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The term “metaverse” has a 30-year history, dating back to a 1992 book called Snow Crash by science fiction author Neal Stephenson. The author’s metaverse was a virtual reality space in which characters from the book could immerse themselves to escape from a dystopian reality.
Now, decades later, the broader culture has begun to catch up with science fiction thought experiments, and the “metaverse” is (or is closer to becoming, at least) a real thing. But why?
Predecessors of the Metaverse
To understand why the metaverse was invented, it’s helpful to look earlier in history, before the term “metaverse” itself was coined. In fact, we could look back nearly two centuries, to 1838, to find an early example of a theory about virtual or augmented reality. Sir Charles Wheatstone, a British scientist and inventor, theorized the concept of “binocular vision,” in which a separate image presented to each eye leads the viewer to see a 3D composite where no 3D object exists.
In Wheatstone’s concept—and in a host of other examples ranging from Smell-O-Vision and the Sensorama Machine of the 1960s to virtual graphics added on top of real-world images on football fields beginning in the 1990s and, more recently, advanced virtual reality equipment—there is a crucial part of the answer to the question of why the metaverse exists. Through these examples, the metaverse is a means of bridging the real world with a virtual world that becomes increasingly powerful and varied as technology continues to advance. In this way, the metaverse can represent an entirely new mode of online interaction for users around the world.
Virtual and Augmented Reality
Tools to make virtual or augmented reality possible have developed at an accelerating pace in recent years. In just the past decade or so, major tech companies including Samsung, Microsoft, and Google have all unveiled VR headsets, glasses, or other accessories. Some may argue that a part of the reason for the influx of new VR equipment in recent years is a tendency for tech firms to race one another to see who can create the best (and most profitable) new technology first.
Did you know?
The term “metaverse” dates back to a 1992 book called Snow Crash by science fiction author Neal Stephenson.
From the perspective of the average consumer today, virtual reality may still be a niche experience that is most commonly associated with video games (the 2016 augmented reality game Pokémon Go is one of the most popular examples). And indeed, there are aspects of the metaverse which may seem to be video game-like, including the concept of using avatars in a virtual space to interact with a broader world. But proponents of the metaverse see it as a crucial component of merging the digital and real worlds going forward. Virtual or augmented reality tools can, in theory and increasingly in practice, bring us closer to creating a space that is shareable and even inhabitable by people all around the world.
Interest in the metaverse has increased, particularly in the last year and a half. In October 2021, Facebook renamed itself “Meta Platforms” and publicly stated its commitment to pursuing metaverse technology. While the company’s stock shed value in the months to follow, leading some to question the wisdom of this pivot, there are plenty of business-minded reasons why a major social media platform like Facebook would make this shift.
As in video games, which are increasingly monetized through microtransactions, it’s possible that the metaverse (when it is widely adopted) will provide countless opportunities for major players to turn a profit. Companies could earn money from selling virtual items like clothing for an avatar, from running games or even casinos within the metaverse, even from charging an entry or subscription fee to participate in a particular online platform. Key to earning money from the metaverse, which as of yet does not fully exist, is getting in at the ground floor and controlling key aspects like the platform. Thus, companies have an incentive to continue to push for the metaverse—but not just any metaverse, more specifically the metaverse platform that they are developing.
As of now, the metaverse remains more theoretical than factual. But there are plenty of reasons, both monetary and otherwise, for many to continue to push for its adoption.
- The term “metaverse” comes from a 1992 book called Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.
- Augmented reality, which is key to the modern conception of the metaverse, has a history extending back to at least 1838, when Sir Charles Wheatstone described “binocular vision.”
- Examples of tools used to create virtual or augmented reality experiences include Smell-O-Vision, the Sensorama Machine, and Oculus accessories.
- 2016’s Pokémon Go is one of the most popular examples of an augmented reality-based video game.
- One of the biggest companies to publicly focus on the metaverse is Meta Platforms, formerly Facebook, which changed its name and rebranded in October 2021.
- Companies could potentially earn money within the metaverse by selling virtual goods, running games or casinos, or charging membership or subscription fees, among many other opportunities.