Linden Dollar. Companies and even countries jostled to establish a presence. However, Second Life was too early, as most people didn’t have the powerful computers needed to make it a great experience. I say was, but Second Life actually still exists.

Today, the popular virtual worlds are to be found in gaming. Fortnite, Roblox, Minecraft, Final Fantasy and World of Warcraft are just some of the massive online games where players interact with other players in 3D virtual worlds.

How are metaverses changing?

So if metaverses have been around for almost 20 years, what’s different about today’s metaverses? The biggest difference is that today when people talk about the metaverse they usually mean virtual worlds experienced through virtual reality (VR).

And therein lies the problem. VR technology just isn’t good enough yet. Most people and companies don’t even have VR headsets. Those that do know how uncomfortable it is to wear a headset for even a short time. Then there are those who experience a form of travel sickness while emerged in a VR experience. VR is also expensive, especially in relation to the quality of the user experience.

Is there one metaverse or multiple metaverses?

Try searching for the answer to that one, and you’ll be none the wiser. At the moment there are definitely multiple metaverses. Two of the tech world’s titans are both pursuing different visions of the metaverse.

Facebook, or rather Meta, is staking its future on its vision of the metaverse. Meta’s Horizon Worlds uses Oculus VR headsets to embed users in a virtual 3D world where they are represented by avatars. A Meta Quest 2 headset starts at £399, but becomes £610 if you need more memory and better battery life.

Meta envisages that it will become the place to be for both leisure and for work, with virtual meeting rooms. For the majority of users without Oculus headsets, then it’s still possible to join the meeting by just using a webcam. Cynics might say that Zuckerberg’s enthusiasm for VR might be to justify Facebook’s $3 billion dollar acquisition of Oculus.

Microsoft’s vision is more utilitarian and isn’t so dependent on its HoloLens 2 headset. Microsoft Mesh for Teams enables people to join meetings as avatars. Others can join the meeting in more traditional ways from mobiles, tablets or PCs. The HoloLens 2 costs an eye-watering £3,349 or $3,500. However, it’s also possible to use other VR technology, such as the HTC Vive Cosmos, which is a more affordable, although still far too expensive $749 or £665.

So do you now understand the metaverse?

Probably not, as nobody genuinely understands the metaverse as it’s still developing as a concept.

One of the more interesting perspectives I’ve seen is that of Matthew Ball, a Canadian venture capitalist and author of The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything. Let’s set aside the cringeworthy title and look at Ball’s description of the metaverse:

The Metaverse is a persistent and interconnected network of 34 virtual worlds that will eventually serve as the gateway to most online experiences, and also underpin much of the the physical world.”

Matthew Ball, July 2022

Let’s unpack that.

“The Metaverse” – Note the capital M as Ball sees it as a single entity.

“persistent and interconnected network” – However, he also clearly sees it as multiple environments or metaverses that interconnect to become the Metaverse.

“eventually” – We’re not there yet.

“gateway to most online experiences” – It will become how people access most things online.

What do I think about the Metaverse?

One way to think about the Metaverse is as the new World Wide Web. Today, the primary way we access most things online is via web pages. Despite people using mobiles to access services via apps, most apps still have a web version. It is the web version that is most universally accessible, as it doesn’t primarily depend on device or operating system. Websites can link to each other, and we can seamlessly move from one to the other. Developers can even connect websites together using APIs (application program interfaces) to share data between them.

Ball’s vision for the Metaverse appears to be similar to the original concept for the World Wide Web.

But how does Ball’s version align with Mark Zuckerberg’s reimagining of Facebook into Meta?

Facebook is designed to suck people in and keep them there. Horizon Worlds doesn’t appear to be designed primarily to be an interconnected network.

If it truly is the Metaverse then someone in Horizon Worlds should be able to hold a virtual meeting or conversation with someone in Microsoft’s Mesh.

But that’s not what we are seeing. The metaverse gold rush of the 2020s is more akin to the VHS vs. Betamax wars of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In that case the technically superior Betamax lost to the cheaper VHS. Or is it more like Andoid vs. Apple where they coexist and Android has the hugely bigger market share, but it’s fragmented between a myriad of manufacturers, so Apple is the dominant brand.

It’s still too early to know what will happen with the metaverse.

Ready Player One

If you haven’t already seen it, I’d recommend watching Ready Player One, a film from 2018. It envisages a dystopian future of a world in 2045 where much of humanity lives in OASIS, a VR simulation to escape the real world.

What is the opportunity for public relations and communication?

At this moment in 2022, I’m thinking of the metaverse as a combination of immersive virtual reality, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game and the web. The metaverse opportunity for PR is that metaverses ultimately aren’t about technology, but about people and their relationships with each other and with companies and organisations. Public relations is about relationships, so we need to understand how relationships work in the metaverse.

If you want to talk about how you can take your next step in the metaverse, then please get in touch.